Outside of the fullback trap and the fumblerooski, there is no football concept Husker fans love more than the option. Even today, when you walk up to an out-of-stater and start talking Nebraska in the glory days, they’re likely to mention the option before anything else. Scott Frost did away with the fullback and the NCAA did away with the fumblerooski, but the option lives on forever in Lincoln. For the next two Concept Wednesdays, we’ll talk about three variations of option that Scott Frost runs.
For now, let’s focus on the grand prize of them all: the triple option out of split backs. The concept itself is nothing new. Oregon was running it during the Chip Kelly era, and several other teams have had it in the playbook after Chip’s initial success. And no, Tom Osborne didn’t run the triple option. But what makes it work for his protege Frost and how he’s different from Kelly is how Frost (a) uses a hybrid player as the second back and (b) marries the concept with a variety of different motions to avoid tipping the play. Today, we’ll look at a few of those variations for Concept Wednesday #2 of this season.
What It Is
Triple option out of a split backs formation is a modern twist on the classic triple option of the I-formation. The old way to run it is simply to line up with two true RBs in the backfield, a fullback on a dive path and the running back on a pitch path. But Frost was born out of Osborne’s innovation with a dash of Kelly’s genius, and so he eschews two running backs to instead use a true RB and the hybrid “Duck” player out of split backs. The Duck is a combination slot WR/RB, currently played by JD Spielman and Tyjon Lindsey. This allows Nebraska to stay in tempo with its base 11 personnel, avoiding giving opposing defensive coordinators any tell that split backs is coming through substitution.
The play itself is still simple. Nebraska will line up in one of its core 11 personnel, 3 WR formations before motioning the Duck into the split backs formation. The RB runs a standard inside zone path as the playside DE goes unblocked. The QB’s first option comes off this defender. If he widens to play the QB, it’s a give read and the play looks no different than a routine inside zone run. If that DE pinches, however, the QB pulls the ball and starts running a classic option. The QB’s second option comes from the alley defender. The Duck winds behind the QB, taking on the role of the traditional pitch path. If the alley defender takes the QB, it’s an option pitch to the Duck on the perimeter. If the alley defender takes the Duck, the QB keeps and turns up field.
Here’s how it plays out on the field:
In this case, the dive defender stumbles at the line of scrimmage, giving Adrian Martinez a clear give read. It’s not blocked particularly well by Nebraska’s offensive line, but all the misdirection and a nifty move by Devine Ozigbo still allows the Huskers to gain 5 yards on the play.
Why It Works
The true beauty of the Scott Frost offense is how he’s consistently able to get into his core running and passing concepts through a variety of motions and shifting. By using motion, he doesn’t give the defensive coordinator a static read based on personnel and formation. Defensive coordinators always make educated guesses about the upcoming play based on the personnel, down and distance, and formation.
Throughout the game, Nebraska will line up in 3 WR sets. This leaves the defensive coordinator guessing as to whether Nebraska will stay in formation or motion as above to something else. And by refusing to substitute in a second RB to run the play, Frost avoids giving away personnel information. Both these tip the balance in Frost’s favor, and especially when he’s using “check with me” tempo to audible at the line of scrimmage.
Frost uses the motion from a variety of different formations. While the above play brought the Duck in from a standard split alignment near the numbers, Frost will also motion the Duck back from a tight wing alignment:
Although the Duck starts in a different spot on these plays the triple option fundamentals remain the same. This allows Frost to present the defense with another formation and motion pattern without confusing his own players with new blocking schemes and assignments. Instead, it’s the same core play as the first one, just from a different motion pattern. Net/net, Frost creates an identification problem for the defense while making it easy on his guys. That’s good offensive coordinating.
Does It Work With Nebraska’s Personnel?
Absolutely. Scott Frost got the crown jewel in dual threat Adrian Martinez, and in the burning pile of ashes that was Mike Riley’s program lay two prototypical Duck players in freshman All American JD Spielman and Tyjon Lindsey. Let us never forget that on Spielman’s first career touch, he started celebrating a 99-yard TD at the 40-yard line:
Suffice it to say that Spielman has the swagger to be the pitch man on the triple option.
Where Frost excels in using him and Tyjon in the triple option is in mixing up how the motion gets to the Duck to the formation’s core. In the two plays above, Frost motions the Duck in from the opposite side of the RB. Eventually, however, continuing that allows the defense to start to rotate its coverage to that side. The numbers game tilts away from Nebraska’s favor and the option becomes less of a threat.
Understanding that, Frost will also motion the Duck from the same side as the RB once he starts to pick up this defensive rotation.
The core concept remains the same. RB on the dive path, read the end man on the line of scrimmage as option #1, pitch off the alley defender as option #2. In the play above, the blocking assignments get screwed up (a constant theme in Husker football right now) and the pitch defender is immediately upon Adrian Martinez. Still, a decent pitch and catch and Spielman is in space. That’s all you can do as an offensive coordinator: get your skill position players in space with 1v1 opportunities.
Here, it may not have mattered because Matt Farniok misses his block, a wise lesson that you can scheme all you want, but ultimately the game still comes down to blocking and tackling. Until Nebraska gets better at the former, the triple option remains a great theory gone unrealized. If Nebraska’s blocking improves, however, the triple option will truly take off because the Huskers have the skill position personnel to put up yards in a hurry.
Next Concept Wednesday we’ll look at the speed option and its fake inside zone derivation. For now, though, pay attention to how Frost uses the triple option if Adrian Martinez returns this weekend against Michigan.