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How Taysom Hill and the BYU offense smash people

With a modern veer-option offense and the ideal dual-threat QB, the Cougars have been running over power-conference teams. Can BYU keep it up as the target on its back grows?

Gene Sweeney Jr.

After BYU beat Virginia, 41-33, Cavalier linebacker Max Valles was effusive in praising the Cougars and specifically their quarterback, Taysom Hill.

"He is the best athlete I have ever played against ... college or high school."

Hill had just wrapped up a day in which he went 13-23 passing with 187 yards, two touchdowns, and zero picks while adding another 72 yards and a score on the ground in 17 carries. Hill was either running or throwing the football for 40 of BYU's 60 offensive plays, and the team averaged 6.5 yards on those plays.

BYU's beaten two power-conference teams, Texas and UVA, and two from a former power, the American's Houston and UConn, by a combined 150-75. BYU's adjusted yards-per-game numbers rank ninth in the nation and are largely borne of Hill's efforts, as the Cougar QB has accounted for 1,304 total yards, 13 TDs, and 6.2 yards per play through four games. The BYU offense is summed up as a system that allows Hill to run amok despite not exactly being surrounded by five-star athletes.

The weapon

Hill has more or less the ideal dual-threat build, standing at 6'2 and checking in around 230 pounds. He's as big as most of the linebackers trying to track him down, but he's also much faster. A common comparison Hill has drawn has been to Florida's Tim Tebow, a Heisman-winner and two-time national champion, but Hill's athleticism is actually even better.

He shares Tebow's ability to serve as a short-yardage battering ram, which often saw the Florida QB compared to a fullback:

But Hill also possesses great change-of-direction quickness, some open field moves, and acceleration that Tebow never had:

The way Hill exploded through split defenders on that scramble is one of countless examples already of his ability to accelerate through creases and juke defenders on a level far beyond most 230-pound QBs. Those are highly touted Texas athletes he's running past, not some hard-working mid-major players.

Hill has also come a considerable way as a passer in the last year. He now possesses the ability to progress through reads and get the ball out on time and with enough accuracy to set up his receivers for yards after catch.

On this play, he works his eyes from his first read, to the deep safety, then to his second read, turning and firing the ball with great timing and placement. Hill has thrown over the middle of the field and made good checkdown reads to his running backs, who have then been able to do damage.

The NFL won't be knocking down Hill's door for him to lead pro-style offenses, but he offers a lot for a college OC to work with. At 24 years old, he also offers a level of experience that most college players don't have.

Unleashing the Cougars

A good offensive playbook needs to be able to check three boxes in order to set its players up for success. It needs to offer:

  1. Options for moving the chains with consistent gains.
  2. Ways to create the explosive plays that making scoring drives common.
  3. Options for converting on passing downs (third and long).

BYU offensive coordinator Robert Anae primarily checks off boxes one and two with what might best be described as a modern, up-tempo, veer-option running game. In other words, angled blocking with multiple QB options for attacking the edge.

The Cougars have three concepts in particular they love to run from two-back sets, which all attack the edge defenders in a few different ways. First is the classic-looking veer-option play that's taking over everywhere, under the guise of the zone-read and with a lead arc blocker on the perimeter for the QB:

Another variation BYU has on this play is to send a running back or receiver wide to be a pitch option, rather than a lead blocker:

If you respond to the zone read by having the defensive end step inside and spill the ball outside to the linebacker, the Cougars can run the version with an arc blocker to take that linebacker out:

BYU Zarc

If you respond by having the defensive end try to contain the ball inside to the linebacker, then Hill can just flip the ball out to a pitch player. The safety has to be able to track that player down in space:

BYU pitch option

The Cougars will also run this with power blocking, creating the same down blocks but adding a pulling guard as another lead blocker at the point of attack. That means further complexity for opposing linebackers trying to get a read on where to stick their hats. Because if you don't fill gaps quickly against this offense, Hill can really make you pay.

In each example, the Cougars can attack either side of the formation to pick on poor run-support players in the secondary, allow their line to block at favorable angles, and stress the front with both inside running and Hill loosed on the perimeter. They'll run several other schemes as well, but these option looks can be devastating, putting Hill on the edge.

The horizontal stretch these schemes place on defenses create creases that Hill or running back Jamaal Williams can dart through, thus creating the explosive gains needed to carry drives. Of course, if opponents' secondaries get too eager to help, BYU has some pop plays to punish them with.

If that wasn't enough, BYU has also improved its passing game from a season ago. The Cougars have some quick passing game staples like "mesh" to give Hill a chance to throw a dart to a receiver on the move.

Hill has a lot of confidence throwing over the middle of the field, even when turning his eyes there and quickly firing after his first read.

Opposing linebackers thus have to prepare themselves for all the option and base running schemes that BYU will use, Hill's atypical size and speed, and for the Cougars to come after them in the passing game. Finally, linebackers are being asked to process all of these threats while BYU uses a tempo they call "go fast, go hard," which allows them to line up and call a play with multiple QB checks available within 10 seconds.

And then there's BYU on passing downs. This is where Hill's particular set of skills really make him a nightmare for opposing defenses.

BYU has a variety of methods for picking up longer yardage. Some of them overlap within the same concepts. Hill's scrambling ability makes the QB draw a compelling option, but BYU will sometimes run it as a secondary option if deeper routes are unavailable:

Hill checks the deep coverage, then follows his running back upfield for easy yardage underneath.

Hill also has expertise checking down to his running backs if the defense takes away the vertical routes with deeper drops, and he can find checkdown options while on the run:

Again, making stops on defense against this offense requires a good deal of discipline from the linebackers and underneath coverage. They have to be mindful of all the checkdown and underneath route options while also keeping Hill from finding leverage to take off running.

Eventually some team is going to determine that it's preferable to take its chances giving up deep passes with man coverage and zero-blitzes, in order to help the underneath defenders cope with the stress.

Up-tempo, spread-option football has become the game's finest tool for unleashing versatile athletes. Hill's experience combined with BYU's tempo allow him to control the pace of the game, while those veer-option and passing-game concepts equip him and his weapons to get out in space.

BYU still has UCF and Boise State on the schedule, two teams that have the quality of defense necessary to either slow this attack down or pad Hill's resume. So long as he survives the pounding of carrying the ball 15-plus times per game, don't be shocked to see him carry this offense to an undefeated season and make an appearance in New York this coming December. At last, BYU has found a mobile QB to match what Steve Young offered them years ago and help the Cougars break through onto the national scene.