The motto of the Mount Union Purple Raiders, the undisputed masters of Division III football with 12 national championships and 24 consecutive conference titles, is to build their offense through a process of identifying players, formations, and then plays.
You'll hear this same mantra repeated by Mt. Union product and new Iowa St head coach Matt Campbell as he looks to build the Cyclone offense. The process is to determine who the best players on the team are, find out what formations feature them in their best roles, and then design plays. With this mantra, the Mount Union staff have just nailed the same process by which most programs go about tweaking their offense every year.
For Mount Union and most everyone else these days, the inside zone running play is undoubtedly the easiest play in football to tweak in order to feature different players from different formations. There are hundreds of different philosophies on how precisely to execute the play but the underlying principle is very simple. The OL will take a quick drop or lateral step and then move downhill looking to clear a quick, vertical path for the RB to pick his way through. There's at least one double team that the RB will be reading and the hope is to create "vertical displacement" meaning that defensive linemen are driven backwards off the line so that creases will develop as a result of successful push at different points along the line.
Since the play technically aims to hit between the tackles it can work from big or spread formations so you tend to see it from offenses of every philosophic persuasion. Here's how the play is tweaked to suit different philosophies and personnel.
Inside Zone for a pro-style team with a fullback
Because inside zone is a physical play in nature with the goal of driving opponents off the ball, it's a favorite option for the programs that are recruiting big, physical OL and want to be defined by their ability to impose their will on a game. LSU is a fantastic example.
The Tigers always have big, physical lineman on their team as well as hulking TEs and fullbacks who do more than trot out on the field in short-yardage situations. Last year LSU went into the season with five starters who were 6'5" or taller, a TE that was 295 pounds, and a 255 pound wrecking ball FB. Here's how those pieces tend to work together on inside zone:
LSU runs this play strong or weak and their fullback will often change his track in order to pick off a particular linebacker based on where across the line the Tigers want to target for a battering. While they tend to run this play completely different than a spread team might, some of the principles are the same. The playside tackle has to be able to control the defensive end on the edge and the double teams need to drive the tackles off the ball or at least secure them in place so a blocker can climb up to the linebacker.
Fournette ran the ball 300 times last year for LSU and accumulated 1953 rushing yards at 6.5 yards per carry with 22 TDs.
Inside Zone for a spread team with a running QB
The spread offense had two major breakthrough moments in its history that had to do with inside zone. The first was when teams started using spread formations in conjunction with the play to unleash athletic, runnings QBs in space. This was accomplished with the "zone-read" option play.
There are quite a few varieties of this play in effect these days to include lead blockers, pitch-options, or other features but here's how Texas often ran it with Vince Young when they rode the play to a national championship in 2005.
The QB reads the unblocked DE like on a normal option play and if he dives inside to try and tackle the RB the QB pulls the ball and runs free on the edge. This is essentially the same as using an extra blocker at TE or FB to account for the defenders in the box and to allow the OL to get multiple double teams, the difference of course is that instead of blocking the extra defender he's read.
That year Vince Young ran the ball 155 times for 1050 yards at 6.8 yards per carry with 12 TDs and the Longhorns also had a loaded backfield with four different running backs that got >75 carries, >400 rushing yards, >4.5 yards per carry, and >7 rushing TDs.
Nowadays more and more teams will use a single-wing type approach to utilize a running QB in the inside zone scheme and run variations of the play from four receiver formations with a blocker sharing the backfield with the QB.
Ohio State loves to run zone this way and JT Barrett got 115 carries for 682 yards and 11 TDs at 5.9 yards per carry in this system last year.
Inside Zone for a spread team with a pocket passer
The second major breakthrough for the spread offense involving inside zone was the development of RPOs, which asks the QB to account for one of the defenders in the box with an option read but doesn't require that the QB run the ball himself. Instead he reads a second level defender, usually a linebacker, and makes the decision to hand-off to the RB or else throw the ball out wide to a receiver.
When the spread offense was able to start featuring pocket passers and still create advantages for their OL to block inside zone and run the ball up the middle that's when you saw the system really start to take off with the bigger programs in college football.
The most common way this works is for the offense to package a bubble screen or other quick passing concept on the perimeter with the inside zone play. You see this frequently at Alabama who has used it to create 1-on-1 match-ups for stars like Amari Cooper and Derrick Henry.
The QB will read the defender over the slot and throw or hand-off based on their decision to either run inside to be an unblocked defender against the run or to stay with the slot receiver and prevent an easy gain on the bubble screen. Alabama liked to use their TE in an H-back alignment and run the "slice zone" variety of this play in which the backside DE is initially unblocked and then "trapped" by the H-back coming across, opening up a nice cutback lane for the RB off the double team.
With this play as the foundation of their offense, Derrick Henry won the Heisman for Alabama last year with 2219 yards off 395 carries at 5.6 yards per carry with 28 TDs.
Inside zone for a team with a track star skill player
What if you're a pro-style or spread team with a blazing fast WR or RB that you'd like to use in the running game without having to make option reads or passes? What if you want to get them the ball on the move without having to pass it? The jet sweep is a perfect way to provide a constraint on the perimeter and utilize someone other than the slot receiver, QB, or RB on inside zone. Wisconsin had so much success with this play over the years that they'd often line up RBs out wide so they could hand it to them on the sweep.
There are multiple ways to use this play but the Wisconsin variety in which the backside end is unblocked (he's never going to make the tackle on the motioning receiver crossing his face immediately after the snap) and two lead blockers are provided on the perimeter is a favorite nationally.
This is run as a predetermined hand-off but once opposing teams start playing the sweep it can open things up for fake sweep motion and old faithful inside zone.
In his last year at Wisconsin Melvin Gordon got 343 carries and went for 2587 rushing yards at 7.5 yards per carry with 29 TDs. Much of that came with the jet sweep.
Inside zone for split back teams
In 2015 Oklahoma found themselves in the unique position of having two very good, feature backs on their roster. The Oregon Ducks also tend to find themselves with tons of great backs on their rosters with varying skill sets, then the question becomes how to play them all on the field at the same time.
Naturally, these teams have also turned to inside zone. One variety that has worked out very well for teams like Oregon and Oklahoma is to use the RB who's better in space to motion out to the perimeter and then run an RPO where the QB's options are to hand off on inside zone or else flip a quick toss out to the motioning back.
This is much like the jet sweep only run from the spread and with a post-snap option attached. The QB is reading the middle linebacker (usually) to see if he chases the screen, in which case it's a hand-off, or if he stays home, in which case he throws the quick screen.
Any team with a flex RB/slotback kind of player in addition to having a traditional RB can make use of this variation of zone to spread out the defense and get the needed numbers advantage to run inside zone. This set up would be ideal for a team with a flex TE in the slot blocking out wide, a RB/WR player along with a traditional back in the backfield, and a pocket QB.
Last year at Oklahoma their main inside back, Samaje Perine, got 1349 yards on 226 carries at 6.0 yards per carry and 16 TDs. Joe Mixon ran for 753 additional yards but also caught 28 balls for 356 yards and four TDs while occasionally serving as an outside constraint for Perine in this fashion.
Inside zone for two-back spread teams
I'm differentiating "split back" and "two-back" teams by defining split back teams as having two skill players that you want to get the ball to while a two-back team has one skill player in the backfield paired with an escorting blocker. This could be a fullback or a TE/H-back.
For these teams, a LSU-type lead zone concept is ideal for creating the advantages to run inside zone effectively:
Every defender in the box is accounted for while the sam linebacker could be kept from joining the action by adding the bubble option.
You'll often see spread teams that have a versatile slot receiver and a TE/FB player on the roster utilize either the split back or two-back formations and run either version. If the QB is a runner they can even add the zone read element.
The Fightin' Irish of Notre Dame ran a lot of two-back spread sets in 2015 while springing both CJ Prosise and Josh Adams to 800+ rushing yards.
Inside zone for spread teams with a deep threat WR
Perhaps the most progressive variety of inside zone these days is in the realm of RPOs where some teams are finding ways to push the envelopes of legality and offensive norms. You may have noticed that in every instance above the offense has ways to account for the Sam linebacker joining the action but don't have a way to punish the strong safety for dropping down.
Normally teams would take note if the strong safety was dropping down and call for a play-action bomb to make him think twice. Other teams are giving their QBs options to punish them immediately:
A team like Baylor will frequently give the backside receiver a route to run in order to make the defense pay in the moment with a deep strike. Their preferred Iso receiver to feature in this capacity last year was Corey Coleman, who had 74 receptions for 1363 yards and 20 TDs.
Because of the simple nature of inside zone blocking and the fact that it targets the middle of the field as well as most any run scheme available, inside zone is easily adaptable to any formation, style, or play-maker. That's why virtually every team runs it and why so many rely upon it to be the foundation of their offensive system.