One of Week 3’s most interesting matchups will take place in South Bend when the Notre Dame Fighting Irish host the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Mark Schofield looks at the Georgia Tech flexbone rushing attack and how to defend it.
The Yellow Jackets are currently ranked #15 in the country, with victories over Alcorn State and Tulane to their name, while the host Fighting Irish also come in at 2-0, but have lost starting quarterback Zaire Malik in the last week in their win over Virginia. The matchup between Paul Johnson’s flexbone offense and the Notre Dame defense will tell the story of this game.
The Georgia Tech’s flexbone is one of the more interesting offenses in college football. Utilized by the Yellow Jackets as well as the military academies, the flexbone offense incorporates elements of the wishbone and triple option offenses, while allowing for some flexibility in the passing game. The first basic element of this offense is the fullback (or “B back” as Johnson terms them) dive, which is the first option on virtually every play.
Up The Gut
Here is one example. The offense lines up with quarterback Justin Thomas under center and 20 offensive personnel on the field, with B back Patrick Skov (#7) just behind the QB and running back (“A Back”) Qua Searcy (#1) in a wing alignment to the right. The offense runs the triple option to the left, and Thomas’ first act is to put the football in Skov’s belly at the mesh point and read the interior of the defense:
If the quarterback sees a running lane along the interior ‒ either before the snap or just as the play begins ‒ he can give the football to his B Back and let the big runner gain yardage on the inside. Should the interior of the line collapse on the inside run, Thomas will keep the football and head for the edge, with Searcy trailing in a pitch relationship. But on this play, the QB sees a crease for his B Back:
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Skov hits the hole with force and with one slight cut upfield he is into Tulane’s secondary with a big gain. The replay angle gives you a good view of what Thomas saw:
Prior to the snap both the defensive tackle (Corey Redwine #96) and defensive end (Ade Aruna #87) line up with an inside technique, with the DT in a 2i technique and the DE in a 4i technique. Linebacker Eric Thomas (#52) is outside the tackle, and will have either pitch or toss responsibilities on the edge. So before the snap the quarterback knows that if the tackle gets a good block down on Aruna, there will be a hole for Skov:
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Left tackle Bryan Chamberlain (#53) gets a great block on the DE at the point of attack, and, as Thomas widens to get into position to make a play in response to the quarterback and with the A Back showing option his way, there is a chasm open for Skov on the inside. Thomas hands his B Back the football and the Yellow Jackets have a big gain.
If the interior of the defense does not present itself as a viable option for the inside run, then the quarterback keeps the football and heads for the edge, where he has two more options: Keep the football himself or toss the football to his A Back on the option. On this play, Thomas decides to keep the football:
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Breaking this down, the QB is under center with 30 offensive personnel on the field in the basic flexbone alignment: The B Back just behind the quarterback and an A Back on each side of the formation, each in a wing alignment:
At the snap Skov heads forward on his dive, but the interior of the line is waiting for him. Thomas keeps the football:
As the play continues, Thomas has A Back Clinton Lynch (#49) in front of him ready to block for either the quarterback or the pitchman. But defensive back Jarrod Franklin (#6) is quickly closing the gap. Thomas can pitch the football now or see if the defender over commits to the pitch:
Which is exactly what happens. Thomas shows the football on a fake toss, and Franklin over pursues, missing the QB. Thomas cuts back inside with a nice spin move, and then a nice cut before picking up the first down.
Again, Thomas is under center with 30 personnel in the flexbone alignment. Tulane has their 4-2-5 defense in the game showing Cover 1:
The offense runs the triple option to the left on this play, with Thomas again putting the football in Skov’s belly and reading the defense.
But on this play, the playside linebacker (Thomas #52) blitzes, taking away the inside run as an option. The QB proceeds down the line with the football, reading the DE Aruna who is left unblocked by design. If the DE breaks on the pitchman, Thomas will keep the football. But if Aruna stays home and shadows the quarterback, Thomas will make the pitch:
Aruna stays on the quarterback, so Thomas pitches the football:
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The offense gets two great blocks downfield, one by the left tackle Chamberlain and the other from lead A Back Isah Wills (#3). Broderick Snoody (#22) takes the pitch around left end and picks up big yardage for the Yellow Jackets. Also, notice the effort from the linebacker, Eric Thomas, who chases down this run from behind. A very impressive effort.
With the basic elements of the Georgia Tech offense outlined, we can look at a few of their wrinkles. It is a little odd to consider a toss or a curl route a “wrinkle,” but those qualify in Johnson’s offense.
On this play, the offense comes out in their 30 personnel in a flexbone alignment against Alcorn State, who has their base 4-3 defense in the game showing Cover 1:
Prior to the snap A Back Clinton Lynch (#49) comes in deep motion from his wing alignment behind the B Back. This is the main motion that Johnson’s offense uses. While sometimes the offense will run their option using this pre-snap motion, on this play they run a toss to Lynch:
Lynch takes the quick toss from Thomas with a convoy of blockers in front of him. He gains the edge, turns upfield, and picks up a first down:
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The best block on this play is turned in by wide receiver Michael Summers (#84) who locks up his defender and gives Lynch space to turn the corner. If you are a wide receiver in Johnson’s offense, you better be a good blocker.
When The Yellow Jackets Take To The Air
But if you are a WR in Johnson’s offense ‒ on those few occasions when the football is thrown ‒ you’ll likely find man coverage on the outside and room to operate. Because of the Georgia Tech flexbone defenses rely on man concepts to account for each potential option for the offense: From the dive to the option toss to the quarterback keeping the football. As a result, the two receivers in the flexbone alignment often find themselves in single coverage on the outside.
Here is an example of how the flexbone alignment, man coverage and the option look add up to a decent play in the passing game. Thomas is under center with 30 personnel on the field in the flexbone. Tulane has their 4-2-5 defense in the game showing man coverage:
Prior to the snap Georgia Tech show deep motion, and their usual triple option look. Thomas will begin the play faking the inside run, while the A Back (Snoody) continues to carry out the pitch fake. But after the QB fakes the handoff to Skov, he pivots to the other side of the field on a rollout, with right guard Trey Braun (#78) pulling in front of him as a lead blocker:
On the outside, WR Brad Stewart (#83) runs a deep comeback route. Watch how the fake option and the man coverage work together, getting Stewart single coverage with a cushion:
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Defending The Georgia Tech Flexbone
Given the challenges of this unique offense, Notre Dame will need a force in the middle of their defense, perhaps a veteran, who is equal parts wrecking ball and team leader.
Meet linebacker Jaylon Smith.
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Above, Smith lines up at a defensive end and blows up this Texas passing play. But the junior linebacker plays most snaps from an inside linebacker position, and he is very adept at defending the run and flowing to ballcarriers. In 2013 he led the Irish in total tackles (112) solo tackles (65) and assisted tackles (47), earning AP Second-Team All-American honors. In Notre Dame’s bowl game against LSU, Smith got a taste of the option and run game that he might see this Saturday ‒ and responded well. He notched nine tackles (5 solo) as well as half-a-sack. Here are two examples from that game of him playing the run.
On this first play, LSU has 11 offensive personnel on the field in trips right formation, and the quarterback in the shotgun. Notre Dame has their 4-2-5 defense on the field, showing Cover 6 in the secondary:
LSU runs the read option to the left, with quarterback Anthony Jennings (#10) putting the football into the stomach of running back Terrence Magee (#18). The QB reads the defense, and when the defensive end tracks down on the running back cutting inside, Jennings keeps the football:
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The QB cannot get past Smith, who works around the attempted block from LT (and current Cowboy) La’el Collins (#70) and drags the quarterback to the turf after a minimal gain.
Next, the Tigers run one of their offensive staples, a lead toss play. The offense has Jennings under center with 22 offensive personnel in the game, in an i-formation with slot to the left. The defense…well, the defense is a bit discombobulated at the snap, but Smith is in the middle of the action:
This play looks to be a big gain for the offense, but watch how Smith scrapes down the line of scrimmage and tracks down Williams, holding him to no gain on the play:
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Given the running game that Notre Dame will be facing on Saturday, and Paul Johnson’s offensive schemes, Smith will need to turn in a number of plays like this to slow down the Yellow Jackets’ offensive attack. From what he has shown on take to this date, the linebacker should be up to the challenge.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.