What Florida should expect from Charleston Southern’s offense

It’s a quirk of fate that Dan Mullen and Todd Grantham are facing the same season-opening opponent this year as last. Together, they demolished Charleston Southern 49-0 to begin 2017.

It’s not a bad thing for the coaches to have some experience facing CSU, even though the Buccaneers should be thoroughly outmatched athletically by Florida’s players. The reason is because the they run a shotgun spread scheme with some triple option that’s not commonly seen in the FBS.

There is a little bit of the MSU-CSU game from last year up on YouTube, but not much. So, I’ve found some things to highlight in the Buccaneers’ season-ending game against Liberty that is up on YouTube in its entirety for some reason.

The first thing is that you should throw out what you think of when you think of “triple option”. You’re probably envisioning what teams like Georgia Tech and Navy run, which is the flexbone. Current GT coach Paul Johnson is the biggest proponent of it, and Midshipmen coach Ken Niumatalolo learned it from him.

Charleston Southern does not run the flexbone. I don’t think I saw the Buccaneers line up in a true flexbone formation once against Liberty. In fact, they will probably throw more on Saturday than you’d expect from a triple option team.

CSU cycled through three quarterbacks last year, and the one who stuck by the end of the year was London Johnson. He’s now a rising junior and should be the starter this week considering the other two who played are gone. CSU ran heavily with those departed two guys; for instance, they called a mix of about 20% pass and 80% run against Mississippi State in Game 1 with one of the others behind center. With those two quarterbacks, Charleston Southern really did run it nearly all the time like you’d expect from a “triple option team”.

Against Liberty with Johnson as the trigger man, it was a 40% pass, 60% run split. There still was plenty of option going on, and Johnson did lead the team in carries even with sacks taken out. However, the Gator defense should see a lot more throws than the Bulldog defense did a year ago.

There are three main ways that CSU ran its offense against Liberty with Johnson. I assume these will carry over and continue to be the case this year as the staff is the same.

The base set that the team uses is an offset pistol formation variant. The quarterback is the shotgun — the fact it’s not a short shotgun means it’s not a true pistol — with a back behind him. The back generally doesn’t line up directly behind the quarterback but rather a step to his left or right. The rest usually consists of three guys out wide, two on one side and one on the other, with an H-back behind a tackle, though they go four wide sometimes as well.

From this formation, the Buccaneers run an offense that wouldn’t entirely look out of place coming from Mullen. They do read option, handoffs, screens, and short passes. It’s pretty standard stuff for 2018 and nothing that you’d call “triple option”.

The next thing CSU does is use motion in a way that is reminiscent of the flexbone teams. The Buccaneers will still line up with a single back in the backfield but motion someone back there to create a look that could facilitate the triple option.

Sometimes it will run triple after doing this, but it can be just handoffs with the other options being decoys. Here is a series where the Buccaneers used this kind of motion on three consecutive plays, but at least two of them look like planned handoffs to me.

Finally, I’ll highlight something Charleston Southern does that visually looks like the classic wishbone formation. It’s not that, as the quarterback is in the gun and there is no fullback. However, it does have two running backs split behind the quarterback in a way that calls to mind that classic scheme.

From this, Charleston Southern will both run some triple option and do play action passing. Helpfully, it did both in consecutive plays against Liberty that makes it easy to see those two possibilities.

One wrinkle to this formation is that rather than have the backs split one on each side of the quarterback, one will be to one side and the other will be directly behind. Every so often, they’ll also put the two backs directly to the quarterback’s right and left and not behind at all.

The toughest test for the Gator defense will be keeping track of Johnson. He’s the only offensive player for CSU who really stands out, as he’s a quick and shifty runner who can do some damage if he gets into open space. He broke off several long runs that kept his team in place to beat Liberty with a field goal at the final gun.

The fact that they needed a field goal at the final gun to beat Liberty should tell you that Charleston Southern will not be a real threat to win this game. I’m on shutout watch with this game, not upset watch.

However, I hope this gives you an idea of what the UF defense will be seeing on Saturday. The offense that CSU ran against Liberty with Johnson at quarterback was less a triple option attack than a shotgun spread option with some idiosyncratic triple option mixed in from time to time. If Florida’s defense can avoid losing contain on Johnson, they should be able to feast.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2