Football is a copycat sport. When one team has success with a concept or scheme, another team is bound to implement it into its own repertoire.
The latest fad in college football has been the prevalent use of the run-pass option. Its design gives teams an inherent offensive advantage when executed well. With multiple plays built into one, the threat of the run exists at the onset. But if a defense has the run covered, a rolling quarterback then has the opportunity to hit a pass play down the field.
This concept alone is difficult to cover, especially since defenders are taught at a young age to look at how an offensive lineman comes off the line of scrimmage to see whether the play is a run or a pass.
That’s one reason why teams of all offensive types are turning to run-pass option plays.
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“You try to watch it, acknowledge it, find ways to use it,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “It’s a distinctive advantage.”
And just about every team in college football has put the run-pass option into its offense. Smart said every 2016 opponent other than Georgia Tech ran a run-pass option against the Bulldogs.
But with the rise of run-pass option plays — dubbed RPOs for short — has come its share of complaints from defensive coordinators. As mentioned, defenders have long been taught to watch what the offensive line does to recognize whether the play is going to be a run or a pass. If a lineman’s helmet rises after the snap, the play is likely a pass. If not, it’s probably a run.
The RPO has changed that line of thinking. A lineman could come off the line of scrimmage as if a run play is coming. But the quarterback could then fake a hand-off and roll out like he’s about to run. At the last second he then may hit a pass downfield for a big gain while each of the 11 defenders previously diagnosed the play as a run.
Smart said there is no good way to defend RPOs outside of recruiting well in the secondary. If corners can play press-man coverage well, then the pass part of an RPO will end up being a low-percentage throw.
“You can’t completely stop that. You get turnovers,” Smart said. “Points scored have gone up every year, slowly and gradually over time. We know teams are utilizing it to their full advantage. The biggest thing is having really athletic perimeter players that can match up and play these people when RPOs are going on.”
While RPOs have given defensive coordinators headaches, the same can be applied to officiating crews. In college football, offensive linemen are able to move up the field no more than 3 yards on a passing play. This is the reason why RPOs have so much success. A lineman moves up the field slightly like a run and then a pass play hits.
Sometimes, however, a lineman runs past the 3-yard threshold. And with the existing commotion looking like a run play, it’s difficult for umpires and line judges to simultaneously monitor whether an offensive lineman is beyond three yards when the quarterback throws the ball.
South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp said an easy solution to this would be to make these plays reviewable.
“I do think that would be a good replay topic,” Muschamp said. “It’s real simple. The guy’s 10 yards down the field and the ball’s thrown. I coach the safeties. What do you tell those guys to do? You’ve got a guard running at you and a receiver.”
SEC head of officials Steve Shaw has been caught in the middle of both sides of the discussion.
Offensive coaches favor RPOs because of the inherent advantage. Defensive coaches think those plays provide offenses an unfair advantage since they go against the traditional means to recognize runs and passes.
“When you talk about it, it’s like a Republican-Democrat thing,” Shaw said. “If you’re defensive minded, you want it 1 yard. If you’re offensive-minded, you love the 3 yards.”
Shaw acknowledged the difficulty of recognizing when a lineman is in violation during an RPO. To create a better visual from an officiating standpoint, Shaw said there will be discussions about a potential rule change prior to the 2018 season.
As it stands now, linemen can’t run past 3 yards at the moment the quarterback releases the ball. The potential rule change would be that linemen can’t be beyond the 3-yard barrier when the football passes the line of scrimmage following a throw.
That would mean linemen would have to hold back even more on RPOs since extra time will elapse. It will also allow for a line judges to focus on the line of scrimmage instead of numerous spots.
“Where we’re seeing the difficulty is that run-pass option play — it’s not the fake and pop. It’s a fake, on the corner, then a throw,” Shaw said. “Then you got linemen drifting all over the places.”
The RPO is changing the college game quite a bit. It is also slightly finding ways into NFL offenses, too. But RPOs typically have to operate much faster and without a long quarterback rollout in the NFL since linemen are only able to move one yard down the field on pass plays.
And that’s another contentious point from the RPO opposition. Should the college game move toward the NFL rule?
“It’s definitely a good debate,” Smart said. “If it works in the NFL, it changes the style of football. They get 1 yard. It depends on what we’re trying to promote. Are we trying to get NFL prep? Or are we trying to get a lot of points scored?”