Strategic trends for the next decade? Start with defense

In their tag-teamed auguries for the next decade of college football, Stewart Mandel and Andy Staples reflect on the decade of the spread and look to the option offenses of the ’70s to predict what big things might come next:

8. The spread and pro-style offenses will learn to coexist

College offenses constantly go in and out of vogue, which means the spread-offense craze is bound to plateau (if it hasn’t already). [Ed Note: Yes it has, if the goal is to give underdogs a better chance.] Last season, the spread still thrived for teams like Pac-10 champion Oregon, Big East champion Cincinnati and 13-1 Florida. However, Alabama won the national championship with a more traditional, pro-style offense, Stanford defied the trend of recent upstarts by utilizing an old-school, smash-mouth offense and Nebraska’s disruptive defense showed it’s possible to shut down a wide-open attack like Texas’.

So will the recent influx of NFL-influenced coaches like Washington’s Steve Sarkisian and USC’s Kiffin kill the spread? Not exactly. Spread gurus like Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen keep importing it at new locations, and Arizona State’s Dennis Erickson — a veteran of both levels — is one of several coaches implementing a version of former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid attack this season.

Instead, the future is likely a hybrid of both systems.

“The great thing would be the combination of both — spread it out and throw it, then be able to do it with two tight ends and run the ball with some power,” said Erickson. “It’s just the evolution of football. I really believe if you can have a combination of all that stuff and confuse [defenses] with different personnel groups, that’s what it’s all about.”

. . .

9. Option offense: Ready for a comeback?

The future won’t belong solely to the pro/spread hybrid. As the spread flourished this past decade, defenses adjusted. More teams adopted a 3-4, allowing more flexibility to spy a quarterback who might double as a fullback.

That shift in defensive philosophy means it’s time for a new-old offensive fad. And since bell-bottoms and platform shoes have already enjoyed minor renaissances, it seems only fair that coaches bring back that staple of the ’70s football experience: the option. We’re not talking about the occasional pitch play. We’re talking about the holy trinity of the dive back, quarterback keeper or pitch.

Paul Johnson, who probably has leisure suits and tearaway jerseys in his closet, has proven at Navy and Georgia Tech that the option still works. How well? In Johnson’s second season at Tech, he won the ACC title.

Most people think the option is a boring, grind-it-out scheme. Not true, said Tom Osborne, an option aficionado who coached Nebraska to national titles in 1994, 1995 and 1997. “Most of the zone plays you see now, if you block things perfectly, you may make seven, eight, nine yards,” Osborne said. “If somebody misses a tackle, you might go a long way. In option football, if you execute correctly, you’ve got enough people to block everybody and theoretically score a touchdown on most every option play.”

. . . So what’s the holdup? Johnson already has proven the option can work in a BCS conference. It’s time to bring it back on a grand scale.

I generally agree with everything Andy and Stewart say, especially the point that whatever the dominant offensive strategy of the 2010s ends up being — and there may not be one — it will be a response to the defensive changes being undergone right now. I’m not sure yet that it will be the option, if for no other reason than we don’t yet know what defensive schemes will be dominant either. We are in a very transitory time, and to get a little perspective, it’s helpful to look at the strategic milieu that the modern spread came out of in the 1990s.

The spread developed essentially in response to two defensive phenomena. The first goes back to Buddy Ryan: the ubiquity of the eight-man front defenses. Although his vaunted “46” defense became famous in the 1980s, in the 1990s teams still used it and, more importantly, they used his philosophies — his eight-man front principles — to overwhelm the run and protection schemes of teams still trying to use traditional personnel, i.e. two runningbacks, one tight-end, and two receivers. Personified by defenses like the one used by Dick Tomey at Arizona, his Under-Shift Double-Eagle Flex — a.k.a. the “Desert Swarm” — these defenses were basically impossible for anyone using traditional sets, personnel and concepts, unless the talent gap was wide enough to overcome the strategic disadvantage. Which is exactly why the small schools led the changes.

In response, through luck or strokes of genius, some teams began spreading it out as far back as the 1980s and early 1990s. Some of these were of the four wide variety but the category also includes “one-back” teams like Washington State and Louisville whose coaches (Dennis Erickson, Joe Tiller, Mike Price, John L. Smith, Bobby Petrino, Scott Linehan, and so on) helped spread the good word to other coaches (ahem, Urban Meyer). This element, the response to eight-man front defenses, is where the spread can claim almost total victory: Not many teams, if any, base out of eight-man fronts anymore (Virginia Tech is a prime example of a great defense that made a very visible switch), while the spread reigns nearly supreme. Indeed, it’s unlikely that teams will ever be able to go back to the total eight-man front approaches for the whole game. It may exist as a very useful package from time to time, but the nickel defensive back is going to be relevant for your team’s success throughout the rest of your lifetime.

The other narrative — one slightly more complicated in the back and forth between O and D, in that the give and take continues today — deals with the increased use of the zone blitz and the offense’s manifold responses. The spread run game evolved for many reasons. One was to deal with the problem the eight-man fronts present, i.e. the numerical issue presented by an extra guy in the box (solved by making the quarterback a legitimate run threat), but another reason it developed was to counteract defensive fronts with linemen dropping into coverage and linebackers trying to fill inside gaps immediately. The term “zone read” is useful because both halves are key to the its success: the “read” obviously gives the offense flexibility, but so does the zone part of the play, which allows linemen to area block and pick up obscure and unpredictable stunts and movement.

Whether or not being “spread” helps against zone blitzes is an ambiguous question due to the vagaries of six-man protection schemes, but the spread is undoubtedly the best offense ever devised if your goal is to run a lot of screens. A multiple spread offense gives a coach more options for constraint plays than any set previously designed: bubble screens, rocket screens, jailbreak screens, slow screens, middle screens, shovel screens, and so on. And remember, screens are the one thing almost every coach recommends against zone blitzes and they are also the one pass that any quarterback at any level can complete, no matter the protection, blitz scheme, or coverage — an important thing when your gameplan involves trying to get the ball to your playmakers.

So I don’t know what the next big thing will be (and if you go back to 1996-2000 I was pretty damn certain it would be the spread), but I wouldn’t be surprised if the 2010s are middling in terms of strategy, though possibly dominated by some new defensive wrinkle or trend. A major factor in this is that the speed of change is faster now than it was even a decade ago — it’s not clear that you can have a “decade” devoted to any one scheme, considering that if a college team has a good season high schools around around the country have the offense installed by the spring. But whatever offensive strategy comes to dominate in time, be it the triple-option, the Power-I, the pro-style offense or the single-wing, we’ll need to first know what defensive schemes are all the rage.

Indeed, what with Nick Saban’s protégés proliferating year-by-year, maybe studying his defenses will tell us what offensive trends to expect. We’re clearly living in Saban’s world — at least for another few weeks.

  • Steve

    Seems like the NFL is using the 6th OLineman more than ever (I remember Belichick saying 2009 was by far the most he’s seen it in years), so I can see teams trying to get back to I Form power football as teams try to get smaller and quicker to defend the spread.

  • Matt

    Seems like what you(in your prior post about the spread’s apex) and Steve are both getting at is a move toward power football starting with your “upstarts.”

    Since there’s less of a market for one-cut 230 lb running backs in the spread, a team like, Toledo for example, might sign a back who ten years ago would have been a Buckeye. Combine that with smaller, faster defenses built to stop the spread and Toledo’s “new” power attack would have more success than the exact same offense in 2005.

    There’s always going to be a race to be “different” because it lets you recruit players for whom you have less competition and gives you an advantage over teams built to stop the current trending offense.

  • Steve

    That’s right Matt, I think the same thing is going to happen in the NFL with the 3-4 defense. 6-7 years ago, only 3 or 4 teams were looking for mammoth nose tackles and “hybrid” OLB/DE types. Now more than half the league is looking for them.

    I’m expecting the “new” market in NFL defenses to be the smaller, 4-3 type players again.

  • brophy

    yes – very interesting processing through trends.

    The ‘zone blitz’ meme, it would seem, has run its course. Its efficiency, we will begin seeing that it has outlived its efficiency handling many of the current offense’s flavors. Judging by the newer defensive trends, I think we will see a move back to more man-centric coverages (away from 1/4,1/4,1/2 and quarters) with an emphasis on pressure. I doubt it can be traced toward Saban, but it is interesting that Saban and his partner (from 2006-2008), Dom Capers, are leading a trend with 6-man pressures (supported by peeling ends) to attack 1-back offenses. This mutlti-faceted attack leads to a necessity (or preference) in utilizing personnel differently (more linebackers). Though nothing revolutionary, nickel packages are more situation-specific and dime/dollar sets (such as Capers’ ‘psycho’) are leading a shift away from 1-dimensional characters.

  • About the 8-man box:

    I think the discussion of the 8-man box isn’t very applicable with a discussion of the spread. Usually an OC will be looking at having to handle the 7th man or the 6 & 1/2 man in the box.

    And if you talk in those terms, teams are very much putting the extra man in the box, because the spread is overwhelmingly not only about passing anymore- see Oklahoma State, Oregon, Florida to name a few.

    For example, USC was almost 100% Cover 1, partly because of incredible safety talent, but also because of the flexibility to dedicating extra players to the box.

  • And Brophy’s comment about the zone blitz is interesting. I agree that there are a lot more 6-man pressures out there. I don’t think the zone blitz has really run its course, though. I follow BYU- the coaches there do not have a man coverage. The closest thing is matchup zone.

    They recognize that they likely do not have the speed and talent to run with receivers in the open field, so have thrown out man coverage. So they are more creative with zone blitzes- using 2-deep zones behind a 5-man overload pressure out of a 34 defense.

    I actually think we’ll see zone blitz as more of a staple. I also think we’ll see a lot more 3 and 4- verticals with the types of pressure that Brophy mentioned. That and spread formations like the Patriots- a wing TE and 1 RB that can be checked into 7-man protection.

  • I believe the rationale will be that in the pro game, you’re not going to get much 5 man protection (sending 5 in fire zone)….

    Because you’re going to get 6 man and 7 man protection, there is no point (no efficiency) in dropping an end…to do what? Drop underneath the curl/slant of #1? So, why not just bring that DE and also have him peel/check with any releasing back? And this really goes back to some tenets/principles of 46 defenses of the 80s…..

    And this is ultimately what it will boil down to; the defense responding/adapting to what the offenses are doing. The fire zone stuff is good, but can be attacked with shallows (those SCIF guys just hanging), which is where a lot of offenses are at now. Fronts based on attacking protections – coverages based on blanketing formation (splits).

    There will be more and more blitzes inside (cross) by backers and safeties (rather than DTs). We see this with the zone read (1 back stuff) nowadays (with DTs in tight 2 or 3 tech, but no shades).

    The rest of the SI article is interesting (and the eventual ND conference affiliation), and will be curious what happens in 10 years.

  • DrB

    While I’m partial to the option, there is one thing that really holds it back: players dont get excited by it. People still think its a gimmick, no matter how much I try to tell them that it isnt on our site.

    WRs who are highly sought after will rarely pick a true triple option team. Great QBs won’t either. RBs may be talked out of it because its not a system that will prepare them for the NFL…at least thats what opposing recruiters will say (I think it does, but pass blocking needs to be worked on).

    Nobody “solved” the option, it will still work with a good coach who is committed to it like Johnson is. Nobody is going to “solve” the Air Raid either, but in its true Leach-form I dont see it continuing (beyond Leach) because most coaches wont just give up on running the ball like he does.

    If any offense of this year takes off and spreads, I think it’ll be Malzahn’s. It’s still not schematically very new however.

  • Brad

    I would agree with Chris and Steve (at least as they hint towards it) up above that the next wave will likely be a return to power football. And I mean old school, Woody Hayes/Lou Holtz/Tom Osbourne power football with some option sprinkled in. The reasoning is for adjustment purposes.

    Look at Texas. They have built a defense upon big fast Dlinemen and lots and lots of talented, 6’1 210 lb. Dbacks. They don’t focus on those power LBs like they used too, and their Defense has seen success at stopping spread teams for the most part. When schools start focusing on WRs and quick RBs, you eventually wind up with guys like Gerhart who go to Stanford. Stanford punched people in the mouth all year long, and had success because 1) Gerhart was a beast, and 2) they were playing Defenses that were used to playing lots of coverage with 5 DBs, and were not used to seeing Double Tight power football.

    The reason the spread initially hit like wildfire was because Purdue could pass all over the traditional 7 to 8 man fronts of great D teams like ND, Penn St., and Michigan. Playing a game in a nickel D was a rarity then, which made it hard. When teams are now in a situation where playing a full game in a Base defense is a rarity, it becomes harder to react because 1) you aren’t used to it, and 2) you likely don’t have the personnel anymore.

  • I think there will also be a shift back to the 4-3, where coaches like Nick Saban have shown methods for defending spread option with 5 1/2 in the box.

    We’re seeing the peak of the resurgence of the 3-4, which has been a more effective answer against the spread because you can bring 5 and 6 without dropping linemen. And then you have Florida lining up in 2 backs + 1 QB and running gap concept power out of shotgun. Three down linemen are having trouble with that.

    So as coaches pave the way, like Saban and Pelini, I think more DCs will be comfortable with the 4-3 again. And if they want to succeed, they will have to learn 6 & 7 man pressures with peel blitzes.

    Gregg Jones had an exceptional game plan of 6 & 7 man pressures against Indianapolis in the Superbowl. I think I’ve seen his pressure package online from his time with Buffalo.

    Needless to say, the focus on defense will be on QB pressure and offense may be a lot of long passing to take advantage

  • UnBrad


    While we may see a return to power football, your point that the Texas defense has seen success stopping the spread is unfounded. Texas has continually had trouble stopping the Air Raid at Texas Tech, Texas A&M and even Art Briles at Baylor.

  • Steve

    To add to the “move to the power game” argument, most high school kids had never faced a true spread offense until recently. Now the I Form is foreign territory to these kids. They know how to play the spread, play in space, but they might have a tough time getting accustomed to smashmouth football again.

  • Nickel Rover


    Texas made the national championship game last year in a spread-heavy conference with an offense that had the worst ypp avg in Mack Brown’s tenure.
    You think maybe the defense had something to do with it?
    Texas held Tech to 24 points last year, has never struggled to beat Briles’ Bears, and A&M…They have a 5-wide offense with more receivers worth covering than any other squad I’m aware of, plus a mobile QB. Every defense struggles to cover 5 guys and a dual-threat QB. Even Saban has been clowned by the spread.
    A few exceptions makes for a rather clumsy argument that Texas hasn’t seen defensive success against the spread. Watch this year’s group and see what happens.

  • Jake

    I’m not super knowledgeable but am I right to think that tight ends that can block well AND be legit downfield threats could be key to giving an offense the ability to switch back and forth between spreading it out and using a power running game, say in a 2 WR, 2 TE, 1 RB set?

  • Mr.Murder

    We have seen the two tight end spread/power combo. Joe Gibbs coached it up. Didier and Johnson were a mismatch for most linebackers, and he usually would isolate Monk opposite his speed wideouts(smurfs). Fit the front or get run on, then watch him use multisets and motion to work passing matchups off the front fit.

    They used, in essence, spread formations, to set up the trey/deuce power running series. Also made the H back into a wing T sniffer series puller replacement. Dan Henning has made good runnning games into a trademark, including within that system.

    When Theisman was there it was more of a rollout/bootleg horizontal control pass game. Very much part of the spread trend we see today.

    Gibbs was part of the “west coast offense” from his days as a college coach. They replaced the two back series with one back action passes. What each had in common was a backfield action to mirror control passing.

  • Will

    While the return to power football may be in the cards, I don’t necessarily think it will be in the form of indirect-snap I formation offense. Coaches and players are learning that the “wildcat” baloney we saw the last 2 seasons in the NFL doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the power and misdirection capabilities of the single wing, (Warner) double wing, short punt, ND box, etc., etc. The 6’2″ 240 RB who might have gone to Ohio State 10 years ago can indeed go to Toledo now. Or he can play QB for Florida.

  • Kevin

    DrB — I think the quarterback argument often used against the option is often extremely overstated. Often, teams have been able to land option quarterbacks (not so-called “dual-threat” quarterbacks, but option quarterbacks) from prospects who aren’t necessarily considered quarterbacks first.

    For instance, a player like Vince Young might not have found an option offense intriguing, despite his mobility. But you might have been able to convince a Michael Crabtree (a mobile HS QB who was considered a WR prospect) to come play QB in an option system because of the glamour of the quarterback position.

    For instance, Marcus Allen signed with USC as a defensive back (and converted to running back), but stated in his biography that he nearly signed with Oklahoma because of the allure of being able to play quarterback at the next level (Allen was a QB/DB in high school).

    So while you’re probably not going to land a pro-style QB to run the option (though you might, Troy Aikman), and you might even turn off some dual-threat guys, there’s a fairly vast, untapped pool of potential quarterbacks with the skill set necessary to run the option.

  • Matthew

    Not an offense, but a position.

    I’m a little late to the party but I think the H back or more distinctly the sniffer back (placed between the guard and tackle) will be the new fad.

    Malzahn is more prevalent right now, but UF and Meyer have beein utilizing it for quite awhile now.

    The idea of using a FB/H-Back/Sniffer to block the edge, pull like a tackle, help in pass pro, and be used in the pass scheme isn’t new by any means, paging Joe Gibbs. I look for it to take off though.

    It already has here in the state of Alabama.

  • Will


    Exactly. There are thousands of option (under center and shotgun) and Wing-T QBs across the country for a college option offense to recruit. You don’t need to recruit all of them, just a few of the many.


    Direct snap UF offense plus sniffer = Single-Wing. I agree with you, but I think it’ll still be a few years before offenses completely reinvent anything you’d recognize from one of John Heisman’s books.

  • This may be tongue-in-cheek comment, Chris…

    But did anyone else see the (Green) NY Jets “Ryan” playbook/binder on Nick Saban’s desk during his interviews on ESPN’s “Alabama All Access” this week?

    Now it is common occurrence with (college) coaches, but it makes for interesting speculation

  • Madarabuu

    I’m in no way knowledgeable about the option heyday seeing as how i was born in the 1990’s but I played QB before switching to WR and i can definitively say that I would go to an option team if i had the chance to, seeing as in my eyes i see option quarterbacks as having more to deal with the immediate success of s team. Imagine what would happen to Ga. Tech if Nesbitt was hurt.

  • Daniel Tyler

    “Since there’s less of a market for one-cut 230 lb running backs in the spread, a team like, Toledo for example, might sign a back who ten years ago would have been a Buckeye. Combine that with smaller, faster defenses built to stop the spread and Toledo’s “new” power attack would have more success than the exact same offense in 2005.

    There’s always going to be a race to be “different” because it lets you recruit players for whom you have less competition and gives you an advantage over teams built to stop the current trending offense.”

    Thats why Stanford was successful with Toby Gerhart, they were 1-11 when they recruited him. They ran a smash mouth offense the last few years, which would seem like the current trend, but in the PAC-10 it is very different. All of their defenses are smaller and faster, designed to stop the spread. This is why they reached their first bowl game in a decade (combined with the fact that Gerhart is a great back and Luck is a good qb)

  • Isn’t Jason Garret doing many of these things with the Cowboys? Looking back at the 2009 season, the Cowboys were much more successful in their two tight end formations, than any other packages.

    I read something recently that showed the most prolific scoring offenses in NFL history were linked with a greater run to pass ratio. Most of these high scoring offenses were in the 1950’s and 60’s. The Cowboys offense, at its core, is a power running offense.

    I agree with those who have said that the offenses utilizing both power running packages and spread packages will have the best chance of keeping defenses off balance. Again, I look to the Cowboys’ Jason Garret.

    He will have the tools this season to do both, with the addition of Dez Bryant to their receiving core. Look for them to switch from sets with Witten and Bennet at tight end to 4 wides with Austin, Bryant, Crayton, Williams. And Garret is toying with many ideas for the H back.
    Should be interesting to watch unfold this year.

  • Jon

    What I’ve been noticing in the pro game is the trend towards 2 TE formation. The Colts have done it and my team, the Lions, are going toward this type of offense. They need two TE who has the complete package to force the defense to stay in base defense thus giving the offense an advantage with the mismatches in the passing game.

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  • Mr.Murder

    “The 6’2″ 240 RB who might have gone to Ohio State 10 years ago can indeed go to Toledo now. Or he can play QB for Florida.”

    He could hit the weights to gain ten poounds and play QB for Auburn right now. Mahlzahn was not using motion early in the game, he wanted to simplify the read to pure option running for the hardy new QB. this is a trend to match his player’s qualities. Very interesting, let’s see where this goes or if it lasted that entire game. It made me miss the initial possessions of the NFL’s first game.

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  • BoomerSooner

    Oh man, what a great season for UT! I love it when overly-confident people have to eat crow.