How coordinator changes will impact four Heisman Trophy hopefuls in 2016
Of the current players with listed Heisman Trophy odds, four will be playing for a new offensive coordinator in 2016
This offseason saw a number of coaching changes and coordinator moves around the country, including plenty of turmoil at major programs. Among those that changed offensive coordinators this offseason are Georgia, UCLA, Texas A&M and Penn State.
Beyond just changing coordinators, the common thread between all four of those programs is that each has a Heisman hopeful on the roster. Nick Chubb (15-1), Josh Rosen (20-1), Christian Kirk (80-1) and Saquon Barkley (80-1) are the four players on the latest Heisman odds list from Westgate SuperBook that will be playing under a new OC in 2016 . (JuJu Smith-Schuster from USC is also 80-1, and while Tee Martin is the new coordinator, former OC Clay Helton is now the coach so the system isn't expected to change much.)
The first year under a new offensive coordinator can be tricky, especially for a star player. Sometimes a new system will be beneficial, but the transition can be rocky. For Chubb, Rosen, Kirk and Barkley, new offense means new opportunity, just not without some uncertainty.
Here we'll look at each to try and predict how a new system will impact their production in 2016 and whether it can help them in a Heisman hunt.
Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: The Bulldogs have an all-new coaching staff led by Kirby Smart, who hired Jim Chaney from Pittsburgh to serve as OC. Along with Chaney, and arguably equally important to the Georgia running game's success in 2016, the Bulldogs were able to poach offensive line coach Sam Pittman away from Arkansas.
(Of course, Chubb's Heisman candidacy will, first and foremost, be determined by health. He is recovering from a severe knee injury suffered in the Tennessee game last year and his status for the beginning of the season is unknown. If he misses more than a game or two, this is all moot.)
The transition at Georgia shouldn't be too severe as Chaney, like Brian Schottenheimer, runs a pro-style offense. The strength of the Georgia offense is clearly the running game, and with Pittman, that should continue to be the case. Under Chaney and Pittman's guidance in 2013 and 2014, Arkansas ranked 21st and 26th nationally in rushing offense, and they'll look to run first with the Georgia offense.
The issue for Chubb in being a Heisman contender this season won't a scheme fit but rather usage. Chubb could see some of his workload go to Sony Michel, who had a big year in Chubb's absence, rushing for over 1,100 yards and is a good pass catching option out of the backfield -- 26 catches for 270 yards in 2015. Chaney has shown in the past that when he has two quality backs, he will split touches pretty evenly. Examples include Jonathan Williams at Alex Collins at Arkansas (nearly identical touches and numbers) and Raijon Neal and Marlon Lane Jr. at Tennessee. Simply put, Chubb may not get a workhorse share.
In the first five games of the 2015 season, Chubb had 91 carries for 745 yards and 7 touchdowns. Those are video game numbers. Extrapolated over a season -- even accounting for an increase in competition level in the SEC schedule -- Chubb was on pace for a season close to on par with Derrick Henry. In those same first five games, Michel had only 41 carries before taking on the heavy workload after Chubb's injury.
That means Chubb had 69 percent of the carries between the two to start the season, which is a healthy majority of the workload. If that had dipped to a 60-40 split, Chubb would have lost 12 carries and 97 yards (based on his 8.1 yard per carry average) in those first five games. Over the course of the season, that would cost him more than 200 yards and likely a few touchdowns. That could put a significant gap between him and other candidates at the position, like Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Royce Freeman and Dalvin Cook.
Schematically, Chaney and Pittman's arrival in Athens should be a good thing for Chubb. In the long run, the reduction in carries that would be a good thing for Chubb as he would avoid taking as much punishment as he looks forward to the NFL (and it would generally help him work back from his injury), but it could be a hit to his Heisman chances.
Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA: Noel Mazzone has left Los Angeles for Texas A&M -- we'll get to him in a minute -- and Jim Mora Jr. has promoted Kennady Polamalu to OC. While Polamalu was an in-house hire, the offense the Bruins will run in 2016 will look different from last year's as they transition to a pro-style attack from the spread. "What you will see is a multifaceted offense incorporating tight ends and fullbacks into our schemes," said Mora in a statement back in January. "Our objective is to be a big, strong and physical offensive unit that has flexibility of personnel groupings."
He elaborated on what that new offense will look like in a recent interview with Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel, noting that the goal is to give Rosen more responsibilities as a signal-caller and be able to get more play-action opportunities for him. "In looking at [Rosen's] skill set, it became apparent that we needed to make some changes to enhance his ability to make plays," Mora said. "So, for one, putting him in a little bit more of a pro-style offense, putting him under center more and working some play-action game."
Mora wants Rosen to have a bigger role in the offense and to have more opportunities to make plays down the field. In 2015, UCLA ranked 43rd nationally with 45 pass plays of 20 yards or more. In 2016, expect the reins to be loosened on the sophomore and for Rosen to look to push the ball downfield more often, taking advantage of his arm talent.
Rosen's 2015 numbers were more than solid as he completed 60 percent of his passes for 3,669 yards, 23 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. However, for a pure-passing quarterback -- and Rosen is not a rushing threat as he had 16 yards on 37 attempts last year -- the numbers must be astronomical to earn Heisman consideration.
In the last 10 years, eight quarterbacks have won the Heisman Trophy. Of those eight, only Jameis Winston, Sam Bradford and Troy Smith were non-rushing threats. All three were part of national title contenders or winners and Winston and Bradford both threw for over 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. For Rosen, quarterbacking a UCLA team that isn't expected to factor into the national title conversation in 2016, his passing numbers will have to make a significant leap to get him in the conversation.
Giving him more opportunities to throw the ball downfield would certainly help as UCLA was 61st nationally in yards per passing attempt at 7.3 in 2015. The other top Heisman candidates at quarterback all play for teams that averaged significantly higher in 2015 -- Clemson's DeShaun Watson (8.3), Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield (9.1), Baylor's Seth Russell (9.7) and Ole Miss' Chad Kelly (8.9) -- and all rushed for over 400 yards in 2015 (J.T. Barrett and Ohio State (7.6) are the exception here, due to Barrett's tremendous rushing ability).
While there are other factors that will determine how close he can come to putting up Heisman-caliber numbers -- Rosen will need playmakers to step up on the outside as long pass plays can't happen without help from receivers -- a more dynamic offensive approach is going to be critical. Mora has high hopes for the young star quarterback and expects him to be able to handle the extra load at the line of scrimmage and excel -- SB Nation's Ian Boyd recently did a wonderful breakdown of how Rosen can handle the new system.
We often see teams move from a pro-style to a spread to improve offensive output, but UCLA is going the other way and hoping for the same result. If nothing else, NFL teams pining for Rosen in the 2018 NFL Draft will be thrilled that he's going to be getting reps under center and running a pro-style offense.
Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M: Kirk had a phenomenal freshman season as one of the few bright spots for the Aggies, and the do-it-all receiver/returner/back looks to build on that performance in 2016 with Rosen's former OC, Noel Mazzone, now in College Station trying to bring some consistency to the offense. Texas A&M hasn't been the same since Johnny Manziel left and hopes a fresh approach to the offense can remedy their issues.
Texas A&M will remain in a spread look, but Mazzone's offense doesn't move quite as fast -- UCLA was 39th in adjusted pace in 2015, while TAMU was 29th. What the Aggies hope for is a more efficient offense after ranking mid-pack or bottom half of all NCAA offenses in most drive-efficiency stats in 2015. They struggled with making consistent progress of on offense and weren't particularly explosive either, ranking 77th in explosive drive percentage (those averaging 10 yards or more per play).
UCLA's offense ranked higher in all of the drive efficiency categories and had the obvious advantage of having an excellent quarterback in Rosen. Part of that success was giving him quick reads and working the ball underneath with the occasional shot down the field. At Texas A&M, Mazzone won't have a Josh Rosen, instead he will have former Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight.
Knight is not a gunslinger that will push the ball downfield, which could actually benefit Kirk, who is at his best when given the ball in space. He's not the downfield receiving threat on the Aggies roster, but he is their most dynamic playmaker. With Knight taking over at quarterback -- in two years at Oklahoma he averaged only 7.1 yards per attempt -- Mazzone will likely tone down the deep passing game in favor of working more underneath. That will both be out of necessity due to his quarterback and also an attempt to make the offense more consistently efficient.
Kirk is a longshot for the Heisman for good reason -- Texas A&M is not likely a contender and he doesn't play a premier position -- but if he continues to excel in the return game, I expect Mazzone to try and expand his role as a receiver to help facilitate a more efficient, consistent offensive attack.
Kirk doesn't need deep pass plays to create long pass plays. Screens, slants, drags and other quick routes that get him the ball in space and on the move allow him to use his incredible speed and agility to create long plays without the inefficiency of throwing deep passes regularly. Look for his targets and production to go up, even if it doesn't put him in real Heisman contention.
Saquon Barkley, Penn State: Taking on the most drastic philosophical change of these four teams, the Nittany Lions hired former Fordham coach Joe Moorehead to bring life to the offense. Moorehead runs an up-tempo spread that will be a big change from the pro-style offense we're accustomed to seeing from the Nittany Lions. Penn State was dead last in the FBS in 2015 in adjusted pace, which should change significantly.
Moorehead's Fordham teams were near the top of the FCS in passing efficiency and scoring offense in 2014 and 2015, but that isn't because they abandon the run game. Like many spread rushing attacks, Moorehead will use the read option to gain a numbers advantage on the opposition; at Fordham, the run game was very effective working in balance with the pass game. Chase Edmonds rushed for 1,648 yards and 20 touchdowns for the Rams in 2015, and his success should have Penn State excited for what Barkley can do in this system.
Last season, Barkley rushed for 1,076 yards and 7 touchdowns on 182 carries and had an additional 161 yards and a touchdown on 20 receptions. Barkley's 202 touches are a relatively low amount for a "workhorse" type back, and make no mistake he was the lead back for Penn State as the next leading rusher had only 55 carries.
It was the pace of Penn State's offense that limited his touches as much as anything. Take away Hackenberg "runs" and 12 "team rushes" and Barkley had 52.4 percent of all of the team's carries last season. His 202 touches accounted for 24.3 percent of all of the team's offensive possessions in 2015 (27.2 if you take out Hackenberg and team rushes). In an offense that plays with more tempo and runs more plays, that will give him a great deal more touches -- Edmonds had 282 touches for Fordham in 2015.
On top of getting more carries, we'll get a chance to see Barkley working in space more often than he did in 2015. The offensive line was an issue last year, and while most of the focus was on pass protection, they weren't particularly good at the point of attack in the run game. A staggering 25.1 percent of Penn State rushes were stopped at or behind the line -- 120th in the nation -- which means Barkley was often stopped before he could really get started on rushes.
Offensive line improvement will be needed, but the transition to a spread look will give Barkley those important carries in space. In the rare moments where he did find daylight in 2015, Barkley shined -- most notably in an impressive performance against Ohio State.
Under Moorehead's guidance, Barkley should emerge as one of the nation's premier backs in 2016 and put up the numbers to back up the hype. He should get more touches, both rushing and receiving, and the spread sets and read option looks ought to provide him with more space to operate. A Heisman is a tall order, but I do expect him to put up big numbers in 2016.
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