Football

Gameplan: Texas and the pro-spread offense

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LSU’s 2019 championship run, which included multiple top 10 wins and quarterback Joe Burrow throwing for 5,671 yards and 60 touchdowns, was a line in the sand moment in college football. It’s now clear that the highest level of offensive football that can be achieved right now is running pro-style passing schemes from spread formations. From here on out, programs that don’t pursue a “pro-spread” approach on offense are essentially run game truthers.

This has been a growing problem for Nick Saban’s Alabama teams. Saban National Championships have conspicuously come in years when they either didn’t have to beat pro-spread teams in the playoffs, the pro-spread team’s quarterback was injured, or the Alabama offense carried them in a shootout.

But what exactly is a “pro-spread” offense? What makes the system work, what component parts do you need, and where on the spectrum are the Tom Herman Texas Longhorns?

Defining “pro-spread”

The most obvious definition for a pro-spread team is running pro-style schemes from spread formations, which is what a considerable chunk of the NFL is now doing. But what are pro-style schemes and what spread formations are they using?

Bob Sturm of The Athletic and The Ticket in Dallas recently posted a tweet with the details on what personnel groupings the NFL used in 2019:

The entire NFL spent the better part of the 2019 season in 11 personnel. That’s five offensive linemen, one quarterback, one running back (first digit in 11), one tight end (second digit in 11), and three wide receivers. Texas fans will recognize that as the preferred personnel grouping for Tom Herman’s offense and many have started to develop an irrational distaste for it that mirrors the decades-old hatred for “bubble screens.”

A major aspect of pro-spread is an emphasis on 11 personnel. It also means an emphasis on pro-style schemes and the use of drop back passing where the quarterback goes through progressions behind an offensive line executing pass protections. Play-action is important as well but drop back passing is often where you separate good college quarterbacks like Kellen Moore, who thrived throwing play-action at Boise State, from good NFL quarterbacks like Pat Mahomes who was always dominant in the drop back game.

The Air Raid is built around drop back passing, which means that it’s increasingly more “pro-style” than many of the I-formation, run game-based systems that have traditionally been given that moniker. But most Air Raid teams in history have been built around 10 personnel (one running back, zero tight ends, four wide receivers) rather than 11 personnel, partly because most Air Raid teams in history haven’t had NFL-level tight ends to throw to who were better receiving options than a fourth receiver.

Pro-spread is generally pass-first because drop back passing schemes are the hardest to defend when done right and tend to give the offense its teeth. In his Facebook live interview with our own Joe Cook, Herman dismissed the notion of LSU as a pass-centric offense and noted their great efficiency and success running the ball with Clyde Edwards-Helaire (1,414 rushing yards at 6.6 ypc with 16 rushing touchdowns). However, LSU’s run game included a heavy dose of RPOs in which Joe Burrow was throwing the ball if he was given a window to do so. Often, the run option simply served to clean up in the box after defenses dropped into cover 2 from dime (or smaller) personnel packages.

The 2019 Tigers rotated through three different tight ends, the first two being Thaddeus Moss and Stephen Sullivan, who were both better as flex tight ends than blockers unless facing smaller defenses. When they really needed to run the ball against a nickel front they’d bring in Tory Carter, who was more of a fullback than a tight end at 6-foot-1, 250 pounds. Or they’d get into a bunch formation and bring in their receivers to help block on the edge. The vast majority of the LSU runs came against defenses that had vacated the box after getting gashed by passes.

As part of the pass-centric nature of the offense, one of the principle strategies in the pro-spread is to create matchups in the passing game. This is partly why the tight end is so important, both because of the matchups that a good tight end creates with his unique size and because of the problems for defensive structures that arise when a tight end or running back lines up in non-traditional alignments.

Some examples include the particularly popular Y-iso formation that flexes out a tight end to the solo side opposite the three receivers. Most pro teams (and LSU) then align the tight end close enough to the line to get a two-way go on his release:

The Y-iso formation follows similar principles that Texas has embraced by fielding a massive player at the boundary X receiver position. If defenses can’t check that guy with their cornerback then they have to devote either a linebacker underneath or a safety over the top which hinders the ability to send numbers to the wide side of the field or blitz as easily. This creates space for the other receivers to operate in.

Another common matchup-hunting trick for pro-spread offenses are empty formations that move the running back out wide, particularly to alignments normally covered by cornerbacks. The LSU Tigers loved to borrow a trick from the Sean Payton New Orleans Saints by flexing the running back wide while using a receiver like Justin Jefferson to run a weakside option route that normally goes to the running back matched up on a linebacker. Texas also used that trick a few times with Devin Duvernay when desperately mounting a spread-passing fueled comeback against the Iowa State Cyclones.

They picked up a couple of first downs with this. The idea with these empty formations is to put EVERYONE in space and then hunt matchups. If your running backs and tight ends know how to run routes from alignments normally defended by cornerbacks then you can often create opportunities for your best receivers to run option routes or vertical streaks on linebackers or safeties in space. Iowa State has good linebackers but they can’t cover Devin Duvernay on option routes while surrounded by open grass.

We’ve seen this stuff at the college level for years. Believe it or not Wisconsin and Michigan State have used these sorts of concepts all decade… but they’d save them for obvious passing downs like 3rd and 6 while using 1st and 10 to ram their running back into B1G defenses behind fullbacks and pulling guards.

LSU did this on 1st and 10 with some of the best wide receivers in college football and changed the game.

RPOs factor into pro-spread strategy but they are a component, not the main thrust. Literal pro offenses are more limited in the RPOs they can run so executing a predominantly RPO offense isn’t giving a college quarterback some of the skills they’d need in the pros. At the college level, offenses run into problems relying on RPOs when it comes down to playing winning, situational football.

Against an RPO team on 3rd and 2, defenses will load the box and play man coverage outside, forcing an RPO spread offense to either run the ball into unfavorable leverage (which they are expressly designed to avoid), or to try and beat coverage (which they are expressly designed to avoid). The red zone creates similar dilemmas and in those circumstances the offense is better off throwing a pass designed to beat man coverage, or a run designed to get yardage against a loaded box, or else using the quarterback as a runner. The spacing conflicts that RPOs create don’t exist in those situations.

RPOs also run into trouble when opponents can play the run or pass honestly. The goal is to “hit the defense where they ain’t” but the choices can be turned back on the offense. Alabama embraced an RPO spread strategy with Tua Tagovailoa and ran into unfamiliar territory when Clemson played them with two-high coverages that dared the Tide to beat them by running into an honest box. On the surface it was everything that Nick Saban ever wanted, but it turned into a “the monkey’s paw” nightmare when the Tide repeatedly failed to convert in the red zone. Meanwhile, Trevor Lawrence kept throwing the ball over their heads.

Higher level pro-spread offense incorporates RPOs but relies on play-action and drop back schemes that are designed to allow them to out-execute defenders rather than avoiding them.

The tight end in a pro-spread offense

Another key to pro-spread offense is the emphasis on tempo and being able to run as many concepts and formations as possible with the same personnel on the field. This prevents defenses from having endless packages designed for specific circumstances in which their defenders are allowed to shine in specialized and limited roles.

Some of the more famous and well respected defensive coaches in college football such as Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown and Nick Saban were immensely successful by packaging their defenses to make the most of younger or limited players and to call-match against offenses. You may have noticed these two guys struggling mightily in recent matchups with pro-spread offenses using tempo.

What makes this work though is having versatile, truly dual-threat players at two specific positions, running back and tight end.

Right now Texas’ approach is geared toward having guys that are great in the run game at those positions and competent in the passing game. Down the line I firmly believe that the reverse will be the more desired outcome. Teams will be looking for running backs and tight ends that will torch you as receivers but are competent to block and carry the ball if the defense tries to downsize in personnel and stop them with defensive back-heavy sub-packages.

With either approach, each player needs to present matchup problems in one facet of the game in order to create a “catch 22” effect for the defense when operating at tempo. When this has worked for Texas it looked like Andrew Beck base blocking a defensive end one snap and then flexing out wide to get a linebacker matched up on Lil’Jordan Humphrey the next.

Whether the tight end and running back are major matchup problems in space doesn’t particularly matter if you’re moving at tempo because the defense has to maintain personnel on the field that can stop them in either their pass-catching or ball-running roles. If the defense tries to rely on a personnel grouping that is only effective against run or pass, the offense can make them wrong by relying on the other.

If the defense tries to play things situationally and subs in a pass-stopping package on 3rd and 6, and then fails, the offense can catch them by hurrying to the line of scrimmage and repeatedly running them over on tight zone (or worse, play-action) until the defensive coaches call timeout or manage to run their substitutes in. Similarly, the offense could spread its personnel out on 3rd and 8, pick up 6-7 yards with a pass, but then hurry back into an unbalanced ball-running formation and easily pick up short-yardage with a quick run before the defense can adjust. We’ve seen Texas do both.

Versatile running backs, and tight ends in particular, are a must for making a pro-spread system work. The tempo and matchup-hunting tactics come alive when those two positions have dual-threat capabilities.

Tom Herman’s offense on the pro-spread spectrum

When Herman came to Texas his express vision for the Longhorn offense was to be “pro-spread.” Fans figured out the extent of his commitment to that vision when Texas spent a considerable amount of 2017 in 11 personnel despite the lack of a good tight end on the roster after Andrew Beck was injured in August camp.

Herman’s offense has been run-centric though, typically using the drop back spread passing game as a solution for passing downs rather than as the main strategy on 1st and 10. It’s actually fairly similar to the often maligned Michigan State strategy under Mark Dantonio, best exemplified by their improbable B1G title and playoff run in 2015.

The Spartans were a power run team through use of a fullback on 1st and 2nd down. They were decent at this but they didn’t have an explosive play-action dimension. What they did have was a really good spread passing game when they’d sub out the fullback and flex out the running back and tight end in order to throw to their receivers. Quarterback Connor Cook helped them convert 48.53 percent of their 3rd downs that season and they won the Big 10 title over Iowa with a soul-crushing, 22-play touchdown drive that ate 9:04 off the clock in the fourth quarter.

Texas’ offense under Tom Herman has been similarly focused on the power run game but instead of using traps and fullback plays, they stay conceptually simple and use spread spacing and quarterback pass or keep reads to clear running lanes. They’ve had similar degrees of success as Sparty using the spread passing game and empty formations from 11 personnel to bail the offense out of passing downs, going 48.91 percent on 3rd down in 2019. They could be much more explosive with the play-action game (enter Mike Yurcich) and more passing focused in general with both their overall philosophy and with their tight end development and utilization.

All that said, Texas is advantaged over the rest of the Big 12 in one major respect. They can make a reasonable claim that they “use quarterbacks like the NFL” in a state that produces better pro prospects at that position than most any other state in the country. The rest of the league largely uses a lot more RPOs and play-action in their passing game without drilling their quarterbacks in the fine art of drop back progression passing.

Even Oklahoma is pretty heavily invested in play-action over other drop back schemes and Lincoln Riley struggled to adjust late against Georgia when the Bulldogs figured out their gameplan and were covering everything up in man coverage. It’s harder to protect your quarterback in the passing game on drop back plays than play-action but the upside is also higher because if you get it right like LSU did, there are no consistently good defensive call options.

In the coming years Texas will have a chance to recruit elite pro-style passers like Quinn Ewers of Southlake Carroll and to field dynamic, dual-threat skill players like Jordan Whittington, Jake Smith, Jared Wiley, and Brayden Liebrock behind NFL caliber (at last) offensive linemen. They aren’t quite on the cutting edge of the pro-spread revolution but they’re well positioned to take advantage.

History major, football theorist.