Visual evidence of the evolution of the spread offense

Compare Woody Dantzler running the Clemson Tigers offense under coordinator Rich Rodriguez:

…with the new school spread from Oregon, coached by Chip Kelly:

It’s not quite fair to draw major conclusions off comparing just these two teams, coached by different guys, but I see some themes that emerge:

  1. A wider variety of sets. Clemson uses only a couple of formations — mostly two-by-two with four receivers — while Oregon uses three receivers and a lot of sets with H-backs and tight-ends. Indeed, if there’s one change I can point to about the newest spread offenses is that they are less spread. Guys like Chip Kelly and Gus Malzahn use tight-ends as often as pro-style teams, though they integrate them into their offenses in slightly different fashion.
  2. A wider variety of reads. Much of the development in the spread run game has been to counteract advanced defense reactions to the zone-read, like the “scrape exchange.” A lot of Clemson’s runs aren’t reads at all, and rely on the surprise element of having the quarterback run at all, whereas Oregon employs significantly more deception and movement in the backfield, and the reads go well beyond the old “read the defensive end” of the zone read. Instead, they include reads of the defensive tackle and the outside linebacker for bubble screens built into the play.
  3. Increased polish of footwork and fakes. Chip Kelly does an excellent job of coaching his quarterbacks and runningbacks to carry out their fakes and to emphasize them, whereas with Clemson everything was so new the threat alone was often enough. (Rodriguez’s teams, especially at West Virginia, got very good at this as well.)
  4. Increased emphasis on “power” schemes. In the spread’s nascent days, almost all the runs were based off the inside and outside zones, with a few simple reads. And Rodriguez’s teams still emphasize the zone, much like some pro teams do. But other teams, including Oregon, have meshed spread principles like QB reads and an integration of slot receivers and a focus on angles and leverage in blocking with traditional “power” schemes, like the “Power O” and “Counter Trey.”

Those are the major themes I notice. Feel free to add your own in the comments. One thing I will add though is that the Clemson clip contains my favorite play out of those shown in the videos above — the “play-action” pass from no-back where the quarterback dips down as if it was a QB Draw and instead fires a pass downfield. Call it the predecessor to the “jump pass.

  • What I take from this post is that Coach Rod is without a doubt the ‘big bang’ point of most of what we see in the shot gun spread option game today.

    The Tebow ‘play action’ jump pass is further evidence that way back in 2000 Coach Rod was running this (though not as refined) and guys like Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen were admiring his work.

    I agree with Chris that the likes of Chip Kelly and Gus Malzahn are the next generation innovators of this offense. I would add that Dan Mullen (now Head Coach at Miss State), who I mentioned above is another guy who really has embraced the ‘Power’ kick and gut concept integration into the spread offense… something the Gators really moved away from in 2009 when Steve Addazio took over as OC in Gainesville.

  • DrB

    We do miss the RichRod days at Clemson, he knew how to teach an offense and execute with some OLinemen that were actually quite awful after he left.

  • MKing

    I also noticed the TD pass to the tight end out of the empty formation after the play fake. Most “Air Raid” guys know this as 64 “Pearl Harbor”.

    If any of you watched the Texas Tech vs Michigan St. bowl game Tech ran the same play. The difference was that they lined Detron Lewis up in the backfield out of a 2×2 “Ace” set and ran him straight down the middle of the field. The rest of the receivers ran the traditional “smash” (hitch/corner) play vs the cover 2 shell and the man out of the backfield is 1 on 1 with the mike backer.

    The safeties are forced to get over the top of the corner routes leaving the middle of the field wide open. It is a very nicely designed play vs cover 2.

  • Old South

    You missed the most important theme, which is the awesomeness of old-school Jefferson Pilot Sports broadcasting and its superiority to contemporary college football presentation.

  • Coach P

    I think it would be really interesting to see some cut-ups of RichRod’s old scheme at Tulane or Clemson vs. its peak at WVU.
    Same with Chip Kelly, from New Hampshire to Oregon.
    How have those guys individually changed what they do?
    Good stuff as usual, Chris.

  • Ted Seay

    >Call it the predecessor to the “jump pass.“

    …if you don’t mind being off by about 80 years…


  • Ted Seay

    …this evidence is only 62 years old, but you take my point:

  • Mike

    The post is interesting, but I think the title is a bit misleading. The spread has evolved to counter the defensive counters to it’s simplistic beginings, but the comments lead you to believe Rodriguez has stayed constant to his Clemson days and not evolved. Michigan used the H back and TE’s last year and the run game was more diverse with some counter stuff.

  • Ted: Maybe I should change it to “[a] predecessor” rather than “the predecessor.”

    Mike: I don’t think I implied that Rodriguez himself is behind the times. If you contrast what he did at Michigan with what he did at WVU it’s like night and day. Now, some of that was the influence of Trickett, but it was also that his schemes evolved because they had to. He’s doing much the same thing in terms of evolution at Michigan, though has been hampered with getting sophisticated by weak/young quarterbacks. I merely used this because that Clemson team was hugely influential on other coaches and what you see there was the prototype for what came later. It didn’t have to be the advanced spread because it was so new, but there have been changes nevertheless, and Rodriguez has been a big part of that.

  • Geoff

    Chip Kelly always says that he tailors his offense to the personnel/talent he has at the time. Back when he was at UNH he had some years where they were a passing-spread team, because he had a solid QB and a bunch of great WRs.

    When he got to Oregon he found a stable of very good RBs, a solid O-line and has consistently added talent to both spots. The first year with Dennis Dixon and Jonathan Stewart the team was more balanced in run-pass. In 2008 with Jeremiah Johnson and LeGarrette Blount and an inexperienced QB it was very run focused, lightning-thunder style. The following year with Masoli more comfortable with the offense they had a few games where he passed well (Cal, Zona), but mostly they relied on the zone read, using the speed of LaMichael James and changing that up with the speed/power of Masoli running.

    Next year with Masoli suspended, we might see a more balanced run-pass attack. With LaMichael James, Kenyon Barner and incoming frosh Lache Seastrunk, we’ll probably see quite a bit of the zone-read, the new TZR (tazer) position which is kind of like an H-back with a lot of lateral pitches and fly-sweeps and double TE sets. The double TE sets allow for short-mid range passes over the middle and a lot of outside-zone running. The Ducks just signed a JC TE (Brandon Williams) who’s making waves in spring ball, along with the back-up-soon-to-be-starter David Paulson.

    The WR corps are getting better, but still lack that stud who’s going to be a downfield threat consistently. There’s hope that Diante Jackson will fill that role, but he lacks the consistency at this point. So again, I think the Ducks will be run focused, but probably not quite as reliant on the zone-read as they were last year due to the QB not having Masoli’s build.

  • john n

    Another aspect of the evolution of the spread: USC’s inability to tackle.

  • Dave

    Didn’t a good number of those Duck run plays look pistol-ish? With the TB behind Masoli? Except that I often had problems spotting Masoli’s read at the mesh.

  • Bean

    Yeah, you can definitely spot some pistol stuff in those Oregon clips. Masoli doing the bootleg after the handoff is a dead giveaway unless I am mistaken. I know Chris has talked about Nevada’s use of the Pistol in the past, but I’m not sure I recall when/where it rose to popularity/efficacy. It seems like it would have common roots with the Rodriguez-led Spread systems, but I don’t know for certain.

  • Coach P

    Bean: Chris Ault at Nevada actually invented the Pistol formation, and it has spread (no pun intended) from him.

  • Dave

    Thanks, Bean. Its nice to know I’m not crazy. Funny thing about those bootleg decoys Masoli did. On not one of those pistol-ish play cuts did we see Masoli actually carry the ball on a bootleg. Oh, he kept the ball on a few, but they were always more zone-readish keeps. On the keeps he never once turned his back to the line of scrimmage. On the decoys he was turning around.

    Would love to learn more about this.

    This blog could use auto-notification on the comments.

  • Stop the Spread

    Fear the Spread!!11!!!! Unless you have a defensive front that’s athletic enough to stop it.

    Oregon sure looked good against Ohio State…

  • Masoli’s fakes are really smooth in these clips. Impressive.

  • AERose

    Off topic, but it almost literally hurts to watch those Oregon vs. Cal clips. We had such high hopes…

  • roo

    I was watching the michigan/northwestern 2000 game on hulu and the spread Northwestern ran looked MUCH closer to what we see today than I had remembered, particularly in the run game.

  • I was lucky enough to be at all the games in the 1990s–and my husband was at the 11.4.2000 Michigan game (after we had kids, we eventually has to ditch the season tickets). Best games in modern NU history.

  • The WR corps are getting better, but still lack that stud who’s going to be a downfield threat consistently. There’s hope that Diante Jackson will fill that role, but he lacks the consistency at this point. Thanks for posting this article all videos are awesome

  • If you are a Northwestern fan, you had to see this one coming. This was the best college game I have ever seen to date. This one had it all. Over 1000 yards of total offense. Over 100 points scored. Late game drama.

    Northwestern’s spread offense had confused teams all year. Their defense, however, confused nobody. This game was Michigan’s to win. Late in the game the Cats were moving down the field, down 51-46, with the ball, in the red zone.

    After a touchdown was called back, head coach Randy Walker called a timeout to set up what should have been the last offensive play. It was a flair pass to a wide open Damien Anderson, which he dropped.

    Michigan was primed to run out the clock. Give it to the A-train, and walk out a winner. Oh wait, there was a phantom fumble, recovered by Raheem Covington.

    Several plays later it was Kustok to Simmons…Wildcats win! Best game ever! This one had offense, drama, and even more offense.

    Now, there were several other honorable mention games, including the 2001 win over Michigan State, the 2005 win over Iowa, and the 1996 win at Illinois

  • nayeem razzak

    A wider variety of reads. Much of the development in the spread run game
    has been to counteract advanced defense reactions to the zone-read,
    like the “scrape exchange.”

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  • jwest5150

    I agree that the spread is evolving, but not due to more speed at the corner, or even at the safety position. I feel it is due to the increased speed of Sam and Will, and, even at times Mike. You look at these guys and their size, speed and closing range is just unreal. Some of these receivers barely weight 180 pounds and to get hit by a 240 pound LB with 4.5 speed is lethal. So you will see these wrinkles come through to get these seams and the match ups you want. Nice post.

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