Oklahoma State has been here before. The program was a bit less established, and Mike Gundy’s luxurious mullet was a little shorter, but six years ago, following the 2012 season, Oklahoma State found themselves in a strange spot. They were coming off a season that saw excellent offensive production despite the lack of elite quarterback play, paired just enough defensive struggles and offensive slip ups to keep the Cowboys hovering right around .500. In 2012, that meant an 8-5 season that saw three quarterbacks toss more than 130 passes. In 2018, it meant 7-6, with Taylor Cornelius doing enough to survive, but not enough to win consistently.
Just like after 2012, Oklahoma State lost their offensive coordinator following the 2018 season. Then, it was Todd Monken, off to Southern Miss, now, it’s Mike Yurcich, leaving for Ohio State. When Mike Gundy lost Monken, he looked to the internet, searching for a mastermind of a powerful offense at a lower level of football. He found Mike Yurcich at Shippensburg, brought him in, and had six successful (depending on who you ask) seasons of hire powered offense.
Now, with another offensive coordinator vacancy, Gundy went back to his old tactics, looking for an innovative offensive mind that he knows will stick around for a few years. This time, the answer comes from the birthplace of college football, and the birthplace of what we’d consider modern “RPO” football, the northeast. Oklahoma State is hiring Princeton offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson, in a move that, like the hire of Yurcich, made a bunch of folks that don’t know what they’re talking about very upset, because he “isn’t a big name”.
Gleeson isn’t a big name. That’s correct. He’s not Graham Harrell, or whatever splashy name some Oklahoma State fans were looking for. He is, however, a brilliant and successful offensive mind. He’s an innovator that, if given the chance, can evolve Oklahoma State’s offense into the most exciting and dangerous in the country. That’s not hyperbole. If (and that’s a big if) Mike Gundy works with Gleeson and allows him to implement his full offense that he used at Princeton, Oklahoma State will put up mind-numbing numbers. Gleeson isn’t a “wait and see” kind of coordinator. Mike Gundy doesn’t need to teach him the ropes. Gleeson’s offense is ready for the big time now. Let’s take a look at what exactly that offenses entails.
This first play here, early on in Princeton’s win over Columbia back in week five, is a foundational piece of Gleeson’s offense. He loves to run RPO out of this set, with three receivers bunched on one side, and a tight end on the other side of the field, helping with blocking. The initial read is on the isolated defensive end. If he stays put to cover the quarterback keep, the quarterback hands off, and because of that tight end, there’s now a numbers advantage for the line.
In this instance, the end doesn’t cover the quarterback, which means that the next read is either the linebacker or nickelback. If he goes to defend the screen, the quarterback keeps, as we see here. If that player stays in his gap, the quarterback dumps the ball off to his screen man. Gleeson loves this concept, and with a mobile quarterback like Dru Brown, I expect we’ll see it as a core look for the Pokes.
This next play brings me to what may be the main principle of Gleeson’s offense, outside of always going fast. This is a bunch look with four tweener receivers that could double as tight ends. With all that size in close quarters, Gleeson is essentially subverting the expectations of a spread offense, and creating spacing not with speed but with quick routes and a play action in the backfield. This is the guiding force behind Sean McVay’s offense in the NFL as well, and while I doubt Gleeson took the concepts from him, they’re very similar. This use of large personnel in a bunch look could very well be the next evolution of spread offense, and Gleeson is on the cutting edge, just as McVay is.
Next up, we look at the final play of this first drive, and one of Gleeson’s designed big plays. Everything on this play is set up for that deep go route to be open, and it works perfectly, all the way down to a great throw from quarterback John Lovett. The play action, motion, drag route and post route are all set up to pull the safeties and linebackers in, creating a one on one over on the edge, and an easy touchdown pass.
Later in the first quarter, Gleeson goes back to that RPO base we saw on the first drive, but inverts it. He lines three receivers up on one side, with a tight end on the other, but flips the running back and read side, and actually erases the read, making this a pure quarterback keep to the tight end side the whole way. With that extra blocker over there, both guards pulling, and the defense concerned about the three receivers because of the way Princeton ran this last time, Lovett runs untouched into the end zone. Subverting expectations, and using defensive assumptions against them.
Now in the second quarter, Gleeson draws up another beautiful quarterback run, aided by some excellent misdirection. Princeton loads up the strong side with two extra tight ends, and bunches two receivers on the weak side. This look immediately tells the defense that a handoff to the strong side is likely, because, well, that’s how football works. That expectation is made even stronger by every single lineman and tight end blocking down to the strong side. However, Gleeson once again flips the rules. John Lovett keeps the ball and runs to the weak side, using the misdirection to take almost all of the front seven out of the play. A cut block from one receiver takes out the defensive end, and with the other receiver as a lead blocker, Lovett picks up big yards down the field.
I really can’t say enough about this play. It may not look like a whole lot, but this is revolutionary stuff that not many coaches are creative enough to think of. This is making the most of your personnel, and using misdirection to create massive advantages for your offense. This is the future of offense in college football.
I want to take a short reprieve from Gleeson’s overall play calling here to talk about his excellent red zone strategy. There are several examples from this game alone of great red zone play design, but I want to focus on two plays, the first of which was actually a two point conversion early in the second half. There’s so much happening here, so I’ll try to keep this concise, but this was a pretty common look from Princeton on the goal line, and it’s great.
The play starts with motion from a receiver in the slot, which is meant to serve as a bit of play action to pull the linebackers in and hold the cornerback on the play side out. Off the motion, Lovett fakes a quarterback draw, bringing the front seven in even more, before jumping and hitting his receiver on a wide open slant, right into the void created by all that misdirection. It’s a simple concept, masquerading as a much more complicated concept, entirely designed around the final result of a jump pass to a slant. That’s exactly what you want on the redzone.
Sticking with the redzone stuff for another play, Princeton find the endzone again on their next drive thanks to lovely little run. Gleeson uses the tight end motion to seal the backside, and a pulling guard to the play side to create a wide open lane for the halfback to run through for an easy score. Again, nothing too complex, just smart, fundamentally solid football. That’s all you need in close quarters near the end zone.
The final play I want to talk about, before speaking on the whole about what exactly Gleeson can do at Oklahoma State is this touchdown run early in the second half. Once again, Princeton lines up with an obvious strong side, even motioning a tight end over to further give the impression of a run to that side. The entire line blocks down, and the running back takes a hard step in, causing all but three defenders to bite hard onto the strong side. The trick here is that this is actually a counter, and by the time the final three defenders arrive to stop it, the halfback is already accelerating through the hole, untouched for the big score.
This last play really serves as perhaps the greatest microcosm for what makes Gleeson’s offense work. He’s going to show a defense one thing and do the opposite. He’s going to use misdirection and assumptions that defenses naturally make to create massive plays, and he’s going to do it every single game. He’s going to take what the defense gives him, whether it’s open lanes for his backs to run or a weak defensive backfield to pick apart, and he’s going to attack until the opponent proves they can stop it.
Gleeson can do that because he has no allegiances to a specific way of doing things. If he has to run 50 times to win, he’ll do it. If he has to pass 50 times, he’ll do that too. Gleeson’s only ideology is going fast and subverting expectations, and with the talent he’ll have available to him at Oklahoma State, that can be, and honestly should be, incredibly dangerous. The only thing that can keep Gleeson’s offense from launching into the stratosphere is Oklahoma State, and more specifically, Mike Gundy. If Gundy buys in, the Big 12 is about to see the future of offense.