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Positionless offense and the 21 spread

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The RPO, spread-I offense has taken over college football and now defenses are learning how to adjust. But offenses that are building around hybrids are setting themselves up to stay ahead as other teams try to maintain specialization.

Mississippi Rebels v Florida Gators Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

As football is an inherently physical game that often comes down to a contest of force, defenses absolutely hate to give up ground in the run game. Many spread teams are built to exploit this tendency, especially with specialized “spread-I” packages that tend to pair three good WRs with a blocking specialist at TE.

With a good blocker that can move around to different alignments in the box, such as attached TE, H-back, wingback, or fullback, the offense can create an extra gap and force defenses to get a seventh man in the box to outnumber the run. Then offenses can use RPOs or play-action to make the defense wrong for devoting numbers to stopping the run or pass.

Here’s how RPO’s work from the spread-I:

The offense can always make the defense wrong for trying to outnumber the run by attaching routes/screens for their QB to throw to punish different defenders for sneaking into the box. It’s a more extreme variety of traditional option football with the offense applying pressure at multiple areas at the same time and giving their QB a chance to make the defense wrong after the snap.

When the run game has been established with these tactics, the offense can start to plug away with the run or quick passes and move the ball down the field. At some point either the DBs start to trigger hard against the run or the defense defaults to something like man coverage. Then play-action becomes useful for picking up yardage in chunks.

Here’s a typical sort of play-action shot from the spread-I if a team were to start to play man-free to get a safety in the box over the TE:

This is a typical man-beating combo when teams stop playing a deep 12 safety over twin receivers, the switch combo with the outside receiver running a dig (usually) and the slot running a wheel. The slot can often get a rub on the nickel trying to chase them and then separation that allows the QB to throw them open down the field.

This is the style that is becoming a sort of “best practice” around football right now. Many teams like to play that blocking specialist off the ball so that they can mix zone and gap schemes and move the extra gap around. Other teams love using an attached tight end so they can force defenses to more obviously declare who they’ll send to the box before the snap and also to punish the three-man fronts that are becoming popular.

Modern defenses are being designed or tweaked to stop this style of offense, that’s “college-style” offense in a nutshell. The skill players that can that offer flexibility beyond these new specialized roles are the hybrids that can kick an offense into another gear.

The 21 spread

Initially I used this term to describe the 2017 Oklahoma Sooner offense, which had a groundbreaking approach to offensive personnel. The Sooners were built around their inside receiver positions which were manned by a TE and a FB despite Oklahoma being an Air Raid team.

Mark Andrews was the TE, but despite being 6-5/256 he was aligned in the slot on the vast majority of their snaps and led the team with 62 catches for 958 yards and eight TDs. Dmitri Flowers was labelled the fullback but they used him like most teams use their “tight ends.” He lined up as an H-back, a true TE, a sort of fullback, and occasionally he flexed or motioned out to blocker or catch on the perimeter. The Sooners were built around the GT counter-read play which didn’t require him to block DEs for the system to work since QB Baker Mayfield could read that player, but they would occasionally have Flowers block the DE opposite the read-man. Flowers caught 26 balls for 464 yards and five TDs, mostly on PA pop passes to him over the middle where he’d feign a block before running free down the field.

The following season, the Sooners’ rival Texas followed a near identical formational formula. The 6-4/220 pound Lil’Jordan Humphrey was a nearly full-time flex TE that caught a team-leading 86 balls for 1176 yards and nine TDs. Inside they played TE Andrew Beck, a 6-3/260 pounder that mostly blocked DEs on zone plays like the graphic above but also did some work in the RPO and PA game with 28 catches for 281 yards and two scores. Perhaps to make room on the All-B12 lists, the coaches named Andrew Beck the league’s first team fullback, but it was an appropriate heading.

In the spread offense, the most dangerous dimension to the team is generally the passing game. There are plenty of spread teams running the “college-style” offense that are run-centric in nature but they typically land their death blows with the passing game.

Texas and Iowa State both had inside zone-based offenses that used blocking TEs to command attention to the run game in the box but Texas finished 98th in the country in rushing S&P+ and Iowa State finished 102nd. Both did some of their worst damage with play-action throwing to big targets like Humphrey or Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler, who at 6-6/225 pounds caught 60 balls for 1318 yards and nine TDs.

The trap that these teams’ opponents fell into was a need to adjust to bigger personnel that left them vulnerable to the passing game. Defenses are wired to resist getting run over at any stake, but Texas and Oklahoma had extensive and skilled passing attacks that they’d use to punish those teams for trying to play run-stopping personnel.

Run/pass, dual-threat hybrids pose a two-horned dilemma for defenses and the college systems are geared towards stopping the run dimension which means that they become particularly vulnerable against the pass. Texas didn’t face a team until Georgia in the Sugar Bowl who oriented their gameplan more around stopping their big receivers than ensuring they could outnumber the run game. The Longhorns ran for 178 yards, controlled the ball for 35:00, and won 28-21.

Another example is the New England Patriots, winning the Super Bowl on a drive where they got into 22 personnel only to flex everyone out into empty sets so they could hunt matchups for their one WR (Julian Edelman) or for TE Rob Gronkowski (retiring as the greatest TE in NFL history, btw). Had the Rams tried to match the Patriots’ spread sets with dime personnel it would have been way too easy for the Patriots to line back up in the I-formation and run them over for a time consuming, game clinching drive.

These college offenses, which tend to utilize the HUNH (hurry-up/no-huddle) system even more aggressively than NFL teams, are finding that hybrid 21 personnel sets are absolute kryptonite to college defensive systems. Especially as those defenses evolve to try and handle the RPO spread-I offenses with defensive specialists chosen and developed to fill roles in systems designed for those attacks.

Varieties of 21 spread

Both Oklahoma and Texas, in 2017 and 2018 respectively, utilized a newer style in which they’d play with a full-time blocking TE and then a flex TE. There was another team that utilized a different style of 21 spread personnel back in the day:

That’s a triple-option play with a lead blocker for the QB on the backside of GT counter. Florida would regularly motion flex RB hybrid Percy Harvin (H on this diagram) into the box and run the ball with him on counters and other schemes. The RB (Jeff Demps, another flex RB sort) here is operating as the pitch man for Tim Tebow had he kept the ball and they have TE Aaron Hernandez as a lead blocker if the DE crashes to stop the GT counter play to Harvin going the opposite way.

Oklahoma actually had the numbers at the point of attack but the sam blitzed off the edge so he’s not in position to make the stop and the middle linebacker is confused and injured in the chaos. The pulling tackle ends up with no one to block as Harvin blows by everyone for a 52-yard gain. You wanted to take your chances against the GT counter here since no one would feel good about stopping Tebow with a lead blocker and pitch option.

Of course the danger here was that Harvin was also a dangerous WR, as was Hernandez, so the Gators could also spread you out and pick you apart if you opted to get big run-stopping personnel in the box.

They loved to get Harvin and Hernandez in either innermost slot alignment and run underneath option routes for either while isolated against linebackers:

Harvin had 1304 all-purpose yards that season (600+ rushing and receiving) and the Gators had four different players go for 600+ rushing yards in a championship season. Hernandez had 381 receiving yards and five TDs that season before breaking out for 850 yards and five scores the following year.

The flex RB can also serve to create a 21 personnel spread system with the TE/FB counting as the TE once more while the two backs are both RBs. The TE and at least one of the RBs are ideally competent blockers, but the need for that tends to hinge on the running ability of the QB. If he’s also a dual-threat then the offense can use option schemes to leave DEs unblocked as the Gators do here and allow everyone to either be a run or pass option or else draw an easier blocking assignment like picking off a LB around the edge.

There’s a few ways to create 21 personnel that can then motion around to form spread formations, what’s essential is having multiple hybrids that can be a matchup problem in either the run or the pass and then competent in the other to take advantage of overcompensation by opponents. The trick to the 21 spread is having players that are devastating in the pass game but competent in the run game because defenses will choose their personnel packages to stop the run, leaving themselves open to being eviscerated by spread passing against slower, outmatched defenders.

Defenses are slowly starting to work out how to solve the puzzle of stopping the spread-I, RPO spread offenses that have become universal across college football. In lieu of out-executing opponents that are starting to build their defenses to match, hybridization allows an offense to thwart defensive specialization. The solutions on defense are still working themselves out but the offenses that are using hybrids at multiple positions can always morph into whatever they need to be.