Understanding Urban: Counter Trey

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Last updated: 07/18/2012 4:57 AM
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Football
Understanding Urban: The Counter Trey
By Ken Pryor

(Editor’s Note: Ken Pryor is an offensive coordinator who works with the wide receivers at North Point High School in Waldorf, Md. He has been a long-time contributor to The-Ozone, and has been asked to help us better understand Ohio State’s new offense since Urban Meyer was hired back in November.)

With each passing year, offensive playbooks become more and more complex with varying run and pass schemes. There are, however, a few staples that have stood the test of time.
Those plays will likely never change.

One of the oldest, most tried and true plays in football throughout the years has been the “Counter Trey.” Fans may remember this from when it was made famous by Joe Gibbs and his Washington Redskins back in the 1980s.

After receiving so much credit for the play, Gibbs would later admit he had not invented it, but rather stumbled upon it while watching tapes of Tom Osborne’s great Nebraska Cornhusker teams from the 70s and 80s.

Who could blame him? Those Nebraska squads were positively brutal in the run game.  There was much to glean from that program when it comes to running the football, and it would not surprise me one bit if Urban Meyer watches similar videos in an effort to enhance the running game at Ohio State.

Now, before we go any further, let’s be perfectly clear that we are well aware of Ohio State’s success in the run game over the years. The Buckeyes have had their own significant measure of success running the ball with legends like Chic Harley, Vic Janowicz, Archie Griffin and Keith Byars leading all the way up to more recent standouts like Eddie George, Maurice Clarett and Chris “Beanie” Wells.

With a list of names so stellar, Ohio State takes a backseat to no one when it comes to running the football. That being said, none of those guys are walking through the door of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for anything other than to offer sage words of wisdom.

Knowing Meyer, he will study film looking for any nuances that would serve to enhance the Buckeyes’ rushing attack, and nothing says run like counter trey.

What is Counter Trey?

We knew you would ask. Running plays come in different flavors. Some involve straight ahead blocking by the line, while others pull extra linemen to gain momentum/force at the point of attack.

The counter trey brings two blockers from the backside to strike dominance over the defense at the point of attack.

When an offensive lineman releases from his down position and runs towards the other side of the line of scrimmage to serve as the lead blocker for the running back, this is called pulling. It’s a standard lineman technique that all football teams employ all the way down to the Pop Warner level. Pulling gives the guard and/or tackle time to build up steam just before blasting into defenders.

Gibbs ran the Counter Trey repeatedly in Super Bowls XVII and XXII—earning himself a couple of championship rings.
The Counter Trey falls under the umbrella of “misdirection” running plays—in other words, the offense is trying to fool the defense. They fake a run in one direction while actually attacking the defense in the opposite direction. When successful, the Counter Trey has the potential to rack up yardage in chunks, while simultaneously demoralizing the defense mentally and whipping them physically.

Here is a good example of Counter Trey…albeit not from the traditional “I” formation:

Who’s Going to Run It?

Ohio State has certainly augmented its offensive line depth; something that was sorely lacking when Meyer first agreed to take the job.

The 2012 offensive line should look something like this from left to right: Jack Mewhort (left tackle), Andrew Norwell (left guard), Corey Linsley (center), Marcus Hall (right guard) and Reid Fragel (right tackle)—or quite possibly freshman Taylor Decker, who is nipping at Fragel’s heels for that tackle spot. (Somewhere Jim Bollman shrugs his shoulders in a nonchalant manner, but I digress.)

What’s It Going to Look Like?

Once Braxton Miller calls for Counter Trey left in the huddle, look for tailback Carlos Hyde seven yards behind the quarterback while fullback Zach Boren is stationed at four yards in off-set “I” formation.

At the snap, left tackle Mewhort, left guard Norwell, and center Linsley will explode off the ball and down block hard to their right, thereby sealing off the right defensive linemen. This gives the linebackers and safeties the impression that the play will be heading to the right.

To really set the tone of the fake, Hyde takes one step to the right as if he’s about to receive the handoff. Performed in unison, these actions should force the defensive secondary to take a crucial step in the wrong direction. When the offense can make the defense flow in the wrong direction, we call this influence.

In the meantime, right guard Hall and right tackle Fragel have begun pulling left; running hard down the line of scrimmage towards the area recently vacated by Mewhort and Norwell. By the time they reach the left end of the line, Hyde should have already cut back to the left and received the handoff.
He should be on a track following the two pulling linemen directly through the hole on the left side. Boren is responsible for coming straight down to replace Hall/Fragel—cutting off any potential disruption from the backside.

Hall and Fragel will employ “kick-out” blocks on the first defensive players, driving (kicking out) the defenders out of the hole. They may have some trouble finding someone to block because defenders may already be out of position after having been influenced by the misdirection fake at the start of the play.
If this occurs, linemen are taught to look to the second or third tier of the defense to clear out linebackers and safeties. If everything goes well, Hyde will have lots of green pastures to get busy.


Football is the ultimate team sport and this play exemplifies this fact as much as any other in the game. All 11 players must move in synchronicity while executing their respective roles.
Counter Trey is a slow developing play, and it will only work if the offense sells the initial fake. If the fake is not executed correctly, the defense will sniff out the play quickly and dismantle it before it gets started—often times for a loss of yards. But the play also has potential for a game-breaking run, and Hyde has demonstrated the speed to house it. His combination of speed and power for such a big back is just what the doctor ordered for a play like this.  

It’s important to remember “spread” is a formation. Being in the spread formation does not mean the Buckeyes will engage in an all out aerial assault.  From this formation, teams can still run longstanding traditional plays such as power, counter, wham, dive, toss, etc.

Urban Meyer has repeatedly stated he will most definitely employ the traditional run game which has garnered so much success at The Ohio State University. He is from Ohio. He has coached for the program in the past, so he knows its traditions, history and prestige. He is well aware of the formula, and he won’t deviate from that.

Let’s liken it to bottled coke and canned coke. The packaging and marketing may be different, but the product is still as good as it ever was.

Related Understanding Urban Articles by Ken Pryor

Buckeyes Will Take Counter Measures in Run Game
Part 1: It Takes a Special Man to Block Zone
Part 2: Blocking Inside Zone
Part 3: Blocking the Outside Zone/Stretch
In Spread, Tight End Better Be Blocking

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