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The future of the pro-style spread

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Tight ends, option runs, and pro-style passing can be complementary in today’s game.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In the past I’ve used the label “pro-style spread” to describe offenses that are running pro concepts and still emphasizing the use of a TE while also using spread sets and perhaps tempo to augment those schemes. It’s easier to be simple and emphasize execution of a few base concepts if you adapt them to spread formations and tempo and that’s what pro-style spread teams aim for.

The modern pro-style offense is basically a pro-style spread itself as teams like the Manning Colts and Brady Patriots found the same things to be true in the NFL but the evolution of language is what it is.

The next phase of this offense is one that Alabama could conceivably devise with Daboll, Locksley, and Hurts in the coming years. A system that utilizes spread sets and QB runs/options while simultaneously fielding at least one and typically two TEs.

We’ve seen hints of this coming in the college football world already. Bill Snyder's Wildcats have come close with their combination of option, QB run game, and west coast/spread passing. They do a little of everything and when their QB is half-decent in all the components they can become highly efficient. But while K-State regularly employs TEs and FBs in their offense, they don't really make much of hybrids or flex TEs in their system.

When they've really wanted to throw the ball they've usually gone with 4/5-wide spread sets while some of their better TEs and FBs over the years have been guys that are out there to block and maybe catch a check down in the flat.

Meanwhile, the flex TE is becoming a core element in NFL tactics. Ball control via drop back passing is the name of the game there and guys that are 6-3, 240 and up are useful for creating matchups that a QB can exploit. The next phase at the college level is likely for some team to combine a dual-threat signal-caller in a QB-run heavy offense with double TE sets for ball control supremacy.

Pro-style spread TE deployment

If you watch the Jim Harbaugh Michigan Wolverines you’ll see them regularly mix and match spread sets with big, “pro-style” personnel. I discovered the usefulness of this tactic myself once when playing Madden against my brother-in-law one Christmas. If you line up in a triple TE formation but one of your TEs is a guy like Jermichael Finley (in that instance) then after your opponent matches with big personnel, you can align or motion the flex TE where he’ll face an overmatched player and go to town.

For me that meant audibling from the heavy set to an empty formation that put my brother’s middle LB against Finley running a go route outside of the hash marks. Merry Christmas, Michael (although he still beat me more often than not).

For Harbaugh and the Wolverines last year that often meant getting Jake Butt in favorable areas of the field against under qualified coverage defenders.

With a double TE empty formation on the field, the opponent is influenced to play base 4-3 personnel and then you can determine which linebacker you want to force to play a tough coverage assignment. Ohio State played base 4-3 personnel all the time anyways, but this formation made Butt the last receiver accounted for by the Buckeye coverage scheme and matched him up underneath against Raekwon McMillan, a matchup Butt exploited multiple times in that game.

The TE who knows how to run routes in the middle of the field is a devastating weapon at every level but he’s often underutilized in the college game because a mastery over the art of option routes doesn’t leave much time for mastery over run blocking. When you watch star TEs over the years like Maxx Williams of Minnesota, Jake Butt of Michigan, Evan Engram of Ole Miss, or Jordan Leggett of Clemson you’ll notice that their teams usually tried to scheme around them in run blocking rather than featuring them.

The double TE set is useful largely as a tool for teams like Stanford that want to force the opponent to play bigger personnel so that their receiving TE can work against LBs rather than DBs in the drop back passing game.

However, a dual-threat QB opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

Complementary focal points

The biggest challenge for the flex TE in the college game stems from the fact that most major programs want to use the run game as the thrust of their offense. It’s where most of their advantages arise because while the world’s supply of quality skill players is large and QB eval a risky venture, there are only so many athletic big men who can dominate in the trenches. The blue blood programs are the ones that can regularly get those players so it behooves them to make games come down to who wins in the trenches on run downs.

But emphasizing the run game doesn’t neatly coincide with developing flex TEs that excel running routes, as evidenced by O.J. Howard’s lack of targets in four years of regular playing time at Alabama contrasted with his first round draft grade.

To make the most of an athletic TE, an offense needs to be able to give him relatively easy blocking assignments and spare him the necessary fine-tuning to battle DEs at the point of attack on power or zone. An easy way to accomplish that goal is with a dual-threat QB executing option or single-wing style runs which provide the offense with a numbers advantage and the ability to avoid asking their TE to block a DE.

The solution for every offense that seeks balance is to find ways to marry the rep-intensive run game and drop back passing game. It generally takes years of development to arrive at high level competence in both and even the best in the business have their occasional off years. The more that you can overlap (like with RPOs or play-action) or minimize teaching the easier it is to maintain success.

But these types of strategies are becoming increasingly plausible because of the nature of modern player development. Football is moving in a similar direction as basketball with AAU as private skills coaches, 7 on 7 club teams, and advanced high school programs producing players with a lot more skill coming into college then what we’ve seen in the past.

Quarterbacks that have the athleticism and know how to operate a run game where they’re a featured component while still having the arm and skills to read defenses on passing concepts are more and more common. For teams to seek these guys out and build around them is becoming more common.

What isn’t yet common is for that to be combined with pro-style spread passing tactics in multi-TE formations.

Oh the possibilities...

Auburn has used double TE sets under Gus Malzahn for years, although they’ve never emphasized those TEs with advanced passing concepts and often feature blockers at both positions. One play they’ve used very effectively is this double lead “zone bluff” play that made Nick Marshall nearly unstoppable in the red zone:

The DE is unblocked and the H-back and TE get easy angles on the weak side DB and LB that Missouri is counting on back there. C.J. Uzomah and Jay Prosch were excellent blockers, but this is the kind of job that a Jake Butt or Maxx Williams could be counted on to execute while still spending most of his developmental energies on mastering route running.

You start to add up run schemes like that with the wide world of possibilities that could stem from having two route-savvy, matchup problem TEs on the field and you have some serious problems for opposing defenses.

The possibilities of an empty set are perhaps most intriguing:

Assuming Y and F are route-savvy TEs while H, Z, and X are receivers and the QB is proficient in both QB run game concepts and drop back passing this formation is an unsolvable dilemma for defenses. There are innumerable stress points that the offense is creating both by alignment and by matchup.

First there’s the standard question of dealing with two different considerations for what the “strength” of the formation is. Do you want to focus on taking away throws to the three receiver side? Or worry about the big TEs running routes on the boundary? Is your main concern to the double TE side run defense or pass game matchups? How are you going to get numbers in the box to stop a QB run? It’s all too easy for the offense to punish every choice.

Many will consider the accumulation of these types of talent a pipe dream save for bigger programs like Alabama (who I noted already has the players to try and implement this kind of system). However, check out the top three players for the South Dakota State Jackrabbits O last year:

If a Division II program can find an NFL TE, a star WR who’s nearly as big as a TE, and a dual-threat QB then it shouldn’t be beyond the reach of a power 5 school to field this kind of personnel as well.

Eventually it’ll happen and we’ll enter a new phase of pro-style spread offense.