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The AAC and the “Gulf Coast offense”

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The Gulf Coast offense has come alive in the AAC where necessity has spurred its innovations.

East Carolina v Houston Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The “Gulf Coast offense” was Willie Taggart’s catchy nickname for the offense he developed at South Florida that allowed them to take off and earn him the Oregon job. Now at Oregon, he isn’t quite running the “Gulf Coast offense” so much as doing what Helfrich was doing when Helfrich was doing it well back in 2014.

The original idea of the offense was to translate the power and gap schemes of the “power coast” version of the West Coast offense that Taggart had taught as the RB coach under Jim Harbaugh back at Stanford. At USF they didn’t have the right pieces to make it work but they did have a good supply of athletes, including the stout QB Quinton Flowers, so they went spread so those athletes could play in space.

As a result, they combined the power and down blocking of the West Coast offense with the spread and renamed it after their own region. You have to wonder how much Taggart was inspired by what else was going on in the American Athletic Conference, and conversely how much the rest of the American Athletic Conference was inspired by what Taggart got up to. Today you can see elements of the “Gulf Coast offense” (from here on out the GCO for short) across most of the successful programs in the league. Go click on USF’s battle with Houston or the “War on I-4” shootout between USF and rival Central Florida and you see the GCO on display. Here’s how it works...

Spread pick’n’roll offense

The term “basketball on grass” has become a really popular term for uptempo spread systems in general but it’s very apt in describing the GCOs of the AAC. The idea is that you’re just running up to the line and calling one of a few plays based on who you want to go after or who you want to get the ball to.

That generally means spread RPOs (run/pass options) designed to get your key players the ball in space, much like a four or five-out modern NBA team picking who to run a pick’n’roll with or against. The nature of RPOs, particularly when it’s “perimeter screen or inside run,” is such that if you have an athlete that’s good in space and a good inside runner it’s child’s play to make the defense choose which of those two options they want to have to deal with. Particularly when you add in the particular nature of the Gulf Coast offense, which is a running QB.

It was only a matter of time before D’Eriq King took over at Houston, who won a lot of football games running this style of offense with Greg Ward, Jr and have already recruited more guys like him with Bryson Smith currently on the bench and Julon Williams on the way in the next class. They can never really sign too many of these quick-thinking, quick-moving, 5-11, 180 pound athletes in a spread offense because they all tend to translate pretty easily to WR or perhaps DB.

If the QB is a featured runner and he has an option to hit another good ballcarrier on the perimeter with a quick toss, how do you get enough defenders to stop both? You can’t really, unless you play man coverage everywhere and involve both safeties aggressively in the run fit, or you rely on linebackers consistently beating difficult blocks.

On this example the play side linebacker is late to recognize what is happening and is lucky enough that the H-back doesn’t see him so he’s able to makes the tackle from behind. It’s a normal counter run but the numbers and keys for the defense are thrown off by the RB being replaced by the QB in the run yet still commanding the attention of the LB in coverage.

The defense has to account for the RB’s motion quickly and in a way that still creates a sound front against the run. The defense has to either drop a safety over the RB or in replacement of the linebacker just to get an honest front and then they have to go out-execute the offense, all within a span of about two seconds...difficult stuff.

Across the AAC you’ll see a wide variety of different concepts that employ this same basic principle in which the QB has a quick read to either throw a short pass to an athlete in space or keep the ball himself, often behind a lead blocker, on a running play.

It’s not all there is to these offenses, but it’s a major component that sets them apart. GCOs tend to employ some normal QB-option plays, some RPOs that involve a hand-off or quick toss, and then some play-action and spread dropback passing as well. The key is the trump cards they can play with the QB option runs, which necessitates certain reactions from the defense and opens up everything else.

If the safeties are concerned about making a TD-saving tackle on a QB run at any moment, play-action becomes even easier. If your QB specializes in making quick decisions and running, then the spread passing game can be opened up by the added threat of the scramble drill.

The undersized point guard at QB

The Gulf Coast offense, like most great offensive innovations, was borne out of the necessity of making use of a particular type of athlete that was available to these teams. For instance, check out the specs on some of the AAC’s leading men this season:

Riley Ferguson, 6-4, 210. Memphis: 3500 passing yards, 8.8 ypa, 32-8 TD/INT, 132 rushing yards, 6 rushing TDs.

McKenzie Milton, 5-11, 185. UCF: 3301 passing yards, 10.3 ypa, 30-6 TD/INT, 492 rushing yards, 6 rushing TDs. 5-11, 185.

Quinton Flowers, 6-0, 210. USF: 2600 passing yards, 8.1 ypa, 21-6 TD/INT, 1075 rushing yards, 10 rushing TDs.

Ben Hicks, 6-1, 203. SMU: 3442 passing yards, 7.9 ypa, 32-9 TD/INT, 179 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD.

D’Eriq King, 5-11, 190. Houston: 991 passing yards, 10.3 ypa, 6-1 TD/INT. 369 rushing yards, 8 rushing TDs.

Riley Ferguson has more prototypical size and Hicks is more of a pocket passer but everyone else is an undersized, running QB. What you’re looking at here are essentially undersized point guards who excel at making a few quick decisions on their feet while live bullets are flying. These guys would have been your classic option quarterbacks running the wishbone or veer in another era.

The GCO may be directly descended from the West Coast offense but it’s really more of a reverse-engineered option attack that works from pitch to dive. On that Houston play above you see exactly that, the QB first reads the outside defender who’s looking to help stuff the run and he makes him pay with a quick outside pass to an athlete. A good screen play is the best of all worlds for the offense and the worst for a defense. Execution is easy, just a well timed and placed throw over a relatively short distance and then with any kind of blocking the WR can get enough space to have a two-way go. When it’s a dude like USF’s Tyre McCants the downsides of allowing that easy toss become too much for the defense to bear.

Consequently defenses these days tend to play “3 over 2” or “4 over 3” as the case may be to deny those tosses or else play man coverage so that the receiver is immediately tackled by the guy covering him.

After the offense denies the pitch, NOW the offense takes the dive option. Florida was doing this back in the day with Tim Tebow, but GCO teams don’t often have a big QB they’re looking to feature on these inside runs. Instead they have these point guard QBs that are six foot nothing and often under 200 pounds.

The upside of this though is similar to the effect that Oklahoma found back in the 80s in their wishbone offense. If the fullback can hit a homerun on the dive because he’s an athlete, that doesn’t make the offense less effective. None of these teams are looking to play ball-control, they’re happy for their QB “dive” runs to consist of some occasional no gains where a DL gets his mitts on the QB and drags him down in exchange for the play where the QB breaks looks into open grass. Anyways, those don’t tend to happen very often because it’s so hard for the defense to get enough guys to the ball to touch the QB before he’s made a gain and these guys tend to be pretty hard to catch.

These QBs often tend to excel in the spread passing game, especially from four or five receiver sets where it’s all about making the quick read or using your feet to create a passing lane and help a WR get open by negating pressure or causing the defense to worry about the scramble.

Nowadays teams love to hurry to the line only to wait and see if they can draw the real call from the defense, as UCF does here. Milton points out the blitz, then has more than enough time to step into the throw and hit a guy in the soft spot of a zone coverage. The way to make this work optimally is to have a QB that can make the checks and audibles himself and an easy way to do that is by having an ultra simple system so the available checks for the QB are few in number.

This only increases in efficacy as these games advance into the fourth quarter and pass-rushers become exhausted with the pace of the game and the high number of snaps they’ve spent trying to beat OL before corralling these water bug QBs. By the fourth quarter the pass-rush is often just done.

Baker Mayfield does some of this at Oklahoma but he can also execute the dreaded dropback passing game at a level that will probably see him find success in the NFL. None of these guys are playing QB in the NFL (though Ward is currently playing as a WR on the Eagles’ practice squad) but that doesn’t mean they can’t be exceptionally difficult to defend at the college level.

What’s next for the Gulf Coast offense?

South Florida actually moved away from the GCO somewhat this season in order to transition to the “Veer and Shoot” of current offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert. He may end up as a head coach and then we’ll see what USF does next but the “Veer and Shoot” doesn’t fit within the GCO concept. The goal with the V&S is to turn strong-armed QBs that may lack the ability to read the field and process defenses into deadly distributors due to reads simplified by spread formation, option concept, and the run game.

The GCO is more of a classical option attack looking to make the most of an athletic QB who can add value as a scrambler on top of using his legs to boost the run game. Of course if a GCO features a QB that can also process defenses and execute the dropback passing game then now you have a Baker Mayfield or a Marcus Mariota and a shot at a national championship.

Willie Taggart may be the head coach at Florida State by the time you read this and Scott Frost will almost certainly be moving on from Central Florida to rebuild Tom Osborne’s option attack in Lincoln, Nebraska. Dan Mullen runs something similar to this, but typically with more of a battering ram and dropback-savvy QB, and he’s bringing it to Florida next season. Texas may look like Mullen’s version of this with current freshman Sam Ehlinger as their signal-caller moving forward.

It’ll be interesting to see if some of these 3-star, undersized QBs who can execute a “pick’n’roll” style of simple option offense increase in value on the recruiting market or if schools continue to aim high and just incorporate more pro-style passing like Clemson did with DeShaun Watson. Either way, the next big innovations to the GCO or any other football strategy are likely to be found in the land of the AAC where there’s lots of fringe talent with just one or two missing traits preventing them from being snatched up by the bigger schools in the areas. That talent is always just waiting around for the right strategy to come along so that their skills can be maximized.