Paul Johnson's Spread Option: A Beginner's Guide

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Paul Johnson's Spread Option: A Beginner's Guide
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The end of the 2009 regular season is approaching and Paul Johnson's Spread Option is starting to gather national attention.  His team, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, have risen to No. 7 in the BCS standings and AP Poll thanks to an eight game win streak and his former team, the Navy Midshipmen, hung on in the fourth quarter to upset Notre Dame on national television.  This week Sports Illustrated published an article on Johnson's offense, but it tells fans what they already know: its different and its working.

The national sports media can't explain to curious fans why Johnson's Spread Option is one of the top offenses in the FBS because they don't know how it works either. 

Football commentators, in particular Bob Davie, do fans a great disservice by presenting fans with analysis that is wrong.  Contrary to what they say...

It's not the Wishbone

The most common pitfall of analysts, such as Bob Davie with his still photos of the 1971 Texas Longhorns, is to equate Johnson's offense with the Wishbone.  To see the Wishbone watch Mississippi State where Dan Mullen uses the Wishbone with two tight ends as a goal line and short yardage set. 

Option plays can be run from the Wishbone, but the Wishbone is really geared toward a power running game with multiple lead blockers.  That's not what Johnson is trying to do.

As opposed to using lead blockers to create artificial running lanes, Johnson's offense moves the defenders away from each other to create natural running lanes.  He aims to do this by...

Spreading the Field

In relation to college football the term "spread" is usually associated with a shotgun quarterback with four and five wide receiver sets, but any formation that forces the defense to cover more area pre-snap and creates space between defensive players is a spread formation.

In the context of his offense, Johnson simply refers to his base alignment as the spread formation.

First, the base formation spreads the defense horizontally by using wide splits between the linemen.  The offensive tackles end up standing roughly 20 yards away from each other which causes the defensive linemen and linebackers to follow suit, if they did not it would be easy to seal the edge of the defensive line and run around them.

Second, the often overlooked element of Johnson's offense, is that it spreads the defense vertically.  This seems like an odd thing to say about an offense that runs the ball four out of five plays and averages almost 315 yards rushing per game, but Johnson's base alignment presents the defense with the threat of four vertical routes from two wide receivers and two wingbacks. 

The key is that it is not an empty threat; the Yellow Jackets do run these pass plays.  Two examples of this are Thomas' TD catch against Miami and Stephen Hill's TD catch against Duke which was both plays with four receivers attacking down the field.

By spreading the defensive players out both horizontally and vertically with his formation, Johnson has created the opportunity for natural running lanes before the ball is snapped. A prime example of this is in the Ramblin Wreck's highlight video of the Vanderbilt game at 48 seconds. 

As Josh Nesbitt crosses the line of scrimmage between the tackles, look how much space he has to run the football.  Nesbitt is able to navigate his way through four defenders and gain 10 yards on a run between the tackles.  Spreading out the defenders with a formation is merely the beginning; next Johnson uses an option-based rushing attack to...

Put the Defense in a Bind

When color commentators discuss stopping the "triple option" common themes used to describe it are "playing assignment football" and "being disciplined."  Unfortunately for the casual fan, they never describe in depth why that is important. 

Don't defenders always have to play their responsibility regardless of what the offense is doing?

The basic "triple option," more specifically called the "Inside Veer," utilizes three potential ball carriers to remove two defenders from the play.  If executed correctly, the defenders who are the two option reads can never make the tackle; the ball always goes away from them.

First the quarterback keys on the dive read, either giving the ball to the running back or keeping the ball himself based on what the dive read does.  One player down.  If he still has the ball the quarterback keys on the pitch read.  He either keeps the ball himself or pitches the ball to the wingback based on the pitch read's actions.  Two players down.

The two cornerbacks are out on islands matching up with the wide receivers and on a basic triple option play the wide receivers stalk and block the cornerbacks.  Four players down.

Remaining are five offensive linemen and one wingback that, in a perfect world, can block or engage six defensive players bringing the total to ten blocked defenders.  When running the option it is possible to get solid blocks on linebackers and safeties away from the line of scrimmage because the linemen ignore the dive read, usually a defensive end, and the pitch read, usually an outside linebacker.  The lineman and wingbacks can simply run past them and block a different defender.

All that remains is the ball carrier and a lone defender.

One mental mistake, or even a step of hesitation by the defender, means there is nobody to make the tackle. Anthony Allen is gone down the sideline, put six on the board, and fire up the band.

So, this is the bind: all 11 defenders have to be ready to stop the run at the same time four defenders need to be prepared to defend against a vertical passing game.  The Wishbone doesn't do this, since it only presents the threat of two vertical receivers.

One mental mistake, or even a step of hesitation by the secondary, and Demaryius Thomas is flying free, put six on the board, and fire up the band.

At this point, with every defender needing to be ready to stop the run, you might think a play action pass would be devastatingly effective.  In case you aren't sure, it is.  Georgia Tech is third in the nation in passing efficiency for a reason.

Congratulations for making it this far, now you know more about the basic philosophy of Johnson's offense than the average football announcer, especially Bob Davie.

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