Unlike in many other sports, innovation in the game of football tends to come from the bottom up. In particular, high school football regularly sees a lot of offensive and even defensive innovation and tends to be the testing ground for a lot of tactics that later show up in the college game.
There may be no better exhibition for the up and coming tactics of tomorrow in college football than watching the Texas high school football championship games. There may also not be a better way to get a glimpse into the heroes of tomorrow’s college football world. The two highest level titles of Texas HS football in 2016 featured matchups between Lake Travis and The Woodlands for the 6A D1 title and between DeSoto and Cibolo Steele for the 6A D2 title.
I’ll spoil the endings and alert you that Lake Travis and DeSoto were the winners so that I can relate that they were quarterbacked by Charlie Brewer and Shawn Robinson, respectively. Those two signal-callers are going to enroll at Baylor and TCU respectively next season and we may get a de-facto playoff between the two highest level 6A state title winners when they face off in future Big 12 games.
Here’s a glimpse of the statistical dominance from both approaches over the course of these players’ senior years:
If you watch these games to determine how those teams won their titles you’ll see the two main directions that modern spread offenses are heading in:
Featuring the QB run game
The spread run game has only gotten more nasty with time and guys like DeSoto/TCU’s Shawn Robinson are very difficult to control in the spread-option game. Three out of the four playoff teams in this last playoff were using running QBs to great effect and this was largely because of the increasing diversity of QB spread run concepts that make it difficult to keep the ball out of his hands.
The first breakthrough for QB shotgun run games came when teams would pair zone read and power read together. Back in the days of the zone read if you wanted to keep the ball out of the hands of the QB you could have the unblocked DE stay home and stay square to the line of scrimmage so that the QB would get a “give” read and the ball would go to the RB on a normal zone trajectory. However on power read, if the unblocked DE plays to contain the ball inside then the QB can pull the ball and run inside of him behind a pulling guard.
Defenses had to carefully teach their defenders how to play these different blocking schemes to try and keep athletic QBs from getting loose in space. Nowadays though it’s much more difficult as the schemes offenses use to set their QBs up for success have advanced.
For instance, now defenses can’t even consistently plan for which runner (the RB or QB) they want the ball to go to on zone read plays thanks to “bash,” a variation on the scheme in which the RB gets the outside constraint path and the QB becomes the downhill, inside zone runner:
With bigger QBs like Robinson, who weighs 215 pounds in addition to being an explosive runner, offenses can teach them inside run schemes and cause all kinds of problems.
Then there are the schemes where the offense gives the illusion of an option read when really they are running the ball with the QB at a targeted part of the defense:
That’s just counter-trey with the backside guard and H-back pulling but instead of the ball going to the RB it’s going to the QB with the RB executing a fake sweep path to the opposite edge.
If the LBs are keying the RB at all then that motion will cause them to take a step towards the sweep path by the RB and thus be late to arrive at the point of attack where the offense is creating new gaps by pulling blockers over.
These days if you have a good running QB it’s very easy to install a dozen different variations of your main run game schemes to feature him and create opportunities to spring him into space with angles and options. All that’s really necessary is that the QB be able to throw the ball well enough so that the defense can’t just load up the box and ignore the WRs on the perimeter.
Then there’s the isolation tactics, such as this play by Lake Travis to spring their signal-caller on a designed QB run:
The obvious threat from this formation is the bubble screen either to the field or the boundary and The Woodlands defense is in a 3-4 with eight guys dropping to try and reduce the risk of getting burned on whichever perimeter they failed to allocate numbers to defending.
Because they drop their OLBs the D is isolated up the gut and Lake Travis burns them with a direct snap run to the QB Brewer, who knows before the snap that the defense won’t have numbers in the box and won’t be able to stop the run play. At 6-1, 188 pounds, Brewer isn’t the power back that Robinson is but he’s more than quick and strong enough to make hay in all of the space he finds himself in here.
Assuming a certain level of competency from the passing game, featuring a star runner at the QB position is easier today with these tactics than featuring a star runner at the RB spot. What’s more, there are increasing numbers of 6-0/6-2 guys that aren’t quick quick enough to play traditional RB but are learning to throw well enough to be lethal in these systems.
You can see many of these tactics at work in the Jalen Hurts-Alabama offense but the level of complexity and skill at the high school level already matches it.
The future of triple-option football
While DeSoto’s championship offense was geared around setting up Shawn Robinson to dominate opponents with his sheer athleticism, the Lake Travis offense was an elaborate tapestry of reads and meant to ensure that the ball could always end up in space with one of their many good skill players.
As you saw in the table above, Robinson compiled 4882 total yards and 47 touchdowns, but the smaller and less athletic Brewer managed 4673 yards and 63 touchdowns in the precise Cavalier attack. The Lake Travis offense was filled with RPO (run/pass options) and option reads designed to isolate and expose individual defenders on opposing defenses.
Some of them were just designed to create easy chances for players to find themselves in space, such as this quick hitter to their slot:
There are multiple reads here for Brewer to process but they happen sequentially and have the end result of making it very easy for him to make a decision. First Lake Travis flares out their RB and Brewer observes how the outside LB responds and whether he gets wide enough to take away the quick screen or not.
When he does, Brewer has options to throw a quick hitch to the boundary or to the field. Since the only LB out to the field is chasing the screen, that leaves The Woodlands inside linebackers out leveraged in trying to stop the quick sit route by the slot.
All the work here for the QB is mental. If he understands what the various motions and options in his offense are meant to accomplish and how they relate to the defensive structure then the actual throws can become pretty easy.
Lake Travis’ third downs in this game were an amazing display of ways to create simple reads and throws to players that were at advantage. But the Cavaliers also had a pair of leading receivers in Cade Green (heading to Wisconsin) and Cade Brewer (no relation, heading to Texas) that could win if simply isolated in a 1-on-1 situation. Here’s a series of plays they used to punish their opponents for their matchup choices.
Lake Travis would frequently line up in a 3x1 trips formation before motioning their versatile RB, Maleek Barkley (heading to Arkansas), outside of the solo-side WR and then throwing to whichever target that The Woodlands tried to cover with their outside LB. In this case, the OLB went out wide over the RB and Brewer hit him deep on a dig/go combination:
Lake Travis got a lot of mileage out of this set and throwing on the boundary against the outmatched Woodlands’ players.
Later in the game they lined up in a trips set with TE Cade Brewer as the solo side WR. The Woodlands get an OLB out on Barkley, which is probably a favorable matchup for Lake Travis, but instead they go after the safety and punish The Woodlands for blitzing an ILB rather than using him to bracket the TE:
Cade Brewer led Lake Travis with 14 TD passes this last season and you can see the trust between him and his QB from the way that Charlie Brewer is throwing the ball before Cade has finished executing his double move on the safety.
Obviously Lake Travis had a lot of really good skill players to work with on offense but the design of their system guaranteed that they were regularly working with leverage on defenders and typically in a lot of space. All of their motions would serve to help Charlie Brewer discern which post-snap reads and options to target to result in efficient offense. That’s how you complete 77% of your passes and throw only three INTs in high school, or how you lead an offense that scores 50 or more points in 11 out of 16 games.
You can see a similar approach at work in the Baker Mayfield-Oklahoma offense (another Lake Travis alum, not coincidentally) but the level of complexity Lake Travis right now at least matches what they’re doing in Norman.
Teams that can get a physically dominant athlete like Shawn Robinson at QB are going to find the modern spread run game very useful for employing simple, execution-based schemes that allow him to run over opponents. Meanwhile other teams may find that with a quick thinking, accurate QB surrounded by good skill players that they too can package multiple pre-snap options and checks into their offense to make sure that what talent they have is always working at advantage.
We may very well see these styles contrasted in future TCU-Baylor rivalry games but also in college football nationally.