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A new kind of slot receiver in the spread

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Spread teams virtually all use spread-I formations now and are becoming differentiated by the kind of player they put in the slot.

Rose Bowl Game - Oklahoma v Georgia Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The notion of running a base, two-back personnel group with a TE is pretty standard in collegiate spread football. The spread offense really took off when teams demonstrated how effective the system was for running the football and everyone started using the spacing and option tactics to amplify the impact of their run game.

It wasn’t long before teams began to use TE/FB hybrids off the line in H-back positions to allow a greater variety of run game than using a traditional, in-line TE could offer to a team. With an H-back just off the hip of an offensive tackle it was easy for teams to still run combo blocks on the perimeter on zone runs while also asking the TE to execute trap or lead blocks and mix in power, iso, and split flow plays.

Essentially it’s a “spread” I formation that can allow two-back, lead runs like the old I-formation while still putting three receivers on the field to create spacing, get a consistent slot, and to allow the offense to run more route combos.

Using the hybrid TE/FB is basically a “best practice” for multiple programs and consequently the spread-I is branching out in new directions with everyone using the same basic alignment... field a variety of different personnel groupings and to execute multiple philosophies. You can tell what a team really wants to do on offense these days by what kind of player they are utilizing in the slot.

The “spread to run” RB/WR slot

The “spread to run” programs like Oregon or Urban Meyer’s various stops, they began to use the H-back alignment for their TEs in order to get the more diverse run game but they also still utilized a second running back on the field, in the slot.

For these teams there was the traditional RB, notably played by Ezekiel Elliott or Carlos Hyde at Ohio State and LaMichael James or Kenyon Barner at Oregon. These are just standard feature backs, guys that thrive at executing normal, base run schemes like inside zone. Then they’d play a TE/FB hybrid at the H-back such as Colt Lyerla (Oregon) or Jeff Heuerman (Ohio State) who’d primarily serve as blockers but would also run routes and even flex wide.

Finally there’s the slot position, which Meyer and Kelly loved to stock with RB/WR hybrids such as D’Anthony Thomas and the original “Percy Harvin-type,” Percy Harvin. These guys were essentially flex RBs that spent some time running routes but were on the field primarily for what they could do once the ball was in their hands. You didn’t really want to pound DAT or Harvin up the middle 20x a game like a feature back but you might get them 10-20 touches in a game between a few traditional runs, some sweeps, some screens, some quick routes, and even the occasional vertical shot up the seam or down the sideline if the matchup or leverage called for it.

These offenses were truly somewhat “ball-control” in orientation, particularly Meyer’s teams, but they loved using flex RBs in space to pick up some chunk yardage and stress out the defense to allow their main backs to have more room to pound it up the middle.

Ideally the RB/WR slot can run some routes in the seam and be as legitimate a wide receiver as he is a ballcarrier but the goal for these teams is often to have a perimeter weapon to make sure that their horizontal spacing is truly threatening enough to create room to run the ball between the tackles.

The “smashmouth spread” vertical slot

We may have to adjust the “smashmouth spread” moniker because the main school of offense I’ve used it for is the Chad Morris, Art Briles, or Mike Gundy systems that are indeed looking to smash people up the middle like the spread to run programs and they will do it with two-back lead runs and power. However, what really differentiates them from the Kelly or Meyer offenses is what they do with their slot positions.

These guys will look to stretch a defense horizontally, because all spread offenses are designed to take easy candy when it’s held out for them, but they really want to push the ball vertically. These offenses take more from the Air Coryell offense or the run and shoot with an aim on creating matchups and landing knockdown punches by throwing it over your head.

The key to this style is having a true receiver in the slot who can work in the seams and hurt you over the top badly enough to draw in attention and open up the outside receivers. As I’ve noted many times, Oklahoma State has been living off running dig/post combinations for the last three years with various slots running the dig and setting up James Washington to run a post route on an isolated cornerback.

Baylor was all about the Iso choice routes and that remains true for the offenses of Briles’ limited veer and shoot tree. His influence exists well beyond his tree though and Chad Morris and his brand of spread football is similarly geared around using various route combos that flood the deep field by using the slot.

Naturally as a consequence of prioritizing legit receivers in the slot, these teams also tend to have pocket passers whereas the spread to run teams prefer dual-threats.

The flex tight end

This is a relatively new trend and a very intriguing one to monitor over the coming years. The first time we saw something like this from a top offense was the 2013 Auburn squad, that lived in 21 personnel with TE C.J. Uzomah regularly flexed out as a slot, FB Jay Prosch aligned as the H-back, and then feature back Tre Mason in the normal alignment next to QB Nick Marshall.

The Tigers would use spread sets but all they really wanted to do was create some angles and spacing to run the ball behind big, lead blockers like Uzomah and Prosch. Mason and Marshall both ran for over 1k yards while Cameron Artis-Payne added another 600 in that lethal unit.

Fast forward a couple of seasons to the year 2015. The Oklahoma Sooners have a big, young “wide receiver” on their team named Mark Andrews that was an outside guy in high school and came to OU to run routes in the spread offense. New OC Lincoln Riley was perfectly happy to oblige him and kept him flexed out in the slot on the vast majority of his snaps while Andrews caught 19 balls and seven TDs in 2015, 31 and seven in 2016, and 62 and eight in 2017.

Meanwhile, the Sooners had another young player named Dmitri Flowers they had recruited after having big success with a hybrid fullback in previous seasons named Trey Millard. With Millard moving around for them the Sooners were early adapters of the “Spread-I” tactics that allowed for versatile, two-back run games while still getting athletes on the field in the slot. Consequently, accommodating Andrews’ development as more of a pure receiver was very easy. What followed for Oklahoma though was some historically amazing offenses in 2016 and particularly in 2017 that were largely geared around the impossible dilemmas that their 21 personnel spread sets created for opponents.

Some of the remarkable benefits that Oklahoma found from this set up included the following. One was that they were able to play tiny and fast wide receivers outside of Mark Andrews, who typically lined up on the line of scrimmage around the hash mark, and help keep them free from press coverage or safety brackets.

You can see the Dawgs playing “press coverage” on top of the screen over the 5-11, 160 pound Marquise Brown but the little speedster is two yards off the line and has some room to build up momentum or make a move before the CB can get his hands on him.

This was a second and one play so it ended up being a run (and the CB notably ended up bailing in coverage).

You can find our other hero, Dmitri Flowers, picking up a 5-technique DE with a solo block so that the RT could climb up and clear out (sorta) Roquan Smith, which created the crease for the first down run. Dmitri Flowers was pretty good at a lot of things for Oklahoma and they moved him around a ton, but ultimately he was on the field a lot because he was a good blocker and allowed them to execute their run game without training the 250 pound Andrews and limiting the practice reps he was able to spend in the more valuable pursuit of route development. His skill at running POP routes over the middle off play-action after feigning these blocks was just a major bonus.

A second benefit to this usage of Andrews out wide is that it made their perimeter screen game much more deadly. The bubble screen to the slot was a bit less effective because however athletic he is, Andrews wasn’t really the kind of guy to burn people after catching a ball from a stand still. However, bubble screens to a flaring back or now screens to the outside receiver had the benefit of being run behind his massive blocks.

Finally Andrews was a major matchup problem for everyone. How do you cover a flex TE? With a nickel? Those guys often top out at 200 or 210 and don’t cover TEs out in space very often so even if they could hold up with practice, they weren’t getting the reps. With a linebacker? Not many college linebackers spend much time at practice on covering seam routes out wide period, much less against a 250-pound athlete. With a safety? Same issues, even if they were better built for it and more practiced it still wasn’t something they did regularly and they were still typically overmatched physically.

You basically needed to bracket Andrews to really eliminate him as a major target, which meant that for at least two years the outside receivers paired with him were working in isolation, in space, against a single CB that couldn’t press them.

The NFL game is largely built around causing the need for a double team on a flex TE in the slot and then working the ball outside to receivers working against man coverage. Oklahoma was able to get there while maintaining a college-style approach thanks to Flowers’ deployment inside at H-back and while freeing up tiny burners at receiver to do major damage out wide.

Lincoln Riley figured out how much of a boon this was to their offense before last season and their 2017 recruiting class included a new flex TE named Grant Calcaterra along with another multi-use blocker named Jeremiah Hall. We may see both of them this coming season.

Andrews’ deployment and Oklahoma’s 2017 season should have interesting ramifications for the spread offense in coming seasons. There are lots of teams that would love to make the most of a flex TE who can accomplish many of the same things as a “vertical slot” while generating even more matchup problems. A problem regularly faced by these teams is the challenge of training their TEs to do all of the wonderful things that an H-back can do for an offense while also teaching them to be effective route runners out wide. Generally a player will only master one or the other skill and any team that wants to emphasize the run game is going to have to ask them to major in blocking and minor in receiving.

But if those guys are paired with more of a blocking H-back? Now it’s no longer an issue and it’s not likely to hurt their chances of auditioning for the NFL either since pro scouts would rather watch their prospective TEs run a Y-cross or switch vertical than watch them block down on power-read.

We should probably expect to see an increasing number of spread offenses build their packages around using an H-back to help the run game but then a flex TE in the slot, it could be a short while so in the meantime let’s come up with a nickname for this style. Go!