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A million ways to run counter

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Counter is no longer really that but a base play that teams are running in a wide variety of ways to great effect from spread formations.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

The counter run play is becoming a national favorite in college football. It seems to fall in and out of favor over the years as teams find new ways to run it without tipping off the defense so that they get a head start to where the pullers are headed. Back in the 90s the GT (guard/tackle) counter-trey play was immensely popular and teams like Nebraska and Kansas State made it big parts of both their normal run game and their QB run game to unleash athletes like Eric Crouch and Michael Bishop.

The shotgun spread era saw some of that, especially at Florida with Percy Harvin, but the GT counter really took off again when Oklahoma made it the main thrust of their offense in 2015 under first year OC Lincoln Riley and demonstrated how various keep or pass QB options could be attached to the basic concept. Now there are a million ways to run the counter that you can find on a given Saturday in college football. Here’s a few of the nasty varieties...

H-counter

This was one of the first shotgun counter plays to really take off, with Florida and Percy Harvin. Obviously you still see it around. It’s nasty for running at the weak side of an over front, the guard can block down on the nose while the tackle takes a free run at the LB.

One of the less mentioned aspects of the 2018 SEC title game was the fact that this play was worth about eight yards, easy, every time Alabama ran it against Georgia. The Bulldogs could not stop the Alabama guards from executing the kickout block and the down blocks always blew open a massive hole. Keep that in mind for the upcoming playoffs.

GT counter-read

This was the play that Oklahoma turned into the most popular play in college football. The big deal with this play is that if the unblocked DE crashes down to stop the run, the QB can pull it around the edge like on a zone-read. Oklahoma added a dozen variations in which the FB would run a quick POP route or flare out to block for a screen opposite the direction of the pullers, or lead on the edge for the QB...all kinds of stuff.

It’s extra nasty with Baker Mayfield throwing RPOs or Kyler Murray keeping the ball around the edge but what has made the play popular everywhere is that it’s very hard for defenses to defend the QB keep without having the backside DE stay home. That means that everyone can now run a downhill, power scheme with the GT counter from 10 personnel and get an extra WR on the field instead of a TE or FB without having to use a good running QB.

QB GT counter

What has always made this play deadly, dating back to when Nebraska or K-State ran it for their QBs, is that the RB can give the linebackers a really unhelpful key either by arcing up to block the edge, taking a fake handoff sweep path, or swinging to the perimeter to offer a pass option. He’s not needed, nor is anyone else other than the five OL, to execute the blocking scheme. On this example Texas does use a TE to help block down on the edge and clear out the LB anyways, a wrinkle Oklahoma used to great effect in 2017.

The first player to even get to the QB to have a chance at making the tackle is the sam LB, who started the play lined up to the trip receivers on bottom of the screen. Naturally he then misses the open field tackle and there are eight or more so yards to be had.

QB counter from 10 personnel

What makes counter such a popular scheme is that it’s an OL who handles the kickout block. That block is the one teams rely to open the lane behind the double team for the offense to insert a lead blocker and then the ballcarrier. On “power” that job goes to a TE or FB and it’s a difficult task that not all of them can reliably execute. There’s also the potential for the DE to step inside and spill the block with violence, which is hard to adjust to unless you’re a big, powerful human being of the sort that is often found on the OL but rarely at TE or FB.

The QB counter run from a four-WR set is nasty because the guard kicks out and then easier job of leading through the hole can be executed by the RB. The four receivers run quick routes or screens and hold defenders to create spacing for the run. In this instance the play isn’t even blocked that well but the spacing of being able to run a lead scheme from 10 personnel creates enough space for Houston QB D’Eriq King to do his thing.

GTE counter

Rather than guard/tackle that’s guard/tight end. Memphis has a variety of ways to run lead schemes from their attached TE formations and Mike Norvell’s Tigers standout for regularly executing this version of the play. This example makes clear how tricky the TE’s job is since he has a long ways to go and in this instance he seems to be late to realize his assignment and Darrell Henderson hits the hole before he does. One of the big benefits of the scheme is that the offense can regularly run it at a nickel against tite front teams since teams will often put their bigger OLB over the TE and the nickel on the other side against the receivers.

This play is also good against teams that force the “wrap” by the guard. If the team wants to spill the guard it helps when the offense has an extra quick lead blocker coming behind him to adjust and still connect on the next defender to show up.

H-back double counter

A really good wrinkle by Josh Heupel and the staff now at Central Florida. The trouble with counter, especially if you don't also run power, is that the alignment of the H-back gives away the direction of the play. Power will go to the H-back’s side, counter will go away...unless the offense runs it with this wrinkle. In this scheme the H-back takes a counter step as though heading across the formation before turning back as the lead blocker.

With this scheme UCF can avoid asking any of their H-backs to kickout on power but instead run H-counter to either side of the formation. It also mimics split zone, which is in the UCF run game arsenal. Btw, UCF hasn’t lost this season...although Michigan also used this play effectively against Ohio State in their 62-39 debacle.

No pullers/split zone counter

This is a no pullers power, but the lines are pretty blurred between counter and power when there’s no guards pulling. The idea here is that the offense gets a pair of FB/TE types in the backfield and one kicks out starting outside the offensive tackle while the other leads. It causes two problems for the defense, one is that it inserts a lead block outside of the normal tackle box so the player that takes on the block can’t be the middle linebacker and the guy that overlaps can’t be the outside linebacker. Essentially the offense is moving the point of attack outside to where the smaller, less physical people are. The other problem is that the OL don’t give away anything about the play’s direction or pre-snap gaps because they aren’t pulling.

You could run this with counter steps by the backs, although that’s not really necessary, to make it more of a true counter. In this instance the run is for the QB with two lead blockers. This was Texas QB commit Roschon Johnson at Port Neches-Groves running the play, a short-yardage nightmare for high school opponents.

Everyone loves the counter run, it’s power for teams that don’t have a great blocking FB or TE to clear out all those pesky DEs and in the modern spread offense it’s becoming more than just a “counter” but a base play in its own right.