Urban Meyer's Spread Option

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Established October 31, 1996
Front Page Columns and Features
Last updated: 02/22/2012 11:59 AM
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Football
Urban Meyer’s Spread Option Offense
By Ken Pryor

It’s always good to have option.

As the Jim Tressel years rolled by, frustration with the offensive output seemed to grow amongst Buckeye fans and analysts all across the nation.

Tressel’s track record was always bolstered by the national championship won in 2002, seven Big Ten titles and a winning record in bowl games. 

Despite those successes, some saw an offensive scheme that became stodgy and stagnant at times, often keeping games closer than necessary. It frequently failed to maximize the talents of the players, and in some cases bogged down altogether when matched against teams of equal caliber in talent and, dare I say, coaching. 

Let’s face it, Tressel will never be remembered as an X’s and O’s wizard. His offenses were every bit as prone to shooting themselves in the foot with untimely penalties and mistakes as they were to score.

They were the best of times they were the worst of times.

It comes as no surprise that Urban Meyer’s introduction as the new head coach produces a certain amount of excitement, especially for Tressellball detractors who were champing at the bit to see an offense that scores with impunity.

So what is this spread offense we have heard so much about? Why is it so potent? Where did it come from?

SPREAD OFFENSE HISTORY

The father of the spread offense is arguable, but some research shows it originated with Rusty Russell in Brownwood, Texas back in 1927. Russell was the coach of the Forth Worth’s Masonic home and School for orphaned boys.

In 1952, famed TCU coach Leo “Dutch” Meyer wrote a book detailing various ideas and formations involving the spread offense. However, many hail former Middletown (Ohio) High School football coach Glenn “Tiger’ Ellison as the real father of the spread offense.

His version was more run-oriented, but Darrell “Mouse” Davis expanded Ellison’s version by incorporating more passing, thus giving birth to the Run & Shoot.

Today, there are various forms of the spread system being used all across the country.

One includes the AirRaid, which is favored by coaches like Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State), Mike Leach (Washington State) and most recently at Houston, where Kevin Sumlin used the system to shred defenses like a Jack Lalanne juicer (It will be interesting to see what Sumlin can do with the AirRaid system against SEC foes now that he is at Texas A&M).

Another version of the spread manifests itself in the Pistol Offense, which is presently being used most popularly by Nevada’s Chris Ault.  The pistol uses the run game with a wide array of potential ball-carriers.

The version with which Ohio State fans should become acquainted is the Spread Option, as this is the system of choice for new head coach Urban Meyer. To be sure, if you’ve been paying even the slightest bit of attention, you’ve seen this version plenty of times in games vs. Joe Tiller’s Purdue squads, against  Meyer’s 2006 Gators in the Fiesta Bowl, in the 2009 Rose Bowl against Chip Kelly’s Oregon Ducks and, of course, battling against the Michigan Wolverines under Rich Rodriguez.

BASIC PHILOSOPHY of SPREAD OPTION

Contrary to popular belief, the spread is not a formation, nor is it a collection of plays.  The spread is an offensive philosophy. It is the implementation of a different kind of thought process or approach to offensive football, one which tries to put the playmakers on full display.

The fundamental nature of the spread offensive scheme involves literally spreading the defense out as much as possible by employing as many as four or five wide receivers.

The spread is about matchups. It is about getting the ball into the hands of the playmakers, whether by pitch, toss, hand-off, pass, hook or crook. The playmakers MUST get the ball and they must have the space to do what they do best…MAKE PLAYS!

Despite multiple receiver sets, the spread option is primarily a run-first scheme. A quarterback who has no qualms with running the ball is a requirement in this offense, especially Meyer’s version. The offensive line recruits will venture away from the classic behemoths to which Ohio State fans have become accustomed. Instead it prefers leaner more athletic linemen who can get out of their stance to pull and trap.

The receivers in the spread attack WILL block or they WILL NOT play! The offense is heavily dependent upon receivers who can block extremely well.

The spread option is also about an offense/defense numbers game. It is designed to even out the numbers on any play while using the entire field. If your quarterback can run, you now have 11 offensive players vs. 11 defensive players. If he cannot run, you are already down to 10 on offense vs. 11 on defense, as he is a non-threat for which the defense does not have to account.

Once that same non-running quarterback hands off to a running back, the offense is immediately down to 9 vs. 11, as neither the quarterback nor the running back (obviously) are viable options to block for the ball-carrier.

The spread also involves increasing the lineman splits.  In other words, they increase the space between each lineman from tackle to tackle, thus forcing the defensive linemen to expand their respective stances as well.

The quarterback in the shotgun is tasked with reading the defense—which includes some math. Meyer’s offense likes to count the defense in terms of “plus” and “minus.” If the offense has one more blocker than the defense has defenders, you are “plus one.” If the opposite is true, you are “minus.”

The general idea is to have as many blockers as there are defenders at all times. You want to be able to place a “hat on a hat,” accounting for every defender.

This is where the option or QB power comes into play. The quarterback has the option to give to the fullback, keep the ball or pitch at the last minute, all predicated on how he reads the defensive end’s action.

If the end takes away the running back, then give to the fullback. If the end takes away the fullback, then head to the sideline and keep the ball or give it away at the last minute as all other tacklers are accounted for.

The defense could bring their safeties down into the box to take away the option, which is fine by Urban. He will simply employ an option roll-out pass as seen below, as we are now “plus one” in the passing game. 

You might say they have everyone covered by placing the secondary in man coverage. But do they really? Can they really cover all four or five receivers? This has not happened at any level of football whether it be junior high, high school, college or pro.

Below are the rules Urban Meyer has created for spread option. These should come in handy as we watch the games this coming season:

  1. One safety high: The numbers are equal. You should be able to run the ball.
  2. Two safeties high: Definitely run the ball because you are “plus one.” You are outnumbered in the passing game.
  3. No safeties deep: Might be time to start passing. They’ve clearly sold out to stop the run by bringing the safeties down in the box. You CAN run option here, but passing might be better.

The idea is to run plays in such a manner that you drive defenses crazy in the process. The spread option is not as reliant upon how you draw up plays or blocking assignments or formations. Meyer’s offense is about running the same exact play out of multiple formations. Other spread offenses run multiple plays from the same formation. Meyer’s offense can do both.

There is a general thought in football that the offensive players tend to be better skilled, faster and even stronger. Urban Meyer’s offense tends to exploit this tendency. This was no more obvious than the Fiesta Bowl against this very Buckeye program he now has been tasked with commanding.

There seems to be a general feeling that Meyer will come to Ohio State and open up the offense with a better passing game. This could be a misconception. If you watch Urban Meyer’s teams and understand his overall philosophy, you can clearly see his offense is a run-first offense. 

Upon reading the defense, more often than not, you are going to run the ball no matter whether it is dive, gut, power or option.

Proof of this lies in the numbers Tim Tebow accrued when he won the Heisman Trophy. Tebow rushed for 22 touchdowns and threw for 29, totaling 51 scores.  Any system with 22 rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a single season spells run-heavy to me. 

Something tells me Braxton Miller had better hit the weights, because he is going to be one busy Buckeye. Urban Meyer will always run first, second, and run third, if given the option.

Previous Article by Ken Pryor: So Long Dave, or Maybe not.

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