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Tyquan Thornton and the Baylor Offense

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Tyquan Thornton will probably be the focal point of Baylor’s 2020 offense. What makes him so special?

NCAA Football: Baylor at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Denzel Mims

In a league with a lot of good WR play, Mims was a step above. Most teams can flood the field with really good athletes at wide receiver, but the difference comes when you can put a guy out there who demands attention from multiple defenders on every play. That’s what Mims was for Baylor.

By the end of the 2019 season, when Brewer’s arm strength had clearly diminished, much of Baylor’s offense looked like this:

The ball is on the left hash. Mims is isolated on the boundary. Texas has a single high safety, but he’s clearly shaded towards Mims because Texas isn’t worried about a limited Brewer being able to beat them deep to the field. The safety didn’t pay Mims enough respect, though, and Brewer was able to find the window to Mims who makes a riduculous catch.

When Baylor went 5 wide, they still were looking to isolate Mims.

Texas is in a standard cover 2 here, and Baylor expertly utilizes the other receivers to open a hole for Mims in the middle of the zone. Brewer’s eyes never leave Mims here, he knows where the ball is going before the snap.

Having a wide receiver who can command this kind of attention is step one for having a really good offense. As I’ve said before, playing defense is sort of like plugging holes on a ship. If the defense can reliably assign one defender to each offensive player, then an offense probably isn’t going to cause too many problems. But as soon as the defense has to send an additional player to help (e.g., assigning a safety or linebacker to bracket a dominant WR), it opens up options for all the other plays. It’s analogous to how every offensive basketball play is trying to break down the defense and force a defender to help; once a defender has to help, that means someone is open if you can find them.

Mims’ Replacement — Tyquan Thornton

Thornton is not a new name to Baylor fans. He carved out a significant role for himself as a true freshmen two years ago, and was the team’s second leading receiver last year. He had a noticeably more prominent role early last year before Brewer’s arm strength diminished, averaging 79 yards per game through the first 8 games.

In these first 8 games, Thornton and Mims alternated as the “X” and “Z” receiver (most offensive coordinators refer to the boundary wide receiver, the guy lined up to shorter side of the field, as the “X,” while the wide side WR is the “Z”). Formations like this were quite common for Baylor (Thornton is the WR at the top of the screen as the X, Mims at the bottom as the Z):

Here’s Thornton beating AJ Parker, one of the Big 12’s best cover corners, on a double move from the X:

Here’s Thornton roasting one of Georgia’s starting cornerbacks in the Sugar Bowl (with a horrible missed pass interference):

Thornton Can Demand Double Coverage

Despite some serious offensive line issues and Brewer’s diminished arm strength, Mims was able to demand so much attention that Baylor’s offense was still able to hold its head above water late in 2019. Thornton’s production largely diminished due to Brewer’s inability to seriously threaten the wide side of the field, but he still demonstrated the skills necessary to become a dominant Big 12 WR.

I’d like to walk through a play to demonstrate how valuable attracting a double team is. Here is a basic Run-Pass-Option that Fedora will likely use in 2020 (or something similar):

This play perfectly demonstrates what makes playing modern defense so hard. There are so many conflicts that the offense is presenting. For us, we will focus on the X receiver. The route he is running is commonly referred to as a “glance” route. My assumption has always been that it is called this because it’s a route the QB glances at with his eyes—the OL is run blocking, but the QB glances at the safety to see what he does. If the safety comes up in the run game, hit the glance. 2019 LSU murdered people with this route, and it is incredibly common in college football now. Here’s Mims winning on this route:

If the safety (in the above picture labeled SS) has to stay back to help on the glance route, he cannot be involved in the run game. That means the other defensive backs have to get involved. The offense is presenting 7 gaps (6 blockers, including the TE). There are only 6 guys in the box, so the defense needs to bring at least one additional guy to be gap-sound in the run game (potentially more, if the QB is a running threat).

If the SS can’t come, you have to send either the STAR or the FS to get the correct numbers in the box. If you send the STAR, it opens you up to the Y running a bubble, which means your FS better be able to make a tackle in space or else it’s 6. If you leave the STAR to stay over the Y and send the FS, your STAR better be able to hold up in coverage against what is likely a very fast and quick Big 12 slot WR. It’s tough, you’re damned somewhere.

So let’s diagram this, starting with a not dominant X receiver. If the X isn’t much a problem, you can feel pretty comfortable in sending the SS to the box. It’ll look something like this:

If the X is no problem, the defensive coordinator is gonna feel pretty comfortable with this. But what happens if the X is someone of Tyquan Thornton’s caliber? You can’t send the SS. He will roast you for 6. So let’s say you send the STAR:

If you send the STAR, the offensive coordinator is likely going to tell his Y receiver to bubble or some other quick route for an easy pitch and catch. And after that relatively easy catch, the FS better be able to make a tackle in space. Maybe you trust your FS to tackle Josh Fleeks in space a few times, but how many times until he makes him miss and takes it for a TD?

And you can keep playing with the options. The moral of the story is, once you force that safety to bracket the X, it makes you weak somewhere on the field. It’s just up to the offense to find them.

Believe in Humble Ty

Many commentators are understandably going to wonder how Baylor replaces Denzel Mims in 2020. But the answer is right in front of us: Tyquan Thornton. The third year junior is faster than Mims and has better hands, but we will have to see if his slighter build can hold up as the primary guy for most of 2020.

Baylor has other dudes at WR, to be sure. RJ Sneed will be playing the Z and provide a steady, tough presence all year. Gavin Holmes and Josh Fleeks will provide some dynamite from the middle of the field. Their jobs are just going to be that much easier as Thornton demands bracket coverage.