How Defenses Will Tackle This Uber-Popular Offensive Strategy
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College football’s dominant offensive strategy might not stay that way for long.
University of Florida linebacker David Reese II has news for you. An offensive play that has surged in popularity over the past five years in college football, often leaving defenses and officials struggling, is now, Reese believes, set for its demise. The run-pass option (RPO), a play that can go in three directions after the snap — the quarterback runs, hands the ball off or passes it — is becoming less and less puzzling because of overuse. And it isn’t just Reese. Defenses across schools, once scrambling for answers, are now putting in place counterstrategies to defang RPO-dependent offenses.
Just five years ago, the RPO was on the fringes of college football. But since 2013, its use has gone up 60 percent in Southeastern Conference football, says Will Muschamp, the head coach at the University of South Carolina. Where four or five teams used the RPO five years ago, now all 14 schools in the SEC use the RPO, says Steve Shaw, the coordinator of officials for the conference. The seeming omnipresence of the RPO in the SEC mirrors the state of affairs across college and professional football, suggests Phil Savage, the general manager of the Phoenix franchise of the Alliance of American Football and a former NFL general manager and scout.
But the tactic’s days may be numbered. The SEC has already had to change how it officiates these plays because of a growing threat of violations during an RPO play. The SEC during the off-season also began discussions on making RPOs “reviewable” because teams can score touchdowns with linemen illegally blocking downfield on the pass. Eventually, it was decided that college football, under fire for the length of its games with television commercial breaks, did not need any more stoppages in play for another review.
The defense will catch up to the RPO.
David Reese II, University of Florida linebacker
That isn’t stopping defenses from making their own plans, though. Some, like Reese, are planning to aggressively force offenses loaded with inexperienced quarterbacks to make decisions quicker than they would like. Others like Louisiana State University defensive lineman Rashard Lawrence are suggesting batting down passes in the air, early in their trajectory. At the University of Kentucky, linebacker Josh Allen says the team’s defense is trying to disguise its own play to put off the offense’s plans with the RPO. Teams are recruiting lighter, faster linebackers and defensive ends to trim the edge offenses have with RPOs. And defenses are practicing against RPOs more than ever.
“The more we get exposure to it, the easier it will be to stop,” says Reese. “The defense will catch up to the RPO.”
The spread of the RPO had a lot to do with its use by Chip Kelly, when he was the head coach at Oregon between 2009 and 2012, says Savage. Many of Kelly’s assistants “took the concept and scattered across the country and at all levels of the game,” says Savage. “For years quarterbacks optioned off the line of scrimmage. The RPO expanded that to reading off the linebackers. Now, just about every quarterback in America has some understanding of that skill.”
The RPO hasn’t posed a challenge only for players. Officials have struggled to track its use — and misuse — too. Offensive linemen were going downfield to block on RPOs that turned into passes, which is illegal, and the umpire positioned behind the linebackers could not get the call correct all the time. Now it is a wing official making the call because he can view the field better and find the offensive lineman who cheats on the pass play and goes beyond the allowable three yards.
Those changes in monitoring the play highlight its sport-wide proliferation, say experts, as do the responses defenses are plotting. Marcus Spears, the former All-American defensive lineman at LSU and now a television analyst for the SEC Network, says defenses are learning to harass the quarterback into deciding what to do with the ball before he is ready. Being a bully works, he suggests.
“The only way to defend it is speed it up,” Spears says. “You want to attack the quarterback. This is an option play from the shotgun and you want him to make a fast decision. The defensive end has to crash the play and force the issue.”
That’s a smart strategy, says Reese, because college quarterbacks — in their early 20s — don’t have the poise of the NFL RPO maestros, like Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles, who ruined the Patriots in the Super Bowl with the RPO last February. “We check in and out of different things so he doesn’t know where we’re coming from,” he says. “We play mind games with him while he is trying to run the RPO.”
The quarterback’s rush to release the ball for an RPO also throws up another opportunity for defenses, says LSU’s Lawrence: to swat the pass down after it is thrown or snatch it for an interception. That’s possible, he says, because RPO passes are often “flat” or shoulder-high. “Get your hands up,” he says. “You can knock down those RPO throws.”
At Kentucky, Allen believes that the guessing game offenses play can work both ways. “We try and disguise our look before the play starts,” says Allen. “We move around so [the quarterback] will make a bad call. He’ll think we’re rushing, sliding to that side, but really the rush is coming from the other side. I have to look like I’m dropping when I’m rushing.”
There’s no shortcut to practice, though, and that makes the RPO — and preparations against it — “annoying” for Georgia defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter. “We’re doing RPOs over and over and over and getting fastball pace and breathing heavy and it’s like, ‘Coach, we just did 20 RPOs,’ ” he says. Missouri linebacker Terez Hall says the team was “practicing it every down” last year.
Teams are also moving to smaller defenders, because all it takes is a linebacker a step slower than a running back or a receiver for a big play to happen. Spears says Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith became a first-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft because he was adept at defending against the RPO.
That evolution toward lighter defenders could in turn force offenses to revert back to more conventional runs between the tackles where heavy players are needed and just maul the lighter defensive players.
Evolution wipes out all that can’t keep pace. Remember the slag heap of offensive plays — the Single Wing in the ’50s, the T-formation in the ’60s, the Wishbone in the ’70s, the I-formation in the ’80s — that are now dinosaurs? Defenses are working to add one more to that list: the RPO.