In fall 2009, a reader emailed me about a spread run scheme TCU used to close out a tight victory against Clemson. The scheme featured a runningback and the quarterback running to the same side — as opposed to the traditional zone read, where the two ran in opposite directions, along with playside blocking from the line. I’d seen something similar before, possibly from Urban Meyer’s team at Florida, but apparently Clemson’s excellent defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele had not seen it, or at least not from TCU. Indeed, since he hadn’t yet seen the tape Steele wasn’t even certain of how to label the concept, but he noted that it had been a significant factor in TCU’s victory:
TCU quarterback Andy Dalton found almost all of his success on the ground on Saturday by employing a new play that the Clemson coaching staff had not seen on film, and Dalton seemed to run almost at will through the line of scrimmage and beyond. . . . Steele said that the play with Dalton carrying was really the only play the Tigers had not seen on film as they studied the Horned Frogs last week.“They ran just one play that we hadn’t seen on film – but it was a good one,” he said. . . .
“Not to get too technical, but on the zone read, the quarterback fakes to the running back going this way and the quarterback goes the other way,” Steele said. “What they were doing was faking zone read one way, the quarterback would step like he was going this way but they would pull the guard and chase it the other way. It was a new look. We got over there and drew it up, got it adjusted out, but we were doing it on the fly and adjusting it on every call.
I couldn’t tell you if TCU got the play from somewhere else or dreamed it up themselves, but in our increasingly interconnected world, that play — which I dubbed the “inverted veer” because it had the same read as the traditional veer but “inverted” the option with the quarterback now the inside man and the runner the outside man — has spread across all levels of football. By the end of the 2009 season, several teams had begun using it, but it’s real significance would come last season: The play was everywhere. Big 10 teams like Ohio State and Purdue (to use two on the opposite end of the spectrum) used it; it spread across conferences like the WAC and Conference USA; in the first part of the season, Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez racked up tons of yards with this play, most notably going for 240 yards against Kansas State on primetime; and, finally, Cam Newton rode the play to over 1,400 yards rushing, a Heisman trophy, and a national championship. And it goes without saying that, given the play’s popularity at the college level, countless high schools across the country installed it in the spring and fall.
But with the play’s popularity has come complexity and variation; we’ve evolved past the days of Kevin Steele diagramming the play and the defensive response on a greaseboard on the sideline. Let’s walk through the elements of the play, some of the choices available for blocking, and some of the defensive responses.