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30-Day Countdown - Day 17: An Offensive X’s & O’s Refresher

What to Watch for this Season as a Scheme Nerd... Part II

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 29 Valero Alamo Bowl Photo by Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Following up on my Day 23 defensive scheme refresher article in our 30-Day Countdown, let’s take a look at the offensive side of the ball.

For as important as it was that we return every draft eligible player with eligibility from last year’s squad, including two 1,000-yard WRs, our top three TEs, a potential early round LT, and a Heisman candidate QB, the return of Offensive Coordinator, Ryan Grubb, may be the key to our lofty goals this season. Turning down overtures from Alabama and other prominent blueblood programs, Grubb, a long-time DeBoer lieutenant, decided to return to Montlake for run at the Playoffs and a repeat as one of the most prolific offenses in the country.

Prior to last season, I broke down what I thought were a few of the key concepts and principles of the DeBoer-Grubb offense, especially as it pertains to QB play, and it’s a good place to start our refresher. In that article, I identified the following principles:

  • Design QB-friendly progressions
  • Allow WRs to adjust to what they are facing, so the QB always has options
  • Integrate the RBs into the passing attack
  • Utilize formations, motions and personnel groups to keep the defense off balance.

With a full season of the Montlake version of this offense on tape, let’s take another look at key offensive principles to watch for this season.

Formations, Shifts, Alignments, and Motion

One offensive principle that I touched on in my original article that ended up being far more important than I initially realized, was Grubb’s use of formations, alignments, and motion to manipulate defenses. It’s a coaching cliché at this point for coordinators to describe their offenses as “simple concepts with window dressing”, but there’s more to it than making a play look fancy. Its all about forcing the defense into uncomfortable situations.

Here’s a play that I broke down in my Cal Film Study article this past season to explain what I mean:

Next up, we have our favorite play design of the Cal game. While Cal has been known to have a well-coached defense, this play design really seemed to have confused them. As we’ve discussed throughout this season, Grubb loves to attack defenses with “edge conditions” and their adjustments (or lack of adjustment) to unusual situations. Following the 80/20 rule, all schemes are designed to account for the things that they will see most frequently. In our era of spread pass-heavy offenses, defenses are designed to maintain numbers advantages in space, so when an offense moves away from space.

Cal’s defense is much like ours where they set their alignments based on the field/boundary rule. Their nickel DB is always set tot he field, much like our Husky. This is because offenses usually have two or more receivers towards the field, and in order to maintain the coverage advantage in all the space towards the field, the defense needs to leave the NB there. However, on this play, Grubb calls an FIB (formation into boundary). This is when we put our receiving numbers into the boundary. Without some sort of defensive adjustment, the defense’s alignment and coverage numbers are all screwed up. Not only did they not shift their alignments, they also were playing out of a 2-high shell. In effect, this left them with 3 DBs covering our one WR to the field, and we have a 4v4 to the boundary (including the RB in this because he’s to the boundary), and that is only if you are including Cal’s DE/OLB, LB, Safety, and CB in the mix to cover our receiving threats.

Knowing that Cal’s defense is not lined up to account for everyone in man coverage, Grubb calls a nifty version of 4 Verts here that attacks the weaknesses in their zone. Using short motion to bring McMillan into the #3 spot in a tight bunch formation, we use Westover and Polk to draw the zone coverage away from McMillan’s outside release. Westover runs through the collision with the DE and presses Sirmon to keep him inside on the hash, Polk makes sure he takes an inside release to draw the CB away from the sideline and force him to carry the clear out route, and McMillan settles perfectly into the hole along the sideline for Penix to rifle a pass into the endzone for a TD.

Like I said in Film Study, Grubb develops his weekly game plan and call sheet by studying the opponent and finding ways to draw out the desired defensive reaction. If you’re taking notes at home, I’d recommend watching early in the game for what types of pre-snap motion/shifts Grubb dials up. A common early game type of motion call in our game plans is short motion (like the clip above). With short motion, Grubb is probably looking for the match up reaction. If the CB follows the motion man, then its probably zone, but if he realigns over the new #1 WR (as counted from the boundary inwards), then its likely some sort of zone.

If we can figure out early in the game that the defense will react to changes in the offensive formation based on zone alignments, then we can use that to our advantage. In this next clip from my Oregon State Film Study article, I breakdown this exact type of counter punch play call that gets unlocked by information gleaned by early game motion play calls.

To wrap things up on a lighter note this week, we have this TD play to tie up the game in the 3rd quarter. While the last play showed the value of well-executed zone defense, this one shows the danger of undisciplined zone coverage.

Facing 3rd & Goal from the 24 yard line after a couple of penalties, most Husky fans watching the game were just hoping to get into closer FG range, but Penix had other plans in mind. Prior to the snap, we shift our 11 personnel from a singleback shotgun set into one of our 3x2 empty sets with Cam Davis as the #1 WR to the boundary and Jack Westover as the #1 WR to the field. OSU adjusts to the shift by bumping out their CBs out to cover Davis and Westover, and this puts our WRs (now in the slot) in favorable match ups against LBs and safeties.


As you can see on the All-22 angle, we’re running a spacing concept with our WRs over the middle, and we have Davis & Westover running clear out fades down the sidelines. Vertical routes on the boundary with our auxiliary receivers (RBs, TEs, non-WRs) in empty formations is a pretty common play design mechanism in Grubb’s offense because (in theory) they have to be accounted for while not requiring much route running nuance and saving our better WRs for better match ups in the concept.

Back to the play, this unfolded much like Wayne’s touchdown reception against Michigan State when he scored on a similar play as the 4th or 5th option. Penix dropped back looking for Rome on the hitch, but the outside CB over Westover bit on the route, leaving Westover wide open in the endzone. Hard to tell, but we’re guessing Penix gave a long stare in the direction of Odunze, sucking up the overzealous corner.

This is the danger of zone coverage. While Rome was rightfully considered the more dangerous receiving threat, in OSU’s Cover 3, drop 8 zone call on this play, the CB absolutely cannot let Westover get past him, and he especially can’t let Westover get open that quickly with only a 3-man rush where Penix has some time to see Westover.

As I mentioned in this breakdown, personnel groupings and alignments are also tricks that Grubb uses to manipulate defenses. Using the 80/20 rule, defensive structures are designed to place the best coverage defenders on the perimeter where the offense usually puts their best WRs, but again, Grubb designs his plays to take advantage of the edge conditions in the 20%. If the defense leans on zone structures to dictate their alignment and match ups, why not find a favorable match up by putting our auxiliary receivers (TEs, RBs, etc.) on their best CB?

Another key concept for you to keep an eye on this coming season is how we pair protection schemes with our passing concepts. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Grubb, a former offensive line coach, paid close attention to the design of the protection schemes in our pass-heavy offense, and it made a difference. You don’t finish the season as one of the best pass protecting units in the country without good schemes. Let’s take a look at a couple.

For most of our passing plays, standard “jet” protection, as you can see in the clip above, is our go-to protection. Jet protection is our basic 6-man protection call (5 OL + RB) with a portion of the line sliding to one side and picking blocking assignments by zone, and the back side of the line + RB pick up the remaining rushers man-to-man. In the play above, everyone on the line from Kirkland through Rosengarten is on the slide side, and Fautanu and Taulapapa are responsible for the backside. In general, the backside of the slide is the hardest part to protect. Most teams try to stick “big-on-big” on the backside, where the OL always pick up the DL and RBs pick up all other blitzers, but those rules are tough to maintain if there are any stunts.

We got lucky last season with Taulapapa being a highly effective pass protecting RB, and we were able to get more creative with our protections. While the play above is pretty much a standard jet protection call on the slide side, the backside combo of Fautanu and Taulapapa caught my eye. Typically, teams don’t like asking their RB to make back side blocks when they are aligned on the front side of the formation. This makes the RB’s alignment a bit of a tell for the offense in passing situations. However, because Taulapapa was such a reliable protector, it appears that we are almost intentionally bringing him into the vacated B-gap with Fautanu way over setting to the outside if he was blocking man-to-man. Fautanu overcommits to shut down any edge pressure, and Taulapapa plugs the middle. Its unconventional, but its effective.

Depending on how this year’s RBs look in pass protection, we may need to rethink how we approach these more creative protection schemes.

One final tidbit for folks at home to pay attention to this season, at least as it relates to pass protection, keep an eye out for anytime the center pulls. If the center pulls, there’s a good chance that we’re going for a deep shot. As you can see in the clip above from the Apple Cup, we are running a half-roll off of play action for a deep shot to McMillan. In general, we don’t pull our center in the run game, and even then, we weren’t even showing run action in the same direction as the center pull. However, one of Grubb’s favorite deep shot play designs is the half roll with the center pulling as a personal protector. The roll out draws the defense, and the center can bulldoze any oncoming blitzers. We typically see this type of call at least once a game.