The USC Trojans enter the 2017 season with conference and national championship aspirations as a team, as well as Heisman Trophy and first overall pick aspirations from starting QB Sam Darnold. For their 2017 Pac-12 scheme preview, it seemed only appropriate to focus on a passing concept, considering the buildup and hype surrounding their young passer. The one concept that USC relied on quite a bit for big plays in the passing game was the HOSS concept, which has been a staple of the New England Patriots’ offense for a number of years, plus a favorite of Matt Linehan and the Idaho Vandals. The concept can be more thoroughly explained in this piece from ITP’s Ted Nguyen and this piece from Zach Dunn. However, at it’s most basic level, the HOSS concept is a two-man route combination comprised of a curl route from the outside receiver and a seam route from the inside receiver (either a TE or slot WR).
USC uses the HOSS concept at its most basic level as a two-man route combination, but also incorporates a number of variations onto the concept itself. They’ll often add a third receiver to the mix, and sometimes will incorporate different ways for the slot receiver to get up the seam to remain unpredictable and variable.
Basic HOSS Concept
To start, let’s look at USC running the two-man seam / curl combination to see where they can add wrinkles to their game plan beyond it.
In this example on a 2nd and 4 from the Rose Bowl against the Penn State Nittany Lions, the Trojans come out in a 11 personnel formation, with trips to the right and QB Sam Darnold (#14) in the shotgun. Penn State will run a zone blitz, with Cover 3 in the defensive backfield.
USC will run the HOSS concept to the trips side with the outside and slot receiver, while the running back and tight end stay in to block. Deontay Burnett (#80) will run the seam route from the slot on this play, faking outside before getting vertical with inside leverage against safety Koa Farmer (#7). On the outside, JuJu Smith-Schuster (#9) will run a deep hook about 12 yards downfield.
Burnett wins with inside leverage on his seam route, and is able to settle in the void between Farmer and deep middle safety Malik Golden (#6). Darnold zips it into the gap in the coverage for a gain of 20 yards and a fresh set of downs.
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Variation 1: Tear Motion into Swing Route
By far the most common variation the Trojan’s will use in their passing game is incorporating tear motion from the running back. Ted Nguyen did a great breakdown of tear motion here, and it’s a very common call in most college offenses. USC relies heavily on sending their RB into tear motion before releasing into a swing route as a checkdown option.
Not only does the RB provide a valuable checkdown option for the QB, the swing route also creates a hi-lo read for the cornerback, much like the go/flat concept. While the HOSS concept is the most basic play of the ones I’ll outline here, this variation is by far their most common.
This example of USC’s HOSS concept with tear motion comes from earlier in the Penn State game, on USC’s second drive of the game. USC has inverted slot formations on both sides of the field, Darnold in the shotgun and RB Justin Davis (#22) to his left. Penn State shows Cover 2 in the defensive backfield. Before the snap, Darnold sends Davis in tear motion to the offensive right side.
Davis will run a swing route coming out of the tear motion, providing a checkdown option for Darnold. USC will run the HOSS concept to that side, with Smith-Schuster (#9) running the curl on the outside and TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe (#88) running the seam route in the slot. USC runs a levels concept backside as well.
Penn State will indeed run a two-high defense, opting for Tampa 2 coverage.
Imatorbhebhe’s seam route will occupy both the middle linebacker dropping into the deep middle void, Brandon Bell (#11), and the playside deep safety, Marcus Allen (#2). Smith-Schuster will settle behind the playside underneath cornerback and linebacker, who both have their eyes on Darnold. The QB scrambles out of the pocket to his right, and the playside CB and LB both step forward to prevent the throw to Davis or a possible run from Darnold.
This frees up the curl route to Smith-Schuster, who makes the catch and turns upfield for a gain of 25 yards.
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There’s a number of other variations of the HOSS concept that the Trojan’s use, but this is by far their most common design. The running back going into tear motion and releasing into a swing route helps create conflict for the cornerback, while providing a checkdown option for the quarterback if both receivers are covered downfield.
One more example of the tear motion variation of the HOSS concept here, this time from USC’s game against the Washington Huskies. USC adds another slight variation on this play, as the tight end runs a stop-and-go route rather than a simple seam route over the middle of the field.
The Trojans are in the redzone here, and facing Tampa 2 coverage from the Huskies. They’ll send the RB into tear motion to the left side of the field, TE Imatorbhebhe (#88) will run a stop and go, and the outside receiver will run a curl route once again.
The swing route from the running back is wide open here if the defense doesn’t bite for the stop and go from Imatorbhebhe. However, the middle linebacker hesitates just enough to leave Darnold room over the top. Imatorbhebhe makes the leaping grab for 6 points.
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Variation 2: Wheel Route Down the Seam
Keeping with the tear motion call from the Trojans, they’ll also add a slight variation to the seam route on occasion. In this play against Washington, the Trojans have trips to the right, with Imatorbhebhe as a wingback, two wide receiver split outside of him, and RB Ronald Jones II (#25) in the backfield next to Darnold. Washington is showing Cover 1 / Cover 3 in the backfield.
Here’s the play art the Trojans will use on offense, with a HOSS concept from the outside receiver and Imatorbhebhe, while the slot receiver runs a deep crossing route.
The tear motion call reveals man coverage, as strongside linebacker D.J. Beavers (#15) chases Jones II into the flat before the snap. The problem for Washington (beyond the fact that their coverage has been revealed) is that the motion also shifts their coverage responsibilities. Originally, Beavers was lined up across from Imatorbhebhe, and had man coverage responsibilities against the TE, while backside linebacker Keishawn Bierria (#7) was responsible for Jones. However, the motion call meant their jobs swapped, but Bierria is late to recognize that, allowing Imatorbhebhe to release into his wheel route.
The wheel route from Imatorbhebhe comes open vertically, as the slot corner follows the deep crossing route from slot receiver Deontay Burnett (#80) to vacate the seam. Darnold zips it into Imatorbhebhe well before Bierria recognizes his mistake for the completion. First down Trojans.
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Variation 3: Receiver to the Flat
The final variation of the HOSS concept that USC runs is by using a TE or WR on a flat route, accomplishing a similar result to the RB swing route off of tear motion. Like the RB motion / swing route, sending a receiver to the flat provides a checkdown to the QB, while also creating stress for the playside cornerback with a hi-lo design.
Here, against Notre Dame, USC will run a HOSS concept with a WR releasing to the flat out of a tight bunch formation. The Trojans are in 11 personnel here, with two WRs and a TE in the bunch, a WR to the left, and Darnold in the shotgun.
Smith-Schuster (#9) motions toward the sidelines from the bunch formation, and he’ll run the curl route between the hashes and the numbers. TE Taylor McNamara (#48) will run the seam route from the top of the bunch formation, which, coupled with Smith-Schuster creates the HOSS concept. Finally, Deontay Burnett (#80) will run to the flat, providing a safety valve for Darnold.
Notre Dame will run Cover 0 man coverage, with a backside corner blitz and bracket coverage on McNamara down the seam.
Slot corner Cole Luke (#36) follows Burnett to the slot, while safety Drue Tranquill (#23) and Nyles Morgan (#5) bracket McNamara. That leaves Julian Love (#27) isolated in off man coverage across from Smith-Schuster. Smith-Schuster beats Love, and Darnold hits him in space for a gain of 7 yards.
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That’s four different types of HOSS concept designs/combinations that USC uses in their offense, five if you count the stop and go variation of the seam route. Darnold is getting NFL looks this season, and his success with NFL concepts like HOSS, and all of USC’s variations on it, are a big reason why.