Coaches like Bill Belichick and Chip Kelly often adjust their offensive tempo to put defenses on their heels. Hugh Freeze is no different. Mark Schofield explains how the Ole Miss coach mixes his Talladega pace and RPO concepts to keep opposing defenses honest.
Run / pass option designs are all the rage in both college football, as well as the professional game, and the University of Mississippi is no different. Coach Hugh Freeze has installed an up-tempo offense that relies on RPO concepts to keep the defense on its heels throughout the game. This style of play has led to recent success in the SEC, and Mississippi is looking to perhaps challenge Alabama for the SEC West division title in the coming season.
With respect to tempo, Mississippi runs three different speeds to their offense: NASCAR, Daytona, and Talladega. NASCAR is their slowest, or normal speed, where they can change personnel and formation from play to play. In their Daytona tempo, the offense stays with the same personnel package (10 personnel, 11 personnel, etc) but they can change the formation based on the play they will run or the position of the football on the field. Talladega is their fastest pace of play, and the offense stays in the same personnel group and the same formation from play to play.
Whatever formation they start the Talladega drive in is what they will line up in for the next play and all subsequent ones. Mississippi will stay in that formation and personnel group regardless of situation or position of the football on the field until the drive ends or they decide to make a change. They enter each game with one formation and personnel grouping designated their Talladega package for that contest.
I’m going to highlight three successive plays from Mississippi’s Sugar Bowl victory over Oklahoma State to illustrate how the Talladega pace works, and how this pace mixed with the RPO concepts Coach Freeze installed keeps a defense guessing.
Mississippi utilizes not only pre-snap RPOs, where the quarterback will make a box or ratio read up front, but also post-snap RPOs. When they run a post-snap RPO play, one of the defenders is left unblocked and the quarterback is tasked with reading that defender. Their playbook has plays that are either a first-level read, a second-level read, or even a third-level read. This means that on the first-level read RPO plays, the offense leaves a defensive lineman unblocked and the QB makes his decision off that unblocked defender’s reaction. A second-level RPO read leaves a linebacker unblocked, and so on. The play call contains a phrase or indicator for the quarterback to remind him what level he is reading on each play.
With 4:30 left in the first quarter and Mississippi trailing by three, their offense is on the field using 11 personnel. Quarterback Chad Kelly (#10) is in the shotgun and the offense has three receivers to the left and a single receiver to the right. Tight end Evan Engram (#17) lines up on the line of scrimmage, but in a two-point stance with a split away from left tackle Laremy Tunsil (#78). Wide receiver Quincy Adeboyejo (#8) aligns as the middle receiver in this trips-set, while Laquon Treadwell (#1) lines up to the outside. Cody Core (#88) is the single receiver split to the right. Since Mississippi is in their Talladega package, they will be in this formation and personnel group until they slow things down or the drive ends. The Cowboys have their 4-2-5 nickel defense in the game, and they show a single-high safety look in the secondary:
Mississippi runs an RPO play here, with an inside zone running play called with a stick concept to the trips side of the formation and a quick slant from Core, the weakside receiver:
Kelly’s first job is to decide pre-snap whether to run or pass. He does this based on the defensive front, and the numbers in the box. Here, both linebackers for Oklahoma State stay in the box, so Kelly decides pre-snap to throw the ball. This play is a second-level read for the offense, meaning one of the linebackers is left unblocked. In this case, it is the Will, or weakside linebacker:
Kelly takes the snap and puts the football in the belly of his running back while staring at the WLB. Up front, the offensive line blocks a zone scheme, but the center and right guard execute a combination block on the 1 technique while leaving the WLB unblocked. The linebacker has to step forward to read the run, and that creates a throwing lane for Kelly to throw the slant behind him to Core:
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Now, if the linebacker somehow stays home, Kelly can come off the slant route and throw to the trips side of the field, where the offense has a stick concept drawn up. But here, the WLB breaks forward on the run action, and the QB has a nice throwing lane to his the slant. Kelly’s only concern before making the throw is that he needs to be sure that the WLB is not in the direct line of his pass.
Since Mississippi is using their Talladega set, they head straight to the line of scrimmage and immediately line up for the next play using the same personnel and formation:
On this first and 10, the offense calls the same play, a RPO inside zone play, with a quick slant from the single receiver and a stick concept to the trips side of the formation:
Oklahoma State cannot make any substitutions, so they are in the same 4-2-5 defense. This time, they show two-high safeties. But there is another slight change to their defensive scheme:
The Mike linebacker walks outside of the box, splitting the defense between the LT and the TE. This gives the offense a five-on-five situation up front, so they run the football:
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The left guard does a good job of turning his defender toward the sideline. The center and right guard get a good combination block at the point of attack, before the right guard peels off to pick up the scraping WLB. Akeem Judd (#21) takes the handoff and cuts through the hole created by the LG and C. The MLB is able to work back toward the middle of the field and drag the ball-carrier to the turf, but not before Judd has picked up a first down.
Facing a fresh set of downs, Mississippi heads right to the line of scrimmage, as their Talladega tempo continues. They line up with the same personnel in the same exact formation:
For the third-straight play, they run an RPO concept with an inside zone running play called, with a stick concept to the trips side and a quick slant to the backside:
Up front, both linebackers remain in the box, so Kelly decides pre-snap to throw the football. As you know by now, this play is a second-level read, so one of the linebackers will be left unblocked. This time, it is the MLB who is left unblocked. Kelly takes the snap and both linebackers blitz. He carries out the fake to his running back, before pulling the football and throwing the stick route to his TE in the area vacated by the blitzing Mike linebacker:
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The slot cornerback is able to rotate over to Engram and make the tackle, but not before the TE picks up an easy five-yards, setting Mississippi up with a manageable 2nd and 5.
These three plays illustrate just how effective tempo and RPO concepts can be for an offense. Even though Mississippi runs the same play on each of these snaps, they move the football effectively. Oklahoma State tries a new defensive wrinkle on each of these plays, but the offense has an answer built into the design of the play. When you add together the tempo, the options contained within each play, and the ability of Kelly to orchestrate Freeze’s offense, it portends very good things for Mississippi in the 2016-2017 season.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Information for this article was taken from Coach Freeze’s 2016 appearance and presentation at the Nike Coach of the year Clinic.
Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter. Buy his book, 17 Drives. Check out his other work here, or how Connor Cook is like comfort food, or potential 2017 NFL QB draft picks.
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