Jack Kennedy — Offense and Philosophy

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Photo credit: Ryan Doyle of Video Vision 360

Pro-style. Spread. Spread option. Triple option.

There are almost as many offensive philosophies in college football as there are teams. Since we had a bye this last week I thought it would be interesting to discuss the underlying principles of the two offenses I played under: the spread option and pro-style. This year’s offense, while different, seems to operate under similar pro-style principles. To be clear, I am not evaluating Michigan’s offense this year; I wasn’t coached in that offense so I don’t think I’m qualified to discuss it in depth. Those guys are working hard and doing their best. I think they’ll surprise you before the year is over.

As far as which offense is “better,” I think it’s a toss-up. They both work when executed correctly and have the ability to put points on the board. There are pros and cons to both, which I’ll discuss below. I spent plenty of hours studying both playbooks extensively and really tried to understand why we were running each play. Knowing what to do is just the first step. Once you understand that, you can look at why you’re doing it. It’s an important distinction and I hope to offer some of that insight here.

Rich Rod and the Spread Option

Even though I was a walk-on, Rich Rod and our QB coach at the time (Rod Smith) still spent lots of hands-on time coaching me and explaining what we were doing. I really believe that Coach Rod is an offensive visionary, and many of the concepts he was introducing to us at that time have started to show up all over college football.

But let’s start with the basics. Everything in the spread option attack is built on your base running play. You can run it outside or inside (blocking will change); the defensive end is left unblocked for the QB to read, and there is a slot receiver running a bubble. There are four basic options that the QB has on any given running play:

1) Throw bubble quick (before handoff action) if left uncovered or good numbers.

2) If the defensive end stays put, hand off.

3) If the defensive end collapses to RB, keep the ball and run.

4) If after keeping, the flat player or LB shows up, you can throw the bubble late.

This creates an interesting hypothetical scenario: You can call the same play four times and have four totally different outcomes. That’s great and all, but why do this? It has to do with putting the defense in bad situations. By leaving the end unblocked and having the QB read him, you effectively take him out of the play (assuming the QB makes the right read). The end can’t win — whatever he does, the play will be run against that. Also, there has to be a player covering the bubble, so he is effectively “blocked” by that and taken out of the play. Now you have two defensive players eliminated from making a play, so your odds for success increase.

In theory the defense should never be able to stop this, but of course we live in the real world. Sometimes the defensive end can shuffle along and play both the QB and RB if the fake isn’t good enough; QBs aren’t machines and make bad reads, blocks are missed, etc. But the important part to understand is that the offense is trying to put the defense in no-win situations. You’re willing to let the plays evolve and change based off what the defense does rather than audible (though there still is that possibility). In a pro-style, more is determined pre-snap, whereas the spread option has more flexibility post-snap.

You have to have an effective running game in either offense, and in the Rich Rod spread, the QB must run to be successful. He doesn’t have to be as prolific as Denard, but if he is, it sets up a whole new set of options. This was most effective when we ran what people termed the Denard “oh no’s”, where Denard would run a QB keep, approach the line, and then decide if he would throw to one of a couple receivers running slants or just simple releases up the field. You may remember us hitting Roy Roundtree on this type of play for a few huge gains. This is so dangerous because if Denard didn’t throw it, the defense couldn’t even tell that a pass play had been called — the receivers’ routes were in their blocking trajectory, so it confused the defense repeatedly. Often they would ignore the receivers because they thought they were blocking. But notice that the underlying principle here is the same: Let’s call the play and react as the defense shows its hand.

Another aspect that can’t be ignored is tempo. The really, really fast nature of the offense allows little time for the defense to get set and realize what is going on, making them more prone to mistakes and fatigue, which the spread option is ready to exploit due to its numerous options after the snap. It’s especially useful in college because players don’t understand the game like pros; the less time they have to think the better chance they’ll make a mistake. Of course, the downside of this is quick three-and-outs which can tire out your defense.

It’s been long so I’ll wrap up this section, but the main takeaway is this: I like to think of the Rich Rod spread option as a “post-snap” offense. Of course you have some basic pass plays that all offenses run, but most of the philosophy was centered on having different options for each play based on what the defense showed during the play. This made the reads somewhat simpler than in a pro-style offense: often it wasn’t a progression of reads through routes, but a single player or two that was being keyed. It seems like you would have to rely on the players more, but it was actually less — reading a single player is easier than understanding an entire progression. Against better teams with smarter defensive players, some teams could play it “in the middle” if they knew what was going on. This is a main way to stop the offense. Still, you see many receivers running wide open due to confusion and the respect they need to have for the running game’s options.

Al Borges and Pro-Style

If spread option is “post-snap,” pro-style is a “pre-snap” offense. What I mean by this is that there is a far greater emphasis on getting into the right play before the snap since there are fewer options for change after the snap. Common examples of this include running audibles at the line or key plays.

Although Borges left Michigan under scrutiny, there is no question that he really, really knew his football. In fact, all of the current coaches on the staff are extremely knowledgeable about the game and do everything for a good reason. This year’s offense is different but appears to rely on similar principles to the one I played in.

To start, the Borges pro-style offense required a much deeper understanding of the playbook than the Rich Rod offense. They are both complicated, but in the Borges scheme the QB is required to really understand what he is seeing and make choices pre- and post-snap. Many of the running plays were actually checks; if we got what we wanted we would run it as called, but if not, then we’d go the other way to more favorable numbers. This is the “pre-snap” I mentioned — in the spread you just line up, run it, and see what the defense does. Pro-style requires you to really read the whole defense and make a decision.

Similarly, the passing attack required a more detailed understanding of passing progressions and blitz pick-ups. Some of the route concepts were read 1, 2, 3, 4, going through receiving options regardless of coverage. Others were read-based on defense — if it’s cover 2, work the left side; if its cover 3, go right. Then there were options for blitzes, hot routes, audibles against man coverage, etc.

But again, why do we do this? Here it’s because your QB can get you into really good situations and matchups. That’s really what the pro-style offense boils down to: match-ups and numbers. You count on your guys to make plays. Have Funchess in single coverage? Take it. There’s a good chance he’s coming down with that ball. Better numbers if we run left instead of right? Do it. Essentially the QB is given more autonomy in the Borges pro-style to make decisions and change plays. It’s important to note that these audibles are built into the offense; it isn’t just the QB calling any play he feels like.

This effectively results in exploiting the defense’s weaknesses before the play rather than during it. It relies on having the right play call and a higher level of execution from everyone since you need to beat your man on every play. There’s an added emphasis on “winning” your route or block because the play really depends on it. Any offense does, but it’s different from the spread option, which relies on getting people open by fakes and set-up; pro-style relies on your guys beating the opponent and play-action.

Which brings us to the importance of the running game. You absolutely have to run the ball because so much of the play-action passing game is reliant on sucking the linebackers up with fakes to open up passing lanes. If they don’t come up and honor the fakes, passing lanes become clogged and backers have free reign to undercut throws (and they’re hard to see when they do this). In a way, the running game in a pro-style is much more reliant on the O-line since many of the runs are just that — runs. There isn’t a bubble; there isn’t a read on an end. This can be really effective, especially when the QB puts you in a good situation or the correct play is called because you’re already at an advantage with numbers. It also relies on consistent execution. Devin is really smart and can get in the right play almost all of the time, so he’s a great fit for this offense.

The takeaway is this: You’re relying heavily on your players to execute and beat their man. The reads are more complex, but that allows for greater flexibility to get you into plays which have a higher probability of success. That’s why you run pro-style. You’re trusting that your players can execute your scheme better than the defense can execute theirs. And when it comes down to it, you’ll win the one-on-one matchups more times than you lose them.

So…

I’ve been long winded, but I’ve really just scratched the surface in explaining these offenses and their philosophies. I’m excited to see the team play this weekend against Maryland. I really believe in them and am looking forward to them traveling to the Horseshoe as well. I know it’s been a rough year but the players are really talented and work hard. They may just surprise some people. I hope I’ve given you a bit to think about and that you can notice some of these things next time you watch a football game!

Music!

This week’s song is “Leaves.” It uses a Temptations sample for the beat, bit of a throwback. Hope you enjoy.

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Derek Devine
Institutional voice of Alma College during the day, Michigan fanatic at night. Taking TBHR to the next level one post at a time.