Bob Davie's Football 101

Bob Davie

Message Board

ESPN Auctions
Thursday, October 17
Updated: October 29, 2:36 PM ET
Football 101: Option football

By Bob Davie
Special to

Option offensive football can be the most difficult scheme to defend if it is run with high execution. Many offensive teams in college football have some option plays in their offense, but only a few, like Air Force and Rice, have devoted their entire offensive package to this scheme in Division I-A.

There are many different styles of option offense and this week we will focus on the true triple option that is the most difficult to defend. Option football is unique because this scheme leaves defensive players unblocked at the line of scrimmage and relies on the quarterback to make split-second decisions while the football is in his hands.

Option offenses can either predetermine who will carry the football or call double- or triple-option plays, relying on the quarterback to make decisions based on how the defense reacts to him.

What is the triple option?
If the offense chooses to run a triple-offense play, that means the quarterback has three decisions -- none of which are predetermined. He can give it to the fullback, keep it to himself or pitch it to the slotback who has motioned from the other side.

This takes a great amount of execution because no one knows on offense who will end up with the football.

It obviously forces the defense to be disciplined and account for the fullback, quarterback and slotback on every play.

The offense can also run a double-option play meaning that it has been predetermined the fullback will not get the ball. The quarterback is now limited to two options: Keeping it himself or pitching it to the slotback.

What formations does the offense use?
Even the formations the offense aligns in look foreign to the defenses when you are facing a triple-option team. In the old wishbone, the halfbacks were aligned in the backfield giving it a true wishbone look. The backs in modern option football are commonly aligned in a slot position at the heels of the offensive tackle or tight end. This gives them a lot of flexibility because it allows them to motion before the snap of the football and either catch pitches on the run or get into pass patterns much more quickly.

Another advantage is they are aligned in a position to outflank defensive ends and also be closer to linebackers they are sometimes responsible for blocking.

Some common forms of triple-option formations:


Unbalanced bone

Double-slot bone

Unbalanced double-slot bone

As you see these formations don't look like the standard formations you see every week. One of the most difficult things the defense does early in its preparation is come up with terminology on how to call these formations and also educate the players

Triple-option plays
Split-end side

The base triple option to the split-end side involves the offensive tackle taking advantage of an angle and blocking down creating a double team on the defensive tackle. (This is one of the big advantages for the offensive team because they choose to leave a defender unblocked; it creates double teams on other defensive linemen.)

The quarterback's first read is the defensive end. If the defensive end freezes (meaning he stays square to be in a position to take the QB), the quarterback simply gives the ball to the fullback. What makes this tough on the defense is the fact the offense has taken big splits and have already created a stretch in the defense and given the fullback area to run.

Sometimes the splits are as big as three feet. Sometimes there is a smaller split between the center and guard and bigger splits between the tackle and the guard. The reason the offense takes a big guard-tackle split is to make the defensive end make a quick decision and also make it easier for the quarterback to read him.

If the defensive end chooses to close and turn his shoulders to take the fullback, the quarterback will then go into his second read or the second part of the option. He will see who defends him when he keeps the football. The problem for the defense is the slotback has blocked down on the linebacker pinching him from scraping to take the quarterback.

Because the defensive end has chosen to close on the fullback and the slotback has pinned the linebacker, this allows the quarterback to use his third option. It forces the secondary to play the quarterback. The quarterback now determines how successfully that defender has played him. If the secondary player takes the QB, the quarterback will use the third option and pitch it to the slotback.

Triple-option plays
Tight-end side

The offense will also use a base triple-option play to the tight end side -- commonly called the outside veer load. They will now read the outside linebacker first to see if he is closing on the fullback. Notice the fullback's path is a little bit wider outside the defensive end.

If he closes, they will see who plays the quarterback pitch. If the defense takes the QB with a secondary player, they will now read him to determine if the quarterback will keep or pitch. Notice the slot loads down and pins the inside linebacker.

Quarterback duck play
One of the most difficult plays to defend looks like one of the simplest to the fans. It is a double-option play where the quarterback either gives it to the fullback or keeps it himself in what looks to be a quarterback isolation play. The offense has great angles on this play and actually reads the defensive tackle lined up over the guard right next to the quarterback.

The guard blocks down on the backside linebacker - obviously a great angle here. The offensive tackle turns out on the defensive end. The slot isolates the linebacker and enters the gap created by the great angles created with the blocks of the guard and tackle.

The defensive tackle is uncovered, but the quarterback reads him. Notice the fullback dives right up the center. This forces the defensive tackle to make a sudden and quick decision. If he closes on the fullback, the quarterback will keep it in the gap created between the tackle and the end.

If the defensive tackle doesn't close, the quarterback will give it to the fullback. With the quick hitting straight line of the fullback and the great angle created by the offensive line, this play can crease the defense for a big gain.

Option pass
Option teams don't throw it often, but when they do, it can be a home run. The option pass is difficult to defend because it looks exactly like the option. Because the defense is forced to use the secondary in run support, they are extremely vulnerable to the deep pass.

The quarterback comes down the line as long as he can, making the play look like a run. At the last second, he bounces back off the line of scrimmage to get depth. The slotback takes the same exact angle as if he was going to load or pin the linebacker. The slot then slips vertically up the field at the same time the quarterback comes off the line of scrimmage trying to run by the free safety that is involved in run support.

Option offenses have many advantages over defenses. As we have mentioned, because there are so few running option football in Division 1-A, they have the advantage every week. It is difficult for defensive teams to prepare because they don't see it very often. Another point is the defensive coaches have a hard time getting a scout time prepared to run it against their defense in practice. Very few teams run option, as a result there are very few option quarterbacks to run it in scout squads in preparation.

Option football run at high level of execution is without a doubt the most difficult thing to defend in college football.

Q & A with Bob Davie
Thanks for all of the terrific responses and knowledgeable questions this week. Please keep sending in the questions and we'll tackle as many issues as we can this season. Here are a few of your questions regarding the spread offense:

Mizzou seems to have used the "QB Wrap Play" you described to great success this season. Oklahoma even had considerable trouble stopping it. How do you scheme to take a mobile QB out of the running game without leaving the corners man-to-man on the outside with no deep help? Thanks.
St. Louis, Mo.

Bob Davie: You just hit on the most difficult thing. You can obviously outnumber them by playing straight man-to-man. Another way is to try to hide where the shades of your defense are because to run the wrap play successfully they normally have to run it to the bubble or to the nose guard and the five-technique side. What you try to do is confuse the offense by moving the front.

I really enjoyed your piece on spread offenses, and I have really been impressed with the other articles as well. Tommy Bowden once said that the spread offense played a huge role in his turning Clemson around because it did not require the same talent levels as an offense centered around more conventional methods. If anything I would think this offense would require more talent given the need for an athletic quarterback and 3 to 5 good receivers. What are your thoughts?
Fairfax, Va.

Bob Davie: I think you hit the nail on the head. Every offense requires talent. It's just how it is distributed. In the spread, you must have receivers who can beat man-to-man coverage. You must also have a quarterback who can run and throw. Where it comes up that you don't need as much talent may be the offensive line because so much of it is angle blocking and pulling. You can get away with smaller more athletic offensive linemen.

Last weak you talked about the spread offense and its many strengths, however, you did not mention many of its weaknesses. You mentioned that communication could be a potential problem for the spread offense. Are their other downsides to the spread offense? If so, what are they? And if not, or if the strengths far out weigh its weakness, then why don't most schools run the spread offense?

Charlottesville, Va.

Bob Davie: With every offense there is a trade-off. The weakness of the spread would be if you were ahead in a game and wanted to run the football. It can be difficult to run with only one back. The second difficulty can be when the field is shortened inside the red zone. Depending on personnel, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

Send in your Football 101 questions. Bob Davie will answer a few of them next week.

Editor's note: As architect of top defenses at Texas A&M and Notre Dame, Bob Davie is recognized as a top X's and O's coach. This season, Coach Davie analyzes offensive and defensive schemes as part of his season-long course on football for Each week, he breaks out the chalkboard and break down the X's and O's in college football.

 More from ESPN...
Gameplan: No. 7 Notre Dame at No. 15 Air Force
ESPN college football analyst ...
Fowler: Pleasant surprises
Air Force and Notre Dame ...

Wojnarowski: A new Ara at Notre Dame
Following in Parseghian's ...

Big Ten/Independents Notebook
It may defy statistical logic ...

Pac-10/Mountain West Notebook
If you think QB Chance ...

Bob Davie Archive

 ESPN Tools
Email story
Most sent
Print story
Daily email