What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
Chris Brown has written that the biggest game in the history of the spread offense was when Randy Walker's 2002 Northwestern ran for 332 yards on mighty Michigan in a 54-51 victory.
At that point, the passing game had been engaging in a hostile takeover of football strategy. But when Northwestern ran over Michigan and demonstrated the legitimacy of adding space to the list of factors for a defense to overcome, things started to change. From then on, coaches began re-exploring the full gamut of offensive football tactics, evolving everything to fit spread philosophies.
Much of football's innovation has come from the ground up, starting at the high school level and then slowly working its way to the cautious NFL. The reason for this is that necessity is the mother of invention.
A high school coach has to make do with what he has available, as scholastic rules make it as hard as possible for a coach to choose his players. One year the best player on his team might be a speedy scat back, the next year a big receiver, and the next a bruising tailback. The easiest way for a high school to leverage great athletes or program strength is with a run-centric offense that gives those players space to wreak havoc. In accomplishing that aim, many modern coaches have pilfered from the past.
Texas has long been a hotbed of offensive innovation, including back in the 1960's when legendary Longhorn head coach Darrel K. Royal hired a new offensive coordinator named Emory Bellard and instructed him to design a new, three-back offensive attack.
The wishbone was born from this vision. It allowed an offense to run the triple option to either side of the formation:
Ultimately, the wishbone was just a new way to outflank a defense and attack multiple areas at the same time. Principally it does this by cycling through three options: the inside run (FB dive option), the off-tackle run (QB keep), and the outside pitch (to the trailing halfback).
In the mid-2000s, a Texas high school coach named Chad Morris watched Arkansas unleash some old option concepts in a new guise with star runner Darren McFadden.
Morris had just replaced head coach Art Briles at Stephenville High School and failed to maintain the state championship standard that Briles had established. He'd switched from Briles' spread game to a power-I scheme, and Stephenville had missed the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. He determined to go to that Arkansas coach and learn as much about his offense as he could. That Arkansas coach was Gus Malzahn.
Success quickly came after brainstorming sessions with Malzahn. Morris went on to become the head coach at burgeoning central Texas power Lake Travis, where he won consecutive state championships in 2008 and 2009 with quarterbacks Garrett Gilbert and Michael Brewer. Since taking over Clemson's offense in 2011, he's become one of football's highest-paid assistants, has overseen the attacks that have powered three straight 10-win seasons and bowl wins against LSU and Ohio State, and seems like a lock to land a top head coaching job at some point.
Briles had left Stephenville to immerse himself in the air raid coaching tree, emerging from that cocoon to establish his own wishbone roots and send the air raid down a new path of evolution. Briles' offense more heavily features the run game than its predecessors.
Meanwhile, the Malzahn/Morris school of spread offense is already built around the run game. In fact, it's like a modern wishbone, an attempt to use the classic triple option in a new way.
The modern elements added by Morris include spread alignments, the forward pass, motion, and tempo. The brilliance of the triple option is that it's a self-contained concept with built-in answers for any potential problem. Morris doesn't have any single concepts quite that simple or elegant, but in general he emphasizes a similar level of soundness in his offense.
Morris could try to have a million concepts to answer a million problems. But he would rather contain multiple answers within the same concepts. He can still use diversity -- of formations, personnel groupings, or options within a play -- but focuses on fully mastering a few versatile plans of attack.
The description "basketball on grass" is apt, but in a literal sense. It captures how the offense becomes more about getting the ideal matchups and executing options, as in basketball, rather than out-guessing the opponent. The lightning tempo utilized by Malzahn and Morris further allows for this simplicity.
You can see the effects of simple concepts run quickly in the SEC. There's no confusion as to why Nick Saban's Alabama defense has had the most trouble with Auburn and Texas A&M, teams that use tempo. Some of his favorite tactics, such as play-call diversity and bulked-up players, become totally nullified and even turned against him, as his players suck air and look to the sideline while the opponent's already snapping the ball.
Of course, despite that simplicity and speed, Morris teams will make heavy use of motion to change leverage before the snap and see if the defense adjusts. Often the QB's options will depend on the defense's response to motion. This creates a good deal of confusion for the defense.
After the snap, you can see the past come alive as Morris' smashmouth spread starts cycling through the four options of a triple-option attack, whether two or three at a time or all at once. That's right. The best triple option offenses present four main threats to account for.
1. The dive.
A triple option play always begins with the QB sticking the ball in a back's belly and then reading an unblocked defender to determine whether to "give" the ball away or keep it and initiate the next stage of the plan.
Oklahoma revitalized the wishbone under Barry Switzer by employing faster players at fullback who could go for home runs up the middle. Morris' inside run options allow a similar threat.
There's no fullback in this offense, at least not of the classic wishbone type. Instead, the running back or sometimes QB is the dive player. Morris' run game is designed to always attack between the tackles and has three primary concepts for springing a player up the gut.
Here's another way to do it, in one image:
Morris will run inside zone with a few different quarterback reads available. One is a QB keeper, and another possibility, demonstrated in this clip, is a screen to the outside if the defense doesn't respect the threat of the quick throw. The sam linebacker (S) has to choose whether he's going to support vs. the run or chase after the bubble screen. Meanwhile, the RB is reading the linebackers behind combo blocks and looking to cut north and south as quickly as possible between the tackles.
This is the same as the inside zone-read in that the QB will throw a screen if the offense doesn't respect that threat, but now we see man blocking instead of zone blocking.
This is another variety of receiver screen and different blocking by the line.
The H-back is looking to kick out the defensive end before the pulling guard arrives so that the puller can fit between and lead the way for the runner. If the H-back can't kick out because the end's crashing too hard inside, the H-back has to seal him inside and the pulling guard has to recognize what's happening and lead outside instead. Consequently, the kick-out block from the H-back is the trickiest part of the play. If the offense can get that right, there's no better play for pounding the ball inside.
And here's another way to run it:
This is essentially power blocking, but the line leaves an end unblocked and the quarterback has a "keep" read that sends him up the gut behind the pulling guard's block. Meanwhile, a back or receiver sweeps across the formation.
There are some other run plays in the Clemson playbook, but most calls involve some variety of power or inside zone blocking. By emphasizing the footwork, reads, and angles necessary to run these concepts, Clemson is able to tweak a massive number of plays from multiple formations that all rely on the same primary techniques.
The main challenge with building a run game around both inside zone and power is that the guards need to be able to mash people on zone to get movement against the front and understand footwork and combo blocks, but they also must be mobile enough to pull on power and experienced in reading flow on the move.
The second challenge is that the quarterback has to be able to make decisive option reads, plus be quick and tough enough to be the featured runner on power. Unless the quarterback is a dual-threat player, the offense can't fully execute Morris' philosophy.
The player who makes the dive option a legitimate threat to the defense is, of course, the running back. If the defense isn't concerned with this player finding creases and doing damage running up the middle, then the entire system will fail. The defensive coordinator will widen out his defenders to take away the other options, the safeties and linebackers won't bite hard on play-action, and they'll be unafraid to send pressure early and often.
Finally, that H-back has to be able to execute that kick-out block on the defensive end, which isn't necessarily a major challenge for a good fullback, but it may be for the player who actually finds himself in that role.
2. The keeper and the fulcrum.
This part of the option is somewhat minimized, with teams often skipping from the dive to the pitch, but it still comes into play in a few different ways.
In zone-read, the second option is the quarterback keeping the ball and attacking the edge. In the inverted veer, you could say the traditional keeper option is actually the quarterback giving the ball to the back or receiver who's sweeping across and attacking the edge of the defense.
It doesn't happen on every play, but the quarterback will at times have the option to give, keep, or throw a screen, though perhaps in a funky order like "screen pass if no pre-snap adjustment to motion, then read unblocked defender for give or keep option."
The hurry-up nature of the smashmouth spread gives it one other similarity to the wishbone of old: the need for versatility at specific positions.
One of the most challenging parts of building a wishbone is that either halfback might be a lead blocker on one play and a pitch man on the next. Being the pitch man requires a degree of speed to take the edge, while lead blocking means being competent in clearing out linebackers and defensive backs on the edge.
The H-back has a similar need for versatility in the Morris offense. Since Morris' uses both the hurry-up, no-huddle approach and heavy motion to create leverage and angles for running his endless varieties of option plays, someone on the field has to be pretty versatile.
Much like with Kurt Roper's "B" position, Morris' system thrives when it has a player who can line up as a sort of fullback and block a DE, line up as an in-line tight end and execute an combo block, or flex out and make blocks in the perimeter screen game. However, if that player is going to line up out wide, he'd better be a solid receiver, or else he'll make it rather easy for defenses to ignore him and smother your best receivers. Redshirt junior Sam Cooper is a good bet to fill this role for Clemson in 2014, thanks to his 6'6", 250 pound frame.
Auburn used Jay Prosch and C.J. Uzomah in these roles effectively during their 2013 run, but Aaron Hernandez still stands out as one of the best players at the position. If a team can find a player who can check off just a few of these competencies, that makes it impossible to fully match up against.
Let's say that guy lines up tight as an H-back or fullback with three wide receivers.
Do you match with run-stopping personnel? If you do, can that same defensive personnel group handle him in coverage if he lines up wide on the next play?
But if you respond with lighter, quicker players to be sound against the pass, how will they hold up if he's the lead blocker on the edge or flexed wide to flatten a DB on a screen pass? Can your smaller players stop him from bodying them up and catching endless throws over the middle?
3. The "pitch."
The biggest difference between the wishbone, split veer, or I-formation option offenses of the past and the concepts in modern systems like the Morris spread is that the QB is rarely pitching the ball out to option No. 3. He's throwing it.
The various receiver screen passes that are attached to the inside run plays are often where the offense does the most damage. It's a very low-risk, high-reward concept. The throw is simple and exceptionally unlikely to be picked off, since the ball is thrown based on a read of the best positioned defender. The offense has the opportunity to make a couple of blocks on smaller defenders in space, and the ball is quickly delivered to what might be the most explosive player on the field:
On this play, Morris motions out the NFL Draft's No. 4 overall pick, Sammy Watkins, before the snap. The Buckeyes don't adjust, leading to an easy read for quarterback Tajh Boyd. Notice that the H-back is flexed out wide as a slot receiver, where his size allows him to eliminate the nickel player Ohio State is relying on to stop plays like this. When you're throwing a pass like this to a player like Watkins, that's about as easy a 10-yard gain as you're going to get on a football field. If there's a missed tackle? That could be 90 yards.
The strong inside runner at tailback, the quick-thinking, dual-threat QB, and the versatile blocker/receiver can be tricky to find in this offense, but the "pitch" man is really not too rare a player. So long as he can catch a short toss and is fast in space, he'll be dangerous in this offense.
Now, many players in this role, such as Watkins or Percy Harvin, can do so much more than that, and the players who can run a 4.0 shuttle in order to get free and then a 4.4 flat when they get loose aren't the most common of players. But they aren't quite as rare as you might think.
The real problem too many teams have is when their offenses involve so many extra features that this player also has to be able to run effective routes, or make reads on running plays, or understand how to block in pass protections. There are many 5'8", 170 pound waterbugs who would be dynamite as pitch men but can't consistently beat coverage, run inside, or block.
However, if the system is simple enough, the dangerous pitch man isn't hard to find. The gene pool of people that can run very fast laterally and vertically and can take a hand-off or catch a screen pass is actually pretty substantial.
4. The deep bomb.
When a smashmouth spread offense is running plays at breakneck speed, motioning blockers all over the field, and utilizing the option, it becomes easy for it to outnumber and outflank the defense, which leads to big plays.
The defense has three recourses: an aggressive quarters coverage that can get nine defenders involved in the run game quickly, an eight-man front with a great tackler at deep safety, or some kind of blitz. This is when the deep bomb comes into play.
Although he caught several crucial passes in Texas' 1969 and 1970 victories that secured consecutive national championships, wide receiver Cotton Speyrer is often an overlooked cog from the first wishbone offense. If you wanted to get your safeties to the line of scrimmage and prevent being out-leveraged by the option, you had to leave someone 1-on-1 with Cotton, and that could mean a quick score for the Longhorns at any point.
The nature of the smashmouth spread can make it fairly easy to spring people deep. Morris will run double moves off fake screens and utilize play-action early and often to see if he can sneak someone downfield for a cheap and easy score.
He also uses vertical concepts like under and four verticals to see if a particular receiver can win a matchup deep, with the QB having a quick checkdown or scramble option available if nothing works out.
As devastating as the option can be, defensive coordinators really start to panic if the offense can run it while simultaneously running a wide receiver deep who cannot be single-teamed. That's the final piece that can make any offense unstoppable.
There are different schools of spread offense in vogue today, with minor to major differences. But the option-based spread is one that's front and center, thanks to the success of coaches like Urban Meyer, Malzahn, and Morris.
Historically this is a system that's perfectly designed for dominating college football with multiple dynasties and rings to prove it. The needed personnel are there to be had from the high school ranks while the tactics are simple enough to plug'n'play from year to year. It's nothing new, but rather something classic.