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The next wave of RPOs

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Oklahoma and Auburn experimented with new pass options for their QBs to use in the run game to make their offenses even more versatile and difficult to match up against.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Oklahoma vs Georgia Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma was laughably effective running their GT (guard and tackle pull) counter scheme this last season. They had returning starters at every OL position that had been running the play in practice or in games for the previous two years, a stable of richly talented backs, and a QB in Baker Mayfield that was quick and strong enough to get in on the action.

Everyone who watched extensive Oklahoma film last year couldn’t help but notice how effective they were running the scheme:

Even the Georgia defense struggled with it for the way it allowed Oklahoma to add two new gaps along the line (by pulling two OL) from a spread concept where teams were already stressed from sideline to sideline. But beyond the basic geometry and arithmetic problems, another part of what made them so absurdly deadly in the scheme was the fact that they had a million different ways to run it.

In particular, Lincoln Riley liked to draw up a dozen ways to stress the perimeter and challenge which defenders would be available to stop the run based on different actions that Oklahoma would attach to the scheme. One of their more deadly varieties that really gave the normally stout Kansas State run defense fits was this version:

The play

Teams have run WR sweeps across the formation for their runs for years and years in the spread offense. The idea is to hold the backside defenders in order to keep them from blowing up the play from behind and to give your back a chance at finding a cutback lane. Then there have been teams that would throw to the sweeper on play-action, but Oklahoma is upping the ante here by including the sweeper as an option for the QB to throw to if the defense doesn't respect what’s ultimately a quick flat route not dissimilar to John Gruden’s “Y-banana.”

You see the Wildcat defenders stay home on the sweep but they are watching for JUST the sweep, not the flat route. Meanwhile of course, Oklahoma is run blocking their dreaded GT counter play to the opposite end of the formation and could be handing off to one of their backs. Kansas State learned very painfully that they were going to have to cover down on that route with whichever OLB the receiver was sweeping towards. That led to problems later in the game...

Here’s the issue K-State was having:

Because of the nature of their quarters scheme, the Wildcats could get an extra man to the ball in the form of one of their safeties but the Sooners’ use of this option scheme first burned the Wildcats when they weren’t expecting it and then burned them again with matchups. The Wildcats were using their nickel LB to line up across from the slot receiver but when Oklahoma sent him in motion they realized they needed the opposite OLB to cover the sweep/flat option pass rather than relying on the nickel chasing that down. So they’d bump the LBs over, but now that meant that one of their nickels had to play at the point of attack against the GT counter scheme and try to take on a pulling guard.

Even with Elijah Walker, a physical 200 pound DB, at the nickel that still wasn’t a winning matchup:

In this example Walker is pancaked by the pulling guard and the extra man (safety Sean Newlan) has to deal with star RB Rodney Anderson in a lot of space and ends up bouncing off him. The CB is being blocked by flex TE Mark Andrews, who has 60-pound advantage in that matchup, and the Wildcats are just getting bullied around. Meanwhile DE Tanner Wood and Sam LB Jayd Kirby, two of K-State’s seasoned veterans and better run defenders, are unblocked and uninvolved save for in the pursuit drill.

There’s always a way to draw up a defense to have answers for a spread-option scheme and force the offense in the most palatable direction. But picking it up live, especially if it’s a concept or formation the D hasn’t prepared for, is very difficult and sometimes it can be downright impossible to avoid a bad matchup.

Just another QB read to worry about

The Sooners also mixed in the sweep/flat read now and again as a part of their inside zone runs:

Just another way to constrain the GT counter and to use it in order to get Marquise Brown the ball in space.

The Auburn Tigers also messed about with using their slot receivers as H-backs to run a quick flat route out of the backfield so the QB could hit it as part of a normal zone-read progression.

If nothing else this style of RPO gives the defense one more thing to practice against and learn how to defend and the offense one more way to get troublesome run defenders away from the action so they can just run downhill at whoever is left. This is also challenging to teams that want to use aggressive blitzing to attack spread-option teams, as this provides the offense another way to burn the blitz and confuse the assignments.

For defenses there’s not much you can do except try to field versatile and sound football players at every position that know how to beat blocks in the hopes that when the offense has them beat on the chalkboard that they can still win on the field.

For offenses it’s very likely that this concept will be built out and expanded on this upcoming offseason. Oklahoma returns much of their OL and Rodney Anderson amongst other RBs so while they lose Baker Mayfield, it’s likely that their option run game variety actually increases in the coming year (particularly with speedy Kyler Murray at QB) rather than decreases. Then there will be plenty of other teams that have quick QBs that can get the ball out effectively but may not be the best runners who can use concepts like this to run the spread option and outsource the job of running the ball on the edge to a receiver.

Keep an eye out for this one in spring games and then in the coming year, we may only be seeing the start of the next big fad.