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The Spread Offense - Theory and Recent History

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With all of the different formations and variations in offense happening in today’s college game, it’s hard to get a grasp on what makes one version of the spread better or different than another.  Heck, given that the term “spread” gets applied to everything that is or isn’t, it’s hard to get a clear definition of what “spread” really means.

Having not a clue myself, I called on a higher power. I asked Beergut (who will after this series be referred to as Dr. Beergut unless he vehemently objects) from the Texas A&M blog I Am The 12th Man for answers.

In part one we start with a basic definition of the spread offense, an introduction to the theory behind it, and how it's evolved from the late 90's to today.

Part two looks at why Missouri is so effective with their version of the spread and how the differ from Texas Tech under Mike Leach.

Part three looks at how Nebraska (or anyone for that matter) can defend against the spread offense, particularly against Missouri. Husker Mike had a previous article about defendng the spread, but we'll get much more in depth in part three. This article was born out of the arguments in the comments section of that article, proof that you can have an online argument and rise to better discourse.

I owe thanks to Beergut for responding in an educational and interesting matter!

How do you define the spread offense?

 For a technical definition, the term "spread offense" was used to describe any offense which "spread out" its players across the alignment, in order to move the defense out across the field, and force them to cover more area.

This alignment allowed the offense to isolate defensive weaknesses, and exploit it to their advantage. Spread offenses passed almost all the time, to the exclusion of the running game. They often didn't run the ball, b/c they didn't have the personnel to run the ball effectively.

 I think a basic definition of the spread offense is an offense which uses 10 personnel almost exclusively, and uses alignments to spread out the defense to force them to cover all of the skill position players in space, allowing the offense to exploit weaknesses in the defense.


10 Personnel Grouping
Before we go on, let’s have a brief explanation of personnel alignment. In a term like "10", the first number refers to the number of running backs, and the second number refers to the number of tight ends. Therefore, 10 personnel would be one running back and four wide receivers. 12 personnel would be a one back with two tight ends, and so on. - CB

One of the basic theories behind the spread offense was that most defenses don't have four or five players who can effectively cover four wide receivers and the running back coming out of the backfield. Somewhere on the field, there is a weakness in the defense's coverage; all the offense has to do is spot the weakness and exploit it. The spread was the offense basically saying, I can put more athletes on the field than you have on defense. Try to stop me.

 When your traditional 4-3 defense came out and tried to cover wide receivers in the spread with their lumbering strongside and weakside linebackers or strong and free safeties, players who were recruited and developed to stop running offenses, the result was mass chaos. Wide receivers were running free all over the field, Quarterbacks and receivers were piling up yardage, and pinball machine-like scores were popping up. Teams scrambled to recruit enough defensive backs to stop the spread offenses, and eliminate the mismatches.

 When the spread first started taking hold in college football in the late 1990's, they had three basic definitions of the spread offense. You had the "Purdue spread", which was a pass-intensive spread offense, you had the "Northwestern spread", which was a run-intensive spread offense, and you had the "Texas Tech spread" (aka Air Raid), which was an extreme version of a passing spread, different from the others because of its wide splits in the  offensive line and backfield.

Purdue used the formations and mismatches to spread the ball, Northwestern used the formations to move defenders away from the ball, play 7-on-7 inside to run the ball, and Texas Tech used their wide splits to pass the ball almost exclusively.

You would see more 20 personnel used then than you do today because the one-back running game wasn't as popular as it is now. Rich Rodriguez's Dart series hadn't yet revolutionized the college running game.

If you look at film of the 1999 and 2000 Oklahoma spread offense, you'll see more two back-three wide receiver sets, because they needed two backs to run the ball. That isn't the case now.

Now most spread teams are almost exclusively 10 personnel. They will use the one-back running game, with the zone read and speed option, to keep the defense honest. The inclusion of the QB in the running game has revolutionized the spread offense, because it effectively took away one advantage the defense had, which was playing 10-on-11.

In "traditional" offenses,  like the West Coast Offense, or a normal pro-set scheme, you had the QB distribute the ball by running it or passing it, but he wasn't a threat to run the ball. That has all changed now with mobile quarterbacks operating spread offenses. You now have to play 11-on-11, and play them even-up. Defenses are still trying to catch up to this change.

Now, I think you have several different types of spread schemes being run. You have the Texas Tech spread, which is  still the "Air Raid". They use wide splits, like a split-T offense, to spread out the defense, and create seams for the offense to operate.


You have the Florida/Urban Meyer spread, which is actually a spread single wing. The concepts of his running game are from the single wing. A lot of the things Florida did on offense last season to feature Tim Tebow in their running game is from a basic Buck Lateral series in the single wing. Florida's passing game is pure spread, though.

There is the Rich Rodriguez spread, which he ran at West Virginia and now Michigan, and which Illinois and Indiana currently run. Texas A&M ran a version of Rodriguez's spread the last two years under Franchione. I always refer to Rodriguez's spread as the "pure spread option", because the intent of his offense is to spread you out to run the football, using RichRod's Dart series, and the speed option game.

 You also have the spread option offense that Missouri runs, which is adopted from what Todd Dodge was doing at Southlake Carroll High School in Texas, and now at the University of North Texas. I differentiate between what West Virginia does and what Missouri does, because I think Missouri runs a "true spread option".

What is the difference between West Virginia and Missouri?

West Virginia wants to run the ball, and RichRod used the spread to get the mismatches inside. He was taking the gamble that if he put his WRs split out wide, so he could get 7-on-7 matched up inside, he had 3 players (Pat White, Owen Schmitt, and Steve Slaton) that your DL and LBs couldn't handle. More often than not, Rodriguez was right.

Now, Missouri wants to both pass and run the ball. They'll let the defense decide what they want to stop, and then do the opposite. If the defense wants to defend against the pass, they run the ball. If they defense wants to stop the run, they'll pass the ball. They're a perfect pick-your-poison scheme. Missouri runs some speed option and some zone read, using the one-back run game to hurt the defense. Missouri would rather pass the ball, but they're happy to kill you with the run, if that is what you give them.