Before the Hal Mumme/Mike Leach Airraid or the Urban Meyer spread-to-run, there was the old, original “one-back” offense. The man who is considered the father of the one-back and did the most to popularize it is Dennis Erickson, who doesn’t even run it anymore at Arizona State, having given the reins of his offense over to Noel Mazzone, who runs a kind of hybrid with the Airraid offense filtered through a former NFL assistant’s viewpoint. But the one-back has a storied legacy in football, both in that it paved the way for the 2000s, the decade of the spread, but also as an incredible offense in its own right. Erickson has explained the origins of the offense:
“The ingenuity [Jack Elway] had offensively has spread throughout the country and has certainly had an influence on my strategy and my coaching,” Erickson said. “Obviously, he (Elway) was a pioneer of all that stuff, and used it before a lot of others.”Erickson said the first to use the spread offense was Jack Neumeier at Granada Hills, where John Elway played his high school football. Jack Elway then used it at Cal State Northridge and brought it to San Jose State.
Neumeier was a high school coach who wanted to open up his offense back in the 1970s and began splitting out extra receivers to do so. Both Jack and John Elway, then a young high schooler, wanted John to play somewhere that would showcase his talents as a quarterback in an age when everyone wanted to out-muscle everyone and so John enrolled at Granada. Granada’s offense got rolling as it was based on three excellent concepts:
- One-back formations with extra split receivers to open up passing and running holes in the defense.
- Option routes where receivers had the freedom to alter their route depending on the coverage.
- Having John freaking Elway as your high school quarterback.
- One-back formations, with the base being three wide-receivers, one tight-end and one runningback. (Other coaches would put different spins on it, whether with four receivers or two tight-ends.)
- A running game consisting of inside and outside zone, Power-O and the counter trey.
- A heavy emphasis on the three-step drop passing game.
- “Option routes” as the base of the five-step drop passing game.
- A systematic or “constraint play” approach to playcalling.
Probably the best exemplar of the one-back in its prime was the 1997 Washington State squad led by then coach Mike Price and quarterback Ryan Leaf. History was not particularly kind to either man (though nicer to Price as after his Alabama debacle he’s been the coach at UTEP since 2004), but for that season the results speak for themselves: PAC-10 champ, 42 points per game and over 500 yards of offense per game. And let me say it again: They did this at Washington State.
That season Price employed a lot of formations but he used the “double slot” the most: two receivers to either side of the quarterback along with one running back. Many now will recognize this as the basic spread formation (though Leaf was usually under center rather than in the shotgun), but back then it was somewhat of a novelty. Price used it because of its then relative rarity, but also for practical reasons: Washington State’s fourth wide receiver was better than its tight-end.
Assume with me that the defense has just one deep safety. That means that, if the defense covers up all of the receivers, the defense has only six guys in the “box” — i.e. the interior defenders. The offense has only five blockers, and Leaf was not much of a threat to run. They did however have good matchups on the outside. So the first thing WSU looked for was the leverage of the cornerbacks: were they playing soft or tight? If they played soft, Price (or Leaf via audible) would call a quick, five-yard hitch to the outside receivers. Leaf needed only to pick the best matchup and fire the ball out there. Let the receiver catch a quick one, make a defender miss, and make a big play.
If the defense played “tight,” however, Price and Co. dialed up one of their “option routes.” The outside receivers were to run straight and try to get open deep (which happened with some regularity, as the highlight against UCLA above showed). The inside receivers were to burst upfield to eight to twelve yards depending on the call. Against man-to-man, they cut inside or outside depending on the defender’s leverage; against zone they found a void between defenders and settled in it.
What if the defense put two safeties back, to guard the deep pass and play the receivers tight? Well, then it only had five in the box, so it was time to run the ball. In 1997, Washington State had a good running back, Michael Black, who ran for over 1100 yards in 11 games.
And that pretty much covers the bases. Where it gets trickier is when defenders try to “cheat” — and that’s when you get into the constraint stuff. First, the defense might line up with two safeties back but the outside linebackers over the slot receivers will cheat in to stop the run. In that case, the offense can throw the bubble screen.
Alternatively, the inside linebackers or the outside linebackers might cheat in or be watching the run, so that’s when the bootleg is often effective. The quarterback looks to hit either the man in the flat or the slot on the deep crossing route.
Finally, if the safeties want to cheat up, well then it is home run time. The quarterback will fake it to the runningback and run the four-verticals concept or another deep attacking play.
That’s really about it. an incredible amount of their offense was spent just cycling between that sequence. And Leaf, at least that year, showed a great propensity to read defenses and make the right read on passing plays. But obviously he was helped by having a smart, simple framework to work from.
There are other one-back concepts worth mentioning briefly. One was Price’s version (or one of his versions) of the shallow cross. Price combined the shallow with the deep cross. The quarterback read the play by first looking at his deep routes as his “peek” or “alerts” — i.e. if the home-run is there, take it. If the go and the post aren’t open, the shallow cross is “hot” against a blitz, otherwise he can read the deep-cross as his “high” read and the runningback as his “low” read.
And you can see Leaf hit the deep-cross or “hunt” player against Michigan in the Rose Bowl, with heavy pressure in his face.
And another nice route is what Spurrier called the “Mills” play. It is designed to either be a simple curl-flat read, but with a post route over the top of it. In a lot of coverages — especially Cover four/four-deep across — the safeties play very aggressive, and will jump routes in front of them. This gives the play its big-play potential: if the safety jumps the curl, the post route is wide open behind the defense:
That is exactly what happened in 2002 when Washington State played Pete Carrol’s Southern Cal team. (Washington State upset USC, led by Carson Palmer, and probably cost them a shot at the national title game. WSU’s quarterback was Jason Gesser, though Price was still the coach.) See the video below.
But with the rise of the spread option and the other modern offensive attacks, isn’t the one-back dead? I mean, Erickson doesn’t even use it anymore, no? Like all great offenses, the one-back isn’t dead, but it has evolved. And if you want proof that it isn’t dead, look no further than the One Back Clinic, which goes back to Price’s time at Washington State and continues every offseason. As Bruce Feldman, who has gone to the last several clinics, explains:
[T]he Arizona State Sun Devils’ football complex overlook[s] Sun Devil Stadium[, and] . . .[c]oaches from virtually every level of college football are here, but they’re mostly from Football Bowl Subdivision schools. In addition to coach Dennis Erickson and the rest of the Sun Devils’ staff, there are coaches from the Oklahoma State Cowboys [including then offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen], Houston Cougars, Cincinnati Bearcats and New Mexico Lobos, among others. This is the annual one-back clinic, which brings together some of the more innovative offensive minds in college football. The first one-back clinic was at Washington State in 1999 and was hosted by then-Cougars coach Mike Price. It has evolved similar to offensive football and variations of the spread attack during the past decade.
New Arizona State offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone was there in ’99 with Gary Crowton, Gunter Brewer, Dana Holgorsen, Sonny Dykes, Larry Fedora and Mike Leach. Mazzone, who has bounced around from Auburn to Oregon State to NC State to Ole Miss to the New York Jets to ASU, has teamed with Houston Cougars coach Kevin Sumlin to take ownership of the one-back clinic and become a ringleader for the two-day event. . . . Last year, Sumlin hosted the one-back clinic at Houston. [The clinic] is invite-only, and you won’t see more than one staff from the same conference invited. . . .
The next speaker, unlike the first two, does not have a recognizable logo on his golf shirt. It has an “M,” but it’s not the Michigan or Minnesota logos. He introduces himself. “I’m Bob Stitt, with two T’s at the end of my name.”… Stitt is the 45-year-old head coach at Colorado School of Mines, a Division II school just down the road from the Coors facility in Golden, Co. Stitt is a regular to the one-back clinic and has become pals with Holgorsen and the rest of the core crowd. His teams win big despite dealing with high academic requirements…. Stitt’s topic is the pistol offense and back-shoulder throws. As you’ll find out, Stitt is a huge believer in the back-shoulder throw. He talks about it the way Jared talks about Subway. “If this stuff works with our guys, it’ll probably work with the guys you have,” he says. “We’re an engineering school, and we only have one major, engineering. Our average ACT score in math is 29.” That line draws the biggest “Oooh!” of the day. . . .
The tricky part of Stitt’s tact — as is the case with many of the things discussed here — is that it’s hard to say just how well these things could be replicated someplace else. “I love coming to this because it reinforces a lot of what we do, ” one coach says. “Sometimes you might get one or two things you can try out from a technique or a practice point.” It’s also pretty good for networking because you never know what position might open a few months from now.
That’s the lifeblood of any offense — how it evolves and is shared by coaches. What began in some high school in California remains at the center of offensive theory for major college and pro coaches. Dana Holgorsen and Bobby Petrino don’t run the exact Mike Price/Dennis Erickson offense, but they use a lot of it, and the systematic approach to calling plays — having a few base concepts, getting good at them, and being ready with the necessary counters and adjustments — hasn’t changed.
Long live the one-back.