The College Spread Offense
(May 2008)

The college version of the “Spread Offense” is the offense du jour on all levels of football right now, except the NFL. Many high schools and colleges (and I’m sure even CYO teams) are running some variation of “The Spread.”

Current NFL offenses do share a lot with the college spread, including four and five receiver sets, shot gun formations, and audibles based on coverages and defensive allignments. However, just like the option offenses popular in the 60’s and 70’s, the college spread will never be a regular offense in the pros.

Just as the stretch (or zone) play is the base running play in the pro offense, there are several base running plays in the college spread. The “wrap” has the quarterback in a shotgun position with a running back lined up next to him. If the play is called to the right, the running back will line up to the left. If the play is called to the left, the running back is lined up to the right.

For most of the linemen, teams usually block the wrap like the stretch play. From the backside guard to the front side tackle or tight end each player is blocking like it as an outside zone play. The key to the wrap play is the backside tackle. He does not zone step, instead he pulls and leads the play on the other side of the line. The running back will come in front of the quarterback prepared to take the hand off, cross the center, and run a zone play to the other side, following the pulling tackle. The quarterback before he gives the running back the ball will look at the backside defensive end and read what he is doing. If he follows the pulling tackle, the quarterback is taught to pull the ball back out of the hand off and keep it. He then runs through the area the defense end vacated when he followed the pulling tackle.

Another base running play out of the college spread is the option in various forms. Many teams run it like the wrap play, but out of two backs. The play is run similar to the wrap, but with the other back trailing behind the quarterback at option depth. When the quarterback feels pressure he pitches to the back who continues outside.

Another base running play out of the spread is the quarterback reading the seams and taking off. With receivers spread out across the field, the amount of defenders in the box is at a minimum and they have to cover a little more ground then they are use to. The quarterback often gets the snap and pauses for a moment or two, sees which backers are dropping and which gaps the defensive linemen are attacking, looks for a whole or seam, and takes off

What is wrong with all three of these running plays as far as applying them to the NFL? It should be obvious to every football fan, they rely on the quarterback being a regular ball carrier, something that has not happened in the NFL for generations.

No professional team, with millions of dollars and years of development invested in a quarterback, will expose that quarterback to the hits he would receive running regularly downfield in the NFL. The Derrick Andersons and Tom Bradys are meant to be protected as much as possible, not exposed to linebackers and safeties in open field.

A big criticism you will hear from pro coaches is how the college spread hinders the growth of quarterbacks, especially those who rely on their feet for much of their success. This past season West Virginia and Florida, two of the better practitioners of the college spread, averaged 19 and 17 quarterback carries a game. In contrast, Louisville’s Brian Brohm, a traditional drop back passer in a true pro offense for his college career, had just 57 rushing attempts credited to him this year, and most of them were quarterback sacks. NFL teams will feel a lot more comfortable drafting a player like Brohm who had to rely on his reads to be successful, than the spread quarterbacks whose second or third option was to find a seem and run like hell.
Many will be watching how Vince Young does next year at Tennessee, after a disappointing sophomore year with the Titans. Will he ever be the player he was in college, while throwing for over six thousand yards also ran for over 3,000 yards on 457 carries in three seasons as a starter at Texas. How will Pat White from West Virginia and Florida’s Tim Tebrow do on the next level when the run is taken out of their arsenal? Derrick Anderson did not run the spread at Oregon State. Brady Quinn did not run the spread at Notre Dame. Tom Brady did not run the spread at Michigan. Eli Manning did not run the spread at Ole Miss, and his older brother did not run it at Tennessee.

And for all of you who thought the spread offense is a thing of modern football you are wrong. Legendary Texas Christian Coach “Dutch” Meyer created the “Meyer Spread” in the 1930’s when he recruited Sammy Baugh off a sandlot baseball field. It resembled the double-wing formation popular at the time, but moved the ends out wider and had the halfbacks lining up close to the line of scrimmage, much like today’s inside receivers. And although he occasionally went long, the offense featured a ball control offense with many short, safe passes that moved the sticks. Sounds a little West Coast, huh?? Meyer even wrote a book Spread Formations in 1952 after he retired that foreshadowed much of today’s spread offenses. After Baugh graduated he gravitated to quicker quarterbacks like Davey O’Brien who did not have Baugh’s great arm but could take off when he saw a seem in the defense.