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Introduction to the modern QB run game

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An overlook of the QB running plays you're seeing on Saturday mornings and what goes into running each of them.

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

The quarterback run game has always had a prominent place in college football and major college programs have often taken advantage of the way in which it can systematize offensive personnel to create a "division of labor" effect in which the sum is greater than the parts, or simply unleash a dominant athlete. At the end of the day it's just about math, if the QB can run with the ball the offense gets a +1 effect on all of their running plays.

Of course, college football turned away from option football and the QB run game for a time in order to run pro-style schemes. From 1997 through 2004 the AP national championship was awarded seven times to teams running "pro-style" offenses and once to a spread passing team (2000 Oklahoma).

From 2005 to 2010 the running QB struck back with four titles in six years before Bama and Florida State controlled the last three. Despite the proliferation of advanced passing games that can score lots of points and always keep a team in the game, there's a renaissance of QB run game occurring in the game today.

The aim of this article is to explain some of the modern QB run schemes you'll tend to see on a given Saturday:

The classic option

The main way you see the classic option in today's game is with the speed option play, run from the shotgun:

Teams usually run the play with zone blocking but instead of having to reach a play side defender, the offensive tackle can release and block downfield to cut off pursuit while the QB reads that player.

speed option

The QB is reading the end, if he stays wide the QB will cut upfield past him. If the end plays to stop the QB from running off tackle (the traditional defense), then the QB will pitch the ball outside to the back.

This is one of the earliest QB running plays seen in the shotgun spread but it's still an effective play, especially if opponents are trying to take away the pitch against other schemes in the offensive playbook.

Another way you see the classic option and pitch is added on to a normal zone read play, but with the modern wrinkle where the QB throws a pass instead of pitching the ball:

Keys and examples:

The key with this play is simply having a running back who's good at running in space and a QB who understands how to manipulate the defenders he's reading and can make the cut upfield to punish a team that overplays the pitch. Many teams still run this play, especially on the goal line or in short-yardage if they need a way to attack the perimeter of a defense sold out to defend the middle.

QB draw

Another classic play that has come to life in the modern day of shotgun spread offenses. The brilliance of the draw has always been that a savvy QB who understand how it's defended can attack multiple gaps depending on how the linebackers respond. Since it typically accompanies a passing game that safeties have to respect, it's easy to create cutback lanes with this scheme as the linebackers flow hard to meet the lead block.

Kansas State, those champions of the QB run game, have some of the best versions of QB draw because they excel at teaching their players how to attack the backside cuts and because they've attached pass reads to the play:

KSU POP

You can see how it's a difficult play from the onset, since they can run it from a spread set with a fullback in the backfield to lead the way for the QB and it becomes Iso football with the threat of a pass. Once KSU added the possibility of the QB pulling up to throw a quick pass to the fullback or another player it became a truly devastating weapon.

The cutback occurs in the A-gap that the weakside linebacker typically vacates trying to make the tackle behind the middle linebacker who has to take on the fullback. It's a very comprehensive play with a lot of possibilities for those willing to risk their QB running through linebackers and defensive linemen on a regular basis.

Another potent variety of the QB draw today is to package it with quick game throws:

Quick-QB draw

This is a really effective way to make use of a hybrid RB/WR player and a QB who's good both in the quick passing game and running the football. It's the same concept as above, a lead QB draw but one that's triggered if the defense takes defenders out of the box to stop the quick passing game.

QB draw plays are very hard on teams that like to play 2-deep coverages, making it the perfect complement for a passing team. A team that plays a single deep safety can keep even numbers in the box and fare better against these looks.

Keys and examples:

Again, the key is a QB who's a quick thinker and makes good decisions when hits are imminent. A QB who has more wiggle will find the greatest success in picking through the blocks and exploding through the creases as they develop.

OSU, A&M, and many of the Air Raid teams with mobile QBs run plays like the latter example regularly. KSU obviously makes the QB draw a featured part of their offense.

Zone read and its various forms

The main way zone read is being run today is in the "zarc" fashion with an arcing lead blocker on the edge for the QB:

Zarc

Like with the classic "zone read" play, the defensive end is left unblocked. If he steps inside to stop the RB on the inside zone play, the QB can pull the ball and attack the vacated edge.

Teams adjusted to this play by having the linebacker behind the DE execute a "scrape exchange" where they would anticipate the pull by the QB and get in position to tackle him. So, teams started using fullbacks or H-backs to "arc" around the unblocked DE and take out that linebacker.

It's a very effective wrinkle for teams that want to use the zone read to actually feature the QB rather than just use the play as a constraint to help the running back.

Some teams, like Ohio St, will run this play with the roles reversed. The RB attacks the edge behind the lead block while the QB picks an inside lane if the DE doesn't step inside. There's a large variety of variations that teams will utilize if they don't want the defense to always dictate whether the RB or QB has the ball.

Finally, there's what you could call the veer:

Veer

You still have zone style blocking but all of the OL can focus on blocking down and sealing defenders because neither the QB nor the RB are looking for creases towards the direction the OL is blocking in. You can have either runner take either task but usually the runner is darting towards the perimeter like they would on a sweep and the QB is pulling the ball and running downhill if the DE goes wide with the RB.

Keys and examples:

With the exception of the veer, which calls for a tough inside runner at QB, the zone read is best with a QB who's quick laterally and thrives running in space and on the perimeter. It's the optimal play for unleashing a QB who's an explosive athlete, especially when he has the arcing lead blocker, and pairing him with a tough, inside runner at RB.

The ultimate example is Braxton Miller, running the play with Carlos Hyde. Vince Young and Cedric Benson were another classic pair, as were Nick Marshall and Tre Mason.

Power-read

This is sometimes referred to as "inverted veer" which is misleading, since it's really just a power play with an unblocked defender that the QB reads.

Modern teams that build around the run game and make the QB a featured part of that process usually base their offense around zone-read and power-read. Teams that key on the OL to tell them where the ball is going struggle with that combination since power attacks what would be the backside of zone with a pulling guard and a two-way run read:

Power-read

The beauty of power is that it has a double team at the point of attack as well as an extra OL who gets to block a linebacker. The problem with power is trying to clear out that playside defensive end with a fullback. Power-read allows a team to leave him unblocked and make him wrong while the fullback goes upfield to block a defensive back. Much easier.

Two other plays that come up in this series are "QB power" and "QB counter" which operate on similar principles but can offer a team more variety in how they run this play.

QB power is simply "power-read" without any read. Instead, of freeing up space for the QB by allowing him to read an unblocked defender, if he's sharing the backfield with a running back, that back will become a lead blocker for him. QB power is an effective play for a team that wants to put more receivers on the field since it requires only an H-back or fullback and not a true RB.

QB counter is also the same play in terms of blocking scheme, but here we can demonstrate an alternative way to run both counter and power. An offense can run both of these plays without a running back in the backfield and instead have a WR or RB/WR hybrid sweep across the formation as part of either an option read, a misdirection, or an alternative play call if the defense doesn't respect the sweep:

QB Counter

Now the fullback will kick out that defensive end while the pulling guard leads through the hole like on normal power runs. The challenge for the defense is that it'll be hard for those linebackers, particularly the middle linebacker, to not chase the H receiver coming across on the sweep.

Texas A&M ran a QB counter play with Manziel against Alabama in 2013 that was highly effective but they didn't use a fullback but instead pulled both the backside tackle and guard to lead the way for Manziel like in "counter-trey."

Keys and examples:

Virtually every "spread to run" team makes power-read a main feature of their play books and it's an easy and useful addition for any team that makes heavy use of the classic "power" run concept and finds themselves with a QB who's a skilled inside runner. It's also often more useful for running play-action from the shotgun since it includes pulling action from the guard that's useful for sucking in pass defenders.

The ideal power-read QB is a sturdy fellow who can handle running the inside lane, breaking arm tackles from defensive linemen, and surviving hits in the hole from linebackers or hard charging safeties. While an explosive runner can do great damage from this play, it's a good way to get a smaller framed QB beat up. In my opinion, it's not a good base play for a team that doesn't make the QB run game a featured part of their offense because they don't want their QB to take a lot of hits running the football.

That said, there's no shortage of examples of teams that use it. Perhaps the greatest power-read QB in NCAA history was Cam Newton since he had both the power to run off tackle as well as the explosiveness to pull away into open spaces. Today Dak Prescott uses it reasonably well and Nick Marshall also mixes it in to great effect.

Wildcat/Single wing football

We'll use this as a heading for any other type of standard running play where the QB is the featured runner, there are no option reads, and other backs in the backfield simply serve to block for him.

You could count QB draw, QB power, or QB counter under this heading. Other examples include running zone plays where the RB becomes a fullback blocking for the QB like inside zone:

In this instance, Manziel takes a counter step before hitting the cutback that a RB running inside zone might target.

Perhaps the most devastating example is Denard Robinson running outside zone at Michigan in the Rich Rod era:

Running single wing-style plays like QB draw, lead, inside, and outside zone, Robinson carried the ball 256 times as a sophomore for 1706 yards and 14 TDs at 6.6 yards per carry. Michigan even ran POP plays off these runs back in 2010 that allowed Robinson to make easy passes for huge gains.

One can only wonder what Devin Gardner might have done with similar concepts.

Keys and examples:

The one shortcoming of Denard Robinson was that he was maybe 6'0" and probably just under 200 pounds, which is not a frame built for the pounding of being a featured running back. What's more, "healthy" for a running back is not necessarily the same as "healthy" for a QB since the quarterback still needs to be able to throw effectively.

Collin Klein was a little more suitably built for this style but even he wore down at Kansas State running this style of offense and didn't offer the same explosiveness of Robinson.

The optimal QB for this system is one that has a running back's skill set with enough skills as a thrower to prevent teams from selling out to stop the run. That means toughness, acceleration, and vision to find and hit holes.

There are concepts today to take advantage of QBs with varying levels of running skills. Most all of them require a certain degree of athleticism, toughness, and headiness in making quick decisions with the ball. When a player has each of these attributes in spades, the results can be astounding.