By any reasonable measure, the 2016 season was a roaring success for the UTSA Roadrunners. The university administration made a late coaching change last January, replacing former head coach Larry Coker with then-LSU running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson. Despite having little time to gather a full recruiting class, Wilson was able to bolster his roster by attracting graduate transfers and instant-impact recruits.
While Wilson didn’t have any previous collegiate experience as a coordinator or head coach he was able to guide the Roadrunners to their best season since 2013. UTSA was granted their first ever bowl bid, tying the NCAA record for fastest program to reach a bowl game after they lost to the New Mexico Lobos 20-23 in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl.
We’ll be reviewing the Roadrunners’ season by breaking down their offensive and defensive performance. This is the first half of our season review in which we’ll take a close look at each position unit on the offense.
- Most points scored: 55 vs Southern Miss
- Fewest points scored: 10 vs Texas A&M
- Average points per game: 29.2
- Average rushing yards per game: 161.8
- Average passing yards per game: 213.6
- Explosiveness rank: 52 out of 128
- Efficiency rank: 88 out of 128
- Final S&P+ rank: 99 out of 128
Junior Dalton Sturm returned as UTSA’s starting quarterback this season but he didn’t face an easy path to being handed the keys. After facing stiff competition from graduate transfer Jared Johnson, Sturm was named the starter right after team breakfast on the first Saturday of UTSA’s season. While Sturm retained starting privileges throughout the duration of the season, it wasn’t exactly a smooth ride.
Sturm vastly outplayed Johnson in UTSA’s first game of the season against Alabama State but it wasn’t enough to earn him the benefit of the doubt from the coaching staff against Colorado State in week two. Despite going 20-25 through the air for 274 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 52 yards on three carries in the previous week, Sturm was abruptly pulled from the game against CSU, a decision I personally feel may have cost UTSA the win.
The vast road vs. home discrepancy encapsulated in the first two games of the season was the theme of the year for Sturm. He completed 59.4% of his passes at home but just 53.2% on the road. He passed for about three more yards per completion at home. Even when including a seventh road game in the New Mexico Bowl Sturm still vastly surpassed his road production at home. Sturm struck for 1,338 yards and 13 touchdowns (2 interceptions) at home while passing for just 832 yards and seven touchdowns on the road (4 interceptions). The discrepancy is even more drastic when looking at his rushing numbers. Sacks notwithstanding, Sturm rushed for 333 yards and three touchdowns at home, more than double his 163 yards and one touchdown on the road.
When Sturm struggled Johnson was able to perform admirably, often providing a necessary spark to the offense. Johnson completed only 54.7% of his passes for 564 yards but he tossed four touchdowns to just one interception. The Sam Houston State transfer wasn’t as much of a threat on the ground in comparison to Sturm as Johnson rushed for just 27 yards on nine attempts, failing to find the end zone on the ground.
While Sturm’s inconsistency was perplexing, he showed impressive flashes of athleticism, moxie, and arm strength that kept giving the staff reasons to keep their faith in him. Sturm is set to return for his senior season, leaving sophomores-to-be Jaylon Henderson and Manny Harris as next in line scholarship quarterbacks.
There isn’t a position unit that improved as much throughout the span of the season for UTSA as much as the offensive line. Through UTSA’s first six games against FBS opposition the offensive line allowed 22 sacks. They would allow just 12 sacks in the last six games of the season despite facing some outstanding defensive lines against Louisiana Tech, Texas A&M, and New Mexico. The big picture isn’t pretty as the Roadrunners were ranked 125 out of 128 programs in adjusted sack rate but the improvement throughout the season is encouraging and points towards sound coaching.
The run blocking was slightly better but highly inconsistent as certain lineups performed at vastly varying levels throughout the season and particular games. Adjusted line yards and opportunity rates are two advanced metrics that track the production of the offensive line. Neither stat gives the UTSA offensive line much credit as they rank 98th in the country in adjusted line yards and 92nd in the country in opportunity rate. That’s not a good sign for a program that’s seeking to build a run-heavy offensive identity.
For the first time in the program’s history the Roadrunners had dependable depth at all positions on the offensive line. Only one offensive lineman started every game this season and it’s the last guy anyone would have predicted in the preseason. First year coach Ryan Pugh was able to turn junior college transfer Gabe Casillas into a 13 game starter after he failed to find much meaningful playing time under the previous coaching staff.
With Casillas holding down the right side of the offensive line, LSU transfer Jevonte Domond held down the blindside quite well. Domond brought a level of size and strength to the position that UTSA has never seen before. While both guys were far from perfect, they combined to make UTSA’s best pairing of offensive tackles in program history. Reed Darragh also did well in a utility role. He would play his best game in the New Mexico Bowl, filling in for a suspended Domond. Darragh’s bounce back performance in the last game of the season is a great sign for UTSA’s offensive line moving forward as both Casillas and Domond have exhausted their eligibility.
UTSA’s offensive line was at its strongest on the interior where Austin Pratt, Juan Perez, Stefan Beard, and Kyle McKinney platooned to create a unit that blew open rushing lanes and forced pass rushers outside. The Roadrunners were forced to use several different combinations in the platoon but the unit performed best when McKinney was at left guard, Austin Pratt was at center, and Stefan Beard was at right guard. With all of these guys returning next year UTSA is in a really good spot on the interior of the offensive line. The unit’s overall future success will hinge on how UTSA’s incoming transfer offensive tackles perform as they’ll need to drastically reduce the number of sacks allowed to improve the offense’s performance in 2017.
UTSA featured two running backs this season. Senior Jarveon Williams went out strong, rushing for 900 yards and eight touchdowns while averaging 4.3 yards per carry. Williams set the UTSA career rushing record with 2,393 total yards from scrimmage. “J Dub” has been a staple of the UTSA football program for a long time and his presence will be sorely missed.
Williams captured the headlines and record books this season but sophomore Jalen Rhodes proved that he’s ready to take the torch as UTSA’s feature back going forward. The former Texas Tech commit rushed for 827 yards and nine touchdowns while averaging 5.3 yards per carry. While Williams is tough and dependable, Rhodes had better vision and patience in the trenches and seemed to be a better fit for UTSA’s downhill running game. Williams is more of a home run threat thanks to his top-end straight line speed but Rhodes’ elusiveness and agility keeps the sticks moving.
Williams struggled with run blocking throughout the duration of his career but he took huge steps forward in pass protection during his senior season. He also caught 19 passes for 221 yards. Rhodes caught 17 passes for 160 yards and one touchdown.
UTSA’s running backs faced a serious challenge in 2016 as they were asked to not only carry more of a physical burden in total carries but also by adopting to a new running scheme that featured more pulling blocks than the zone blocking and read option scheme utilized by UTSA’s previous offensive staff. I would say that Jarveon Williams and Jalen Rhodes responded quite well to the challenge.
Just as UTSA’s offense shifted to more of a power run game, the Roadrunners also vastly revamped their passing game. Through the first five years of UTSA football the Roadrunners were a dink-and-dunk offense the made liberal use of bubble screens and jet sweeps. In head coach Frank Wilson’s introductory press conference he stressed the need to combine an “assaulting” run game with a vertical passing game that will challenge defenses over the top. Wilson brought in coaching veteran Frank Scelfo to achieve those goals.
UTSA took steps towards their passing game goals in 2016 but they’re not quite where I assume they want to be. The Roadrunners did improve in all passing statistics when compared to 2015 but that’s not much of a benchmark to compare to. UTSA passed for about 400 more yards, nine more touchdowns, and three less interceptions in 2016. The passing game was also slightly more explosive, hitting for 7.3 yards per catch as opposed to 6.4 yards per catch in 2015. Hardly fireworks but the progress is there.
Most of the Roadrunners’ improvement in the passing game can rest at the hands of junior wideout Josh Stewart. The 6’4” receiver who spent a few weeks leading the nation in yards per catch had to grind to get to where he’s at now. Stewart signed with Midwestern State in Wichita Falls, Texas, but never saw the field there. He took a year off from football to earn transfer credits in his hometown of College Station, Texas, where he took a part time job pressure washing historic Kyle Field and setting up tables for recruiting events the Aggies would host for other athletes. Stewart would return to College Station this fall to catch six passes for 75 yards against the Aggies, including a jaw-dropping one-handed touchdown snag that got significant play on SportsCenter. Stewart finished his season with 36 catches for 682 yards and five touchdowns.
Who else to compliment Stewart’s efforts than his brother Kerry Thomas Jr.? Thomas wasn’t as much of a big play threat as he totaled 555 yards on just one less catch than his brother but Kerry was able to find the end zone more often, notching six points on eight passes this year. Thomas was efficient and sure-handed, as he’s been throughout his career in San Antonio.
Where UTSA struggled in the passing game is at the slot receiver position. Juniors Brady Jones and Marquez McNair had pretty similar stats with both catching around 25 passes for roughly 12 yards per catch and three touchdowns. Both guys struggled with drops, many of which came at crucial points in games. McNair struggled with the mental aspect of the game as he was repeatedly flagged throughout the season, many times on inexplicable false starts while lined up out wide.
Senior receiver JaBryce Taylor was UTSA’s first wide out off the bench. Taylor’s production majorly slipped from his junior season but he still pitched in a pretty strong year, turning in 21 catches for 207 yards and two touchdowns. After catching 29 balls for 472 yards (16.3 yards per catch) UTSA fans were expecting more big plays from Taylor in 2016.
Tight Ends and Fullbacks
UTSA didn’t get much production out of either position this season but both tight ends and fullbacks contributed greatly to the offense with their blocking ability. While the coaching staff still doesn’t have the type of players on the roster to run a pro style offense to its full effect, we got a glimpse of where the staff wants to take the Roadrunners on offense in the future.
Utilizing both 11, 12, and 21 personnel, UTSA used a tight end on nearly every play from scrimmage this year. Trevor Stevens was the best of the bunch, providing a strong blocking presence on the edge. He caught seven passes for 73 yards this season and ended his career with his first touchdown in the New Mexico Bowl.
Shaq Williams was UTSA’s receiving threat at the tight end position, often flexing out to an H Back position or lining up in the slot. Williams caught 13 passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns. The junior flashed his athleticism several times this season, including a 51 yard catch and run against Alabama State. If he improves his hands and consistency then he’ll help diversify UTSA’s passing game in 2017.
I was expecting Halen Steward’s season-ending injury in the season’s first game to be a major dark spot over UTSA’s season but senior Andrew King did an incredible job stepping up to fill the gap left by the extremely talented Steward. A running back by trade, King got progressively better at the fullback position each week, culminating in a dominating performance in the New Mexico Bowl. King was a stabilizing force in pass protection and became an adept run blocker as the season progressed. Every team needs a gritty guy like King that will blow holes open for his teammates without complaining about catching just one pass for eight yards.
Heading into the season I wasn’t on board with UTSA’s transition to a pro-style offense. I still think UTSA’s offense would have been more successful running a traditional spread scheme in 2016 mostly due to the current roster makeup. That being said, I do see the promise of the system and respect the coaching staff for sticking to their philosophy (Arizona State game aside) and installing a system to build an identity for the future. We saw moments where the pro style, run-heavy offense was extremely difficult for defenses built to stop the spread to contain. If UTSA’s recruiting successes continue to hold up then the Roadrunners should be pretty successful in their offensive scheme, comparable to San Diego State or Wyoming.
UTSA offensive coordinator Frank Scelfo elected to spend his game days on the sideline instead of in the coaches’ booth with a birds-eye view of the field. This is an uncommon but not unheard of move as most coordinators prefer to match alignments and play development from up high. Head coach Frank Wilson said that he liked Scelfo being on the sideline as it provided a “calming presence” for his quarterbacks. It will be interesting to see if UTSA continues to adopt this practice with Dalton Sturm in his senior season or if Scelfo will move up the bleachers to better observe the play on the field.
Scelfo’s play calling was appropriately aggressive on 4th and 3rd down but the Roadrunners were a little bit too predictable on first down, electing to run on the first down of almost every series. Overall I felt that the play calling was quite solid. I rarely felt that the play call was what caused any offensive failures but rather poor execution. Scelfo’s penchant for going for the defense’s throat in crucial situations and after turnovers was very fun to watch.
My main complaint on Scelfo’s play calling was his liberal use of gadget plays. UTSA ran it all, from fake punts to fake field goals to flea flickers, direct snaps and everything in between. Sure, these plays were fun to watch and often worked out well for the offense but in many instances the play was extremely poorly executed and cost UTSA valuable downs and distance.
The timing of the trick plays was also questionable as UTSA would often reach deep into their bag of tricks when the offense was already in prime position to score. I would like to see Scelfo be a little bit more patient and reserved with the trick plays in 2017.
Ultimately, coach Scelfo deserves a lot of praise for his development of Dalton Sturm. The junior took huge strides in his first season as a full-time starter and it’s exciting to think of how good he could be in 2017 if he improves half as much over this offseason as he did over the past offseason.
UTSA’s offense was... adaquete in 2016. The only game in which they looked like an offensive juggernaut was their 55-32 blowout of Southern Miss. Even when the offense put up 45 points against Middle Tennessee they only racked up 378 yards of total offense as the Roadrunner defense put them in advantageous situations throughout the afternoon.
Even in games that UTSA won, the offense had a tendency to bog down, allowing opponents to crawl back into the game after an early deficit. The Roadrunners have a lot of work to do in gaining consistency not just under center but also in the run game.
If UTSA seeks to be a punishing pro-style offense they should be able to operate the offense ahead of schedule by picking up five and six yard chunks on the ground to start series. Too often UTSA was dependent on Dalton Sturm to convert on third and long— a task he was capable of completing for the most part.
The Roadrunners are missing a few pieces on offense but an incoming top-rated recruiting class provides hope for the future. With one of the strongest defensive units in Conference USA returning at full strength next season even just small improvements from the offense will go a long way towards the program reaching new heights in the second year of the Frank Wilson era as UTSA seeks their first ever C-USA West division title and conference championship.
Overall Grade: C+