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What, exactly, is the Spread Option?

We hear commentators talk about the Spread Option Offense every Saturday, and they just assume we know what they mean. Finally, here is an in-depth look at the offense sweeping the college football landscape.

The QB is key in any option offense, as the play lives and dies with his decisions.
The QB is key in any option offense, as the play lives and dies with his decisions.
Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

The QB keeper. Pulling the ball. Bad read. Defense lost contain. All these phrases have become common place both in the broadcasters booth and in our living rooms, but how many people really understand the intricacies of how the Read Option or Spread Option Offenses really work? The aim of this article is to shed some light into this offensive scheme that is sweeping the nation.

The first key to understanding the Spread Option is to discuss what the 'Spread' means. Ian Boyd went into some detail about the spread and compared it to the other popular style: the Pro-Style offense. As the name suggests, the purpose of the Spread offense is to spread out the defense, which creates natural running lanes. As you can see in the diagram below, there is a lot of space between each of the triangles, which represents the defense.

The 'X', 'H', 'Y', and 'Z' players are the receivers, and on a football are much further apart, which shifts the linebackers and secondary away from the line of scrimmage, as seen here:

The key to the Spread is the Quarterback is in a shotgun formation (pictured above) or the pistol formation. In both these formations, the QB needs to be well behind the line of scrimmage in order to read the defense. If the running back is next to the quarterback, it is a shotgun formation. If the running back is a few yards behind the quarterback, it is the pistol formation.

So what exactly is the QB reading? Before the snap, regardless of the offense, a QB is trying to determine if the defense is in man coverage or zone coverage, where the pressure from the defense is coming from, what line protections he needs to call, and any audibles or checks he needs to make to put his team in the best position to gain yards.

Once the ball is snapped, the QB in an option offense will next read where the unblocked defender is going. In all option offenses, there is always a single defender, called the 'read man', that is purposely unblocked. This is usually attained by moving the offensive line and running back, called simply 'the action', to the opposite side of the field, as seen below:

The arrows symbolize the the play moving away from the read man. As the linemen and running back run to the right, the QB holds the ball in the running backs arms, waiting to see what the read man does.

If the defender 'stays home', the QB simply gives the ball the running back, who follows the linemen down field. This may look like a simple dive play to most casual fans, but the main difference is the QB's body position and where his eyes are. If the QB turns his head away from the defense, it's a dive. If he keeps his head up and seems to hesitate before handing the ball off, the play was a read option. Here is an example from the Air Force-Nevada game:

As the ball is snapped, the Nevada QB, Cody Fajardo, has his eyes towards the line of scrimmage, reading the defense. As the running back enters the screen from the right, you also see the Air Force defender come up field a bit and stop at the 5 yard line. If the QB kept the ball there, Air Force gets the tackle for a loss. Fajardo realizes the defense is defending against his run, and wisely hands the ball off, touchdown Wolfpack.

If the defender 'crashes', or follows the play to the right, then the QB pulls the ball away from the the RB and runs through the space vacated by that defender. Here is an example of that from the Army-Air Force game this season:

As soon as the Army defender at the top commits to the RB, Air Force QB Cale Pearson pulls the ball to run.

Defenders on that backside are taught to 'stay home' when the play moves away from them. When a team faces an option team, that point is heavily emphasized during the week. For the first couple series, a smart defender will stay home and allow his team mates to make the play. But after the offense keeps running those plays over and over and over, even the most disciplined defenders will bite on the play.

The defender will 'lose containment' on the outside of the play when he comes up to tackle the running back, allowing Pearson to keep the ball and run into the open field created by the defender vacating his area.

So when watching a game that features an option offense, you may notice they keep running the same dive plays to the running back, sometimes for little or no gain. This can get frustrating to watch after a while, as we see here in the 2013 Iron Bowl between Auburn and Alabama:

But the offense is setting up the read option play to work for a big gain. By lulling the defense to sleep, the QB is just waiting for the moment the read man forgets his assignment and the QB can burn them with a big play. Watch as even the cameraman gets lulled into watching just the running back:

Even highly-touted defenses like Alabama can be caught napping against the spread option.

Teams like Georgia Tech, Army, and Navy have another step in their read offenses, called the pitch man. While the triple option (named for the 3 players that can get the ball in the RB, QB, and pitch man) does not traditionally fall into the spread option category, teams have adapted a third or even fourth option for their offenses to work through. This added wrinkle gives the defense yet another person to worry about and utilizes even more of those running lanes, as well as an occasional passing lane.

The pass off of the read option is a new wrinkle to the spread attack that can have devastating results. Teams like Auburn with Nick Marshall and Oregon with Marcus Mariota at the helm know that teams are going to respect their QB's ability to run the ball. So after the QB determines he will keep the ball, defensive players, mostly in the secondary, abandon the receivers to tackle the QB. This is where a quick pass to a back or tight end can come in handy. We look again at the Air Force-Nevada game:

Here we see Fajardo read that the outside of the offense is open, so he keeps the ball. Next, we see the TE Jarred Gipson act as a lead blocker, only to chip at the Air Force defender Joey Nichol. Nichol rushes up field to tackle Fajardo, who Nichol thinks is keeping the ball the entire way. Gipson sneaks out behind Nichol with no other defenders in sight, Fajardo hits him with a little dump pass, and Nevada come up with an easy 18 yards.

The spread option is an offensive scheme that works at all levels of football. The key to a successful option attack is a smart and athletic QB that can make the correct reads. This new phenomenon has sparked some controversy with football purists, stating that the option hurts a QB's development as a pure pocket passer. Less focus is placed on their footwork and progressions, and more is placed on agility and knowing which defender to read.

The trend has tried to spread (bad pun, I apologize) to the NFL but with rather weak results. The San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins have both implemented read option packages to accommodate their mobile QBs, but the NFL defenses are much quicker and smarter than college defenses. When the NCAA limits on practice and watching film are gone and a football player becomes a professional, they can spend a lot more time each week preparing for the option. It may work as a gadget play used a few times a series, but I do not see the spread option taking over the NFL like it has in the college ranks.

Any questions about the spread offense? Feel free to leave them in the comments section!