Special thanks to Greg Luca of the San Antonio Express-News for joining me on the Quack 12 Podcast to discuss UTSA’s last few seasons. LISTEN HERE
New Oregon OC Stein spent the last three years under UTSA head coach Traylor since they arrived in San Antonio in 2020. Over that time the Roadrunners have a 30-10 overall record, 22-3 in conference play, and repeated the last two seasons as Conference USA champions (they’ll be moving to the American Athletic Conference next season). Like Traylor, Stein’s first on-field coaching job was in Texas high school football, following a couple years as a GA after hanging up his cleats as Louisville’s backup quarterback from 2009-12. During 2020 and 2021, Stein was the wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator at UTSA; in 2022 he was promoted to offensive coordinator with playcalling duties.
UTSA has been an offensive-led team during their last two conference title seasons, with over 40 ranks better F+ advanced stats performance than their defense both years. In 2022, Stein’s offense ranked 26th in F+ out of 131 FBS teams, despite the team having only the 78th ranked 24/7 team talent composite - the highest rated offensive recruit in program history until the 2023 cycle was a mid 3-star at .8673. For comparison, in 2022 Oregon was the 6th ranked offense with the 7th most talented roster.
I reviewed and charted all 13 games Stein called on offense for UTSA. They graded out very well overall, with a combined per-play success rate of 63%, 7.5 adjusted yards per play, and about 16.5% explosiveness. That’s championship-caliber efficiency, though merely pretty good yardage and explosiveness, and prior to examining the playcalling patterns and talking with Greg, I was a little surprised UTSA was ranked as highly as it was.
The main assets for the offense were longtime starter #0 QB Harris, and an excellent group of pass catchers made up of #1 WR Clark, #2 WR Cephus, #4 WR Franklin, #11 WR Ogle-Kellogg, #9 TE Cardenas, and #80 TE Dishman. Greg and I both think Harris has some limitations as a passer, but he’s an experienced and gutsy quarterback who has complete confidence in his receivers to make contested catches. Some examples:
(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 – Pressure’s getting through but Harris has time to get the backer to jump on the pump fake. Clark gets the corner to bite on the inside move and Harris places it perfectly on the fade, releasing the ball just as Clark clears his man.
- :19 – Four verticals out of an empty set, a 30 yard throw against coverage and Franklin pays it off.
- :27 – Poor protection here, and Harris only has a moment to scan the field coming out of play action. Dishman’s broken the DB’s ankles and Harris lets it go just before getting hit.
- :44 – Clark got injured in early November and missed the rest of the season, but Ogle-Kellogg picked up the slack well and Harris trusted him with 50/50 balls like this.
Formationally, the Roadrunners under Traylor operate a shotgun 11-personnel spread offense, occasionally going to 12-pers and/or pistol and even some under-center looks, which is very similar to Oregon’s approach and so I don’t expect Stein will have any installation challenges as such. But what complicated evaluating the Roadrunners’ performance within that scheme is that they employed three significantly different offensive styles over the course of the last two years. That’s a pretty incredible set of changes, and it’s informed by one of the worst offensive line injury situations early in the 2022 season that I’ve ever encountered. By midway through the year UTSA had five different offensive tackles out with injury and were rotating guys out of position and playing a walk-on and a converted defensive lineman as starters. For much of the year I studied, UTSA’s offensive line grades on my tally sheet came out at over 30% error rates, which I’ve never seen before.
The fact that the offense overcame that obstacle and actually improved on their conference record compared to 2021 – going undefeated vs a single conference loss the previous season – I believe stems from some impressive flexibility and adaptation from the coaching staff. On the podcast, Greg and I discussed the 2021 offense (which I didn’t chart but have watched a couple games I found and reviewed the raw stats), and I believe him when he says that all year long it was about a 60/40 run-pass split that focused on a dominant run game and then hitting play-action deep shots over it. Greg told us about a lineman that season, Spencer Burford, who’s now starting for the 49ers in the NFL playoffs as a rookie.
With that departure and significant o-line injuries already cropping up during the 2022 Spring practices, Stein flipped the offense entirely - during the first five games they were a 35/65 run-pass team. They were also heavily dependent on Harris scrambling, with about 27.5% of dropbacks ending in a sack, scramble, or throwaway, and more than 16% of yards from designed passing playcalls coming on scrambles or throws after breaking the pocket from pressure.
The lion’s share of total yardage during these first five games came on very quick passes like slants, hitches, and quick outs to the flat with basically no post-snap read and a virtually non-existent run game, because the o-line simply wasn’t reliable for anything else. There’s some distortion in the explosive passing numbers during this part of the season – about half of their explosive passing plays aren’t deep or even intermediate routes, but rather short stuff that the talented pass-catchers then turned into explosives with nice moves after the catch, which I’m not sure would have been sustainable against better defenses. Some examples:
- :00 – Harris knows his hot routes against the blitz, and UTSA actually had a higher pass efficiency rate against five or more rushers than four or fewer despite the line play. Here Cephus gets two DBs to crash into each other and gets maybe 45 extra yards after catch as a bonus.
- :17 – Pre-snap motion is a significant part of the offense, both revealing coverage and re-aligning the defense. Here the back makes the nickel slide outside the split-out TE but the backer fails to aggressively take over that zone, meaning this quick 5-yard hitch and some nice moves by Cardenas gets double the yardage and a 1st down against an ostensibly Power-5 defense.
- :26 – I never got tired of watching smaller C-USA DBs bounce off of Ogle-Kellogg like this.
- :34 – This far-hash throw is tougher than it looks; Franklin has good leverage off his break but it’d be nice if Harris could deliver the ball with more heat so it arrived six or seven yards deep instead of four. But Franklin breaks the tackle and it doesn’t matter.
During both parts of the 2022 season, UTSA frequently used outside screen passes, about 11% of all playcalls, which Greg tells us is close to double the rate he observed the team using in 2021. I think this was a smart adaptation to avoid o-line blocking problems, and exploit the massive talent advantage that Stein’s WRs and TEs had against opposing DBs (this also extended to some far outside running as well, which had the highest success rate of all called run plays).
While of course Oregon has higher 24/7-rated players in those positions than UTSA does, I don’t think the talent disparity relative to their Power-5 opponents will be as large, and so I doubt Stein will be able to replicate in Eugene the phenomenal 73% screen success rate that he had in San Antonio. Still, after watching systemic perimeter blocking issues from the Ducks throughout 2022, it was a nice relief to see:
- :00 – Great blocking by Cephus and Clark; Franklin’s job is to get outside leverage which he does, so despite the DB getting past him the back has the space he needs to accelerate into. For three guys with NFL potential they’re pretty eager blockers, a credit to Stein who helped develop them as their WR coach the previous two seasons.
- :09 – This bubble into tossback was a fun play to watch which they executed correctly every time.
- :17 – I really like the design of this RPO sweep screen, there’s a huge amount of grass to run into and the defense is caught out of alignment because of the blitz. Franklin takes the CB to the ground and Cephus breaks a tackle to almost make the endzone.
I won’t belabor the difficulties in the run game or breakdowns in pass protection during this part of the season, since there’s no need to embarrass those players and the reader will be perfectly familiar with what poor o-line play looks like from watching Pac-12 football. Here’s some quick documentation of run game issues early on that I trust don’t need narration:
Remarkably, all this reverses on the sixth week of the 2022 season (with no bye in between). From that game onward UTSA operated a balanced, RPO-heavy offense at a 47/53 run-pass split, with far fewer scrambles and more frequent deep shots from the pocket. The offensive line grades during this second part of the season improve somewhat, I think reflecting some better health and experience among the backups forced into action, but more importantly I believe was becoming significantly more diverse and no longer one-dimensional as an offense. Stein committed to using an efficient but not explosive run game as well as RPOs to manipulate the defense and set up intermediate and deep passing. The success-rate splits are interesting to break out: rushing efficiency only goes up two percentage points during the second part of the season, but passing efficiency jumps by an incredible eight points.
While RPOs did form a small part of the playbook during the first part of the season, I didn’t think they were well sequenced within overall drives. That really changes after the week 6 split, with RPOs tripling in frequency and with significantly more types of them – vertical, horizontal, some pretty familiar but others I hadn’t seen before. This felt like watching the “real” UTSA offense, and as Greg put it on the podcast, “all of these factors come together to make it more of a balanced offense and getting back to form; when you think about what are you going to see at Oregon and what is Will Stein’s belief, it’s much more like what you saw in the second half of the season than what they were forced into in the first half.” Some examples:
- :00 – A lot of these RPOs have very long rides like this, getting not just the backers but the field safety to commit to the outside run. That gives Franklin a one-on-one which he’s going to win.
- :12 – This is week 8; just three weeks earlier I’d never have believed the stat in that pop-up graphic. All that running has gotten the backers to bite hard; this RPO has Dishman slice under the formation, bluff the backer, and leak out into empty grass.
- :33 – I don’t think I’ve ever seen this RPO before, and to be honest I’m not certain it’s legal, I think it may be an uncalled OPI or an IDP if the ball isn’t caught behind the line of scrimmage (no superimposed stripe on this broadcast). At any rate it’s pretty novel, the read is the blitzer and the DB from the backside in man coverage slams into the CB covering Franklin.
One of Stein’s RPOs was particularly interesting, since former Oregon OC Joe Moorhead ran it extensively in 2021 and I spent quite some time that season documenting it as a variation on the triple-option. While we didn’t really see it from the Ducks in 2022, the Roadrunners showed it off more and more as the season went on and really trounced their conference championship opponents with it (a rematch against North Texas which was a much closer win earlier in the season). Here it is:
- :00 – The backer stays in on the run so Harris keeps it, the safety follows Cephus out and deep so he tosses it to Cardenas.
- :17 – Surprisingly this was the only time the defense gave Harris the reads to keep twice, but he does it. He could have gotten more if Cardenas recognized it sooner and turned downfield to block instead of looking for the ball a second time.
- :25 – Here’s a wrinkle, a jet motion sweep by Franklin as the toss receiver instead of a slicing TE. The poor OLB who starts to chase Harris on the inside QB keep nearly falls over trying to reverse himself when the throw goes outside.
On a per-play basis, the passing game remained the driver of UTSA’s offense during both phases of the season. Over the 13 games I charted outside of garbage time, the Roadrunners had 281 successful designed passing plays vs 173 failed ones, or 62%, given the down & distance. They gained 9.2 adjusted yards per attempt and more than 19% gained 15+ yards, which are all borderline championship-caliber numbers in my experience.
Yardage and explosiveness don’t really change before and after the week 5/6 divide (although the air yard quotient does, with far less reliance on passes that traveled under 10 yards through the air in the second part of the season). But efficiency jumps significantly, from a 57.5% passing success rate to a 65.5%.
The greater diversity in the playbook during the second part of the season is also clear from examining the formational and situational splits. The most significant example is their playcalling out of the 12-pers pistol: prior to the divide they’d show this apparently heavy run look but instead executed a play-action bootleg pass out of it almost 60% of the time, and when they did run it was pretty ineffective at only a 37.5% success rate; after the divide they jump to a 68% run rate with a 64.5% run success rate. That’s because they stopped telegraphing it as a thinly veiled pass play and used it for short yardage running instead, which is the point of that formation. That’s also born out in the down & distance playcalling numbers, where (regardless of formation) they switch from about 22% rushing on 2nd & medium or long prior to the divide, to a more balanced, less predictable, and far more successful 47% rushing in those situations after the divide … with almost a 20-percentage point jump in run success rate.
Over all 13 games, I charted 214 successful designed runs vs 117 failed ones, or about 64.5% efficiency. That’s a championship number, and it also doesn’t really change before and after the divide. Largely the reason for this is that the offensive line never became a dominant run-blocking line, it just got less bad and it had the advantage of safeties who were backing out more to cover intermediate and deep passing instead of playing at only seven or so yards deep expecting so many short throws. I tallied over a 24% “yaco” rate on successful runs, meaning that the running backs were getting hit early enough that had they gone down on first contact it would have been a failed play but they muscled through it to flip it to a success, which reflects just barely getting enough for it to have been an efficient run.
The stark difference is in yardage and explosiveness in the rushing offense. It’s 5.1 adjusted YPC overall, an okay number, but with only 3.8 before the divide and 5.7 after it. About 12% of designed runs gained 10+ yards over the whole season, going from a terrible explosiveness rate under 8% in the first part to a perfectly average 15% in the second part. Some examples:
- :00 – Only the second game into the new era of UTSA aggressively running the ball and I still couldn’t quite believe my eyes. By midway through the 3rd quarter the defense was clearly exhausted from all these methodical drives; one this one they went the entire field in 12-pers and ran at a 60% rate, and on the next TD drive they ended it the same way with the defense even more tired.
- :14 – Quality zone blocking, with combos then up to the second level, was a night-and-day difference compared to the early part of the season when they couldn’t execute this play even against an FCS team.
- :28 – This split-zone run should be familiar to Oregon fans since it’s been a bread-and-butter play for the Ducks for the better part of 20 years. Nice hit by Dishman through the hole.
- :42 – Then the offense iterated the split-zone into a press-in / bounce-out; here it gets the safety to follow the TE going through the A-gap all the way across the opposite hash before he figures out the back is running into his empty patch of grass.
There’s also a greater emphasis on designed quarterback running in the second part of the season (that is, QB runs that aren’t scrambles, which I count as called passing plays). I saw both read-option keeps and plays that are QB run all the way like draws and even some power-sucker, another nod to Moorhead. Some examples:
- :00 – TE motion re-spaces the ILBs, the RT moves up to the MIKE now with inside leverage, the OLB crashes on the back and Harris runs right past him.
- :08 – The receivers are really selling this QB draw, running their DBs back pretty deep before engaging in blocks, and getting the backers to clear out too. The center and back downfield blocking lets you know this is a designed run and not a scramble.
- :23 – Extremely unbalanced formation here, empty backfield and all five eligibles to the field. So of course it’s a QB keeper to the boundary since the defense is cleared out to that side. A better block on the backer by the RT would have let Harris get to the sideline for more but this at least picks up the 1st down.
The biggest difference in gameplanning and philosophy between UTSA’s offense and Oregon’s in 2022 can be seen in average drive length, explosive drive rate, and per-drive scoring. The Ducks were a varied tempo offense which alternated at will between methodical and explosive drives, and scored touchdowns on a majority of their full-field possessions, with Beta_Rank assigning Oregon the #32 drive rank and #5 explosive rank. But the Roadrunners were consistently a methodical offense with very few explosive drives, and frequently went on extremely long and sometimes fruitless possessions, getting UTSA the #58 drive rank and #30 explosive rank, despite having a better per-play rank than Oregon at #20.
UTSA had exactly 100 meaningful full-field possessions during the 13 games that Stein called (that is, excluding garbage time and starting at their own 40-yard line or farther back). Of those, they got touchdowns on 39 of them, and had an average drive length of 7.05 plays (7.23 plays on full-field TD drives), something of an underperformance in terms of scoring and almost two full plays longer on average than Oregon in 2022. UTSA was very good at avoiding 3 & outs, with only 20 of those 100 drives lasting 3 or fewer plays, but by the same token they very rarely got quick-scoring drives with just five of those getting TDs. On the other hand, they had 27 drives that took 10 plays or more, which is an exceptionally high number, and 12 of those got touchdowns (at one point late in the season they had the longest drive of any FBS team).
It’s difficult to say whether this is an ideological preference of Stein’s for methodical drives that will survive to Eugene, or something that was forced onto him by personnel circumstances or by Traylor. Greg and I spent quite some time discussion that question on the podcast and didn’t come to any definitive conclusions. That former Oregon OC Dillingham mastered variable tempo and controlling the game with both quick and clock-eating scoring possessions was by far the biggest pleasant surprise in charting his games last season, and it remains to be seen if Stein is willing and able to do the same.
What I don’t have concerns about is adaptability and creativity out of Stein. I’ve extensively documented the transformation (arguably, two transformations) of the offensive philosophy, but I also appreciated what I thought was some real playbook novelty when watching UTSA’s 2022 season. I doubt very much that Stein is a stubborn and hidebound playcaller who only wants to do one type of thing as I often see when watching Pac-12 teams, quite the opposite:
- :00 – Stein used this diamond-formation play quite a few times, and every time ran a different play out of it. Here it pretty clearly confuses the defense, with two guys taking Cardenas and no one on Cephus.
- :07 – This looks like open middle but the defense’s film indicated that they’ll spin down one of the DBs here. The RB is going out and the TE is going in, creating confusion in the handoff between the DB and ILB, and then bending the TE away from the high safety. Nice high angle of the entire route tree on the replay.
- :24 – The TE motion gets the defense so misaligned to the short side that the RG has nothing to do and the boundary safety is way off of the back.
- :40 – This play has both a fake sweep and a fake screen, the nickel is signaling to the field safety to switch but they’re both wrong when it turns into a deep wheel for a touchdown.