Tuesday, October 8, 2002 Updated: October 9, 11:12 AM ET
Football 101: Running out of the spread
By Bob Davie Special to ESPN.com
We've had a lot of questions regarding the spread offense and variations of it. The term spread offense can refer to a lot of offensive schemes that utilize multiple receivers with one or no backs aligning in the backfield. What we will do this week is explain the original spread offense that was introduced by Clemson, Northwestern, West Virginia, Kentucky, Texas Tech and Oklahoma.
These offenses begin with a no-huddle approach and have the quarterback in the shotgun a high percentage of the time. They also feature a one-back running game and depending on the personnel at quarterback, do a lot of predetermined quarterback runs. Obviously, they have the ability to throw the football as they are aligned in three- or four-man wide receiver sets.
Another aspect of the spread offense involves the coaches, not the quarterback, making the checks from the press box to the sidelines while the offense is at the line of scrimmage.
Why the no-huddle?
The no-huddle approach is used for several reasons by spread offense football teams.
1. It makes the defense align immediately without disguise. The offense at the line of scrimmage in a formation with the entire 25 seconds left on the 25-second clock. The defense must align because the offense could potentially snap the football at any time. This allows the offensive coaches to have basically the whole 25 seconds to diagnose and determine what the defense will do. It also allows them plenty of time to make the appropriate checks.
2. It takes the pressure off the quarterback because the offensive coaches have time and the mechanics to make the checks. The quarterback's responsibility is lessened. All he has to do is indicate to his team at the line of scrimmage what check the coaches have chosen and execute.
3. The no-huddle takes defenses out of their comfort zone. The no-huddle offense bothers defenses because they can't huddle to call the defensive play. This means every defensive player has to look to the sideline to get the defensive signal from a coach. Normally, when defensive team's can huddle only one player has to look over for the signal and he relays it verbally to the rest of the team in the huddle. There is a much greater chance for error when all 11 defenders have to get the call from the sideline. Another disadvantage is that it gives the offensive coaches a much easier chance to pick up and read defensive signals that are being communicated from the sideline.
4. The no-huddle can control the game tempo and substitutions. With the offense at the line of scrimmage, there is always the possibility that the offense will immediately snap the ball and go into a hurry-up mode. That makes it difficult for the defensive team to substitute personnel and also difficult to disguise their coverages.
How is the no-huddle communicated from the press box?
For most spread, no-huddle teams, the offensive coordinator will call a formation and play immediately at the start of the 25 second clock. The quarterback, after the offense has lined up, will look at his sideline where a coach will signal by hand whether he should run the play or check to a corresponding play. This is all based from what the coordinator sees from his perfect vantage point in the press box. The coordinator has a great view of the defensive plan and can easily communicate it to the coach on the sideline. The coach on the sideline then uses a variety of hand signals to communicate to the quarterback at the line of scrimmage.
Spread running game
Any time you spread the field, the defense must spread out to cover down on all the eligible receivers or the offense will just throw hot to them. (Hot meaning a sight adjustment of just throwing to the open or unguarded receiver.) When you spread out your defense this gives the offense a great opportunity to run the football. Even though you only have one back in the backfield, you still have the advantage of the defensive team spreading out and playing maximum zone coverage to defend the pass. In the example below, we show the defense playing a standard 2-deep zone. The offense can run the ball effectively because you have six blockers on the six defenders in the box. Any good tailback will find a crease if you have a blocker on every defensive player.
The defense's answer
The defense can chose to outnumber the offense by playing a man-free or 3-deep zone, getting another man in the box. The example below shows the defensive team having seven defenders on six blockers. In this example, they play a man-free coverage. It is obvious that the defense will now will this matchup because they seven defenders on six blocker.
What makes the spread offense different?
What really makes the spread offense dynamic is the evolution of the predetermined quarterback runs. Simply, what the offense does is take the tailback and make him the blocker. In essence, he becomes the fullback. The offense now has a way to block the defense's extra defender. You now, basically, turn your quarterback into the tailback. With seven blockers on seven defenders, the quarterback is the extra ball carrier. In the example below, you see a simple quarterback draw illustrating how the offense outnumbers the defense utilizing the quarterback as a tailback.
There are many other predetermined quarterback runs. Another common one is called the quarterback wrap play. The quarterback fakes the sweep to the tailback and then counters back away from the tailback and the offensive team uses the tackle to wrap around and block the linebacker.
Obviously, a big, big part of the spread offense is the fact that they have the entire passing game utilizing their three- or four-man wide receiver sets. But the things that make the true spread offense unique are the no-huddle and the evolution of the quarterback running game. As always, your personnel dictate things and there is a tradeoff to everything. It takes an awful lot of communication to do the no-huddle so communication is always a concern when you are making checks at the line of scrimmage. The quarterback running game makes this package complete, but you must be comfortable with your quarterback taking a hit because he is obviously a tailback when he carries the football.
This week in the Texas-Oklahoma game, you will see Oklahoma in a form of the spread offense. Much of their success will depend on the communication and their ability to run out of a one-back set. However, there is no question that with Jason White out with an injury and Nate Hybl playing quarterback, it limits Oklahoma's productivity in the quarterback run.
Q & A with Bob Davie
Thanks for all of the terrific responses and knowledgeable questions this week. Please keep sending in the questions and we'll tackle as many issues as we can this season. Here are a few of your questions regarding zone blocking:
You did a great job in explaining zone blocking in both run and pass blocking. I was wondering about the fullbacks responsibility in both inside and outside zone plays. I noticed in one illustration that you had him going away from the play to block the backside end. I realize this is probably for a cutback block, but what is his responsibility for the outside zone? Also, what is the running back looking for to determine a cutback?
Hutchinson, Kan.Bob Davie: There are several different things you can do with the fullback depending on what type of front is being used. Sometimes you'll have the fullback lead through to the front-side to block the eighth man. The reason you will see the fullback going opposite is twofold. First, it can be for cutback possibility, like you mentioned. It can also be for a play-action pass where the fullback releases to the flat and quarterback bootlegs back. The key for the running back is to get as deep into the line of scrimmage as he can before making his cut. Obviously, that takes a lot of patience.
Thanks for covering the art of zone blocking. As you were broadcasting the Iowa/Penn St game a couple weeks back, it was obvious that you were impressed by the Hawkeyes OL and their zone blocking techniques. I'm a huge Hawk fan, and I know that our OL is the heart and soul of our squad and we'll only go as far as they go. If you're a defensive coordinator or DL coach, how do you prepare for a zone-blocking OL? thanks for your time.
Tulsa, Okla.Bob Davie: Zone blocking is very difficult to prepare for because it is somewhat of a gray area. The key for the defense is to gain penetration at the line of scrimmage and really create a new line of scrimmage on the offensive side of the football. As I mentioned in the article, one of the beauties of zone blocking is that many times you have a double-team on the down defensive lineman that would be in charge of penetration.
I want to know whether its better to run a zone blocking scheme with a group of young linemen or whether its better to run a man blocking scheme with that same group of guys?
Jo Ann Johnson
Belle Plaine, IowaBob Davie: I think a lot depends on how long you're going to have that group of guys. I think zone blocking is much simpler to install from a rules or assignment standpoint, but it takes a lot of time to work out the techniques involved. Man blocking is a little more difficult from a rules standpoint, but in some ways easier to execute. Bottom line
Thanks for the explanation of zone blocking. With so many schools utilizing the zone blitzes and delayed blitzing, how does zone blocking provide the offense an advantage? Who are the best zone blocking teams? Jim Moye
Laurel, Md.Bob Davie: Moving fronts and zone blitzing are two of the reasons zone blocking was put in. It allows you to sort out the front without giving up penetration in the backfield because you have two men blocking a defensive lineman. It is also much easier from the standpoint of not predetermining which man you have. In the zone concept it is easier to pass a man off. Iowa State and Iowa are two of the best zone blocking teams that I've seen.
Send in your Football 101 questions. Bob Davie will answer a few of them next week.
Editor's note: As architect of top defenses at Texas A&M and Notre Dame, Bob Davie is recognized as a top X's and O's coach. This season, Coach Davie analyzes offensive and defensive schemes as part of his season-long course on football for ESPN.com. Each week, he breaks out the chalkboard and break down the X's and O's in college football.