Watching the X’s and O’s: spread offenses

In a continuing series, Gators Country’s Dan Thompson explores technique, strategy, and film to help explain some of the finer points of spread offenses and up-tempo, no-huddle football.


With the firing of offensive coordinator Brent Pease and the comments by head coach Will Muschamp, it is becoming clear that the Florida Gators will have a completely new offense installed in the 2014 season. While the new offensive coordinator has not yet been named, fans are clamoring to see a more wide-open offense and many are calling for the spread offense to come back to Gainesville.

Most Gator fans are familiar with the spread-option offense that inhabited “The Swamp” from 2005-2010 under head coach Urban Meyer.

However, as Florida searches for a new offensive coordinator, the Gators are unlikely to bring the spread-option offense back to Gainesville, but they could still bring a version of the spread offense, it just may be one of the other three varieties.

In this edition of “Watching the X’s and O’s” we are going to look at the three different, and most basic, versions of the spread offense.


Air Raid Spread

Hal Mumme at the University of Kentucky made the Air Raid offense popular in the late 1990’s. The Air Raid offense calls passing plays 70-75% of the game, in shotgun formations with few, if any, huddles. This offense requires quarterbacks to be able to quickly diagnose defenses, and then make the necessary tweaks and call audibles at the line.

In every play in the Air Raid spread, one wide receiver will go deep to pull at least the cornerback, and perhaps the safety from the play. Further, they are going to have at least one intermediate route that pulls a cornerback or a linebacker away from the play, a short pass to pull in another linebacker and spread the running back out sideline-to-sideline. The goal of the Air Raid is to pull away all linebackers from either the middle of the field, or into a mismatch.

Finally, you will see offensive linemen line up much further away from each other than in normal formations. This set-up requires defensive ends to run longer distances to the quarterback, ultimately, increasing the amount of time the quarterback has to get rid of the ball. Take a look at Washington State’s offensive line below.


The Air Raid relies specifically on vertical passing routes and pulling linebackers out of plays allowing more open space around the middle of the field. A quarterback in an Air Raid must be accurate and have incredible football IQ.

If you watch a lot of college football, you will notice the Air Raid offense currently in use at Texas Tech, Washington State, Oklahoma State, and West Virginia. You are going to hear play calls like, “Vertical”, “Y Cross”, “Mesh” and “Shallow Cross”.


Spread Option

The spread option is the spread offense that most Gators are familiar with, as the Gators ran the spread option for five very successful seasons.

The spread option, unlike the Air Raid, is a run-first offense that requires a mobile quarterback, a speedy running back and physical wide receivers that are comfortable blocking.

The most recognized play in the spread option is the zone read. The zone read is significantly more complicated to explain than this short synopsis will allow, but the zone read relies on zone blocking from the offensive line and with a quarterback and a running back crossing paths and depending on what the better read might be, the quarterback keeps the ball or hands to the running back. The read specifically comes from reading defensive ends on whether they are attacking the quarterback’s pocket, or dropping back to protect the edges. You are going to see a lot of three-to-five wide receivers spread out wide to spread out the defense away from the middle of the field.

Below you can see Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota execute the zone read well.

Arizona, Auburn, Mississippi State, Ohio State, Ole Miss, and Oregon are currently employing the spread option.



The Pistol spread is the least utilized of the three, but is still a version that has its place in the conversation.

The Pistol offense has been utilized mainly by Nevada and is a run-based offense. In the Pistol, the quarterback lines up a few yards behind the center in a shotgun formation with a running back lined up equidistant behind the quarterback. Under the Pistol, unlike in shot gun formations, the running back can get a running start when receiving a handoff, rather than standing still.


The Pistol allows the quarterback to receive the ball quicker allowing for quick passes catching defenses off guard, as well as, allows for the use of the zone read.

Although Nevada is the only current school that runs the Pistol formation as its base package; Colorado, North Carolina State, Notre Dame, Washington State, West Virginia utilize the Pistol very frequently in their offensive packages.


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Daniel Thompson
Dan Thompson is a 2010 graduate of the University Florida, graduating with a degree in Economics and a degree in Political Science. During this time at UF, Dan worked three years for the Florida Gator Football team as a recruiting ambassador. Dan dealt daily with prospects, NCAA guidelines, and coaching staff. Dan was also involved in Florida Blue Key, Student Government and Greek Life. Currently, Dan oversees the IT consulting practice of a Tampa-based company. Dan enjoys golfing, country music, bourbon, travel, oysters, and a medium-rare steak. Dan can be found on Twitter at @DK_Thompson.


  1. And which coaches who’ve been mentioned as OC candidates run any of these offenses? According to your “teams that use them” none of them. Nice info. just not sure it told us much. Which is more like the pro-style up tempo offense we keep hearing about?

  2. Thank you for your comment.

    The point of the article was more for explanation than anything else.

    It was our belief that the understanding of the spread offense will help in the understanding of the game, no matter who becomes the new OC.

    However, while I pointed out certain teams that use a particular system, that does not mean no other schools besides those use it. In fact, most schools use hybrid spread offenses — a combination of 1 and 2.

    The up-tempo pro-style would be similar to number 1, with more running plays. The up-tempo would have more no-huddle and more audibles as the line. You would probably see tight end sets used more frequently than the spread. The main difference would be that you would see more snaps under center than in the Air Raid.

  3. The spread is a formation, not an offense. Much like the pistol is a formation, and not an offense. We ran a lot of pistol this year, probably 20%.

    Air raid, and spread option, are in-fact offensive schemes.

    Pease claimed to use a motion-based multiple offense. However, for some reason, this year we used almost no motion this year… That scheme in theory, is how we’re built. Leverage power when we want power, then spread the defensive sideline to sideline to make explosive plays. We couldn’t make any of our spread explosive plays work though. We got nothing out of the jet/fly sweeps, we didn’t block our quick passing/WR screen game, and we didn’t stress defenses down field.

    I have no idea what kind of offense I’d like to see in the swamp next year to be honest. I think the Air raid is interesting, and could leverage our personnel well. The pirate(leach) likes to run lots of zone read 90% of it to the HB to supplement his air raid.

    With our personnel (good FB, mobile QB, possession style WR’s) we’re really not setup for success in any offense. About the only offensive I can think of that would fit our players would be a I-formation stretch running scheme.(ala Texan’s or Bama) We don’t have the Tight ends, or road graters on the OL you’d want for that. Nor do we have the demanding double coverage deep threat wide-out that makes that kind of offensive explosive.