The Cal Golden Bears kicked off their 2017 season with a win over the North Carolina Tar Heels, 35-30. Two of their five touchdowns came on the same basic concept, a wheel route run into a deep part of the field, vacated by defenders because of an accompanying clear-out route. Digging into their game film from 2016, the wheel route has been a go-to concept for the Bears for a while now. First, we’ll look at an example from 2016 before the two big plays from the 2017 opener.
Here, from Cal’s 2016 contest against the Utah Utes, the Golden Bears come out in 11 personnel, with three “receivers” to the right, and one to the left. However, the tight end on the right, Malik McMorris (#99), is covered by the outside wide receiver to that side, Patrick Worstell (#88), making him ineligible to run a route. The single receiver to the left, Demetris Robertson (#8), therefore, is able to stay off the line of scrimmage with the left tackle as an eligible receiver.
Robertson will come in motion in front of quarterback Davis Webb (#7) and running back Vic Enwere (#23), and after getting across the formation he will get up field into the wheel route. Worstell and slot receiver Ray Hudson (#11) will both run post routes, clearing out the defense for Robertson.
The cornerback over Worstell, Brian Allen (#14), will follow the wide receiver toward the field, vacating his responsibilities as a deep third defender in Utah’s Cover 3 defense. That leaves Robertson wide open on the wheel route, and Webb hits him down the sideline for the score.
Circling back to their season debut against the Tar Heels, Cal will go back to this well once again. With just over a minute remaining in the first half, Cal comes out in 10 personnel with trips to the left, and QB Ross Bowers (#3) in the shotgun. North Carolina shows Cover 3 pre-snap.
Vic Wharton III (#17) is the middle receiver in the trips, and he’ll be running the wheel route. The outside receiver Jordan Veasy (#15) and inside slot receiver Kanawai Noa (#9) will both run post routes.
Slot cornerback Corey Bell Jr. (#18) bites on the out route from Wharton III, who gains immediate separation after turning upfield on the wheel route. The post route occupies playside safety Myles Dorn (#1), who is forced to protect the in breaking routes to his zone. Bowers lays it in front of Wharton III, who hauls it in to pull within 3 of UNC.
The final use of the wheel route in Cal’s opener came with 4:35 remaining in the third quarter, with the Golden Bears trailing the Tar Heels by 3. Cal is facing a 3rd and 6, and uses 10 personnel with trips to the right. The design on this play is a bit different, as the wheel route will come from RB Patrick Laird (#28) out of the backfield. Veasy (#15) is the X receiver alone to the left side, and he’ll run a dig route to bring the playside corner into the middle of the field.
UNC shows 2-man under here, but blitzes the cornerback over Veasy and rolls into Cover 1.
Laird will chip the blitzing CB on his release, slowing him down before releasing vertically. The left tackle leaves the playside DE unblocked, thinking the RB will chip him (rather than the CB). This forces Bowers to spin out of the pocket just as Laird leaves the CB. Bowers floats it into Laird’s hands, and the RB somehow makes it to the endzone for the go-ahead score.
You can see how the dig from Veasy affects the opening down the sideline for Laird here, as the safety who picks Veasy up in coverage is drawn too far into the middle of the field to prevent a big gain from Laird.
Better tackling prevents a touchdown on this play, but it would have been a big gain regardless because of Bower’s escape and a well-designed wheel route.