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What I Learned In Summer School: by Greg Davis

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In his August 12 interview, Greg Davis mentioned that he spent the summer looking at offenses from around the country in an attempt to diversify his own.  The USC Trojans were one of those teams.  I emailed Conquest Chronicles to get input about what Davis might have learned and they were kind enough to direct me to Art from Trojanfootballanalysis.com.  Even if you aren't a USC fan, this site is a great way to improve your knowledge of X's and O's and impress your co-workers around the water cooler.  Maybe even that college football fan dream girl you might meet some day.

1.  Greg Davis specifically mentioned looking at the two back sets USC runs.  What did he see in this formation?

USC lines up in the I Formation anywhere from 25 to 40% per game mostly in 21 personnel. It just depends upon the game plan and strength of the opponent (DL vs. LB's vs. DB's, etc.). The QB is of course under center in this alignment. The fullback lines up in the straight I and also is offset weak or strong to the tight end. WR's are either split, or in twins to one side or the other usually to the field and not the boundary.

2.  Davis also mentioned looking at the motion sets.  What did he see USC doing when they put players in motion?

This changes every week and is a game plan thing as well. All types of motion are used including WR's across to form twins, TE's flexed out to make it effectively a 3WR I formation look, TE trade motion, as well as FB or TB motioning out to WR to make it a one back set with 21 personnel. Slot receivers motion in to threaten crack blocks and either do this or continue across the formation for part of the shallow cross pass package. USC runs a lot of straight play action passes out of the I formation (e.g. 7 man protection) and 3 receivers deep. Sometimes one of the deep threats is the wheel route by either the FB or the TB. USC also likes to run bootleg and naked plays out of the I formation and run flood route concepts.

3.  So we talked about the formations and motion.  What type of running plays does USC like to use?

From the I formation the USC running game is the typical mix of iso lead draw, power off tackle, toss sweep plays, zone runs, and some misdirection stuff mixed in. USC actually is more of a one back team in 11 personnel since 2006 and mostly runs inside zone and outside zone in terms of overall alignment tendency. 2006 had far fewer I formation plays than in the past since 3 FB's went down to injury. The percentage went back to normal in 2007 and we have to wait and see in 2008. Short yardage situations will use 2TE and 3TE I formation jumbo plays near the goal line.

4.  What about pass plays?

It all depends but the real key in my opinion out of the I formation for USC is the fullback. David Kirtman, Brandon Hancock, and now Stanley Havili have all been dependable backs on the option route and flat route / check down concepts. That keeps the chains moving a couple times per game. Goal line also presents the possibility of the play action power pass to the FB. Other pass plays mentioned above, including stuff off play action, bootlegs, etc. is mainly dependent upon opponent secondary schemes (Cover 1, Cover 2, Cover 3, Cover 4, etc.).

5.  How does that compare to the rest of college football?

Most teams that are I formation teams like Ohio State run about 70-80% out of the I formation and the pass concepts are pretty simple (almost always play action related with 3 WR's downfield). I watched UCLA run 85% out of the I formation in one game last season and could not believe it. USC passes some games 50% out of the I formation and probably averages 60/40 run pass overall which makes it relatively confusing to defend. Sometimes they will put 5 into the pattern out of the I formation (some combination of 3 deep and 2 under).

6.  Any insight on what the above might mean to Texas?

I have not watched Texas in a year or so but if the QB is still operating out of shotgun most of the time with 11 personnel I don't think it makes a lot of sense to do a ton of stuff out of the I formation. The QB has to go under center in the I formation and it changes the type of run plays. Out of shotgun you get the inside zone / zone read option stuff, speed option, delays, some guard or tackle pull stuff, and hand off to slot receivers coming in motion. If you go under center the QB has to learn different footwork for the run plays, how to pivot and open differently, how to mesh with the RB on hand offs, etc. at different points. It is hard to do both.

Maybe the coaches will pick and choose a few things to give the defense a different look to prepare for but I think it is tough to combine a shotgun run team with I formation concepts. Limited practice time usually pushes teams one direction or the other for base offense. I formation works best with the FB who can run the dive play effectively, block on iso lead draws, or seal the back side on zone runs, pass protect, and ideally also catch swing passes, etc. Otherwise I formation winds up signalling either run or basic play action pass concepts.

Analysis

I took a deeper look at the offensive identity of the football team last week.  As I indicated in that post, Greg Davis expects to remain with the base shotgun spread offense used for the last several years.  An I formation look seems likely 15-20% of the time, similar to last season.  Conceivably, it could increase because of better health among the fullbacks.  Remember that last year Antwaan Cobb and Luke Tiemann were both injured.

Ultimately, though, I see three major insights emerging from this conversation:

1.  Fullbacks on the field and out of the backfield.  Art mentions that USC uses their fullbacks extensively in the passing game.  With a talented fullback in Cody Johnson, the Longhorns could turn to the I formation in an attempt to get him in the game more often.  However, Cody Johnson hasn't been on the field enough to know whether he has the attributes that Art considers necessary for an I formation fullback, particularly in pass catching.  If the Florida Atlantic game is any indication, the offensive staff seems intent on getting him onto the field, listing him atop the fullback depth chart and using him extensively.  His running skill set probably fits the spread triple option or the I formation much more than running the zone read.

2.  Shotgun and I formation don't always mix.  Just like Mack Brown is keeping Cosby and Shipley in return roles despite more explosive options, practice time limits switching between your base offense and a fundamentally different look.  There are only so many reps in a season, limiting the diversity in formations the coaches can implement.  I think Art captured that well in his comments.  I agree with him:  the I formation will be a change of pace look for the Longhorns, but may be used extensively against teams that struggle in run defense.  The positive is that Texas doesn't have to abandon zone blocking principles when operating out of the I formation.  Art mentions as well the necessity for changing the quarterback's footwork when under center.  Colt McCoy ran a pro style offense in high school, most likely spending significant time under center.  Even though McCoy is entering his fourth season in the program, that footwork would likely return quickly.

3.  Play action passing.  Art mentions that running bootlegs and play action passes are dependent on the coverage schemes, but they also represent a major tactical advantage against defensive responses to the I formation.  Spread offenses necessarily spread out defenses and, vice versa, I formation offenses bunch defenses.  Offenses can then exploit the boundaries, particularly using play action bootlegs that become even more dangerous with running quarterbacks like Colt McCoy and John Chiles.  Spread offenses don't hold the exclusive license on operating in space, the difference is in how the offenses create space.  I formation looks do so by misdirection and play action, which is the fundamental type of football that Mack Brown really likes.