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How coaches prepare their game plan

From the obvious to the analytical

Capital One Orange Bowl - Miami v Wisconsin Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Offensive coaches design their weekly game plans around a multitude of data points from the most mundane, such as down and distance, to the analytics of a mixture of personnel grouping and field zone with space given by hash mark. That’s what all of those quality control guys and analysts are good for and what they spend hours in dark rooms with long cut in their lip getting done.

In the fast moving world of college football your typical offensive coordinator isn’t doing that. They’re giving press conferences, fielding phone calls, holding position meetings, group meetings, and offensive meetings plus recruiting and preparing their practice plans and game plan for the week. The tedious work of “Is that cornerback 1” to the left against a 3x1 set” is left for the analysts.

In the image below, you can see how detailed even I am- with limited time, resources, and knowledge. As an offensive coordinator I tagged the offensive information into Hudl on Mondays. Even with all that we know these offensive minds do, guys like me still write pieces like “Stop throwing the red zone fade,” because as Greg Schiano once pontificated, “There are two things every man in America thinks he can do: work a grill and coach football.”

Down and Distance

Of course all coaches have certain plays they like to run on 1st and 10 different from their “and long” packages and their “short” packages as well. As a coach builds a call sheet they focus on “drive starters” which are your favorite plays to get positive yards early. Those drive starters could be lures used to set up a play later in the drive or even game.

On third and one are you throwing the fade or picking up that single yard needed to be able to continue the drive? There’s nothing more frustrating than watching a coach call for the deep fade or a wheel route on 3rd and one and then having to punt the ball away.


The higher up the level you go in coaching the closer in the hash marks are to the middle of the field. This creates less field v. boundary issues in the NFL than you’ll see in formation’ing and play calling at the high school level. It practically is negligible by the NFL level- keeping the game plan even to both sides.

It’s a drastic change when you look at the actual numbers. In the NFL the hashes are 18 feet and 6 inches wide. In college football the hashes are 40 feet wide. In high school the hashes are 53 feet and 4 inches wide. At the high school level it’s hard to line up in trips to the boundary and run anything but a tunnel screen, slant or dig coming back to midfield.

Coaches will look for small intricacies to the hash marks and quality control coaches and analysts are required to dig deep into small analytics like which plays and formations are called and ran depending on the hash the offense is on. Does a defense only blitz their cornerback when he’s to the boundary? Those are the types of questions posed to analysts who watch hours of film looking for an inch here or a cocked stance there.

Attacking Space

From Smart Football

Some play callers focus their offense on attacking space instead of people. Their quality control coaches and analysts watch the upcoming defensive coordinator’s film and pick apart where that coach leaves holes. Mike Leach is notorious for attacking space. In the article, “Mike Leach’s Offense: Perception Vs. Reality,” written by XandO Labs, the Air Raid coach was quoted as saying, “Your package has to create a level of distribution by attacking all the space available.”

In the interview, Leach continues to say, “...All defenses would have strengths and weaknesses to it. They will both provide space and takeaway space.” And what he means by this is that game planning for Manny Diaz one thing you know you’ll have is the medium middle of the field. We’ve all seen this as viewers that if you can spread Diaz’s scheme out, he’ll blitz and an offensive coordinator can beat him in the medium depth and middle.

Coaches may go into their playbook with 60-80 plays but will pare that down if there are certain elements that won’t work quite as well against the upcoming opponent. If you’re playing Alabama your offensive call sheet might look different than if you’re playing LSU.

In “6” Mike Leach’s version of four verts the receivers have the go-ahead to settle into space if it exists, however as you can see the outside receivers settle towards the sideline while the inside receivers settle to midfield. That creates spacing which is what the passing game should really be all about.

Field Zone

Field zone is an entirely different way to think about play calling. From the standard down, distance and hash we all think of (as shown above). Lyon College assistant head football coach Mike Gregory and I have discussed our favorite +5 (in the red zone ready to score) and -5 (backed up to our own goal line) plays and we actually have a chalk war in the video above.

When I’m backed up to my own goal line, I will removed the gap scheme and pulling aspects of my call sheet. Backed up to -5 I prefer 11 personnel, maybe even 21 (2 running backs and a true tight end) and running zone schemes to move the football. A common personnel group I have used is 11 personnel, and running a diamond pistol formation. Out of that look I employ a slant/arrow as many linebackers will lose track of backs in the back field- and many defensive coordinators like to blitz heavily when an offense is backed up.

Thus, field zone isn’t just important for offensive coaches and what they like to do it’s also important to know what the defense will call when you as the O.C. are in certain areas. If the D.C. blitzes a lot at -5, it’s a good idea to use 6-man pass protection and run man beaters as passing combinations. I love slant/arrow or dig/arrow which make the cornerback and linebacker switch responsibilities.

Personnel vs Adjustments

From Eleven Warriors

Joe Moorhead is known for keeping 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end) on the field at all times. He wants to keep the defense from being able to narrow down your play calls based on personnel. Example, if an offensive coordinator only runs 2-3 plays from an empty set (true empty with 5 receivers), the defensive coaches will alert their defense to an empty check that will work against the 2-3 things that offense runs from that group.

With Moorhead’s offense at Penn State, and now at Mississippi State, he will stay mostly with one personnel group from a variety of different formations. This keeps the defense in a base look and out of their more interesting calls. It also requires the players to make the checks the entire game (read: the players will call the defensive plays as the offense lines up rather than the coordinators checking their extensive call sheets and data to make a call from the booth).

Delaying the defensive play call will cut down on variety and complexity of their scheme. This is why coaches search high and low for a Brevin Jordan type that has length, speed, and is a multifaceted player that can block and catch. Christopher Herndon IV was a great weapon that Hurricanes coaches never seemed to capitalize on for extended weeks and will be a vital weapon in NFL offenses.

Any time an offensive coordinator has a player that can be an inline (on the line of scrimmage, hand down) tight end, or a wing, a slot receiver, or in the backfield as a fullback you have a competitive advantage over the defensive play callers.


With the season around forty days away (hey, maybe even less!) we’ll continue to analyze what the offense can do with posts covering how the ‘Canes can get the most out of their athletes or my disdain for the fade to a five-foot-nine receiver.

Fans can always hope that Jarren Williams is better than Malik Rosier, or that Rosier has a Brock Berlin quality of bounce-back season. We can always hope that Thomas Brown provides some modern input to Mark Richt’s offense, too. But what we’ve really discovered is that everyone has a plan until they’re standing in the middle of Jerry’s World.