After the Orange-White game that ended spring practice in April, Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman noted that his staff withheld many of the run-pass options installed during the 14 practices leading up to the scrimmage.
Since that was one of the areas where new analyst Larry Fedora, the former North Carolina head coach, is almost certainly making a significant impact on the program, it’s worth going back and looking at some of the RPOs that he used with the Tar Heels.
Here’s a sampling of plays that Texas could add based on North Carolina’s rivalry game against North Carolina State to end the season.
Tight zone/X skinny post
Texas mostly worked bubble screens attached to running plays last season, so one of the best areas to exploit while expanding the RPOs in the Longhorns offense is taking advantage of the X wide receiver working into space behind the linebackers.
On this particular play, Fedora has his X receiver work across the face of the cornerback and behind the play-side linebacker read by the quarterback. If the linebacker bites, the quarterback throws to the wide receiver. If not, the quarterback hands the ball off on the tight zone play, a staple of the Texas offense.
Note that the safety is responsible for providing pass support for the cornerback, but he also gets sucked up by the run action, which allows just enough space for the quarterback to deliver the football.
The biggest challenge on this play is the quarterback’s footwork and release time. Ideally, the quarterback can throw from the mesh platform without having to reset and allow that safety to impact the throw — the extra couple of steps to redirect almost allow the safety to make the play because North Carolina’s freshman passer was a little bit slow getting the ball out. So the ball should come out in one motion from the mesh as the most important stage of the quarterback’s footwork happens at that mesh point.
This is a fairly basic run-pass option, but it’s a great way to get the ball to a speedy receiver like senior Devin Duvernay in space. Incoming freshman Jake Smith would also be a strong fit for this particular play, even from the slot.
For the Tar Heels, this play might have gone for a touchdown had the wide receiver not dropped the well-delivered pass. So consider this a concept that could produce the type of explosive result that eluded the Longhorns last season.
Outside zone/H cross
Based on how the quarterback meshes with the running back here and the fact that outside zone blocking can look a lot like a flat play-action pass, it’s difficult to say for certain that this is a run-pass option, but it does appear that the quarterback is reading the end man on the line of scrimmage, so it warrants inclusion here.
If the defensive crashes on this play, the quarterback pulls it and throws to the wide receiver crossing the formation behind the line of scrimmage. Unlike crossing routes beyond the line of scrimmage, this ensures that the wide receiver doesn’t have to navigate past any linebackers and allows the two blockers to get down the field and legally make contact before the pass, if necessary.
Since Texas doesn’t run a lot of bunch formations, the likely tweak here is to motion the H receiver, the hybrid slot position used by the Horns, in towards the formation before the snap, as the play wouldn’t work nearly as well with the wide receiver forced to cover that extra distance. It’s a play that Texas could use to target freshman Jordan Whittington to get him the ball in space after motioning him into the backfield from that H position.
One advantage of the wider splits for the tight end and wide receiver that Texas uses to the crossing side of the formation is creating more space for the pass catcher to plant and get upfield because the defense is spread farther towards the sideline.
Oklahoma and Auburn also run versions of this run-pass option, with the Sooners targeting fast players like wide receiver Hollywood Brown and the Tigers sometimes running it with the H-back. The H-back can provide more deception because it looks like a block, but there’s a significant loss of speed there, so using a wide receiver or a running back is a much more explosive option.
Here’s how Oklahoma runs the play. Note the wide split for the X receiver to give Brown space to turn up the field.
Other than Brown’s elite speed, what sets this execution apart is how quickly Mayfield gets the ball out from the mesh point and the accuracy to hit his receiver in stride while leading him into open space.
Inside zone/Stack bubble
In overtime, North Carolina ran a play that is a little bit difficult to figure out, but for the purposes of this post, let’s look at it as a run-pass option with inside zone and a bubble screen from a stack formation. Texas generally runs a similar combination, except Herman and offensive coordinator Tim Beck don’t generally use a formation like this.
Two players are circled here because something goes wrong on the play and it’s difficult to figure out what exactly it is. The end man on the line of scrimmage is unblocked, like a zone read, but the quarterback opts to hand the ball off instead of keeping it when given the keep read. Since the quarterback doesn’t carry out the fake, the zone read scenario seems unlikely.
However, the quarterback doesn’t fake a throw, either, and the tackle should block the defensive end if it’s a run-pass option so the quarterback can read the overhang defender without the run getting blown up by that defensive end. If executed correctly in that scenario, it’s a give read, as the overhang defender attacks the bubble screen aggressively.
It’s included here as an example of how a formation change can help get blockers to the point of attack and threaten defenses in a different way than the Longhorns typically do on bubble screens, even when the tight end is flexed out — Texas normally runs it like Oklahoma State did here in the second example. It’s probably unlikely that Texas uses these types of formations based on Fedora’s input next season, but it’s still possible.
Broadly, there are several other types of run-pass options worth mentioning.
West Virginia, for instance, runs a Stick/Draw concept from 10 personnel that also features an attached bubble screen. Last season, Dana Holgorsen really destroyed Texas with that play.
In this particular instance, Grier could have thrown the bubble screen, too, and probably could have gained yards on the draw, as well. Given all the available options and how difficult they are to defend, this is such a dangerous play that every offense in the country should copy it. And if the safety starts biting on the stick route, the easy constraint play is to run a double move up the seam that could easily produce a touchdown.
The other major category of run-pass options is the pre-snap adjustment — the offensive line still blocks for a running play, but the quarterback isn’t reading a player after the snap, instead taking advantage of a certain coverage or matchup.
As it relates to what Fedora ran in his final game in Chapel Hill, however, it would make sense for Texas to consider all three concepts this season — taking greater advantage of seams over the middle to the X receiver or even the slot receiver, getting the ball to the H on the crossing route or flare, and considering how some bunch formations could help improve execution on running plays tagged with the bubble screen.
If Texas adds those elements to the offense, those plays will put defenders in conflict and ensure that the Longhorns consistently run plays that exploit advantages, perhaps even resulting in more explosive running and passing plays as a result.