Before the 2020 season, new Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian appeared at a coaches clinic for an in-depth discussion of his offensive philosophy, how it’s changed over the years, and how he builds his offense around run-pass options.
During that clinic, Sarkisian described how he builds his offenses, illustrating two one-pass option plays, two play-action concepts, and two drop-back concepts.
With Sarkisian serving as the offensive coordinator for Alabama for the final time in Monday’s national championship game, it’s worth looking at some of those concepts to have a better understanding of what Sarkisian wants to accomplish and the plays he uses towards that goal.
“We’re an RPO team that runs the football. If you’re gonna let us run the ball, then we will continue to run the ball. The moment you say we’re gonna take away the run, our system is built to throw RPOs,” Sarkisian said during the clinic.
Three base running plays that Sarkisian mentioned shouldn’t come as a surprise — inside zone, outside zone, and power are all staples across football. At that core of the scheme, however, it’s tagging pass options onto those base runs that forms the foundation of Sarkisian’s current offense.
“When you think about Alabama, this is who we are,” Sarkisian said of RPOs. “This is what we do.”
Inside zone/speed out RPO
If the strong safety is low, the quarterback throws the six-yard speed out to the Z receiver. If the strong safety is high, the quarterback hands the ball off.
As Sarkisian put it, it’s the “simplest form of what we do,” sometimes dressed up with motions and shifts.
“If they’re gonna play single safety, they’re gonna put one more in the box,” Sarkisian said. “We’re gonna throw a ball off of a leveraged corner who’s playing high and inside and get a completion.”
The second RPO that Sarkisian explained is the glance concept, one of the most popular RPOs in football.
Because Sarkisian wants the running game to maintain a high priority when running RPOs, he blocks with his receivers on the back side instead instead of running routes. This is a pure two-read play.
The read is the Z receiver — if the strong safety is down, the quarterback hits the Z receiver. If the strong safety is too high, then the quarterback hands the ball off. The teaching point for the wide receiver is to break to daylight on the fourth outside step. In other words, he has to win across the defender against man coverage.
Against Cover Three, he has to get into the window between zone defenders. Against Cover Two, the wide receiver has to wrap around the trapping cornerback.
To run the concept well, the Z receiver needs to make the right coverage read so he can adjust his route accordingly.
“We really give him an option to break to daylight,” Sarkisian said. “And I don’t want to make this too simplistic, but it is important to know.”
In Atlanta, Sarkisian also used his tight end as the target on the glance route, so it’s a play that he’ll use to find matchups that he likes for different players. Of the returning Texas receivers, redshirt junior Joshua Moore was the most effective running this run-pass option last season.
In recent years, Sarkisian has made that play an option for the quarterback to alert to based on his pre-snap coverage read.
“We have gotten more into signaling to that single receiver for route options, almost like you would in the quick game, but now we’re just totally doing it in RPO, so whether we’re signaling the exact route, or whether we’re alerting to a specific route that you don’t know what we’re alerting to, this stuff definitely comes into play,” Sarkisian said.
RPO illusion pass play — Pressure Ice
“Where we have made way more hay this year — as an offense we averaged eight yards per play at Alabama — has been the play pass with the illusion of RPO,” Sarkisian said. “Like to me if I’m a defensive coordinator, I’m going into the game and I’m saying, ‘I got to stop the RPO so I’m going to have my low hole player, I gotta defend the run.’”
Sarkisian believes that if opponents are going to play a middle-field safety at 10 yards in response, “you better to able to cover a post route. That’s a very big deal to us.”
In the bowl game against Michigan last year, Alabama scored an 85-yard touchdown to Jerry Jeudy on this play when the safety triggered on the illusion of Devonte Smith’s glance route.
Inside zone or a glance route might produce a big play like the glance route to Moore to open the UTEP game with a 78-yard touchdown, but the truly explosive plays are more likely to come from a concept like this when the defense is caught overreacting to the RPO game.
The key is selling it as a run-pass option effectively.
“I want the line, the tight end, the running back, the quarterback to make it look, feel, smell, sound like RPO,” Sarkisian said. “I want everybody in the stadium to think, ‘Here comes another break to daylight, here comes another out route.’”
On another play from Sarkisian’s time in Atlanta, the safety bit on the run and the cornerback didn’t carry the Z receiver for a big-play touchdown.
Deep crossers — Wave
If the safety is going to stay deep as a response getting beat on those play-action passes, Sarkisian wants to run deep crossing routes in front of him, bringing the single receiver behind two big post routes.
Because Sarkisian runs a pure progression passing game, the quarterback is going through his progressions instead of reading coverages. So he’s reading the X “pressure” route to the Z “Hi cross” and then checking down to the running back in the left flat.
This concept is how Sarkisian believes that he can create explosive plays against man coverage. The key coaching point with the Z is trusting their speed to create separation with the understanding that they aren’t going to get the football until they’ve crossed the opposite hash marks.
Sarkisian also alerts the inside post route by the H against man coverage.
The concept is effective to use as an RPO illusion play, too, with one Atlanta clip faking outside zone to produce a completion to Julio Jones on the Hi cross.
Drop-back game — Railroad
The next layer of passing concepts is the straight drop-back game.
Sarkisian used this play as an example because it features a quick read to the running back on the Rail route. Sarkisian believes that the running back is the least defended player on the field in the passing game, so he’s willing use Railroad frequently until the defense can stop that first read.
Thanks to plays like Railroad, Alabama’s Najee Harris has 63 catches for 650 yards and 10 touchdowns in the last two seasons — Sarkisian is emphatic that his quarterbacks get the ball out on time to the running back if he’s open.
The crossing routes are also a response to defenses choosing to play man to man — this is a base concept for Sarkisian to create those rubs he wants.
If the running back isn’t open, the quarterback looks the triangle created by the three crossing routes, first targeting the X receiver, who is also the hot receiver on the play, then the Z receiver, who is taught to sit in zone or work back outside if a defender walls them off.
One reason Sarkisian uses this concept so frequently is because he’s intent on getting his best athletes the ball on the move — this is a play that rewards running backs and X receivers who can make yards after the catch.
“If you’re gonna play man to man, I’m gonna run away from you, whether is down the field, or on crossing routes, over and over and over again,” Sarkisian said.
It should certainly suit continue to suit Bijan Robinson well, as it’s a concept that former Texas offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich also used.
However, Sarkisian acknowledged that if the RPO game isn’t working, the rest of the offenses struggles because everything builds from the RPO game in layers.
Boundary high-low — D-Bow Drive
Sarkisian considers this an important play because it serves as an answer for defenses playing Cover Two and trapping the cornerback.
“They’re gonna say we’re gonna make them not let the indicator — or the key defender in the RPO — be the extra helmet to play in the run game,” Sarkisian said.
So this concept uses two receivers into the boundary, with the first read the X receiver running a “Basic” route, a 12-to-14-yard out and then the Y receiver coming underneath into the flat for the second read. The H receiver serves as the hot read on a shallow cross towards the play side. Against man coverage, switching the H and X receivers produces a natural rub to open up the shallow cross.
So these six base concepts, starting from the RPOs, then layered with the play-action passing game, and then the drop-back passing game, form the basis for Sarkisian’s offense, which does not use the quarterback as a runner.