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 ear-hole 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.