College football is quietly undergoing a major strategic shift that has largely gone under the radar.
Spread, up-tempo tactics have really started to transform the game of football, and nowhere are these effects more apparent than at the high school level. With some exceptions, high school teams can't choose their players, they are at the mercy of fielding whatever kind of kids the local community produces. Consequently, they are always going to choose the tactics that they believe will give them the best chance to win.
Whether you want to be a physical pro-style offense or not hardly matters if the kids in the neighborhood aren't ever going to be as big and tough as the other kids in town.
Of course the spread can be effective even if you do have some of the biggest or most athletic kids in town, as many teams have discovered. At some point in the 2000's, perhaps after everyone watched Vince Young run all over the vaunted USC Trojans in the Rose Bowl, many high school teams just started sticking their best athlete at QB and utilizing the spread.
In the past teams would put athletes at QB while running classic option plays, but the spread has allowed a truly dominant athlete to completely take over games at the QB position.
The result has been an abundance of dual-threat QB prospects every season, some of whom have to move to other positions when they enter college and some who don't. In the interests of making the most of these players, the game is undergoing another evolution under the surface.
2nd generation tactics: How dual-threat QBs are commonly used in college
If the 1st generation of dual-threat QB offenses were the original option attacks, the 2nd generation is what teams started doing in the spread.
Many college teams are still built off the pro-style approach to winning games, which has something of an attrition mindset, looking to control possession and tempo throughout the game. The pro-style, West Coast offense still forms the basic framework of how to accomplish this in the passing game but many programs are happy to incorporate spread formations and dual-threat QBs running the option to supplement Walsh's once innovative offense.
This has been pretty potent when done right since it combines two ball-control strategies that have been demonstrated to be effective by years and years of champions in the option and the West Coast passing game.
While NFL scouts increasingly bemoan the types of quarterbacks that the college game is producing, there is a much more sizable gap between the skills of some of the better quarterbacks in high school and what they are asked to do in 2nd generation college offenses.
Here is an example of the types of tactics a 2nd generation, dual-threat offense will utilize. They love to use unbalanced sets that present the defense with some difficult dilemmas since one side of the formation is loaded with passing game weapons while the other side of the formation has an extra blocker with the tight end. There are two strong-sides depending on whether it's a run or pass:
When the QB is a quick runner this is the type of spread alignment that easily combines West Coast and option tactics to stay ahead of the chains. First you have the classic zone read, which is really designed to help the OL get double teams by ignoring the backside end and unleash the running back.
If the defense focuses too hard on the running back, the QB can do real damage on the strong-side perimeter running behind the arc block by the tight end.
Then there's just the basic speed option play that just needs good decision making from the QB to get the RB a chance to gain the sideline and be a threat to either side of the formation:
The goal is for the QB to pitch it out on the edge to the running back but he can cut upfield off-tackle if the defensive end drifts wide trying to stop the running back.
With plays like this, the offense can run the ball and feature the running back while using the quarterback mostly as a constraint to the defense focusing it's limited resources in the box on stopping the running back. The comes the horizontal stretch from the passing game:
If the defense packs their defenders in too tight they have to face the trio of receivers running something like "Y-stick" above that can punish them for granting the offense open space. On the backside the offense has another classic ball-control play, curl/flat, which challenges the defense with the TE presenting a big target downfield or else the defense having to rally to tackle the running back in space if they play to stop the curl route.
With formations and schemes like this it was relatively easy for offenses to make use of the dual-threat quarterbacks coming out of high school to form ball-control offenses that could put defenses in binds and create steady gains for the offense.
The challenge with this approach is that all of these tactics require quick reads, precise timing, and accuracy while failing to present big rewards to the offense unless the offensive skill players are explosive enough to run past people in space.
For the QB and OL in particular, mastering the run blocking and protection schemes or the option reads and the passing game reads can be a lot. Especially coming right out of high school where precision and timing isn't always the name of the game.
3rd generation tactics: How dual-threat QBs are used in high school
Rather than teaching their quarterbacks to master quick reads and passes in combination with option schemes, many high school offenses will instead let the run game bear the weight of keeping the offense on schedule while using the passing game to land the kill shots.
They'll still use the QB run game, often to an even greater degree than 2nd generation dual-threat offenses because they aren't using as many passing concepts and need enough variety in the run game to attack different parts of the line of scrimmage and counter different defensive responses.
A typical formation would be the "spread-I" set that sacrifices a fourth receiver on the line of scrimmage in order to get extra blocking for the power run game/pass protection sets.
The run game will often incorporate screens or sweeps to attack the perimeter in lieu of carrying multiple passing game plays. 2nd generation offenses will used packaged plays as well, but they are the lifeblood of a 3rd generation offense that doesn't focus as much on the quick game. Here's an example of how teams will attack the interior and perimeter with a concept like QB power combined with a quick flare screen to the running back:
On this play the QB reads the defense to see if they honor the threat of the running back flaring out just before the snap, if they widen too much he keeps the ball to run power behind a double team and pulling guard. For a high school team that's putting one of their best athletes at QB, it doesn't get much better than this for creating numbers advantages and angles.
But the real key to these offenses comes with the vertical passing game which can easily turn into an opportunity for the QB to run amok. They can run a play like "three streaks" off play-action to try and take the top off a defense that's keying the run game:
Although these vertical passing plays will often include a checkdown option for the QB, it'll commonly just work out that the QB reads the deep coverage and if he doesn't see a WR win deep he'll just use the scramble as his checkdown option.
Given that today's defenses prefer to play tighter matching schemes, even in zone, it makes it very hard to keep a dual-threat quarterback from finding wide open spaces on these plays to improvise in.
These teams will often focus their passing reps on running vertical option routes to run into open space deep and to build timing and chemistry between the QB and WRs on plays that can do real damage. If they can force a defense to take deep drops or keep their safeties deep then they are opening up tons of grass underneath for the scramble or getting numbers advantages for traditional runs.
With schemes like this, why bother trying to teach your better athletes the precise footwork and timing of the quick passing game when you can create horizontal stress with the option and focus your passing game reps on drilling opponents with deep bombs?
Additionally, some quarterbacks who might struggle to make the quicker reads in a pro-style passing game can master the one or two-read throws required by the screen-option plays or the vertical concepts. With schemes like this it's easier to schools to train effective quarterbacks who might also be playing snaps on defense or who were playing running back or wide receiver the previous year.
Finally, this approach works on a strategic level by allowing teams to focus their practice reps and plays on tactics that will either allow them to run the ball when they need to, or generate points. These teams are well-equipped to either score quickly to catch up or run out the clock when ahead.
Transitioning to the college game
This can make life tougher for the pro-style college offensive coordinator who is trying to wade through high school tape to find the players who's passing skills translate to a more complicated, ball-control strategy. It also often has the effect of convincing young athletes that they should be playing quarterback at the higher levels when in reality their talents best translate within pro-style strategies at another position.
However, many coaches who have come up through the high school ranks or otherwise taken up these strategies are finding big success in the college game which might mean that the college game will begin to transition as well.
A look at the top 10 offenses in 2014 by S&P reveals the growing prevalence of 3rd generation strategy at the college level:
|Overall Rank||Team||Rushing S&P||Passing S&P||Style|
|1||Ohio State||1||2||3rd Generation|
|4||Georgia Tech||2||5||1st Generation|
|6||Mississippi State||10||13||3rd Generation|
Some teams are hard to classify as they will mix in various approaches from year to year or even in a given season if they have players that can handle multiple tactical styles. Oklahoma wasn't sure who they wanted to be in 2014 while Georgia Tech pounded the ball and threw it deep with option strategies that have followed the classic formula. There's also a fair bit of difference between Art Briles, the Malzahn school, and the Urban Meyer schools of offense. However, on a strategic level they have similar goals.
It's plain enough that the strategy of emphasizing the spread-option running game along with a vertically-oriented passing game is more and more popular and largely due to the efforts from former HS coaches like Gus Malzahn, Chad Morris, and Art Briles.
Much like how more and more NBA teams are focusing on spreading the floor in order to get lay-ups or open three-point shots, more teams are combining the dual-threat QB and the spread offense to mix running the ball with taking deep shots that create easy points. If a team can master the pro-style passing game while also running the ball, it's exceptionally difficult to stop, but many teams opt for the simpler option.
The NFL, who is only now catching on to the 2nd Generation style thanks to the success of Chip Kelly, isn't going to be thrilled to see more top programs choosing and training quarterbacks to run the ball or make easier reads. However, the writing is on the wall, expect to see more teams with dual-threat QBs opting for what's working at the high school levels.
If you can nearly win a title with a converted safety or with your 3rd string quarterback, why wouldn't you?