Spread offenses are always trying to stay one step ahead of the defenses with new tactics designed to create the leverage advantages that make the system work. The goal in a spread offense is to use space to attack a defense but once defenses adjust by matching athletes with athletes than the offense needs to either use option tactics to attack a defense's structure, or else have players that are too good for the defense to handle without devoting extra numbers.
By it's very nature, the spread isn't designed to just overcome or beat an opponent straight up, it's intended to help the offense go around them.
RPO (run/pass option) plays, motion, and hybrid players are all tools that spread teams have used to stay a step ahead, often with the effect of increasing the importance of the QB. With the rise of the modern passing game, signal callers had already wrestled the title of "star of the offense"away from the running back who held that honor in the days of the I-formation but new developments in the spread have started to really marginalize the role of the running back.
It started with Mike Leach's Texas Tech, who would regularly spread out opponents with four receiver sets and never produced a 1k yard rusher despite regularly featuring one or even two 1k yard receivers in a given year. In that system the running back became a constraint option that Leach would consider involving only if the offense abandoned the box to cover his receivers.
However, there's a new formation and strategy emerging that completely marginalizes the running back while still emphasizing the spread running game. An alignment that can allow an offense to spread the defense out with four receivers while still pounding the interior with a diverse run game.
It's basically a modern spread take on the single-wing offense, often utilized as the "Wildcat" offense but now with even more wicked applications when deployed with a true QB. When combined with a running QB, RPOs, and a spread passing game it could be the final word on spread systems.
The major challenge to running this set is having the right personnel to make it work.
The most important ingredient to this formation and offense is the quarterback, who needs to be big and strong enough to be a featured, between the tackles runner while also skilled in the passing game. He's almost a RB/QB hybrid but most mobile QBs can be taught to take advantage of the space this scheme provides them to run around in.
Finding a QB who can be an inside runner is challenging enough as many skilled, mobile QBs aren't necessarily excited to lower their pads and try to run through tackles from DL and linebackers. When you add the requirement that he also be efficient in the passing game as well you have a seriously narrowed scope of options.
Many of the quarterbacks over the last decade who were capable of executing this approach, such as Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, and Collin Klein, were all Heisman candidates. For this reason most teams aren't necessarily looking to build their whole offense around this formation since it is so demanding on the QB roster, but it's becoming a more and more popular tactic to mix in for teams with mobile QBs.
The next ingredient is a pair of versatile slot receivers, ideally each of whom is equally capable running quick routes, vertical routes, sweeps, and screens. As long as one is a good receiver and the other a threat with the ball in his hands the offense is in great shape. If one of the slot receivers is a traditional running back who simply has the chops and know-how to run routes in addition to runs the offense is afforded tremendous flexibility and can get into this look from other formations without substituting.
The outside receivers and offensive line have the same duties as in any other offensive system while the fullback/h-back is another crucial ingredient who brings a high degree of multiplicity and thunder to the running game while allowing the passing game to send multiple receivers in patterns while the offense still enjoys six-man protection.
Again, if this player is versatile and can handle the ball as a runner or go out for routes the offense is only made more lethal.
When all those pieces are in place this is perhaps the most versatile and challenging alignment a defense can face with multiple stress points and conflicts emerging.
Nick Saban calls the numbers advantage that a spread team can get when they're willing to use the QB as an inside runner "the 11th gap." It's simple math, if the QB is a runner in the formation it puts the offense a man up unless the defense is willing to sacrifice having deep defenders.
Even the Michigan State Spartans, who pride themselves on being able to get nine defenders in the box, struggled to handle this mathematic problem:
The geometry of the formation simply makes it hard to get bodies in the path of the QB when he's taking the snap and firing off on lead runs behind a lead blocker.
Ohio State used zone slice from this set very effectively, with the QB threatening either the normal trajectory of a running back on zone or cutting back behind the H-back's trap block on the unblocked defensive end. Properly executed, the scheme doesn't allow the linebackers to flow hard to the ball, which means that extra numbers have to come from somewhere else.
Besides having the ability to run downhill behind a lead blocker at different angles, this set can also deploy everyone's favorite QB-read plays including power read:
The QB reads the unblocked end, if he chases the sweeping slot then the QB runs inside of him on a power run. If the end stays "home" to stop the QB from plunging ahead for an easy gain then he hands off to the slot who has three lead blockers and a full head of steam running into wide open spaces.
The sweeper can be used to augment power/counter and zone schemes and allow the offense to threaten the perimeter and inside running lanes simultaneously.
There's also the RPO game, perhaps best when combined with the QB lead draw/iso play as K-State and Texas A&M have done over the last few years:
The QB can have multiple options for punishing the defense if they don't respect the perimeter passing options and then the lead draw up the gut after the defense has relented and widened out.
Defenses usually prefer to handle difficult spread tactics either by keeping the ball in front of them with 2-read coverages and rallying to the ball or by manning up across the board with comparable athletes in order to keep numbers in the box, but neither of these hold up against the brutal geometry and math of this set.
For one, there's still the vertical passing attack, which the defense may or may not have the athletes to handle against a four-receiver set. The pass-rush isn't necessarily an adequate solution since the fullback/H-back is in great position to bring extra help against a dominant edge rusher or to neutralize inside rushers.
Worse, it still doesn't guarantee favorable angles and numbers for the defense in stopping the run game and removes the defense's safety net of having multiple defenders in position to clearly see what's going on and converge on the ball. You can see this at play against a play like QB counter:
The free safety needs to be ready to pursue and chase the sweeper but that leaves the strong safety in a difficult spot trying to first respond to the motion and then get in position to stop the QB run coming downhill at him. If the strong safety chases the sweeper all the way across the formation and leaves the QB to the free safety he's at a tremendous advantage trying to track the sweeper while running through the wash in the box.
Either way, the QB counter run still doesn't even have to worry about anyone making the tackle before the safety can get there unless a DL or LB beat a block. If that safety is also disadvantaged in his attempt to arrive in a timely manner? You could have big trouble if the QB has any open field speed.
When a defense responds to an offensive set by trying to match up across the board and deny the offense space to work in they seriously reduce their margin for error and open themselves up for motion, switch routes, and other man-beating concepts.
Most of the types of players and schemes necessary to make this kind of approach a nightmare for opposing defenses already exist, the challenge is simply in finding a QB who has enough skill in the run game and pass game as well as the size and toughness to survive a season serving as an insider runner for the offense.
The latter point is the most essential, as this system doesn't necessarily need a Johnny Manziel to work but it does need QBs who can take a tackle from a linebacker on one play and then be able to throw an accurate out route on the next snap. If the defense chooses to allow the offense to try and hammer away with the inside run game, the offense has to be ready for their QB to get 15-20 carries or else fold the bluff and turn in their cards.
However, as high school offenses continue to put their best athletes at QB in order to keep the ball in their hands, it's a good bet that more large, powerful, and skilled athletes have the chance to develop the tools to serve in this way at the collegiate level. When these types of unique athletes come into the college game, don't be surprised to see more college offenses use these "spread-wing" tactics to unleash them.