Under head coach Matt Campbell, the Iowa St. Cyclones have developed a well-deserved reputation for resourcefulness and innovation. When you’re situated in a recruiting “hotbed” like Ames, Iowa, ingenuity is a must.
ISU’s “3-3-3” approach to defending spread offenses has made the program a darling among football scheme junkies, but the ‘Clones will present their own set of unique challenges for the Oklahoma Sooners to defend this weekend in Norman. They center around how ISU leverages a matchup nightmare who should be familiar to football fans in OU’s hometown.
The Kolar Express
Iowa State’s use of the tight end sets the Cyclone offense apart from the beef-flavored version of the spread that seems so popular across the Midwest. In its last game versus the Oklahoma State Cowboys, for example, ISU had at least one TE on the field for every one of its 88 offensive snaps. In short-yardage and goal-to-go situations, the Cyclones generally played two or three TEs/H-backs at the same time:
You could say the Cyclones “rotate” three players at the position, but the main attraction is Norman’s own Charlie Kolar. The third-year sophomore, who was on the field for approximately 90% of ISU’s offensive plays against OSU, ranks second on the team in catches with 32 and third in receiving yards with 486. His five touchdown receptions this season lead ISU through eight games.
Those kinds of numbers don’t exactly jump off the page. However, Kolar plays a vital role in making the ISU offense go.
Kolar boasts a combination of size (6-6, 252 pounds) and athleticism that calls to mind another split TE who recently moved on from Oklahoma — Mark Andrews. Like Andrews, Kolar presents a matchup question with no good answers for defenses:
Unlike Andrews, Kolar looks just as comfortable as a blocker with his hand in the dirt as he does running pass patterns out wide. That kind of versatility allows ISU to line Kolar up in different spots in formations – including inline, as a wing or splitting him out – without giving away the Cyclones’ intentions:
The ‘Clones can move him around to find favorable matchups against defenders, or they can take advantage of his blocking ability on the perimeter to spring some of their receivers in the horizontal passing game:
Importantly, keep an eye on Kolar in key situations. Of his eight catches on third down, seven have produced first downs. All three of his receptions on fourth down this season have moved the sticks.
So what kind of personnel will OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch deploy to counter Kolar?
If the Clones pair Kolar with TE Chase Allen and/or H-back Dylan Soehner, Grinch has an easy call. He will roll out a traditional 4-3 alignment, presumably with linebacker Ryan Jones playing the SAM position lined up to the field side of the offensive formation.
Perhaps ISU will go the TE-heavy route after witnessing the success Kansas State enjoyed with it two weeks ago versus OU. More likely, though, ISU will spend the majority of the game in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end), its more well-rounded and dangerous set. Adding more size to the lineup simply doesn’t make up for what the Clones lose by sidelining players like receivers La’Michael Pettway and Tarique Milton.
OU’s standard tactic for defending 11 personnel this year has been its nickel package with five defensive backs and nickelback Brendan Radley-Hiles generally handling inside receivers and zones. Bookie has played solid ball this season, but we’re talking about a different kind of proposition when it comes to defending Kolar. Kolar will enjoy a pronounced size advantage over No. 44, and he is a more dangerous receiver than the TEs OU has seen this season. On top of that, Kolar’s blocking on the perimeter makes Bookie an easy target for runs off the edge and screen passes. Strong safety Delarrin Turner-Yell’s availability this week also remains up in the air, which raises concerns about the level of support behind Bookie out wide.
The good news for the Sooners is that they’re coming off an open date, so Grinch had time to hatch an alternative plan for handling Kolar. OU fans should prepare themselves, though, for the possibility that the defense will need another outsized effort from Bookie on Saturday night.