Trevor Lawrence: Master of the RPO

Zach Lentz

CLEMSON— The game of football has evolved throughout its existence.

From the wishbone to the I-formation to the shot-gun to the pistol and eventually the hurry-up, no-huddle offense, the changes have been almost too numerous to count. But one of the newest trends in the world of football has been the advent of the RPO, or run-pass-option.

A perfect example of this new phenomenon occurs numerous times a game, as Trevor Lawrence, quarterback of the No. 1 ranked Clemson Tigers, makes a decision on whether or not to give the ball to running back Travis Etienne, keep the ball himself or throw a pass to a receiver.

Which makes the fact that he only made the wrong decision one time in the Tigers' win over Syracuse incredibly impressive.

"In the run game, people don't realize when you're built like we are, you can sit there and try to force the run, but Syracuse was committed to stopping the run with all their run-stopping and twists inside and they were going to try to get an extra guy to the box," offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. "You have to take those outlet runs. A lot of times people want to see the ball in Travis' hands, but in fairness to Travis if they're going to load the box or have unblocked guys, we need to have outlet screens to loosen us up. You see we were able to have those 6, 7, 8-yard gains per pop on those." 

“Incredible,” said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney. “We wanted to give him options early and he had his eyes on the right thing.”

However, for Swinney, the emergence of the RPO, as a part of the playbooks of nearly every team, is something that was expected.

"The RPO stuff is just an evolution of zone-read," Swinney said. "And defenses getting good, and offenses having to make adjustments. It's play-action. That's all it is. It's old-fashioned, back-in-the-day 144/145 sprint draw, I-backs, turn, here we go, then you get your eyes up downfield and throw the play-action passes. Create space with that.

"You're not under center. So you try to marry things off your run game. Any good football team that wants to try to run the ball, you have to protect your runs with your play-action game, whether it's a guard pulling or it's off your zone. Maybe you're a zone team and zone-read team so now you're gonna have some things built in, some bait routes, some third-level reads where you're keying safeties and giving the same presentation of the zone-read but you're really keying a safety.”

The benefit of the RPO in today’s game is it allows teams that want to play with tempo to go as fast as they want, while still having the ability to have a degree of flexibility within the offense.

“You give yourself a chance to have a successful play,” Swinney said. “But, you have something built in to that play that has a chance for big-play potential if you get certain looks. So you're not always feeling like you have to make a perfect call. You have answers within the call. And there's no tempo team who doesn't do that, because otherwise you can't play fast. And you have to equip them with answers and the tools they need to stay on schedule.

“There are some calls that it's a run all the way. And we try to have answers so that everything is secured so we have a chance at a positive play. And maybe that's to set something up later on.”

To the average fans sitting and watching the games every Saturday and Sunday it may look like their team had the perfect play call on a touchdown pass or a big run, but, in reality, it was probably the result of a player having the right answer to the problem presented by a defense—which is the job of coaches.

"You just try to marry things the best you can,” Swinney said. “It's a lot of fun doing that, and we've been really good. But players make plays. As coaches, our job is to give them a chance to be successful and give them answers. If you don't have answers, they ain't listening to ya."