One play that has become a staple of the Gators’ offensive attack this season is a modified triple option. I’m going try to break it down in simple enough terms for anyone to understand what’s going on, so if you’re a seasoned EA NCAA Football pro, just be patient.
The triple option is named as such because there are three possibilities and the quarterback must choose which one to do based on the defense. He has options, in other words.
Traditionally, the three options are a hand off to the fullback, a hand off to the tailback, or the quarterback running it himself. Here is a diagram of the traditional triple option from the I-formation, so named because the quarterback, fullback, and tailback make the form on a capital I:
The quarterback receives the snap from under center and begins moving backwards. He motions like he is going to hand it off to the fullback, and makes the first decision. If the defensive tackles in the middle start moving to the left to contain the play, he will continue and actually give the ball to the fullback for a run up the middle. If the DTs stay in the middle, he will pull the ball back from the fullback, keep it, and continue running to his left.
Now, a second decision must be made. The defensive end on the left will not be blocked by the left tackle in order to have an advantage farther up the field. If that DE attempts to go after the quarterback, the QB will pitch the ball out to the tailback who will be behind and to the left of him. If the DE anticipates a pitch and goes after the tailback, the quarterback will keep in and run with it.
This play can be run from a variety of different setups for the fullback and running back, and it can be done to the right or the left. Those different formations along with the wide variety of blocking techniques means that you can create a fairly complex offensive scheme off the basic principle setup described above.
It used to be quite popular in college football. Not many teams use it anymore because it requires a lot of practice to get it right and because the quarterback tends to take hits from defenders on the play. It has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years thanks to guys like Urban Meyer, Rich Rodriguez, and Paul Johnson.
Florida’s Modified Triple Option
With the way the Gators run it, they use a running back and a wide receiver instead of a fullback and running back. In addition, the quarterback is in shotgun instead of being under center. Here is Florida using it against Vanderbilt with the setup before the snap.
This is basically a 10-on-10 play as WR Riley Cooper (at the bottom) will take himself and the cornerback on him out of the play. Louis Murphy at the top will run down field as a decoy and deep blocker. The key players here are QB Tim Tebow, RB Chris Rainey, WR Percy Harvin, and TE Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez is at the left edge of the offensive line.
Vanderbilt’s safety recognizes the formation as a running play, so he moves up and becomes a de facto fourth linebacker on the play. Just before the ball is snapped, Harvin goes in motion and runs behind Tebow and Rainey. He is playing the role of the tailback as pictured above. Rainey, all 5’9″ of him, actually has the fullback role.
Hernandez’s job is to go out and block the safety. The defensive end on the left will not be blocked. That leaves five offensive linemen to block the three other defensive linemen, so two (LT Phil Trautwein and RG Mike Pouncey) will ignore them and go farther up the field to take on linebackers. Here is a shot shortly after the snap.
Harvin has run around back as you can see. Tebow sees the defensive end is coming to the middle to stop Rainey, so he choses to keep the ball instead of handing it off. Hernandez had to run around the DE to go after the safety, so he actually will arrive too late to properly get the block.
Vanderbilt did its homework and was ready for this one, with the safety assigned to the quarterback. The key was moving him up before the play; had he been back at the normal distance, he would have been easily blocked. The outside linebacker (to the left of Hernandez) is assigned to Harvin. Lets go forward a few frames.
As I said, the safety cuts in before Hernandez can get to him and the linebacker is covering Harvin. Recognizing that a pitch to Harvin would be a big loss, Tebow decides to keep it.
Unfortunately for the safety, the quarterback is pretty nimble for being a big dude. Tebow will do a spin move as the safety goes flying by, negating Vanderbilt’s proper defense of the play. He then runs down field between a couple blocks and gets nine yards after lunging at the end.
You’ll note that there are three white jerseys beyond the original line of scrimmage, not just the two guys I singled out above. C Maurkice Pouncey did the same thing his twin brother Mike (#55 in the picture above) did in that he let someone by to block in the second level.
The result is the guy he would have been blocking got right to Rainey as he hit the line. Either Rainey was really a decoy all along, or Maurkice got confused on his blocking assignment. It appears the latter might be the case because as you can see, he’s going right after the linebacker that Trautwein is already blocking and he looks somewhat confused if you watch him.
Here is the whole play at full speed. I would recommend going to the actual YouTube page and clicking “Watch in high quality” because it’s a lot clearer.
The Other Way, Please
Let’s take another look at the same formation, but this time oriented to the right instead of the left.
The formation is the same only reversed. Deonte Thompson is the receiver at the top in the Riley Cooper role of taking himself and his covering cornerback out of the play. Kestahn Moore is the running back instead of Rainey, and Harvin is still the receiver in motion. Carl Moore is the receiver at the bottom in Louis Murphy’s stead, and his blocking assignment is the cornerback, #17.
Aaron Hernandez has switched over to the right side of the line since the play is going to that direction. Our friend the safety has already moved up here, and he is still Hernandez’s blocking assignment.
What is interesting is the offensive line assignments are the same as they were when the play went to the left. The defensive end to the offense’s left is still going to be the one unblocked instead of the one on the side where the play is. Trautwein and Mike Pouncey are still the guys who are going upfield to block. Maurkice Pouncey this time comes around behind Mike to get block the right defensive tackle while LG Carl Johnson must block the left defensive tackle.
Moore is absolutely a decoy this time, and he immediately runs out to the right with no fake handoff to him. Therefore, there’s only one decision to make now. This is no triple option play, it is an option right disguised as a triple option in its formation and pre-snap motion.
If the linebacker goes for either Moore or Harvin, Tebow will keep it. If he breaks off and goes for the quarterback, then Tebow will pitch it to Harvin. The linebacker ends up taking an in between position, sort of covering Harvin as he stands in front of Moore. Tebow decides to keep it.
Since Hernandez doesn’t have to run a circular path around the defensive end this time, he gets to the safety quickly and takes out his legs. You can see Hernandez’s legs on the ground beneath the safety (#33). The #30 in black you see there is the middle linebacker, and he is Mike Pouncey’s man.
The unblocked defensive end (#90) is now in a footrace to try to beat Tebow to the hole between Maurkice Pouncey and other defensive end being blocked by RT Jason Watkins (#77). Tebow wins that race, so from here it’s a matter of downfield blocking.
Tebow is approaching the hole having beat the DE to it. Because Maurkice Pouncey pancaked his man though, Johnson is unable to slide over to block the defensive tackle. Watkins is moving the hole to the right, giving Tebow the chance to beat the DT to the hole if he’s fast enough.
The linebacker who couldn’t decide on whether to go for Harvin or Moore locked up and Moore is running past him to go block up the field. Harvin has run to the sideline completely out of the play as his job is done.
The safety and middle linebacker have actually collided, causing both to fall down. That frees Mike Pouncey to run past both of them and try to pick up additional defenders up the field.
Tebow had the wheels to narrowly beat the defensive tackle to the hole, so all that’s left now is to hold the downfield blocks long enough to get him to the end zone.
Mike Pouncey (not pictured) did his job, picking up the other safety who did not fall down. Otherwise, Tebow would have been tackled at about the 15 yard line. Left tackle Phil Trautwein is still blocking his linebacker (#6), who at this point has given up on being able to get to Tebow. Thompson (#6) has forced his cornerback to be off balance, so #14 is no threat.
Remember cornerback #17 from the beginning? He has returned and is threatening to take Tebow down before the goal line. Carl Moore either did not finish his block or he was unable to hold it, and that’s him (#16) jogging into view at the bottom right.
Tebow takes an angled path towards the front corner of the endzone, and the angle is enough as the cornerback cannot get a good enough grip on the speeding Tebow to bring him down. Touchdown, 14-0 Florida.
Here is a look at the full play. As with the last one, I recommend going to the YouTube page and clicking “Watch in high quality.”
I hope you now have an understanding of both the principle behind the triple option and the way that Florida has used it this season. I also hope the second example gives you a glimpse of the complexity that option offenses can present even though on the surface, it’s just the quarterback running and deciding whether or not to keep it or give it.
It is for that reason that we’re unlikely to ever see the option die in the college ranks. Tebow is faster than any of the Vanderbilt defensive linemen, so he was able to exploit that in both of these examples. There are other, faster quarterbacks out there who do this too, and there will be plenty more to come.