College Football: The History and Evolution of the Spread Offense

Gustavo DestroSenior Analyst IJune 29, 2008

Once obscure and mysterious, the spread offense has become a staple of Saturday afternoons, with more and more coaches changing their playbooks to a variation of the spread.

But it is still as mystifying and misunderstood as it was a decade ago.  To understand the spread, you must understand its beginnings and how it became the monster it is today.

The first spread offense doesn't look "spread" at first glance, but the Triple Option is considered the earliest form of a spread attack.

Used since the early 1900s, the triple option was the favorite offense of the early part of the past century, with such powerhouses as Navy and Notre Dame using it as their playbook.

The Triple Option has its name because of the three possibilities in one play.  The Quarterback has to read the defense both pre- and post-snap and decide which option is the best depending on the defensive alignment.

This play is from the University of Houston's playbook during the 1960s, from coach Bill Yeoman's tenure, and it's called the Houston Veer, one of the variations of the Triple Option.

As the ball is snapped, the fullback (back to the right of the QB) goes straight through the 4 hole (between the Guard and Tackle).  The Quarterback's job is to read the Defensive tackle (T).  If he goes straight downfield, the QB gives the ball to Fullback and now fakes the option to the Halfback.

The FB is now one-on-one with either a safety or a linebacker and the play has a great chance of gaining at least four yards (Option 1).

However, if the Defensive Tackle goes inside, squeezing to the 4 hole, the QB fakes the handoff and keeps the ball.  Now he has another read to make.  The Defensive End on the Tight End side is not blocked and the QB's job is to read him.

If he takes away the option man (The Halfback), the QB keeps the ball and runs downfield.  If the first fake was convincing, the linebackers will jump the FB's run and the QB may have open field to run (Option 2).

The third Option is used when the DE squeezes down and takes away the QB's running lane.  The QB then pitches the ball to the HB, who now has blockers downfield and a chance to break open a big run (Option 3).

As you can see, all three options, if executed to perfection, lead to big gains of yardage.  But the Triple Option is one of the most complicated offenses to run.  It takes time and the right personnel to run it, and the defense doesn't always play it the way the offense wants it to, leading to much confusion in the backfield.

While the Triple Option diminished in users, it was still very successful during the '80s and early '90s (See: Nebraska Cornhuskers, Oklahoma Sooners).  But more teams started to adopt the West Coast Offense during that time period, and the Triple-Option became less of a common formation.  It is used nowadays only by the Air Force Academy, Georgia Tech, and Navy.

During the 1970s, another unorthodox formation surfaced.  The Run and Shoot was popularized by head coach Darrel "Mouse" Davis at Portland State University.

The formation started during the early '50s when Coach Glenn "Tiger" Ellison used a balanced formation that had the QB under center, a single Running Back, two Wide Receivers, and two tight slotbacks.  The Quarterback usually rolled out, and the tight Slotback to the roll-out side stayed to block.

The formation, as you can see, is still not spread the way the Run and Shoot is run nowadays, but what made the formation so unique was that it counted on the QB and the WRs reading the defense both pre and post-snap.  Sound familiar?

As the offense evolved, the receivers started going out wide and the formation became more spread out and complex.

As you can see, the Run and Shoot is unique—now not only does the QB have to read the play, but the receivers do too.  The receivers are taught to read the defense, find the open area (if it's a zone coverage), and trust that the QB made the same read.

Now the read must be of the defensive coverage and not of the defensive linemen.  There is motion pre-snap in almost every play, mostly to help the offensive players read the defense.

June Jones' offense that took Hawaii to the Sugar Bowl is very similar to Mouse Davis' playbook used in Portland State back in the '70s.

The Run and Shoot is often criticized because it is one-dimensional.  If the opposing team is able to stop the passing game, which is a tough task, the running game is usually ineffective.  Also, without a Tight End and Running Backs, the Quarterback is vulnerable to blitzes and pressure.

All this brings us to the Spread offense which we see nowadays.  For starters, it should not be called just the Spread Offense, but the Spread Option Offense—as the name suggests, it incorporates features from the Option offense (QB reads, option pitches) with some features of the Run and Shoot offense (Shotgun formation, QB rolling out).

Both Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez and former Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder developed it during the mid '90s, and both deserve credit for developing the offense as we know it now.

However, the Spread Option really made a splash when Vince Young and the Texas Longhorns won the national championship using a spread option offense successfully against the juggernaut that was the USC defence.

Coincidentally (or was it?) during the same season, the Utah Utes went undefeated, led by head coach Urban Meyer's spread option offense, which was based on Rich Rodriguez's spread option offense run at West Virginia.

Meyer then led Florida to a national title in just his second year, using freshman QB Tim Tebow in Spread Option plays with much success.

After all I've written about both the Option offense and the Run and Shoot, a video explaining how the Spread Option Offense works is worth a thousand words. (Note the similarities to both the Option and the Run and Shoot.)

Expect the Spread Option offense to become even more popular, as recruits are getting faster, and more and more high schools are turning to a variation of the spread.  Using the Spread option is a great recruiting tool for coaches nowadays.

Also, new teams are adopting it every year.  Michigan, Auburn, and (when Terrelle Pryor takes over full time) Ohio State are teams that are changing to this new, exciting, and beautiful offense.

The Spread Option is here to stay and will keep creating highlights for years to come.