Back To The Option Fearing the blitz, teams are adding the razzle-dazzle of this intricate--and venerable--offense to their repertoire

August 30, 1998

The lesson commences in the members' grill of an exclusive
Austin country club, where legendary former Texas coach Darrell
Royal plays golf. A black-marble table becomes a makeshift
football field and various condiments step in as players: A salt
shaker is the quarterback, a jar of mustard the fullback,
bottles of Tabasco and ketchup a set of halfbacks. Royal's
gnarled, 74-year-old hands arrange the items in the V backfield
that anyone remotely acquainted with the evolution of college
football would recognize as the famous Longhorns wishbone. In
his distinctive drawl, Royal proceeds to tell how, in the spring
of 1968, he and assistant coach Emory Bellard concocted the
triple option attack that would carry Texas to consecutive
national titles in '69 and '70 and spawn a generation of option
imitators.

Though it's a tale that has weathered many tellings, it's one
that's especially relevant this fall because the option has
again become an option. Among the 62 teams that play in the six
power conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and
SEC), expect to see more than half of them devoting some portion
of their offense to some form of the option. Nearly all members
of the Big 12 and SEC will use it. Notre Dame and Oklahoma (did
somebody say deja vu?) will run it almost exclusively after
installing it during the off-season. And the service academies
will continue to operate the option most efficiently of all.

Football doesn't just repeat itself, it chases its tail like a
terrier on Jolt cola. Yesterday's creativity lies on today's
slag heap waiting to be reborn as tomorrow's innovation. New is
just a euphemism for now, and surely there's somebody out there
who will swear that Pop Warner was running a fire-zone blitz at
Carlisle back in aught-three. "Football is just a cycle," says
Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry. "Defense changes. Offense
catches up and passes it. Defense changes again. It's a constant
cycle."

The 1990s have belonged to the defense. Following the NFL's
lead, most college defenses have embraced the all-out press, an
attacking scheme that loads the "box," an imaginary rectangle
near the line of scrimmage, with as many as nine defenders, many
of whom jump in and out of gaps, threatening to blitz and, in
general, behaving as if they're about to run with the bulls in
Pamplona. The intent of this defense is to deny the run and to
force offenses to attempt passes quickly against heavy pressure.
Cornerbacks are left in bump-and-run, man-to-man coverage on the
outside. Think of it as Extreme Defense. Many of the power
programs of recent years--Nebraska, Florida, Florida State, Ohio
State and Kansas State, among others--have succeeded by going to
this extreme.

Offense, on the other hand, is in a reaction phase, as coaches
and coordinators try to conjure up a way to attack the press.
And it appears that the option is the answer. "It looks to me
that there are two ways to be successful against the way
everybody is playing defense," says Notre Dame coach Bob Davie.
"The first thing is to spread the field with a great passing
game and a great quarterback." Stop right there. Quarterbacks
who can read jailbreak blitzes and find an open receiver in a
second and a half are scarce enough in the NFL; in the college
game they're as rare as a winning Powerball ticket. So what's
the other way, Coach? "The second thing," says Davie, "is to run
the option." Cue lightbulbs. Slap forehead with heel of hand. Of
course!

With three possibilities--fullback dive, quarterback keeper and
halfback sweep--that unfold swiftly across the width of the
field, a properly executed option, more than any other offense,
punishes defenses for being out of position or overly
aggressive. The word is spreading quickly. "Judging from the way
my phone was ringing all spring and from the number of coaches
who visited us, it's safe to say there's a renewed interest in
the option," says DeBerry, who has been coaching the option for
nearly 30 years and is regarded by his confreres as a
read-and-pitch Yoda.

Don't think the ghosts of options past aren't enjoying the
resurgence. Back at the 19th hole, Royal's tabletop wishbone is
in high gear. He fakes a dive to his mustard fullback, slides
his salt-shaker quarterback toward the right edge of the table,
while his Tabasco halfback is moving in the same direction and
gathering speed, ready to take a pitch and slash upfield behind
the blocking of the ketchup. Royal imagines defenders trying to
find the ball and struggling to keep their responsibilities
straight. "This will take care of those fancy pass rushers
straight away," he says, happily smacking the table with the
palm of his hand.

History of the option, short version: Any coach worth his
courtesy car will tell you that teams have been running options
since Princeton and Rutgers played the first football game, in
1869. Run? Lateral? Rugby, from which football descended, is a
game of unending options. There's no question that coach Bud
Wilkinson used a triple option in building his Oklahoma dynasty
of the 1950s. The modern option, however, came of age with the
unveiling of Royal's wishbone in '68, although some credit for
that attack belongs to Bill Yeoman, who coached at Houston from
1962 to '86 and whose veer option was the foundation from which
Bellard and Royal built the wishbone. By the late '70s, the
option was the most popular offense in the country.

Defenses adapted by assigning specific players to the
quarterback, to the fullback, to the pitch men. Secondaries sat
in soft zones to prevent big plays. Offenses responded by
ditching the option and throwing passes into the vast expanses
of green left by zones. "By the late 1980s, everybody was
throwing the ball," says LSU coach Gerry DiNardo, who wasn't. As
offensive coordinator at Colorado from '84 to '90, DiNardo
helped the Buffaloes win half the '90 national championship with
an option offense operated by slippery quarterback Darian Hagan.
For the most part, Nebraska and Syracuse were the only other
power programs still running the option at the time. The offense
was by then viewed as the tonic of the undersized or the
untalented, used out of necessity by the service academies or
the likes of TCU and Missouri to stay alive against stronger
opponents.

Now the option is back, primarily because defenses have adjusted
to the wide-open passing game by blitzing more bodies than the
offense can block and blitzing from as many angles as possible.
Prime example: Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson of Michigan
would often line up last year on the line of scrimmage, opposite
the flanker, and dare the quarterback to figure out if he was
blitzing or not. Linebackers and safeties across the country
would do likewise. "You didn't know who was coming and who
wasn't, and you didn't have much time to figure it out," says
UCLA senior quarterback Cade McNown (page 54). However, blitzers
leave holes behind them, and that's where the option steps in.
"When I see a gap, I'm in it, and I'm gone," says Kansas State
senior quarterback Michael Bishop.

At the snap, instead of dropping back three steps and possibly
facing a maelstrom, the option quarterback runs down the line of
scrimmage, reads the blitzers and options off their moves. If a
guy in Woodson's position blitzes off the corner, the
quarterback runs into the open area where the defender was. If
the safety sits back, the quarterback pitches wide to a trailing
halfback. The defense is forced to either sit back and read the
offensive play, or risk turning loose. "If the defense crowds
everybody up tight, it'll still make some plays, but option
football beats it often enough, and when the option hits, it
hits big," says Missouri running backs coach David Mitchell, who
has been running and coaching option for 24 years and helped
install the version that pushed the Tigers to a surprising 7-5
record and a near upset of Nebraska a year ago. In theory, a
crisp option does to blitz tendencies what seasickness does to
the appetite.

"It's real easy to get out of place against the option," says
Kansas State junior linebacker Mark Simoneau. Says Michigan
senior linebacker Sam Sword, "Everybody likes to do a lot of
slanting on defense now. If you hit the right crease, you can
make a big defensive play, but against the option you've got to
cover all your creases." In footballese, it's called being "gap
sound." If a defense isn't, it can still sack a quarterback now
and again, but it's vulnerable to a disciplined option. "If
you're playing a team with an option package, it really makes
you think twice about blitzing," says Arizona State defensive
coordinator Phil Snow.

This information comes as no surprise to Nebraska, which has
ridden the option to a 60-3 record and three national titles
over the past five years. In early June former Cornhuskers coach
Tom Osborne, six months into retirement, sat in his tiny coach
emeritus office and assessed defensive evolution with his
customary prairie preacher's wan smile. "All these new blitzes,
we never saw them," said Osborne. "Saw them on tape, but never
saw them in a game."

The option faded once, not only because defenses adjusted but
also because fans clamored for an aerial circus and because
recruits--particularly wide receivers and tight ends--shunned
schools that relied on the option. "Recruiting is still a
problem," says DiNardo. "There's still a bit of stigma attached
to being an option team." As for entertainment value, the
skilled option quarterback provides as much bang for the buck as
any player in the game. Seniors Bishop, Corby Jones of Missouri
and Donovan McNabb of Syracuse are latter-day versions of
Oklahoma's master of the sleight of hand and foot in the mid
1980s, Jamelle Holieway: deft ball-handling quarterbacks whose
speed, moves and power make them as dangerous as running backs.
And all three are better throwers than almost anyone who played
option quarterback in the '70s. Senior Jarious Jackson of Notre
Dame and junior Tee Martin of Tennessee could prove similarly
skilled. So could Nebraska sophomore Bobby Newcombe, who says
that "running the option is like being out on the playground
again."

To better use a quarterback with superb running abilities, many
coaches have installed a twist on the conventional option: a
quarterback off-tackle play that Nebraska's 6'3", 220-pound Scott
Frost used to great effect last year. Florida State had put in
similar plays for junior quarterback Dan Kendra, who was expected
to start this fall until he tore the ACL in his right knee during
spring drills.

The conventional thinking is that the modern defense doesn't
count the quarterback as a blocker or a ballcarrier. He's just
there. Making him a runner levels the field and provides an
extra blocker. "We like to play 11-on-11," says Nebraska
quarterbacks coach Turner Gill, who ran the Cornhuskers' option
from 1981 to '83. Of course, you can't run the quarterback if
he's a slow-footed, drop-back statue. "That's all right," says
Syracuse offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers. "I've never been in
favor of taking my worst athlete, a guy who can't run or block,
and putting him behind the center to handle the ball on every
play."

Defensive coaches, of course, are already saying they have
answers for the option.

1) We'll beat up your quarterback. "Are you going to give me
free shots at your quarterback all day?" asks Florida defensive
coordinator Bob Stoops. "I'll take that. Let's see how a team
feels about running the option when their guy gets knocked out
by an earhole shot." This is the revival of an old debate,
changed by the manner in which modern blitzers treat pocket
passers. "[Drop-back] quarterbacks are taking a tremendous
beating," says Syracuse linebackers coach George DeLeone, a
former offensive coordinator for the Orangemen who spent last
year as an assistant with the San Diego Chargers. "I can't
imagine the option would result in a greater beating."

2) You're not slick enough to run it well. Nebraska works on the
option all day, mastering its intricate timing. Other teams try
to succeed with less preparation. "You want to play option,
fine," says Michigan defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann. "But
how much are you going to play? Where do you draw the line? Are
10 plays of practice every week enough to be good at it, when
one bad pitch can cost you a game?"

Save your breath, coaches, and start drawing up a more tactical
response. You'll need an answer this fall.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ELI HAACH/ALLSPORT The pitch Resurgent Missouri, led by elusive quarterback Jones, has shown how an option team can prosper in the 1990s. [Corby Jones passing football before being tackled] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOE ZEFF [Diagram of quarterback option play] COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Big shoes to fill Newcombe takes over the option at Nebraska, where his two direct predecessors brought home three national titles. [Bobby Newcombe in game] COLOR PHOTO: HY PESKIN Long gone With James Street squeezing the trigger, Texas finished No. 3 in '68, No. 1 in '69. [James Street in game pitching ball in option play]

DECISIONS, DECISIONS

To pitch or not to pitch

For the option to disrupt an aggressive defense, a quarterback
must make proper reads. After faking a handoff to his fullback,
he sprints toward the unblocked strong safety. If that safety
slides toward the trailing halfback, the quarterback cuts
upfield. If the safety moves toward the quarterback, the pitch
goes to the halfback. Or the quarterback can pass. Defense, pick
your poison.

In theory, a crisp option does to a blitzing defense what
seasickness does to the appetite.

The skilled option quarterback provides as much bang for the buck
as any other player in the game.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)