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Back to the Option
Tim Layden
August 31, 1998
Fearing the blitz, teams are adding the razzle-dazzle of this intricate—and venerable—offense to their repertoire
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August 31, 1998

Back To The Option

Fearing the blitz, teams are adding the razzle-dazzle of this intricate—and venerable—offense to their repertoire

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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 déjà 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 Power-ball 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.

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