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Pro-style vs college-style offense? That is the question...

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“Spread” vs “pro-style” isn’t even really a question anymore as nearly every program uses spread formations. The question now is “pro-style” vs “college-style” approaches to how to use the space created by the spread.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl Game-Penn State vs Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve spent a lot of space here trying to nail down what exactly it means for an offense to be “pro-style” these days and what we should call offenses that are “pro-style” in the classic sense. Meaning that they utilize a tight end and a fullback to help feature their star tailback in a run-centric offense.

Those offenses are increasingly rare at the college level and virtually non-existent in the pros. Over at Football Outsiders, Bryan Knowles broke down what exactly pro offenses look like these days.

The most common package for every NFL team, the base package for every team, and the most effective personnel package in the pros is this one...

...three receivers, a running back, and a tight end that can line up next to a tackle or flexed out wide as a fourth receiver. This is “11 personnel” (one RB, one TE) and it’s hard to beat for setting an offense up to run West Coast and concept-based passing attacks of the sort that are most reliable for attacking modern defenses.

As Clemson demonstrated against Alabama, it’s very hard to run the ball against the best teams these days but it’s even harder for even the best defenses to hold up to a modern passing attack.

The differences between college and NFL offenses...

It’s not centered around whether to line up in the shotgun or whether to use “spread sets.” Those questions have been answered definitively at this point. The most effective offenses in football today heavily utilize the shotgun alignment and spread the field more often than not.

The big differences between the two offenses now result from the following three factors. The first is the depth and diversity of college football programs, who come in all shapes, sizes, and regions. You see far greater diversity in strategy and tactics from college programs than the NFL because inequality defines so much of the game.

The next factor is that without a salary cap or other inequality prevention measures, then it becomes possible for the more resource-rich programs to gear their strategy around imposing their will on opponents in the run game. The most rare resources in college football are the big guys that have the rare blend of sheer size and athleticism to dominate the trenches. Quarterbacks and receivers can be harder to identify out of college, are easier to develop after they arrive on campus, and are simply much more common. Particularly in the spread era which increases the impact they can have on the game while decreasing the challenge of playing the positions.

In the NFL under the salary cap it’s very, very difficult to have enough of an advantage in the trenches to impose your will in the run game every week. But because the passing game is simply harder to stop, even for the top defenses, everyone is looking to build their strategies around that dimension of their offense.

The final factor is the tight end. Currently it seems that the number of guys that are at least 6’3” and 230 pounds that can run routes in the seams against smaller defenders on one play and then do some blocking the next is such that most of the 32 NFL teams can find them but many of college football’s 100+ FBS programs cannot.

The shotgun spread is thus common at both levels of the game, as are many of the dropback passing concepts that define pro-style offenses. The main differences come in the emphasis, which in college is towards the run game, so the more common college personnel package is this one:

Technically this is referred to as “20 personnel” (two RBs, zero TEs) even though that H-back player is normally a tight end or a fullback. I often call it “the spread-I” since it shares the I-formation’s use of a lead blocker and the running back but utilizes three receivers to create a “spread” effect on the defense. At some point we should just start calling it “college-style” offense.

20 personnel is generally superior to 11 personnel in college for the following reasons. First of all, the H-back who can execute trap blocks, lead blocks, and kick-out blocks is much easier to find than the tight end that can combo a DL with a tackle, base block a DE, and then run option routes in the seams.

Secondly, the diversity of run game plays that an offense can run from a two-back set is greater and superior to those you can run with a tight end attached on the line, partly because the defense doesn’t know before the snap where he’ll be creating a new gap. This becomes even more pronounced once you involve RPOs in which the H-back triggers defensive backs to come downhill after the snap and makes for easy pass reads for the QB. Max protection sets, hallmark of run-centric offenses that use play-action, have greater flexibility with an H-back than with an in-line tight end.

So if you are wanting to build an offense around the run game, like most college offenses do, 20 personnel is the more common path.

The dilemma for blue bloods

So here’s the dilemma for the major programs. All the star recruits who are growing up wanting to play in the NFL and are often paying for private skills coaching to learn NFL techniques and concepts are not mastering college-style tactics.

Alabama somehow recruits future NFL left tackles and managed to get tight end O.J. Howard drafted in the first round after utilizing his freakish athleticism on trap and lead blocks from an H-back alignment for four years. They’ve run a very pared down version of the NFL dropback passing game under Saban though, typically only emphasizing the concepts that serve to complement the run game. The NFL wants tight ends that know how to get open on option routes and I’m not sure that Howard ever even attempted that at Alabama. Tampa Bay is going to have a lot to teach him before he can offer Jameis Winston what Nick O’Leary did at Florida State.

The question is how the big schools can maintain their advantages with the run game when the game is moving towards the “pro-style” spread passing game.

Reread that last sentence and make sure its resonating and then let’s talk examples.

Of the seven champions this decade, five ran “college-style” offenses that blended an H-back/tight end with spread sets, NFL dropback game, and often some option concepts. They were all run-centric teams that relied on guys like Cam Newton, Ezekiel Elliott, and Trent Richardson. The other two champions were the 2013 Florida State Seminoles and the 2016 Clemson Tigers. Dabo’s Clemson team was a nominally college-style team that became a pro-style team when the going got tough, relying on flex tight end Jordan Leggett and Deshaun Watson’s command of the dropback game.

The 2013 Florida State Seminoles were a pro-style team in the true, modern sense of the word. They spent most of their time in 11 personnel with tight end Nick O’Leary serving as a tool for holding safeties and linebackers in the seams while Jameis Winston and their receivers torched opponents on the perimeter.

Clemson is in a bit of a flux now with Watson moving on while Florida State has leaned more on the run game and trotted the fullback out more often since their QB spot has been handled by guys like Everett Golson and Deondre Francois while Dalvin Cook has helmed the running back position. Maintaining a pro-style approach in college is hard because even for blue bloods it’s difficult to consistently feature great dropback tight ends and quarterbacks.

What’s more, the dropback game requires chemistry between the QB and his receivers as well as an OL that can be counted on to execute pass protections for 30+ snaps a game without getting shredded by blitzes. You’ll notice that the OL that were reliable at protections in the modern era, such as the Colt McCoy Texas Longhorns, Jameis Winston Florida State Seminoles, or Deshaun Watson Clemson Tigers were also often known for lacking punch in the run game. It’s very difficult to run block and protect at a championship caliber within the constraints of college practice limitations and roster turnover. Normally teams try to be elite in one regard and then good enough in the other.

If you’re recruiting at a high level, you can always trot out strong OL and blow people away with the run game while the QB executes a fairly simple play-action or RPO passing game. That can take some development, but it’s not the rare QB who can throw for 3k or 4k yards in a good college-style offense, it’s commonplace in the Big 12. Developing guys that can burn defenses with the dropback passing game is more difficult, yet potentially more rewarding as well.

Notre Dame is an example of a team that was embracing the modern pro-style offense in terms of snatching up pro-style tight ends and using three receiver sets, yet Brian Kelly still tried to maintain a run-centric philosophy to make the most of the Irish’ recruiting advantages. Now it looks like they’re embracing more of a true college-style offense.

USC has embraced the modern pro-style offense and now that they have Sam Darnold at the helm their poised to reap the benefits. When he’s gone? They’ll go find another future pro QB from the ranks of Californian high schools paying for private coaching. Jim Harbaugh’s reputation at this point should be based on executing pro-style schemes at a high level while still running the ball with physicality (and a fullback!) and utilizing limited quarterbacks. As soon as he finds his next Andrew Luck, look out.

The SEC schools currently built around running the football and playing defense can count on staying relevant but every year that another blue blood school moves towards more of a pro-style concept it increases the chances that a team like Alabama will get into the playoffs and run into a team with a high level pro-style offense that proves to be the difference in a heavyweight bout.