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Changing the Game: Dissecting the Run-Pass Option

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Meet the new(ish) concept that has swept the college football landscape and changed the Miami offense

Miami v Florida Atlantic
Will Brad Kaaya keep it or hand it off?
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

If you follow college football even somewhat closely, chances are you’ve heard the letters “R-P-O” in succession during the 2016 season. RPO this. RPO that. You hear it on College Gameday, during in-game broadcasts, or even come across it online. With that being said, what exactly is this “new” RPO concept that you’ve heard so much about lately?

Actually, the RPO is not that new at all. RPO’s (otherwise known as “run-pass options”) first began to formulate because of a controversial 2009 NCAA rule change that allowed linemen to block three yards downfield on a pass play, but is rarely enforced up to five yards. After Auburn used the groundbreaking concept relentlessly on their run to the national title game in the 2013 season, by 2014, RPO’s slowly started popping up in college offenses all over the country. By 2016, it seemed as if every school in America was using the RPO in some form or another.

More and more college offensive coordinators have been using some variation of the run-pass option in their offenses. These days, you are almost at a DISADVANTAGE if you are not utilizing at least a few RPO’s in your playbook and the 2016 Miami Hurricanes were no exception.

Mark Richt actually relied heavily on RPO concepts last season, often times pushing the pace with Brad Kaaya in the shotgun flanked by a running back and entrusting his seasoned quarterback to make the correct read to ensure the optimal play.

In the most simple, layman of the layman’s terms, the RPO is a packaged play that simplifies the read for the quarterback, making him choose between two options based on what he has identified from the defense post-snap: run (keep the ball/hand it off) or pass. There is a set run play and a set pass play that the quarterback or coordinator has called within each RPO play. Think of it as similar to the traditional option play, where there are multiple plays that the quarterback can make once the ball is snapped based on what he sees from the defensive end: keep it, hand it off to the fullback on the inside, or pitch it to the running back on the outside.

In an RPO scenario, the quarterback snaps the ball and makes a motion toward the running back, having literal milliseconds to make a decision. What makes RPO’s different from the traditional option play is the quarterback is not reading the defensive end; depending on the specific play called, the signal-caller focuses in on a linebacker or defensive back, attempting to either draw them in and vacate a passing lane with a fake handoff, leaving a receiver to run free, or fool them into reading pass and bailing into deep coverage, leaving the quarterback or running back to take off into the open field.

BUT what really has made the RPO such a unique play and what has caused much consternation for defensive coordinators: the action on the offensive line.

The offensive line has the easiest job in the RPO concept. They're run-blocking whether the ball is handed off or thrown, blurring the line for the defense between identifying a run or a pass play. Defenders are taught that when they see offensive linemen moving forward to block, a run play is coming. On a pass play, offensive linemen usually step backwards to create a pocket around the quarterback. However, since the RPO is technically both a run and a pass, the offensive line run-blocking tricks the defensive front into selling out for the run, while in reality, receivers are running routes and the quarterback still has the option to pass.

The controversy lies in that, traditionally, there are different rules for passes and runs. On run plays, a lineman can block as far downfield as they want. However, the NFL’s rule is a blocker can’t go more than a yard downfield on a passing play; the NCAA’s rule is three yards, but in practice this is more like five yards. This is why the RPO is much more prevalent in college football than the pros; there is much more time to sell a run play and even more room for offensive linemen to block potential pass defenders. It also capitalizes on the NCAA referees’ difficulty penalizing linemen who are farther than three yards downfield when a run turns into a pass. The line between “too far downfield” and “perfectly legal” is extremely thin.

We see trendy concepts in football like the RPO come and go like the sun rises and sets. Take the Wildcat formation in the NFL for example: The Miami Dolphins took the league by storm in 2008 when they would line up running backs Ronnie Brown or Ricky Williams at quarterback and have them take a direct snap. Defenses didn’t know how to handle it, over-pursuing runs that would turn into reverses, or leaving passing lanes completely wide open, and the Dolphins had great success throughout the 2008 season. The rest of the league soon followed suit with their own versions of the Wildcat, but by 2010, defenses had caught up to the scheme and the Wildcat quickly flamed out.

It remains to be seen if the RPO is just a fleeting trend or here to stay, but for Miami, it seems to be something they are willing to carry into the future. You can already see the effects of the RPO on the Canes quarterback recruiting. It’s no accident that Mark Richt went hard after mobile QB’s Cade Weldon and N’Kosi Perry in the 2017 class, going so far as to make Perry the top PLAYER on his overall recruiting board.

The main goal of the RPO is to confuse the defense and open up space for the quarterback to operate. However, if the quarterback is mobile enough to run on his own, that makes the RPO truly deadly. Whereas before the defense only had to worry about the running back taking a handoff while the quarterback stands idly, they now have to worry about the quarterback taking off for a run while the running back slithers out into the flat for a potential pass; a full extra pawn added to the chess board for the offense and putting major pressure onto the defense. This has put the mobile quarterback at a premium, and why you’ve seen the RPO, in effect, somewhat stall the Miami offense at times with a statue like Brad Kaaya at the helm. It also, in part, led to the transfer of Jack Allison, feeling uncomfortable in an offense that asked him to tuck it and run every so often and knowing he was at a disadvantage to his more fleet of foot competition. Both leaders in the current QB battle, Malik Rosier and Evan Shirreffs, have the wheels to keep defenses honest and chew up chunks of yards on the ground when they need to.

This is why it will be intriguing to see Mark Richt’s offense be run by someone in 2017 who truly fits with what he is trying to accomplish with the RPO and why Miami fans might not miss Kaaya as much as they think they will. Think of all those times you saw Brad Kaaya attempt option football last season, watching defensive ends and linebackers crashing down immediately on Mark Walton because they didn’t respect Kaaya’s, for lack of a better word, “ability” to run. Give Rosier, Shirreffs, or even Perry that much leeway and see how much more efficient Miami’s offense becomes. The defense having to account for the threat of a quarterback run will open up more room for Mark Walton, as well as more passing lanes, which will hopefully offset any dropoff in arm talent and experience from Kaaya to the new quarterback.

Will the RPO be able to take the Miami offense to new heights in the second year of the Mark Richt era? Only time will tell. But remember....