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How Do Players Feel About The RPO?

The RPO is one of college football’s most important recent evolutions. How do players feel about it?

Getty Images - Brett Deering

Over the last couple of seasons, it has become one of the most talked about schemes in college football. The run-pass option, or as TV announcers love to call it, the RPO. It seems like just about everybody is running the run-pass option these days, because just about everybody is. The spread equivalent of the triple option has become commonplace in college football, and if a team isn’t running it, they’re probably not scoring a lot of points.

The RPO is extremely effective, because it’s nearly impossible to defend and it was a huge part of what got Oklahoma to the playoff last season.

We know how it works. On any given play, the quarterback has the choice to hand the ball off to his back, keep it himself, or throw down the field. It’s an evolution of the spread option that Chip Kelly popularized at Oregon, and the added dimension of the passing attack, when implemented correctly, can be lethal.

We’ve heard the RPO buzzword from coaches, fans, and countless analysts, but we’ve never really heard how the people that actually have to deal with it feel about this innovation. We spent some time at Big 12 Media Days talking to some of the conference’s best players about just that. We some great feedback on how they feel about it, how they deal with it, and what it means for the future of the game.

The players that may know more than anyone else about it are the quarterbacks, and to say that they’re fans of it would be an understatement. Iowa State quarterback Kyle Kempt and TCU quarterback Shawn Robinson gave their thoughts on the new go-to scheme sweeping the nation:

“I would say it’s a popular term to use right now,” Kempt told us. “It’s something you’re going to see continually expanded in college, you see it in the NFL too. As the game evolves and offenses evolve and defenses are also continue to evolve as well to handle it. It used to not be so normal, I remember when it first came into play when Chip [Kelly] was first starting to use the bubble [screen] game. I think it’ll continue to grow. I love it though, because it makes the defense be more honest.”

“I think it puts a bind on the defense,” Robinson said. “They’ve got so many things they have to worry about, the run game, the quarterback run game and the pass game as well. It’s a lot of things going on at once, if you can do it well.”

Quarterbacks aren’t the only offensive players that like the RPO. The big guys up front love to be able to make a difference, and RPO allows for that better than just any other system. We talked to Texas Tech’s Travis Bruffy about what the RPO has done for the Red Raiders, and how he feels about it.

“It’s great as an offense because with the right quarterback it’s unstoppable, especially if you have a guy who can pull that RPO, who can run it himself,” said Bruffy. “It’s really special. We’ve run it really well in the past, and if we can continue to do that this year it’s awesome.

“I love it, the only part I don’t like is if I’m up to a linebacker on a run play and they pull and throw it, and I get an offensive lineman downfield. That’s the only time I’m ever against it.”

The new development of the game, while it’s centered a lot around the run, and opening up running lanes, can also have a huge impact on the pass. It can draw safeties and corners in, opening up the field for receivers to run free and make catches uncontested. Oklahoma State’s Jalen McCleskey broke down what the RPO means for his game.

“I feel like it’s (the RPO) a good little snippet in the game, because the quarterback can read (the defense), so you know if you get the ball, you’ll probably be open, and you don’t have to worry about getting hit. You can catch it and turn up field and try to get some more yards,” McCleskey explained.

I think it helps keeps the defense guessing, because they never know what you’re going to do. One play they might step up, and then you pass it over the top of them, and then the next play they stay back but then you hand it off. They (defenses) can’t really win with it.”

The RPO isn’t a positive for everyone, though. As you would imagine, someone has to suffer for something to work so well. The run-pass option’s success comes at the expense of defensive players.

The dynamic scheme focuses a lot on reading linebackers, and Kansas linebacker Joe Dineen Jr isn’t a fan.

“It’s a pain in the ass, man. It really is,” Dineen told us. “You think you get a good read, and run pass reads just aren’t the same anymore, because you’ll have a lineman pull around and act like it’s a run, and you’ll hit that hole ready to make a tackle, and he threw it right behind you. It sucks, but it’s a part of it. It’s a genius thing that the offenses do and it’s our job to stop it.”

Dineen’s sentiments were echoed by West Virginia’s David Long.

“You have to try to cheat on it,” Long responded. “Get a feel for their offense before the game, watching film or just going over it in practice. Just trying to be a step ahead, know when it’s play action, look for little stuff that can tell you.”

Oklahoma State linebacker Justin Phillips shares Long and Dineen’s frustration with the RPO.

“The RPO, it’s kind of tricky sometimes, because it’s out of the blue,” Phillips said. “They get defensive guys biting on things and let it rip right behind you. We built a scheme where we’re going to be prepared for that, and we’re going to have somebody sealing those holes and those gaps ready to pop it in there.”

Obviously, linebackers aren’t the only defenders impacted by the RPO. It puts stress on the whole defense to focus on so many different things at once.

Defensive backs are often caught in a bit of catch-22 defending the RPO. If they lose track of a receiver, they’ll give up a big pass. If they stick to the receiver too closely, it leaves a big hole for the ball carrier. Iowa State cornerback Brian Peavy talked about the strain that puts on him.

“I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. How do I deal with it? Discipline. Eye discipline is really the main thing with the RPO. As a defender it’s kind of tricky because they let the offensive linemen go up field sometimes,” Brian Peavy told the LGG.

And of course, the RPO also puts stress on the defensive line. The Baylor line duo of Ira Lewis and Greg Roberts talked to us about what that strain is like on defensive backs and linemen.

“It (the RPO) has been going up (in popularity) because it can stop d-linemen from pass rushing. It’ll look like a run, but then it ends up being a pass,” Lewis explained. “I think it can be effective, and I’ve seen in the years I’ve been playing, I’ve seen more RPOs now than before. I think they’re pretty good plays.

“For a defensive lineman, he should be thinking get off (the line) regardless of if it’s a run or a pass. You can’t react late. If I get off and think it’s a run, and then I see it’s a pass, I have to adjust to a pass rush move real fast so I can make a play”

Roberts agrees.

“Schematically, as a d-lineman I just read my keys,” Roberts added. “If the tackle goes down, I’ve got to come off the hip, and dive, whether they pull it or throw it or whatever, my job is my job and the guy behind me has his job and if we all do what we’re supposed to, it shouldn’t matter.”

The RPO is obviously a pretty divisive topic among college football players, and for good reason. It’s been storming college football recently, and with it finding so much success, it’ll only get bigger and more common. That’s great news for offensive players, and awful news for defenses. The next evolution in college football, while we can’t predict it for sure yet (or we’d be coaching, not writing), may come on defense, as a way to stop this newest game changing scheme.

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