Fill in the blank: football is a game of _____.
If the cliché-industrial complex has taken over your brain, you went with “inches”. If you’re more bellicose, you might’ve gone with “war” or something similar.
What some of the brightest strategic minds will tell you is that football is actually a game of numbers: how many players I have near the ball versus how many my opponent does. Much of the contemporary game is about trying to win this numbers game.
There are limits, of course; no amount of scheming can reliably make Akron the favorite against Alabama. But as long as the talent gap is not too wide, having more players in close proximity to the ball is not a bad way to judge which team has the advantage at any snapshot in time.
Chris B. Brown of Smart Football wrote an extensive analysis of the Urban Meyer/Dan Mullen offense in 2009. He started by pointing out that the opening line from Coach Meyer’s book Spread Formation Football was this: “Spread formations are not new to football”. The kicker was that the Coach Meyer in question was TCU’s Dutch Meyer (no relation), and he wrote the book in 1952.
Dutch Meyer, Don Coryell, and Bill Walsh are among the most famous coaches who used horizontal space because they saw some open grass that they wanted the defense to have to account for. Their legacy lives on in most modern schemes, perhaps most so in the Air Raid of Hal Mumme and Mike Leach.
Dan Mullen comes from the modern spread-to-run school. It’s a large and decentralized movement with almost as many subgroups as it has practitioners. Depending on how it’s defined, it can include anyone from the usual suspects of Rich Rodriguez and Urban Meyer to Bill Snyder and even Paul Johnson.
We don’t have to guess at the principles of the philosophical line that Mullen descends from. In 2003 an awkward, Utah polo shirt-wearing Mullen filmed a tutorial DVD for Coaches Choice that the company has since uploaded to YouTube.
The initial introduction is no different than what you might hear from anyone in decades past detailing the point of spreading the field. “The theory behind our spread offense,” he explains, “is that we want to attack defenses and make them have to defend the entire field.” Through one sentence, the scheme is indistinguishable from, say, the West Coast Offense.
The distinctive parts come in when Mullen takes just one step beyond that. “Our ultimate goal in having a successful passing attack is to allow the defense to spread out so we’re able to run the ball,” he says in the passing game portion. In the segment on rushing, he says the offense is option-based and that three, four, and five-wide receiver sets are a “deception” designed to make defenses think the Utes are “a pass-oriented team”.
Now, take those quotes and think about Florida’s 2019 and 2020 offenses with Kyle Trask throwing the ball all over the yard and a running game that practically disappeared at times. Obviously Mullen is able to adapt to the players he has on hand, perhaps better than anyone else on the college level today. UF ran a spread attack with Trask, but it was not what DVD Dan was occasionally terming “the spread offense” (emphasis mine).
There are a number of benefits to spreading the field, from preventing defenses from disguising what they’re doing to employing a football equivalent of Wee Willie Keeler’s “hit it where they ain’t” strategy from baseball. But while the offenses of Walsh and Leach use horizontal passing in place of rushing plays, spread-to-run coaches use the threat of horizontal passing to open running lanes in the middle. Prior to the modern spread movement, those freer lanes were more a happy side effect than the main point of an offense.
Consider trying to run the ball as teams once routinely did from the I-formation with a tight end. The offense will have five offensive linemen, the tight end, a fullback, and a running back in the middle of the formation. The quarterback is there too, but he’s there merely to hand off and will not present a running threat. There are eight offensive guys in the middle who will be part of the rush attempt.
The defense would generally counter with seven combined linemen and linebackers in the box. A safety will be lurking nearby as well to either provide run support or cover someone in the event of play action. Once the ball is handed off, there will be sixteen very large humans in a small area competing for space.
Now imagine one of DVD Dan’s five wide receiver sets. There will only be six offensive players in the middle: five linemen and the quarterback. This will be a kind of quarterback draw, obviously, since there is no one to hand it off to.
The defense must have at least five players outside the box to account for the five receivers. There will be at maximum six defenders in the box, but it’ll be five or fewer unless the defense is going extra aggressive with Cover 0. You’re looking at a maximum of twelve players in that small area competing for space, and most likely it’ll be eleven. Spreading the field has unclogged the middle of the formation considerably.
On top of there being a smaller crowd, the offense is likely to have a numbers advantage to run the ball. Suppose there are five defenders in the box. The five offensive linemen should be able to block each box defender and allow the quarterback to get several yards upfield before a defender touches him.
Putting a running back in the backfield allows for option plays, which have long been a way to get a numbers advantage. Now say the offense has gone four wide in a one-back set. There are seven offensive players in the middle of the formation.
The defense will often match with six box defenders, going one-on-one outside with a safety to help somewhere. The play has thirteen guys in the middle, which is still three down from our traditional offense example above.
If the play was a simple handoff, it would be six-on-six. Five linemen would block five defenders, and then it would be the running back’s job to break a tackle or make the sixth defender miss.
The offense can get a numbers advantage by having the quarterback a threat to run the ball. One way to do that is simply to have the running back be a blocker for a designed quarterback run. The play Quarterback Power is a common example of that strategy.
A more elegant way to do it is to leave one defensive end completely unblocked. The five offensive linemen will block each of the other box defenders, and the quarterback will read the end’s behavior to know what to do.
If the end goes after the running back, the quarterback will keep it. If the end hangs back to cover a quarterback rush, the running back will take a handoff. No matter what happens, the defensive end will be wrong and someone will get a free shot at yards before help arrives. When Mullen and Meyer talk about mobile quarterbacks allowing them to be “plus one” in the run game, this is what they’re talking about.
If the defense wants to put an extra player in the box to reclaim the numbers advantage, they will have to do so by giving up the passing game help. The defensive backs will go into the aforementioned Cover 0, which is when there are zero safeties deep to provide aid to a defender who’s been beat.
At that point, Mullen likes his chances with the pass. He likes getting one-on-one coverage because he’ll either have at least one receiver capable of beating it, a route concept that’s effective against it, or both.
Now, consider what Florida has had in recent seasons that 2003 Utah did not. UF had Kyle Pitts, a tight end who was both practically uncoverable as a passing target and a decent enough blocker. It had running backs like Lamical Perine, Malik Davis, and Nay’Quan Wright who were terrific receivers on top of being capable ball carriers.
The Gators will have such players in 2021, even if they lack the top-end threat of Pitts. The entire running back room returns while adding the all-everything Clemson transfer Demarkcus Bowman, and they’ll have guys like Keon Zipperer, Kemore Gamble, and true freshman Nick Elksnis at tight end. They’ll pair them up with Emory Jones, who is a far greater running threat than the lumbering Trask or herky-jerky Feleipe Franks.
UF could line up and pound the ball with a tight end and running back, and the defense will have to keep a close eye on a dangerous runner at quarterback for a change. Florida will also be able to put all five skill position players out wide, and the defense will have to cover a Davis or a Wright like he’s another legit receiver.
Now imagine that Florida mixes and matches those scenarios and everything in between with tempo to prevent the defense from substituting. It doesn’t take too much imagination to visualize a steady diet of power rushing if the defense goes nickel (five defensive backs) or dime (six DBs). The Gators could alternately punish linebackers in coverage if only four defensive backs are on the field. Jones may not be near as polished a passer as Trask is, but he doesn’t have to be if the offensive line can run block at all.
Therein lies the key to the 2021 offense: getting better line play is essential to success. It’s no secret that Florida’s run blocking has been poor the last two years, but Trask was good enough through the air to make up for it. With Jones behind center, there is no such margin of error.
After all, it’s easy to explain everything conceptually and make Mullen’s attack sound like an unbeatable scheme. There was a time in the 2000s when this kind of offense with West Virginia-level talent was enough to produce a top-five team. We’re long past that stage, however, and defenses have learned a thing or two about combatting spread option attacks.
The most obvious way to stop it is the same way to stop any offense: have a defensive front that can beat the blockers. Maybe the single best example of this was the 2010 season’s BCS National Championship Game between Auburn and Oregon. A slopfest on the road at Cal aside, the Ducks were nearly unstoppable. In eleven other games, they scored at least 37 points in all of them, 40+ points ten times, 50+ points six times, 60+ points three times, and 72 points once.
However, Chip Kelly’s spread option attack came to a screeching halt against the Tigers. As it turns out, it’s hard to execute option plays when Auburn DT Nick Fairley kept blowing up the mesh point without giving QB Darron Thomas time to make a give-or-keep decision.
When a defender beats his blocker, that gives his team an extra number in the box math calculations. If a nose guard is able to hold both parts of a combo block, thereby preventing an offensive lineman from getting to the next level to block a linebacker, that’s a plus-one to the defense as well.
As for stopping the option, you may have noticed the traditional wishbone and veer offenses went the way of the dodo. The I-formation option died out on the major college level when Nebraska fired Frank Solich. Old-school option lives on in the flexbone offenses of the service academies and, for a time, Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech. True to the times, they’re a spread-out version of the old attacks.
They fell out of fashion in part because the NFL’s rise to prominence meant power programs had to cater to quarterbacks who wanted to develop as a passer and go to the league without being hit dozens of times a game. They also lost some effectiveness as defenses got faster, allowing linebackers and defensive backs to get to ball carriers quicker.
To combat the zone read option of offenses like Mullen’s specifically, defenses developed what’s called the scrape exchange. The unblocked defensive end will go after the running back every time, and a middle or outside linebacker will “scrape” around the end of the line to pick up the quarterback option. There are ways for offenses to then adjust to that and for defenses to respond and so on, but the plain vanilla zone read doesn’t work as well as it used to if the defense anticipates it properly.
Defenses also began employing different kinds of players who must do more than defenders of the past did. Florida under Todd Grantham uses the Star position, which is like a nickel cornerback who can at times function as a safety or even a linebacker. Other defenses will employ a Spur, which is a heavier position that’s more just a safety/linebacker hybrid. A Spur does less in coverage but must do more against the run than a Star does.
In other words, defenses won’t be caught off guard by Florida going back to the future with a mobile quarterback in the Emory Jones Era. However, Mullen picked up plenty of new tricks when he overhauled his offense for Franks and especially for Trask. It won’t be like opponents can go watch film of Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott, and Nick Fitzgerald and be ready for everything.
But for as much as Mullen has evolved over the years, the bedrock principles of seeking a numbers advantage for the run and then passing when that numbers edge isn’t there have not changed. If you want to guess if a play is a run or a pass in 2021, you could do a lot worse than merely counting box defenders and comparing it to how many Gators are in the core of the formation.
The spread option is back in Gainesville. It’s up to Jones and the offensive line to make it go.