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FILM ROOM: How UCF’s Offense Uses Pre-snap Personnel and Formations to Attack Defenses

Examining the numbers behind how Josh Heupel’s offense goes after opponents

Central Florida v Florida Atlantic
Dillon Gabriel
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The UCF Knights’ offense in 2019 was obviously way above average. Not many defenses were able to stop UCF, but they were able to slow them down at times.

Something I really wanted to look at was UCF’s offensive personnel vs. opponents’ defensive personnel splits, how their use of formations (3 vs. 4 WR sets) dictated the number of defenders in the box, and how UCF was able to take advantage of that, primarily in the run game.

To keep it simple, I broke it down by personnel groupings (just the group of players on the field, regardless of position they lined up in), formation (using personnel numbers, but using pre-snap position), and defensive personnel (base/nickel/dime).

For the purpose of having a somewhat respectable sample size, I only used plays where UCF used 1 RB/3WR or 1 RB/4 WR in formation and only against base and nickel defenses, as these two groupings covered the large majority of plays.

If you look at tight ends like Gronk and George Kittle in the NFL, they’re both great blockers as well as great receivers, which gives their respective offenses a huge advantage because having them on the field doesn’t necessarily tip the play call or leave a potential weakness.

Conversely, off the top of my head, a guy like Evan Engram of the Giants is a tight end by trade, and is a great receiver but a poor blocker, and defenses can gain an advantage off that personnel-wise.

With UCF last season, Jake Hescock was virtually the only tight end who saw significant time. In the passing game, I had him with only 13 targets, with only one being more than nine yards downfield, as well as only one out of the slot. As a blocker, he also didn’t necessarily excel.

The conclusion of this isn’t exactly about Hescock. It’s more about how crucial the TE position can potentially be, if it even had an impact at all:

NOTE: Personnel numbers are designated by the number of RBs and TEs, so 11 means 1 RB and 1 TE.

So in a broad version, you would expect teams to play more base with a tight end on the field (especially a blocking tight end) and play nickel without one or potentially against a primary receiving TE, depending on how you wanted to match up.

I actually found that almost every opponent the Knights faced more or less stayed in the same defensive personnel the entire game, despite UCF’s personnel.

If you look at the chart, there are really only a handful of bars that have a respectable play count (numbers next to the bars). They all have to do with “11” personnel, which is one back and one tight end.

I think we can all agree that UCF’s offense wants to attack downfield through the air, and Heupel’s offense has used the TE and HB to block way more often than not on pass plays out of “11” personnel.

So while playing 4 DLs and 3 LBs or vice versa vs. UCF when Hescock was on the field might seem like the ‘right’ thing to do, it was actually what UCF was able to attack in the passing game.

Pass plays with “11” personnel against base defense produced 0.554 expected points added per play. On the other hand, pass plays with “11” on the field vs. Nickel resulted in -0.037 EPA per play.

The Hits

Stanford actually started this game in nickel when UCF came out in “20” and were a missed tackle away from a three-and-out on three straight passes, but seemed to go “base” the rest of the game.

Here #52 is lined up outside the box and on the border of being a SCBR (slot corner-back right). UCF runs an RPO, and as a LB, his instinct is most likely run first, but Dillon Gabriel makes the right read and it’s an easy hit on the slant to Marlon Williams:

ECU is in base here, they bring 5 and leave 2 LB’s in coverage. However, with a vertical passing attack, UCF is looking to throw beyond the coverage depth on the LB’s essentially just turning them into a wasted a body. It then becomes 1 on 1 for everyone with a single safety having to respect the deep ball. With UCF’s spacing and talent, it just doesn’t make it fair:

Going “base” against “11” almost turned the game into 11 on 10 for UCF because of how Josh Heupel’s offense attacks.

The Misses

The two teams who really disrupted UCF’s offense in Nickel were Cincinnati and Tulsa. UCF lost both of those games.

On this play, the Bearcats have six men in the box and five DBs vs. 3 WRs, essentially giving them 2 vs. 1 on the boundary and 3 vs. 2 to the field side. Knowing UCF more often than not will go full seven-man protection out of this look, it allowed them to bring five and drop a sixth guy into coverage to take away the middle to the field (wide) side. Doubling up DBs to WRs is going to work more often than not.

This is an obvious passing situation so it’s kind of cheating on my end, but this is a straight coverage sack:

The complicated thing is, against the run, it’s vice-versa, as you’d expect:

Against nickel, you’re almost never going to see more than six in the box. If you don’t include the QB as a run option, you still have 6 vs. 6, and if you do include him, than it’s advantage offense at 7 vs. 6.

Numbers are huge in the run game

So how do you get fewer defenders in the box?

The simple answer is spread out the field - something UCF loves to do.

Using formations now, “11” is 3 WR sets and “10” is 4 WR looks, so you can see the difference it makes in the average men in the box.

6.67 vs. 5.71 almost a full man. Coincidentally, you’re taking a full man on offense out wide so the difference makes sense.

But you can’t just stack the box because a team is effective at running the ball.

If you look at the chart you can see how much better UCF was at running the ball vs. a lighter box, a.k.a. out of “10” personnel.

Here ECU has five in the box and UCF is in a 2x2 look with the WRs in extremely wide splits, opening up the entire middle of the field. With so much speed at RB and so much spacing, it’s not really fair for a defense:

If you throw everything together, you get something like this (the very light blue bars are play counts of about 1-5 so let’s ignore those):

As you can see, there’s nowhere that UCF was really “bad”. Throwing out of “11” with “11” on the field against nickel, and running out of the same look against base were the two negative EPA situations that stand out, and we went into that earlier.

There is obviously so much more that goes into this in terms of performance, but personnel and some pre-snap looks are probably the broadest way too start without getting too crazy.

Recruiting tight ends has seemed to be a bit of an emphasis for UCF, especially bringing in new tight ends coach Alex Golesh. If they are able to bring in a player with a skill set similar to Jordan Akins, it could potentially bring this offense to another level.

Being able to line up however you want, whenever you want, and still being able to run anything you want without dipping significantly in efficiency is just a major advantage to any team.