Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Into the Mind of the Triple Option

I have a treat for my Georgia Tech brothers and sisters out there. With all the talk of the triple option, I thought it might be useful to start providing some insight into the system. However, why let a two-bit hack like me try and explain things? With that in mind, I made contact with Coach Steve Smith, a guy who has coaches the multiple option, studies the multiple option and is a believer in the multiple option. He's so much of a follower, that he has his own website - called "The Multiple Option Offense" at

Coach Smith agreed to do a Q&A with the GT Sports Blog and provide some insight into the triple option and share some thoughts on Paul Johnson and what we might expect on the flats. With that in mind, let's go to the questions:

First, tell us a little bit about your background.

Coach Smith: I’ve been a high school football coach for 15 years and have become something of a minor “option guru” on the Net since starting back in 2004. I started it as a resource to become a better option coach myself and to share what I learned with other coaches. Somewhere along the way I started answering more questions than I asked… funny how it worked out. I’m just glad I started a resource where folks can go to learn more about the option.

BTW, One of the early adopters and creative forces in option football back in the day was Homer Rice at Fort Thomas Highlands, Kentucky. I believe he retired as Athletic Director at G.T. only a few years ago. I know this because he married a lady from my home town of Middlesboro… and two of the most successful head coaches at Middlesboro, Chalk Stapleton and Ken Roark both ran Rice’s Veer Option. Coach Stapleton was and is good friends with Carson Newman’s head coach, Ken Sparks, who got a few National Championship rings while running the Veer option… It really is a small world after all.

What are the high level basics of option offenses? What are the advantages? Disadvantages? Misconceptions?

Here are a few general advantages of running the option. There was a really great post concerning this over in the Forums at the Flexbone Association site ( and I’m borrowing heavily from it below.

Advantages of the Option

• Reduces the need for a dominant offensive line (O-linemen are blocking low and fast playside or releasing to screen linebackers- one on one blocks aren’t needed as much as in other schemes.) Also, since the quarterback's reads eliminate defenders, there are fewer defenders to block. (ps. You don’t have to recruit traditional D-I talent to run this offense – although it wouldn’t hurt)
• Enables a physically inferior team to control the ball by running it, thus giving its defense more time to rest while wearing down the rival defense. Option teams are often great 4th quarter teams.
• Is adaptable to the team's personnel (A running QB will love it and a passing QB gets simpler coverages to throw at due to the defense having to play the option)
• Forces the defense to play assignment football (the Dline must play with some control which also slows the pass rush, blitzes become much more of a risk, etc)
• Reduces the number of coverages that the secondary can use and forces the secondary to get involved with the run.
• Is a goal-line to goal-line attack that requires no special red-zone or goal-line plays.
• Uses a variety of perimeter blocking schemes, thus simplifying the task of making game adjustments.
• Opens the door to more big plays… because the defense must concentrate on stopping the option, passes, reverses, and other “trick” plays can really catch them off-guard.

Disadvantages of the Option

• It can sometimes be harder to showcase a singularly talented back in the option unless you go out of your way a bit to tune the offense and get the football in one back’s hands. The option is designed to “spread the wealth” with respect to carries… most see this as an advantage.
• Penalties can be harder for an option team to overcome.
• It requires more timing, discipline, and practice time to perfect than some other offenses.
• The option was designed to win football games, not “sell beer and hotdogs.” Fans expecting to see a “mini-Pro” game on Saturday might be disappointed.

Misconceptions about the Option

The option will get your quarterback “killed.” If your QB lives through Spring Ball (just kidding!), he’ll get adept at making guys miss at the last second just like any good running back does. Think of it this way; put your QB in the shotgun 40 plays a game while those defensive ends pin their ears back and he’ll take a lot more blind-side shots. Pick your poison.
The option is easy for D-1 defenses to stop. Hmmm… really? Vintage Air Force and more recent Navy teams have put the points up on some decent opponents. Besides, if it were so easy, why aren’t more option teams scheduled to be “Homecoming patsies” for the big schools?
Good recruits won’t go where they run the option. True, some blue chip QBs don’t like getting that uniform dirty, but then you have those guys like Tebow at Florida who don’t seem to mind. You should also remember the option is designed for smaller, faster offensive linemen… it lets you recruit smaller, faster O-linemen that the D-I schools mostly overlook. And it won’t effect the defensive recruiting either way.

Can you help fans understand some of the different terminology? Spread offense, triple option, multiple option, veer, run-and-shoot, etc.

Running a spread offense usually means you feature formations with two split ends and either receivers or wingbacks… or that there’s one back in the backfield with the QB instead of two or three. Spread can mean either the QB is under center or in the shotgun. The term Flexbone is pretty much the same thing, but I take it as emphasizing that the QB is under center and you’re looking to run more than pass.

Running the option (another link) is when the QB “reads” the charge of a particular defensive lineman (succinctly called the “read” in this case). Depending on what that lineman does, the QB may hand the football to a dive back up the middle, keep it himself off tackle, or pitch the ball to a trailing running back. The analogy of the 2-on-1 fast break in basketball is not bad. The defensive player can’t cover both at the same time.

Are you familiar with the offense Paul Johnson ran at Georgia Southern and Navy? Is there something Jacket fans should know about the system he put in place at those schools? How is Johnson's system different from others?

The main thing GT fans should consider when thinking about Coach Johnson is that programs win when he shows up to coach there. Look at Johnson’s time at Hawaii… also at Ga. Southern as coordinator and as head coach… and most recently his time at Navy as a HC. The man wins football games. I have faith in his ability to make a big difference in a couple or three years – IF he’s left alone and allowed to coach.

Johnson has made it clear that he customizes the offense to the talent he has on the field. There is some evidence of that from his days as OC at Hawaii, where they passed at a higher rate. However, what is your guess as to the type of offense he installs at GT? What are the critical factors in making that decision?

I have no crystal ball concerning Coach Johnson’s offensive system for his initial year at Ga. Tech. I would be surprised if it were a complete clone of Navy’s offense right off the bat. Johnson and his staff will have to make their schemes fit the athletes that have been recruited over the past few years. But you never know… a lot of high school coaches still run the option and I’d almost bet there’s at least one kid on the team that’s ran it before. Regardless, I would also be surprised if you didn’t see the option play a huge role in the offense right away.

Talk about the importance of the QB in the option system. What are the key traits you are looking for at QB?

The option QB is the focal point for the offense. It all starts with the QB and his ability to make correct reads during the option. A calm, level head is a must… really the same things you look for in a QB in any offense. Option QBs tend to be competitors who don’t mind “getting their hands dirty” running the football. Most good option QBs are respected on the team because they are willing to take a lick or two and be physical and athletic in the process of winning. But things really get cooking when you get a kid that has the system down well enough to check-off at the line of scrimmage and hit the defense where it’s weakest. I honestly think that once a QB is confident in his ability to make option reads (pull and pitch stuff), a lot of the pressure is off. The option spreads the runs around the backfield and passing becomes more a situation of opportunity rather than necessity. I’d say an option QB has less pressure than a run and shoot QB who knows the team’s fortunes ride heavily on his throwing arm.

What role do the wide receivers typically play in the option? With the popular wide receivers these days being 6'4" big guys (like GT's former star Calvin Johnson), do typical option offenses get these type guys? What do you think are the ideal traits of a WR in this system?

The main thing the option gives them is predictable coverages – and the option almost assuredly eliminates the defense’s ability to double-cover any one receiver. I personally think that the option has allowed the teams I’ve coached to have a very explosive passing games. I’m not talking 20 completions a game but more like 6-12 completions with 3 being genuine big plays that went for big yardage. Think quality and not quantity. You aren’t likely to see an option team make a living off short passes thrown in the flat. But you are likely to see long balls like a backside Post, or a playside Fade or Wheel route go all the way for a score. The defensive coordinator must use his DBs as run support and it really puts them in a bind. I really hate that for ‘em.

Talk about the difference in play from the offensive line when comparing the option to a traditional pro-set.

The Option is designed for smaller, faster, and more agile offensive linemen… most of the blocks are low and quick since the running game is north-and-south and hits fast. You can get “more with less” concerning size and strength. The main requirement for the option lineman is quickness off the ball and a nasty disposition. Pass protection is much simpler since it’s usually either play action or turnback protection. In the first case, the defense has to stay under control and not just come sprinting up the field for fear of being “read” or “trapped.” In the latter, the O-lineman has the angle to begin with and thus an advantage.

I have read many comments that Georgia Tech is going to be watched closely next season by writers, fans and "experts" to judge the success of the triple option at the highest level - almost like some science experiment. What is a fair amount of time to judge the success of his system, considering he is starting over with a new team, new players and has to teach a brand new system? Will the fact that he will be playing more talented competition be a factor?

Coach Smith: I’ve already seen articles where the writer wasn’t wondering “if” G.T. was going to be successful but instead wondering just “how” successful they might be. No coach wants to “spot” the competition a season or two so I expect Johnson to get as much of his scheme in place as he possibly can. But most option teams –especially young and inexperienced ones- tend to start off slow but peak late. I expect some initial problems but think the team will begin clicking by mid-season. Barring any key injuries, I’d say the latter games of the season will be the ones to look at with regard to the future despite the strength of the opponent. The Yellow Jackets do have the ability to be 3-0 going into the Miami game. If they do, and confidence is high… then who knows what might happen. But I’m going to be cautious in Johnson’s first year and err on the conservative side and say a 4-6, 5-5, or 6-4 season is most likely. But if the players learn the system and most key players stay healthy… Well, let me say that I’d love to be eating my words as G.T. wins 8 games and heads to a bowl!

Johnson has said that he does not have a playbook. He basically runs only a handful of plays over and over, and may alter the formation instead. What advantages does this offer for players in the system?

Players go harder when they are sure of what they are doing and what their responsibilities are. They will have fewer blown alignments and fewer blown assignments in a simpler system. Also, the fewer plays you have, the more time you have to practice them to perfection. In this day of 20 hours of practice per week, Georgia Tech has the advantage with respect to the opponent’s defense. It has 3-4 days to prepare for G.T., probably the lone option team on the schedule.

It has been said that the triple option is a great equalizer in terms of reducing the impact of talent gaps between two teams. Johnson proved it at Navy, where he consistently held his own against more talented teams. So we know the option works in those situations. However, what happens when you get equal or greater talent running the option as your opposition? Does it further distance your team in terms of winning games, or is the advantage a lot smaller in this case? In other words, the multiple option can neutralize the disadvantage of inferior talent, but can it exploit the advantage of equal or better talent?

Better talent helps any offensive scheme you run; period. When you are significantly superior to your opponent, you just get to name your score.

There is a perception that recruiting into this system is a challenge, as high level future NFL caliber players don't think it prepares them for the NFL. Is there any truth to this? Obviously Johnson will have his first real access to bigtime Div IA talent. What should Jacket fans expect in terms of the types of recruits he will go after? Do you believe he will have success recruiting high level athletes into this system?

Remember Eric Crouch at Nebraska? He won the Heisman trophy in 2001. He wasn’t the best passer but I don’t think it lessened his ability to shred college defenses in the least. Yet how many pro teams wanted him as a QB? Not many. There are a lot of great running QBs in high school who every year who are forced to join D-I teams as receivers because their talents are largely ignored by college coaches eager to prove they can run what the pro coaches run. Every high school option QB in America now has a D-I school (other than a service academy) where he can now aspire to play. I honestly don’t think G.T. is going to hurt at the QB position. The biggest talent at wide receiver might look elsewhere, but G.T. will get plenty small, fast wideouts who will be very open due to the coverages they will see. Big-time tailbacks will most likely try other schools running the “I” or one-back sets, yet bruising fullbacks will see an opportunity to carry the football at G.T. Also look for Johnson to have success recruiting the utility-back type to play wingback/receiver. What you lose in one area you make up for in another. Georgia Tech recruiting will be fine.

How will option offense impact the Georgia Tech defense? What about the fact that they will not be practicing against a conventional offense during the week and will have to rely on the scout team more heavily? What about during gametime? Can the defense expect to stay on the field less because the offense will control the ball more?

If the option game is going well, then the G.T. defense can expect to be rested when it hits the field. It might also allow the defensive coordinator to gamble a little more. I don’t think the scout team situation will be much of a factor. No scout team in America is going to be as good either physically or execute as well as a D-I offense. Scout team plays are scripted and drawn out for the players… who most likely will have to emulate pass patterns and pass-pro drops. It will be far tougher for G.T.’s opponents to get a good option scout team ready when you consider the timing and practice involved. And they will have only 3-4 days to make it happen.

I hope I’ve made things a little clearer. And like G.T. fans everywhere, I’m really excited about the 2008 season.

Coach Steve Smith


Coach Smith, I just want to thank you for the interaction and insight into the Triple Option. It is great to have someone who has implemented these schemes share their insight. Hey, and the insight into Homer Rice was priceless and will be appreciated by Jacket fans!

You are welcome back anytime!!