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The Impact of Run-Pass Options on college football

How RPO’s are changing the game both on offense and defense

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Wisconsin vs Miami Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Jessie “The Body” Ventura famously said, “Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat.” You might be wondering what that has to do with Run-Pass Options but for all intents and purposes RPO’s as they’re affectionately nicknamed are cheating the spirit of the rules of college football. While they aren’t cheating the rules to the extent of the A-11 offense which popped up for a short time around football and took advantage of punt rules, eligible numbers, and quarterback depth; RPO’s do violate the spirit of the game. Runs are supposed to be runs, passes are supposed to be passes, and offensive linemen aren’t supposed to go beyond three yards on a forward pass downfield.

The link above is to Ian Boyd of Football Study Hall’s latest piece on the “New Wave of RPO’s” and it got me thinking... what can we expect to see in the RPO world and what’s all of the fascination?

A Manipulation of the Rules

A quarterback pass that’s behind the line of scrimmage isn’t included in the “ineligible man down field” rule at the college level. On a screen pass to a receiver or running back, offensive linemen can get downfield to start blocking the linebackers and defensive backs before the ball has been caught. At the high school level we’re not so lucky.

Thus, it is completely legal at the college level to throw a bubble screen while a lineman is over three yards beyond the line of scrimmage. So while a run should be a run and a pass should be a pass- it’s not against the rules, just the spirit of the rules.

A way that more honest or quarterback health conscious coaches avoid violating the rule is that on any “deeper” throw in your packaged plays to make a “house” call to the offensive line. What that means is the line will no longer go to the second level as the house call tells them to stay home.

But not every coach cares about the spirit of the rules and assumes a secondary ideal which is that the referees hardly ever call ineligible receiver downfield sort of how they rarely call a chop block against Georgia Tech’s triple option.

Pre-Snap Reads

The pre-snap reads are the type that Mark Richt has used the most with both Brad Kaaya and with Malik Rosier. This is just a leverage game and we’ve discussed this before. The quarterback has a series of “reads” to make (and most aren’t any different than any other play) before snapping the football.

1- Count the box, ie. how many players are squeezed down from tight end to tight end (if there are no tight ends, where they would be lined up is fine). If there are 8 in the box, the QB must throw. 7 will be a 50/50 read. 6 is a 70/30 read (run to pass) and 5 in the box is a 100% run read.

2- Check the shell, ie. how many safeties are deep. If it’s 2 high (2 safeties are back) the QB should read run in most instances. If there’s 1 high safety the QB should be thinking pass.

3- Check the leverage, ie. where are the cornerbacks and “flat defenders” playing. A flat defender could be a linebacker, safety, nickel, etc. It’s whomever your QB identifies as the player most likely to play the flats (area from the has to the numbers within a space of 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage to 5 yards beyond).

1- There are 7 guys in the box so the QB should be thinking run.

2- 2 safeties are high. Also, there’s absolutely no way the safety can come downhill against the bubble at 10+ yards and make that play.

3- The linebacker who is usually in the flat is looking for a hand signal and that’s why teams love hurry up tempo- the App State defense is completely off guard.

4- The cornerback is playing off and outside so his path to the bubble is limited.

Post-Snap Reads

Life becomes much trickier for a quarterback in post snap read RPO’s. An example would be the double slant RPO Mark Richt used with Brad Kaaya that infamously made it on the Gruden’s QB Camp episode featuring Brad. The quarterback is forced to read the defense once the live action has started and bodies are moving both on offense and the attacking defenders.

Base Zone Double Slant

The GIF below is a post-snap read from the inside zone double slant RPO.

Pre-snap the QB still takes his reads:

1- 6 man box which makes it easy to run

2- 1 high safety which can dictate pass to a QB

3- For a slant, the nickel over the slot is playing off and outside making it easy to catch a slant depending on what the inside linebacker does. If the ILB plays run, throw, if he plays pass, give the inside zone.

Post Snap Reads:

With the inside linebacker’s hips turned away from the slant, and the nickel still playing off and outside of the slot- this is an easy slant throw for Brad Kaaya.

He’s reading the ILB, that ILB played run hard so Brad knew he had the window behind him which is where the slot runs. The slots job is to replace the ILB.

QB Swing Draw

The Swing Draw RPO is a pretty simple post-snap read that’s blow here by Malik Rosier. Rosier needs to read the inside linebacker and defensive end. If the inside linebacker to his right runs with the swing, he needs to run inside on the draw. If the ILB stays home (which he does) Rosier looks to the back swinging and reads the defensive end. If the end is in the throwing lane Rosier needs to keep, if the end is up field or blocked he can throw the swing.

In the screenshot below, you can see Rosier is really leaning towards keeping this the whole way. The ILB doesn’t chase the swing that hard and is still there to make a play. Rosier tucks the ball leaving Homer wide open and runs.

Not every read can be perfect and that’s why the higher the football IQ on a quarterback today the better regardless of his arm strength.

What I would love to see: Snag Concept

I’m going to be a real weirdo and self promote. I really love the “snag” concept and in the RPO game I don’t quite run it how it was originally drawn up but isn’t the beauty of football to take what you’ve learned and make it your own?

#1 receiver (outside) will run a “stop” route which is a slant and settle in space.

#2 will run the same bubble he’s been running all game

If your QB makes his reads he’s checking (this is a quiz)

1- The box, which is 7 here I think (bad film is so common in high school)

2- The shell, which is 1 high

3- Leverage which is pecker in on the flat defender

If my quarterback is reading the flat defender, if that guy bites on the bubble the spacing is open to throw the stop. Below: you can see the flat guy bite and the corner off the screen as the stop sits in space and picks up 22 yards.

Below is a video of the play. You can see how the RPO portion works to seize the box and how the bubble draws the flat defender.

Future of RPO’s

The RPO is going no where. They’ve embedded themselves into the NFL game as a way to slow down the insanely athletic defensive ends and linebackers in the pro leagues. The Rams and Eagles both use RPO’s and with the coordinators from those teams getting looks in other places it will spread around the NFL.

What this is going to do to football is change defenses, which we’ll discuss at a later date. But it will also put the emphasis less on deep ball arm strength and more on accuracy, grit and brains which more college quarterbacks possess rather than an arm that can sling it 70+ yards.

Rules aren’t going to change, either. Refs will be told to monitor the line of scrimmage and throw flags on ineligible receivers more often. Coaches will use more house calls and continue to throw backside posts off of outside zone runs.

Miami has to either adapt and adjust or fade away. Hopefully Mark Richt and Thomas Brown are looking to adapt rather than disappear.