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QB draw: The rulebreaker

Johnny Manziel popularized a play that is becoming a devastating counter to anti-spread defenses.

AT&T Cotton Bowl - Texas A&M v Oklahoma Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Texas A&M’s move to the SEC back in 2012 didn’t come with a great deal of optimism about how year one with a new head coach in college football’s arguably toughest division would go. Bovada had the over/under for A&M’s win total at seven and the Aggies were facing the replacement of first round draft pick QB Ryan Tannehill and apparently replacing him with a smaller guy from a small town in the Texas hill country. This guy was only a redshirt freshman, had already nearly been kicked off the team for off-field issues, and was going to be asked to lead a new Air Raid offense directed by an OC named Kliff Kingsbury who turned 33 just before the season began. They opened at home against Will Muschamp’s Florida Gators, who were expected to reveal very quickly how terrible an idea it was for the Aggies to join the SEC West with a newly installed, Big 12-style offense

Things opened predictably. The Aggies began the game with a false start penalty, then ran a zone play up the gut for a loss of a yard. They followed that up with a quick WR screen, which netted another lost yard when Florida’s big, future pro linebacker Jonathan Bostic ran through a WR block to make another quick stop. Facing third and 17, the Aggies decided to give that RS freshman Johnny Manziel a chance to recover some yards before punting.

He was actually tackled a yard short of the marker but a personal foul was tacked on giving the Aggies new life to start the season. After removing sack yardage, Manziel finished the day with 14 carries for 76 at 5.4 ypc and a rushing TD on top of his passing stats. This also spawned the excellent meme when Florida HC pumped up his players by noting (perhaps inaccurately) that at his previous stop (Texas) they had only offered Manziel a scholarship to play safety.

Manziel went on to terrorize the rest of the SEC as well and win the Heisman trophy. If you remove sack yardage, which most didn’t because it wasn’t even necessary to demonstrate how effective he’d been, you find that Johnny finished 2012 with 179 carries that produced 1539 yards at 8.6 ypc and 21 rushing TDs. Some of that was on de-facto draws, i.e. scrambles, but a lot of it was on designed draws.

That was a breakthrough moment for the “pass to set up the run” movement that is gradually gaining momentum in college football. For the Air Raid in particular, coaches like Muschamp had figured out that the key was to stop being stubborn and stop the pass first, but this play preyed on that adjustment. Now the QB draw is a big part of many spread teams’ offenses for the way in which it breaks rules that guide defensive players.

The RPO draw

The influx of RPOs into spread offenses made the draw play a lot more dangerous than it had been. Teams like Oklahoma State had been mixing it in very effectively by combining it with quick pass plays like the stick route from a TE or slot receiver up the seam.

The idea was very simple, if the defense was playing with high safeties than the QB could check the middle linebacker after the snap. If he dropped to cover the quick-hitting stick route than he wouldn’t make it back to the box in time to meet the RB on the inside draw.

The QB draw took this to another level by giving the offense yet another “plus 1” at the point of attack by involving the QB as the runner as well. Texas A&M ran the stick/draw play that Dana Holgorsen ran at Oklahoma State two years prior but ran it FOR Johnny with the RB serving as a lead blocker.

The mighty Alabama defense was completely discombobulated by the stresses they were facing. Nick Saban tried to roll with a dime package to help his defenders cover all the space that A&M was forcing them into but it was immensely difficult to get guys into the box and in position to tackle Johnny without playing man coverage outside. So the Tide chose the man coverage route and went down when the Air Raid Aggies do what Air Raid teams do and threw the ball down the field for the winning scores.

Air Raid OC Phil Longo at Ole Miss makes the QB draw a substantial chunk of his offense and has utilized it to great effect with Shea Patterson and now Jordan Ta’amu:

This is “iso” for spread passing teams. It’s very common for Air Raid teams to find themselves in passing downs after an incompletion on first or second down, which then invites man coverage and an aggressive pass-rush like you see on this play. Longo then has the interior OL double up to one LB while the RB leads into the other and the QB finds a crease amidst the chaos. They’re running a sort of stick route or out route to the field but this is really just a QB run all the way. Ole Miss has six on six in the box so it’s just a matter of executing blocks and then there’s no one left to tackle the QB.

If you have the defense playing to stop the pass first then the QB scramble is dangerous enough but the draw is like a more precise scramble designed to punch through the defense where they’re most vulnerable.

The draw with no lead blocker

Texas A&M’s first touchdown of the year in 2012 also came on QB draw. This time they ran it as a straight draw with no lead blocker after motioning the RB out to the perimeter:

The Gators are in a blitz that has the LB covering the RB in man coverage, so when he motions wide the LB has to head out there as well which gives up the game to Manziel. Florida drops a safety down somewhat to replace the LB but that guy is starting the play six yards off the ball and has to navigate the fifth OL that leads up to the LB. That’s just too much space to leave to a player like Johnny and a missed tackle and TD was nearly inevitable.

It also helps when the WR blocking is good, on top of the screen big Mike Evans does a good job of sealing off the CB who had some chance of saving the day.

This is a really deadly version of the play you’ll often find teams utilizing. Oklahoma State busted it out in their crushing victory over Boise State last week:

Like with A&M against Florida, they caught the Broncos on a blitz. The modern single-high blitz is basically a man-free blitz where one of the underneath defenders is assigned to track the RB to make sure he finds the right gap on a run play. But when the RB motions wide, there goes the key that ensures that a second level defender fits any creases on running plays. The empty draw is a tremendous blitz buster.

Nick Fitzgerald ran untouched for 30 yards against the normally ultra-sound Kansas State defense in week two on the same concept:

It’s third and three and the Bulldogs have attached the QB draw to a quick bubble screen to the motioning RB. Once they see the K-State middle linebacker turning to give chase to the screen then it’s off to the races for Fitzgerald. The safeties are stuck because there are slot receivers to either side of the formation that are providing them with cues to their assignment on the play. Kansas State has often wrecked defenses with the same play, particularly in the Collin Klein days, but that didn’t mean they were ready to stop it here. Indeed Texas’ Sam Ehlinger ran for over 100 yards on them a year ago, often on the same play.

The brilliance of the QB draw from the spread offense is that is a play that hits inside against defensive schemes that still aren’t totally designed to account for that possibility as one of the primary threats. Once you get into route distributions, pattern-matching defenses tell their defenders to follow rules to make sure everyone is covered and man coverage defenses do the same to an even more extreme extent when it comes to covering up inside gaps. And of course, today’s draw is often packaged with a play that threatens to hit the perimeter with a pass to speedy player in space. You finally get your schemes and eyes adjusted to the threats that the spread offense presents and then they’re just running it up the middle again.

Who runs the draw?

Johnny Manziel brought a little bit of boom or bust to the draw for Texas A&M, obviously boom was a bit more common given his averages. If a DL could get wise to the draw and get a fistful of jersey, he was a fairly small guy after all and could be brought down before he got loose in space.

Collin Klein for Kansas State used to be a different sort of challenge on the play, he could run for yards and yards if he got loose but he was also hard to bring down even for a DL grabbing at him as he tried to blow by because he was so big and strong.

The main keys to the play are quickness and toughness. It’s a play that’s generally most effective when the offense has established passing threats outside that command the attention of the defense and encourage the DL to rush upfield in order to pressure the QB on the pass. The trick is that the QBs who excel at reading the field and spraying the ball around from the pocket are not always the same guys who are fearless or well versed in the art of finding and blasting through interior running lanes.

Part of what made Johnny Football so special was exactly that, he ran fearlessly against big, nasty SEC defenses while weighing in at something like 190 pounds. But the threat of the QB run from a spread set is an obvious game changer so it’s increasingly common for HS QBs to be more athletic and tougher runners than in prior ages. It’s increasingly difficult for defenses to handle this from conventional sets.

Johnny Football just did what he was so good at, he broke the rules and defenses are still trying to restore order.