Colt McCoy’s Texas passing game

Colt McCoy, University of Texas’s record-setting triggerman (and Heisman hopeful), is known for one thing above all else: his astounding accuracy. Indeed, he set the FBS single-season record for completion percentage last season, having completed 76.7 percent of his passing. For his career, McCoy has thrown for 9,732 yards and 85 touchdowns to only 33 interceptions, and has led the Longhorns to a 32-7 record as a starter.

11coltLast season, of course, was his best yet, as he averaged an impressive 8.9 yards per pass attempt and UT went 12-1. Yet the stats don’t necessarily sum up his accuracy: his coaches freely profess that he is the most accurate passer they have ever seen; it’s not just a matter of throwing a lot of checkdowns. He makes decisions quickly, sizes up the defense, and puts the ball right on his receivers’ numbers. So what concepts do Texas’s coaches, head coach Mack Brown and offensive coordinator Greg Davis, use with McCoy?

In exploring that question, this is one of those great examples where understanding the Xs and Os doesn’t supplant appreciating the skills and talent of the player, but instead enhance it. McCoy is a triggerman in every sense of the word: he calls the checks, he is given a plethora of options on most plays, and Texas’s gameplan week-to-week is to basically hand him the ball and tell him to make it work. That’s not to say they don’t give him the tools — I like Texas’s schemes quite a bit — but it’s a system that takes advantage of McCoy’s special skills.

Texas’s favorite route concept, by far, is something known as the “two-man” game, known in some coaching circles as the “stick concept.” Texas runs their a little difference, but they also use it a great deal; it’s their number one concept by far. After that I’ll briefly overview Texas’s quick game or three-step drop passes, followed by some highlights of what Texas’s coaches dial-up when they want to get a little more vertical.

Two-man game. This concept has been Texas’s go-to route since Mack Brown and Greg Davis arrived. Everyone from Major Applewhite, to Chris Simms, to Vince Young and now McCoy have been asked to master the play. (Indeed, Vince Young completed this concept more than any other in the 2005 Rose Bowl against USC, often to the tight-end Davis Thomas. Young, despite his passing limitations, got good enough at this play and others to lead the nation in passing efficiency in his record-setting junior year.)

The concept itself is simple enough. Dan Gonzalez, a University of Texas letterman at receiver and currently a coaching consultant, explained it in detail in his book, Concept Passing: Teaching the Modern Passing Game. It can be run from really any formation — any set with at least two receivers to one side — but Texas favors it from sets with at least three receivers, as the diagram below shows. This way the outside receiver can run deep. He serves both as an option on the fade route against single-coverage, but primarily he draws the defense away. And, from a formation and personnel standpoint, he typically draws the other team’s cornerback, allowing the two inside receivers to work against inferior pass defenders — the linebackers, safeties, and nickel backs.

The “two-man” concept itself has one receiver run immediately to the flat, while another bursts upfield to a depth of about eight yards — slightly deeper than most other teams run the route. He can then turn inside or outside depending on where the coverage is pressuring him. He wants to find the crease in the zone and to find the window that gets created as the flat defender widens for the other receiver on the “shoot” route to the flat. Against man coverage, he can break back to the sideline. See the diagram below.


On the backside, the split-end runs a skinny post while the runningback checks his protection responsibility and then leaks out as a dump-off. If the split-end has single coverage or the free-safety moves, he becomes a big-play option. (Note that this is not a “deep post” where the quarterback lofts it up. Texas actually refers to it as “glance” — it is a relatively flat throw thrown before a safety can break on it.) The “skinny” or “glance” receiver runs to ten yards, sticks his foot, and breaks “skinny,” just inside the corner and upfield.

McCoy should have a good idea if he will throw the glance route before the snap, or shortly thereafter if the free-safety ignores him. Otherwise he looks to the two-man concept, and he eyes the flat defender. If he widens for the receiver headed to the flat, McCoy throws the stick route. If the flat defender hesitates or drops, the flat should be open. See the video clips below of McCoy’s ability to fit the ball in to the “stick” or inside receiver.

Finally, one of the clips above shows Texas using this concept from a five-wide set. The adjustment is very simple, as the diagram below shows.


Quick game. I can’t do full justice to Texas’s quick game, but I can mention a few routes. Texas, like most teams, begins with a lot of simple quicks. One is an adjustment to the run game, where if the defense does not cover all the split receivers and a run play is called, McCoy can just give his receivers a “look” and they know to look immediately for a quick pass (or block for a quick pass).

Next, Texas uses the “hitch” route a lot. It is the simplest play in football: the receiver bursts to about five yards (three big steps and two small) and then just turns around. If the corners play soft, or the defense doesn’t cover the slot receivers properly, the quarterback just throws them the ball quickly. Often you package these hitches together — if the flat defender widens to take the outside receiver, the quarterback throws it to the guy in the slot, and vice versa. The purpose of this is to take advantage whenever the defense is playing off or essentially giving them the easy throw. Because McCoy is accurate downfield and has a few speedsters, UT sees its fair share of off coverage. In the Fiesta Bowl last season against Ohio State, McCoy completed a staggering 41 passes out of 59 attempts (414 yards), largely because Ohio State was determined to play loose, “off” coverage.

That is, that was their strategy until . . . McCoy’s final pass. As the clips below show, on the game winning 26-yard scoring pass from McCoy to Quan Cosby, Ohio State — possibly frustrated — shifted into an all-out blitz with man coverage, and Cosby just beat his man on a simple slant pattern.

The route concept used is one Texas uses a great great, diagrammed below. To the two-receiver side, Texas runs double-slants. This serves as both a man beater and a nice route against cover two. To the three receiver side they run a variant of the two-man concept, where the outside receiver runs a fade and both inside receivers run out routes. If the flat defender to that side widens with the out run by the middle receiver, the innermost receiver should come open. If he doesn’t, well McCoy has a man in the flat. (For an analagous pass concept, see here.)


In the video clips below of Texas’s various quick passes, notice how in both of the first two clips — which both show the double-slant and double-out packaged concept — McCoy hits a slant pass for a touchdown.

Get vertical. When Texas decides to go downfield a bit more, they use a variety of concepts I can’t all address here. They use play-action, plenty of roll-outs, bootlegs, sprint-outs and other “movement” passes to take advantage of Colt McCoy’s athleticism as well as his good accuracy. But their “go-to” downfield pass is nevertheless likely the “four-verticals” concept.

I have addressed this concept in detail previously (with mucho assistance from Dan Gonzalez again), so for now it is best to just reiterate the flavor of the play.

As the diagram below shows, the idea is to send four receivers “vertically” to divide the field — and also the secondary. Against a three-deep coverage (Cover 3), the free-safety cannot be correct: he cannot defend both receivers up the seams. Defenses will often adjust by having their underneath defenders “carry” or “run with” the receivers, but that opens up the runningback or another receiver on an underneath route. The outside receivers always remain an option, either if the cornerbacks release them downfield, or if Colt McCoy just likes his matchup. And, finally, although this is a “vertical” route, it is not a bomb-over-the-top throw — the ball should be completed between 18-22 yards downfield.


As the video clip below shows, McCoy is exceedingly accurate with this throw, and is adept at moving the defense with his eyes just before releasing the ball to an open guy in the void between defenders.

But when Texas does want to go over the top, they will often call for a double-move play, as they did against Texas Tech when they fell behind. In that game McCoy had actually thrown one of his rare interceptions on a curl/flat concept. He had failed to see a defender slide in front of the curl route (receiver bursts upfield to twelve yards and then comes back to the football inside, while an inside receiver breaks to the flat), and the result was six points for Tech.

Greg Davis and Mack Brown fired back, and called the same play, with a twist. This time the receiver, Malcolm Williams, ran his twelve yard curl, planted his foot — and then burst towards the end zone. McCoy lofted it up and the corner was beat. It was not just an example of McCoy’s skill, but also his moxie. They knew Tech would see blood when they saw curl/flat again, after having scored a defensive touchdown on the play.

See the video below for clips of four-verticals and the curl-and-go.

2009, and beyond. McCoy is an excellent quarterback, and Texas’s system — though sometimes maligned — is a great fit for such an accurate and poised rhythm passer. We should see plenty more of these passes this year as Colt makes his case for the Heisman, and for the Longhorns as National Champs. (Most of the questions on offense revolve around the run game.) But, in watching Colt, I see a lot of parrallels with another guy known for his accuracy: Drew Brees. Both have underrated athleticism, both are smart, and both can stick the ball on the receiver, exactly where they want to. That is something that cannot be taught, and it should continue to serve Colt well.

  • Gena Tointon

    What a remarkably good read, I enjoyed it truly and I give credit you for posting it. Have a great day ..

  • Mr.Murder

    The clear out man must make the outside corner to the out route side turn his shoulders so he cannot see the set and underneath routes develop or he is likely to jump the first out route to him. Makes sense anyways, if you want the ball deep, run in a way your defender has to work harder to find the ball.

  • Elf

    Time has proven otherwise