The college football season is fast approaching and while some of us would like to look back at better times, we must look ahead to 2017. Sean Cottrell explains how Justin Fuente will use jet motion to help the Virginia Tech Hokies offense get back on the map.
After 29 seasons of “Beamer ball,” Virginia Tech fans are certainly excited about bringing the offense into the 21st century with the Justin Fuente era. Fuente, the former Memphis head coach who replaces long time Hokies coach Frank Beamer, has a good track record with QBs, having helped develop both Andy Dalton and Paxton Lynch into NFL players. He also has a good track record of moving the ball and doing it quickly. Since becoming offensive coordinator at TCU in 2009, Fuente has led four top-25 offenses in seven years. In 2015, his fourth year at Memphis, Fuente orchestrated the 21st-ranked offense in college football – an offense that ranked 119th in the nation just two years earlier. Fuente is also known for his tempo as Memphis averaged just north of 80 plays per game in 2015, good for 18th in the country.
But how have his offenses been able to accomplish this and sustain that success?
Fuente is most commonly known for his up-tempo spread attack that he ran at TCU and Memphis. One of the strengths of his attack, and the one that is most well documented, is his ability to create space in the passing game and force the defense to defend every blade of grass on the field by taking advantage of the wide college hash marks. One of his staples is to overload or flood the boundary or short side of the field to create a numerical advantage against the defense in this area. The goal here is to force the defense to react and rotate additional defenders to the boundary, which then isolates the backside WRs to the wide side of the field.
Beyond creating space for his receivers, another one of Fuente’s strengths is his ability to package a variety of run and pass concepts into similar formations and backfield actions. By doing this, he is able to keep the defense guessing while still keeping things simple for his offense. He will also build in options for the QB to take advantage of defenses that get aggressive in guessing where the ball is going by reading their reactions and adjusting to ensure that their guesses are incorrect. Overall, limiting the number of formations and backfield actions Memphis had to practice and execute in any given week is what allowed the offense to run at such a high tempo.
Ole Miss at Memphis, October 17, 2015
One way Fuente was able to package a variety of concepts together in 2015 was through the use of the jet sweep or jet motion. Using the jet sweep, he could hand the ball off on an end around, option off of the jet motion on a QB keeper, create play action off the motion, and send the motion receiver into a route concept, or simply use the motion as a constraint to keep defenses from playing too aggressive against the run or pass.
Let’s look at Memphis’s 2015 matchup with Ole Miss as an example of how Fuente was able to accomplish this.
It is late-1st quarter in a monumental game for an undefeated Memphis team looking to prove its worth against top SEC competition when Fuente first brings out the jet motion. After falling behind 14-0 early on, Memphis faces a crucial 3rd and 9 to keep its drive and the hopes of the Memphis faithful alive. Memphis comes out in 11 personnel with Paxton Lynch in the shotgun, RB Jarvis Cooper to his left, and four receivers in a 2×2 double slot formation. Ole Miss comes out in dime personnel in a Cover 4 shell pre-snap.
Just prior to the snap, Memphis WR Roderick Proctor (#18) turns and goes into a jet motion to the boundary side of the field and Ole Miss responds by bringing its strong safety down to cover the receiver on the outermost route from the trips formation while the free safety rotates over the top to cover the inside route coming out of trips. At the snap, Lynch receives the ball and all three trips receivers release vertically, clearing out the defenders in the area.
Meanwhile, Jarvis Cooper (#25), who initially appears to stay back in pass protection, releases out on a screen. Lynch delivers the ball and Cooper is free to run for a 1st down as the playside guard and tackle get out in space and pave the way. The key on this play for Memphis was not so much about the result: It was more about how Memphis used the jet motion to set up the defense for the next time they pull it out of the bag.
Later in the half with Memphis now down just four points and pushing toward the end zone, Fuente shows the jet motion again. Lynch lines up in the shotgun with RB Doroland Dorceus (#28) to his right and 11 personnel with TE Alan Cross (#40) in wing formation and three receivers with slot formation to the left. Ole Miss aligns with nickel personnel showing two high safeties over the top.
Just prior to the snap, Proctor again goes into a jet motion, forcing the defense to adjust. This time, the strong safety buzzes down in a robber technique and Ole Miss shows a Cover 3 look. As Proctor motions across and into the flat, the flat defender widens to account for him while the outside receiver releases vertically and Cross releases into a post route, clearing a path for Dorceus releasing from the backfield on a shallow wheel route.
What makes this play work, however, was the jet motion by Proctor and how they set it up on the previous play in the 1st quarter. As the flat defender widens, watch as he eyes Proctor; he is clearly expecting him to turn and run up field like he did on the play above.
But this time, Proctor widens and stops in the flat while Dorceus runs the wheel route inside. At this point, the flat defender is too wide to impact the throw to Dorceus and Lynch throws a perfect strike for another 1st down. That split-second delay by the flat defender in identifying Dorceus out of the backfield was all Lynch needed to make the big 1st down throw and it was all due to the jet motion.
On the very next drive, Memphis again has the ball in Ole Miss territory, this time up by three points on 1st and 10 and looking to expand its lead before the half. They again come out in 11 personnel in the same shotgun wing formation with a single receiver to the boundary and twin receivers to the wide side of the field in slot formation. Ole Miss is again in its 4-2-5 nickel formation with two high safeties. Just prior to the snap, Proctor again motions right, crosses the formation, and Ole Miss responds again by dropping its strong safety down to the boundary to disrupt the routes or impact the run while the free safety comes behind him and eventually drops down into a robber technique.
Just before Proctor crosses his face, Lynch receives the snap, Ole Miss rolls into a cover 3, and Memphis shows the same exact look it did on the previous play with Cross and Dorceus all releasing upfield – but this time the boundary WR comes back toward the formation with a crack block on the strong safety as Proctor, again, settles into the flat. In addition to the two safeties rolling over, both LBs also flow to the boundary in reaction to the jet motion and backfield action. On this play, however, the ball was never meant to go to the boundary. Instead, Lynch keeps the ball and runs the inverted veer where he will make a read on the playside DE.
If the DE stays home, Lynch will hand the ball to Proctor on the jet sweep. If the DE widens in reaction to the motion, Lynch will keep it himself and run through the gap created by the widened DE.
As Memphis expected, the DE widens with the motion and Lynch runs through his gap for a short gain. Luckily for Ole Miss, its DT makes a great play fighting through three different blockers to make a shoestring tackle on Lynch or else this would’ve been a much larger gain for Memphis. Again, Memphis shows the same formation, the same backfield action, and then executes a completely different concept to keep the more talented Ole Miss defense off balance.
So far, we have seen Fuente incorporate the jet motion into both run and pass concepts to the motion side but, on this next play, he throws a changeup which seemed to be the final nail in the coffin for Ole Miss. It was late in the game and Memphis, now holding a 10-point lead on 2nd and 5 with just more than 4 minutes to go, is trying to finish off a tired, confused Ole Miss defense which is in desperate need of a stop. Fuente has thrown several different concepts at them built off of the jet motion and the Rebels have yet to find an answer.
This time, Memphis has its 12 personnel grouping on the field with split receivers, one RB and two TEs in a gun strong i-left-formation with one in-line TE on the line of scrimmage with a RB and TE/FB in an i formation to the left of Lynch, who is lined in the shotgun. Ole Miss, with time running out and expecting run, aligns in its base 4-3 with two high safeties creeping down toward the box.
This time, WR Sam Craft (#11) comes across on the motion and Ole Miss, again, responds by rotating its safeties over the top as the boundary CB also tightens to the formation and the SAM LB comes on a run blitz from the slot.
At the snap, Lynch fakes the handoff to Craft and Cooper takes an initial step to the left before turning back to Lynch, accepting the handoff, and racing to the boundary on a counter with the backside guard and FB/TE paving the way for a back-breaking 1st down. Watch as the entire Ole Miss defense takes a step toward the jet motion – including the MLB who ends up missing the tackle by inches.
After being beaten all day off of the jet motion, Ole Miss defenders, now worn out and frustrated, were caught being overaggressive.
One of the best qualities of some of the classic M. Night Shyamalan movies were the shocking endings, but even more impressive was how he made you feel minutes later when you realized that the clues were right in front of your face the entire time. Well, if M. Night Shyamalan were a football coach, he would end the game exactly the way Fuente did. If the previous play was the back-breaker for Ole Miss, Memphis then adds insult to injury. Memphis has a 3rd and 3 from Ole Miss’s 15-yard line and again lines up in the gun strong I formation with split receivers, this time with the formation strength to the boundary. With the entire Ole Miss defense now keying the run, Craft again goes into motion.
At the snap, Lynch fakes the inverted veer and hands the ball to Craft running full speed to the boundary while TE/FB Cross and Cooper both get out in space to pave the way. Poor pursuit angles by the Ole Miss secondary and good blocks by Cross and WR Mose Frazier (#5) provide just enough space for Craft to split four defenders in pursuit and cross the 1st down marker to ice the game.
After teasing the Ole Miss defense all game with the jet motion, Fuente finally shows them the jet sweep they had been looking for…
…only, by that point in the game, the Rebels had finally stopped looking for it. The game was a flat circle for the Ole Miss defense that day.
How will this translate to Virginia Tech?
Fuente certainly brings more to the Virginia Tech program than the jet motion/sweep; this was only one wrinkle in his offensive attack, but it was an important wrinkle. What the use of the jet sweep does here is demonstrate his ability to keep things simple for his players while, at the same time, giving them tools to take advantage of over aggressive defenses.
Fuente may not need to incorporate these wrinkles as often at Virginia Tech given the upgrade in talent he received when coming over from Memphis. With incoming junior college transfer QB Jerod Evans looking good in the spring and redshirt sophomore RB Travon McMillian, junior WR Cam Phillips, and unanimous preseason All-ACC selection WR Isaiah Ford all returning to Blacksburg, Fuente has more overall talent than he ever had in his four seasons at Memphis. Nonetheless, the ability to put opposing defenses into a bind using relatively simple run and pass concepts while still maintaining the structure of an offense is something that will translate on any football field. With the offensive structure he will implement, the personnel he inherits and the defensive continuity he bought by keeping defensive coordinator Bud Foster on the staff, it is not a stretch to say that Fuente can have this Virginia Tech team in position to make a run at the ACC Coastal division crown by the end of the 2016 season.