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Why Willie Taggart’s Oregon offense could be really good, really quickly

Taggart’s already versed in a lot of what’s made Oregon’s offenses good. Now he can build on all of it.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Oregon
Quarterback Justin Herbert and running back Royce Freeman.
Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

When Willie Taggart headed to South Florida in 2012, he had a straightforward path to build his program. In Tampa, USF is conveniently located for recruiting. It’s 15 minutes from I-4, which forms a populous and talent-rich corridor going north and east towards Orlando, two hours north of Southwest Florida, and about four hours from Miami.

Guys like quarterback Quinton Flowers, a three-star recruit from Miami, are everywhere, and USF is regularly competing with far-away schools like Nebraska for their skills. The plan was to apply the “power-coast” offense Taggart utilized with Jack Harbaugh at Western Kentucky and Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, drawing in Florida kids dreaming of playing in the pros and unleash them on the rest of the AAC.

Then a schematic shift borne out of the desire to make the most of Flowers’ athleticism sent Taggart on a journey of enlightenment that ended with him joining the spread run-pass option revolution. Now he’s taking that system, along with his recruiting and program-building techniques, up to Oregon.

Taggart’s offense is familiar but unique.

At USF, Taggart’s power-coast offense finished 118th in S&P+ in 2013 and 116th in 2014. After some reorienting around the spread RPO and Flowers, the Bulls finished seventh in the same metric last season, with one of the best offenses in the country.

In essence, the offense was moving away from this:

Towards this:

Taggart used to coach quintessential man-ball. USF might line in up a double-tight end set with one of the TEs lined up out wide, before motioning back into the formation to serve as a lead blocker on power. The second TE in the first clip above is 6’3, 316-pound Lawrence Martin. The goal on that play was simply to bang heads and be the bigger, badder team at the point of attack.

The second clip is from USF’s 2016 contest against UCF and is quintessential RPO offense. This time, the QB (Flowers) is in the gun, with the tight end and running back both aligned outside of the numbers. The offense is running “dart,” a running play similar to power with down blocks and a pulling tackle, with bubble screens on either side of the formation. Flowers reads an OLB and determines whether to toss the ball wide or keep it, based on whether that OLB stays wide to defend the bubble screen or crashes inside to stop the run.

On that play, UCF tries to have its inside linebackers flow with the right tackle to blow things up. But the extreme spacing prevents the OLB Flowers is reading from being able to arrive in time to defend the cutback lane, which Flowers then exploits.

The Taggart USF offense became what the Oregon Duck offense has been about for years: getting the ball to athletes in space and letting them do their thing.

Taggart’s inheriting a good but different situation at Oregon.

While the spread RPO is the foundation of the Oregon offense, just as it was at USF, the roster waiting in Eugene is markedly different than what Taggart coached in Tampa, particularly at QB and on the OL.

At USF, Taggart recruited and built his roster with the intention of running power and iso down opponents’ throats. The USF offense in 2016 was a different-looking group of players then what Taggart will inherit at Oregon:

The USF bunch was squatty and heavy, averaging 6’4, 317 pounds across the board and 6’3, 327 at the three interior OL spots that often define what an offense is trying to do in the run game. Meanwhile, Oregon’s prospective 2017 line averages 6’5, 298 across the board and 6’4, 297 on the inside.

Oregon has long recruited and developed its linemen to reach block on outside zone runs and create extreme horizontal stress for opposing defenses. That stress could be punished by a plant-and-go runner like returning RB Royce Freeman:

Outside zone has long been a fantastic scheme, because it demands tremendous response and team discipline from the defense to prevent creases from opening up. Oregon has made it the foundation of its entire offense. Taggart hired his offensive coordinator, Mario Cristobal, from Alabama, where he got experience coaching the outsize zone. Taggart is probably not planning on a total overhaul of UO’s run game.

The approach at QB will also have to be different, because rising true sophomore Justin Herbert is not the same kind of runner or athlete as Flowers, and Flowers is not the same kind of passer as Herbert.

Herbert is a solid runner, and Mark Helfrich’s Oregon would occasionally draw up some QB run schemes for him. That was most common when the Ducks wanted to guarantee numbers at the point of attack for short-yardage conversions:

Direct-snap runs by the QB are the best tool in the modern toolbox for third-and-4 or less, because it’s hard for a spread-out defense to get defenders to the ball before the QB is falling past the marker. But Herbert isn’t blazing fast, isn’t quick between the tackles like Flowers, and at 6’6 and 215 pounds, isn’t (yet) a hammer when trying to fall forward for gains.

Where Herbert has really excelled using his legs is working opposite Oregon’s outside zone runs on rollouts:

In addition to using play-action and some drop-back game, Oregon would regularly attach pass options opposite the RB’s path on outside zone, allowing Herbert’s arm to create even more extreme horizontal stress for opposing defenses to deal with:

With an RPO such as this one, Oregon can allow its linemen to block outside zone like they’re used to doing. Meanwhile, Herbert reads the middle linebacker to see if he helps stop a quick bubble to an athlete like Charles Nelson or stays in to defend the dreaded outside-zone cutback by Freeman.

Taggart doesn’t have to do much to make the most of Oregon’s offensive roster.

The Ducks finished 20th in Offensive S&P+ last season, and a lot of the schemes that were already in place should work well with Taggart’s style. The offense also has lots of key returners. Herbert and Freeman are back, of course, but so are left tackle Tyrell Crosby and receiver Darren Carrington II, who both opted to stay in Eugene rather than leave early for the NFL draft. Oregon is returning tons of its production.

Taggart needs to continue to develop his offensive identity. He needs to demonstrate that his evolution and adaptation at USF were toward the art of spread RPO football, not just the art of making the most out of Quinton Flowers.