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The Run-Pass Option, The Darling of College Football

Breaking down run-pass option concepts from around the conference, and what makes them so difficult to defend.



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The Run-Pass Option is all the rage in college football. If you are applying for an offensive coordinator position you better push your RPO creds early and often if you want to be in contention for the job. There are very few teams left that do not use RPO concepts intermittently, or as the base of their offensive schemes.

At its heart, the run-pass option is the triple option adapted to a spread passing attack. It is a fusion of the air raid and read option born of the conflicts created by the Navy, Georgia Tech, Air Force triple option attack. Essentially, the quarterback has a read target. Instead of reading tackle to end to outside support, the quarterback is reading a second level defender, an outside linebacker, nickel back, or safety. The QB will either run or pass based on their conflicted action. The play, identical to run-based triple option, is designed to force a defender to choose wrong and place the ball in to the hands of a talented runner in space.

The run portion is ideal against a six man front created by a spread formation using either doubles or trips. Some teams use multiple backs and some teams use tight ends in h-back and offset fullback positions. But, in large part, it is a single back, 10 or 11 personnel package. If there are only six in the box and the run is designed with a two-way run option, then the quarterback represents an unaccounted for runner with an advantage. Additional numbers advantages are gained via the offensive line’s run action with pulling players and traps.

The pass portion takes advantage of space created by the vacating of a coverage zone or the flooding of an undermanned zone. We commonly see the plays utilized with bubble screens, quick horizontal throws to the wideout, or a hitch to the slot.

To take a look at the concept in action, Oklahoma is my base for this article. Mostly because they fielded the top offense in the Big 12 and a top three offense in the country. Within the games I reviewed, their opponents utilized similar RPO concepts and there was no need to look further to find illustrative examples.

First, a basic example of the RPO that aggravates me. Texas is the example here.

The read player here is the Oklahoma linebacker to the top of the screen near the 50. Buechele takes the snap and reads his action. The OU player immediately runs out to meet the inside receiver. This action vacates the box and is an immediate give read for the quarterback. The run option now has an advantage and hits for a nice gain.

If the linebacker had moved forward to fit his run assignment, then the bubble screen would be in an advantageous position and Buechele would have pulled the ball and thrown to the receiver who had two lead blockers in space.

It is that variation of the RPO that I dislike. The theory is to set up an outside run through the pass, but I dislike the horizontal nature of the play. The throw takes time, and it takes time for the play to begin to move vertically. An axiom of football is that yards are gained north and south not east and west. This play concept whether a called throw  or an RPO is counter to that axiom. Defenders are well versed in defeating the blocks and lineman are rarely talented enough to make a significant block in space at a full sprint. While the horizontal throw may produce some yards while pursuit comes, its effect is often less than what is desired or schemed for.

Instead, I advocate vertical movement counter to the movement of the defense. When the offensive player is moving vertically while the defense is influenced to move forward, more space is created and pursuit is put at a disadvantage because angles on the high side are reduced and the low side is in chase position.

Next, let’s look at Oklahoma using a vertical concept that I highly endorse.

The read player is number 44, the outside linebacker to the bottom of the screen. He shows pressure then backs off. On the snap, 44 fills his run gap giving Mayfield the pass read. The slot receiver runs a skinny post to the vacated zone and Mayfield makes an easy “vertical” throw for first down yardage. Simple really, or at least Mayfield makes it look that way.

OU uses this concept frequently to great effect. Though it helps to have Mixon, Perine, and Westbrook to throw to. I could have used this same play from the Kansas State game, but instead chose a creative variation.

The read player is again the outside linebacker at the bottom of the screen. He is in a pressure position pre-snap and does indeed blitz off the edge. Mixon is the run option and Perine crosses him as the pass option to the flat. Mayfield is reading the pressure linebacker. If he stops and widens with Perine, his coverage responsibility, then it is a give. If he chases Mixon or continues pressure, then Perine is uncovered in the flat. Mayfield can’t really go wrong on this play, but he reads it correctly and hits Perine who does his thing and gets in the endzone.

Crossing action further conflicts the defender and makes him wrong regardless of his choice. This is the option in its purest form and executed perfectly by Mayfield. While it is a horizontal route, it is a continuation of forward motion that is contrary to the defensive flow.

A further variation from Oklahoma in their route combination.

The linebacker to the near side is the read player, number 40 for Oklahoma State. Again, we have a run option based on his movement. Number 40 moves with the running back to fill his cut back responsibility against the run instead of gaining depth and widening to the curl zone against the pass. A typical RPO will see the slot receiver run a 7 yard hitch here with the safety playing off 10 yards. But, OU uses the outside receiver as their target.

The slot receiver pushes vertical to clear the safety. Westbrook then runs a hitch delay that causes number 4 to look in to the backfield and lose a step in coverage. Westbrook runs a delayed slant in to the vacated zone and Mayfield makes an easy vertical throw for a significant gain. Same concept, same read, alternative route concept resulting in the same easy throw.

Lincoln Riley’s RPO based offense is deadly in the hands of a quarterback that can execute at the level Mayfield does. There are plenty of straight runs and traditional pass plays in the repertoire, but they are often run using RPO play action. It is difficult to adjust and when the skill player battery is so competent at executing their reads.

I find it interesting that throughout the 70’s and 80’s Oklahoma was at the pinnacle of option football. Now, closing in on the quarter pole of the new millennia, Oklahoma is at the pinnacle of new option football.

But, their in-state bunk mate is no slouch at running the RPO either.

Oklahoma State uses cross motion to add to their options here. The interesting variation here is that there are two reads made making it a true triple option play. The outside linebacker to the bottom of the screen is the first read. He flows with the run action making the read a pass.

The second read is the safety, number 10. He is tasked with either staying in his coverage zone or coming up to chase the motion player to the flat. James Washington runs the skinny post we have seen used by Oklahoma and which is often used to fill the vacated zone by the team utilizing the RPO. Rudolph reads the safety who comes up and widens to shadow the motion player. Washington is left wide open in the middle of the field for a 20 yard or more play.

Whoops!!! Washington drops the catchable ball and the play is not executed. But, Rudolph made the correct read and delivered the ball to the proper playmaker. In the game against Oklahoma, drops like this and some poor reads on RPO’s hampered OSU in their effort against their rival.

We see here two routes being used and a conflict created for multiple defenders. Old School triple option with a modern day twist.  Finally, let’s look at OSU getting even more old school with it.

Again we see a motion player creating a cross conflict for OU. This is a favored movement for Oklahoma State’s run pass options and is a tendency that can be planned for. However, the presence of a triple threat makes it difficult to defend even if you know it’s coming. The read player is number 19 who is positioned on the line in a pressure look. Rudolph sees him crash down with the run option and pulls it for his pass option.

The triple threat here is not a two route combination. Instead, it is a secondary run option with a “pitch/pass” player. Rudolph becomes a runner, but has a pass option in the motion receiver. Number 10, the safety is again his secondary read player. He is trapped in no man’s land and sits and widens to the motion receiver. Rudolph has a gaping hole and exploits it for an explosive play.

If the safety had attacked Rudolph, he would have just flipped the ball over to the receiver who had at least a 10 yard cushion against his nearest attacker. This is another triple option with a double run threat instead of a double pass threat. Rudolph is a solid runner, but if he were a dynamic runner, then boy howdy, that play creates a lot of space.

The RPO is here to stay, as is option football. Tom Hermann, another RPO based offensive coach, has taken the reigns at Texas who already has familiarity with Sterling Gilbert’s version of the offense. As the Big 12 unfolds in 2017, it will be interesting to watch the RPO variations utilized by the offensive minds, but the defensive adjustments will be equally intriguing.

It is safe to say that the Big 12 defensive coordinators have some work to do to limit the efficient offenses created by the competent RPO quarterbacks. West Virginia’s aggressive 3-3 stack with zero or ten coverage was effective at times last year, but they could not keep up with the talent deployed in the state of Oklahoma. I suspect Matt Rhule will have a trick or two up his sleeve at Baylor that will be worth watching as well.

One final note. In the spring there was much discussion of the Big 12’s struggle to place players in to the NFL. Some of the discussion was with regards to the systems played and their translation to the NFL game. It is undoubtedly true that the RPO, like the triple option before it, simplifies the tasks and skills required of its various parts. That often does not translate well to immediately adjusting to a multiple offensive scheme as used in the NFL. However, more and more teams in the NFL are using RPO concepts. I have a suspicion that the RPO has more staying power than the wildcat and the read option in the NFL game simply because it does not put the quarterback in a position to get killed. It is a quick release scheme that can limit pass rush and protect a quarterback. That dimension is likely to result in an increase in Big 12 talent moving to the next level.

Regardless, perhaps this will familiarize you with the concepts and enhance your enjoyment of watching Big 12 football in just a few short weeks.

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