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. The Miami Hurricanes new coach has an offense that features concepts that may help overcome any deficiencies they may have. Sean Cottrell breaks down the triangle offense and the way that new Miami Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt used it in with the Georgia Bulldogs to maximize the talent of his offensive skill players.
When Miami fired Al Golden mid-season last year, program administrators, fans, and alumni knew that “The U” had the power and brand to attract quality candidates, but they likely never imagined that the situation would work out the way it did. Luckily for Miami, its coaching search coincided with the firing of a highly regarded coach just north of the Florida border. After leading his team to a 9-3 record in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), former Miami QB Mark Richt was fired as the head coach of Georgia just prior his team’s game against Penn State in the TaxSlayer Bowl. In his 15-year career at Georgia, Richt achieved the highest win percentage in school history with a 145-51 record and a 9-5 record in bowl games. He won two SEC championships and was named SEC Coach of the Year two times.
Prior to his time at Georgia, Richt spent 14 seasons at Florida State under legendary coach Bobby Bowden, including seven seasons as offensive coordinator. During that time, he was a part of two national championship teams and coached two Heisman trophy winners (Charlie Ward ’93 and Chris Weinke ’99). Despite all of his success at Georgia, Richt was never able to overcome the great SEC programs such as Florida under Urban Meyer and Alabama under Nick Saban. Could a change of scenery, for both Richt and Miami, help get them over that proverbial hump and back into the national spotlight?
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What does Richt bring schematically to Miami?
At Georgia, Richt ran a balanced, pro-style offense that could operate out of a number of different formations and was built around a strong running game intended to set up the pass. During his tenure, Georgia running backs ran for 1,000 yards six times, running a combination of zone and gap scheme runs that fit the skill sets of the offensive line and running backs on the roster.
Richt liked to use his strong running game to set up the play action pass to open throwing lanes for his QB. He ran a variety of pro-style passing concepts such as the spot and stick concepts that focused primarily on creating triangle reads for the QB, creating both a vertical and horizontal stretch on the defensive coverage to one side of the field.
One of Richt’s favorite and most well-documented concepts is his shallow cross concept, which he has been running consistently since his days at Florida State.This concept can be run out of a variety of personnel packages and alignments, and also creates a triangle read for the QB. The concept calls for one receiver to run a shallow cross over the middle of the field, another receiver to run a flat route creating the horizontal stretch on the underneath defenders, and a third receiver to execute a 10-12 choice route in between the shallow cross and flat routes, creating a high-low conflict for the defense. The illustration below depicts an early version of the concept out of a 2X2 set from Richt’s days at FSU.
The primary read in the progression is usually the shallow cross where the QB can get the ball to a playmaker running at full speed over the middle. The second read is the choice route, which will be open if the crosser and flat route cleared out the underneath defenders, and last in the progression is the scat or arrow route into the flat if the first two reads aren’t there. In addition, Richt will tag on a backside combination like the quick out and vertical / hot route in the illustration above, though in recent years Richt has typically tagged a slant / flat combo to the backside. Here, the QB should look immediately to the backside when coverage is rolled over the primary concept or to throw hot vs the blitz.
In the example below, Georgia has a 2nd and 10 at its own 25-yard line late in the fourth quarter against Tennessee, and is in need of a touchdown. The Bulldogs come out shotgun with 11 personnel, Sony Michel is to QB Greyson Lambert’s left and a 3X1 formation with the strength to the boundary side of the field. Tennessee comes out in nickel personnel, six in the box and showing a Cover 1 look with a single high safety and man coverage underneath.
At the snap, Michel stays in to block while the three trips receivers run the shallow cross concept with TE Jeb Blazevich releasing upfield into the choice route while freshman WR Terry Godwin runs behind him on the shallow cross from the slot.
As Lambert receives the snap, he immediately sees both Tennessee LBs coming downhill on the blitz and looks to throw the ball right over their heads and hit Godwin on the cross. What Lambert does not see, however, is DE Derek Barnett dropping into the space the LBs previously occupied. After the ball is tipped at the line of scrimmage, Barnett is there to ensure Godwin cannot secure the catch.
While this play was unsuccessful, it shows another variation of the concept as one of Richt’s go-to plays in crucial situations when the game is on the line.
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Getting the ball to his Playmakers
Aside from the offensive structure or concepts that Richt deploys, his greatest strength is his ability to create opportunities for his playmakers to make plays. In his tenure at Georgia, he had a steady flow of talented RBs come through the program and always found ways to get them involved. In early 2015, before he suffered an ACL injury, Nick Chubb was the centerpiece of the Bulldogs offense, but Richt still found a way to get Michel, an explosive runner with great home run ability, involved both in the run game and in passing situations. After Chubb went down, senior Keith Marshall stepped in to shoulder some of the load for Michel. In the passing game, Georgia spread the ball around quite well, feeding top receiving threat Malcolm Mitchell with 58 receptions but also getting Blazevich, dynamic punt return specialist Isaiah McKenzie, Michel, and others heavily involved as well.
Of those not mentioned above, Godwin – a true freshman phenom with very good route-running ability, deceptive speed, and an uncanny ability to make plays on the ball – was a player Richt often tried to create opportunities for; the play below is a great example.
It is 3rd and 2 for Georgia at its own 26-yard line, late in the first quarter of an early season conference tilt with South Carolina with the game tied, 3-3. Georgia lines up in the shotgun with 11 personnel in 3X1 set with Godwin motioning across to create bunch trips to the wide side of the field. The Gamecocks rush four out of nickel personnel and play a Cover 1 shell with a deep safety over the top and man coverage underneath.
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At the snap, Georgia again runs the shallow cross concept described above, but with one minor difference. From the top of the bunch formation, Blazevich releases upfield on the 12-yard choice route while the outside WR, McKenzie, releases across the face of inside WR, Godwin, into the shallow cross route carrying CB Al Harris Jr. along behind him and forcing the middle linebacker, who had dropped into zone coverage, to bite down on the cross. Godwin then takes a delayed release outside toward the flat to create the triangle read associated with the typical shallow cross concept. The CB is ready for his route out into the flat, playing soft with outside leverage, but, before crossing the numbers, Godwin plants hard on his outside foot and bursts inside on an angle route in behind Blazevich, who is now blocking downfield for him. Lambert hits Godwin in stride in a large crease with running room through the middle of the defense. This was a great job by Richt using a common concept for which the opponent was prepared but altering it ever so slightly to get the ball into the hands of one of his playmakers in space.
Speaking of playmakers, coming into the 2015 season, Mitchell was by far the Bulldogs’ most experienced and productive wide receiver. He has an NFL skill set with deceptive speed, quick feet, soft hands, the ability to run any route asked of him and, above all, he possesses excellent body control with the ability to go up and get the ball. Naturally, he was the player Richt wanted to build his passing game around coming into the 2015 season. Mitchell was primarily used as the X receiver, where he would see plenty of one-on-one matchups on the backside of the play because defenses were forced to roll their coverage over to the primary concept. The next play is a good example of that.
Georgia leads South Carolina 10-3 in the second quarter. Georgia has the ball on its own 39-yard line, facing a 2nd and 4 with Lambert in the shotgun and Michel to his right – 11 personnel in a 3X1 set with slot formation to the wide side of the field. South Carolina has its nickel package in the game showing Georgia a Cover 4 look with two deep safeties and both corners playing off and looking to funnel everything inside.
At the snap, Georgia runs a stick concept to the playside with outside WR Reggie Davis running a vertical route while Blazevich and McKenzie both run quick outs, creating a triangle read for Lambert. On the backside, Mitchell and Michel run a slant / flat combo. South Carolina then responds by buzzing SS / LB hybrid Jordan Diggs down into underneath coverage to the playside in a Cover 3 buzz, thereby evening up the numbers advantage Georgia initially had on the stick concept while the FS Isaiah Johnson takes a deep drop.
Lambert sees this immediately and turns his attention to the backside route combination where Mitchell has a one-on-one matchup with a Cover 3 corner dropping to his spot while Michel draws the flat defender out wide, opening up a big throwing lane for Lambert and an easy first down.
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As shown in the play above, Richt constantly created one-on-one matchups that he trusted Mitchell to win on the backside of his play designs. However, he also consistently manufactured opportunities where he was the primary target, such as in this run / pass option (RPO) below.
It’s early in the first quarter of a scoreless game against South Carolina and Georgia has a 2nd and 4 at its own 22-yard line. QB Lambert aligns in the shotgun with Chubb to his left with 11 personnel in a 3X1 set with slot formation to the wide side of the field. On the backside, Mitchell is the single receiver wide on the boundary. South Carolina comes out in nickel formation with six men in the box and a double safety shell over the top with the corners playing off.
At the snap, the offensive line and Chubb execute a buck sweep with the playside guard and center pulling around to lead block for Chubb, and the twin receivers release vertically, taking the coverage with them while Mitchell runs a quick slant on the backside. The defense shifts to a Cover 3 shell with SS / LB hybrid Diggs coming downhill to crash the sweep, and the outside corners dropping deep.
To execute the RPO, Lambert must read weak side LB Jonathan Walton. If he comes downhill to fit the sweep, he should pull the ball and throw the slant. If Walton stays put or drops to cover the slant, Lambert should hand the ball to Chubb.
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As you can see in the video, Walton keys the sweep and steps downhill, leaving a wide open passing lane. Lambert makes the correct read, pulls the ball, and hits Mitchell for a quick 1st down.
How will Richt’s Abilities Translate to Miami?
These plays display Richt’s ability to use his players’ talents effectively and get the ball into their hands, but how will he go about this in Miami? Most likely, it will look very similar, as the offensive personnel Richt is inheriting at Miami is talent rich with many of the same qualities his players at Georgia had.
It all starts with the quarterback and, as Derrik Klassen points out here, Brad Kaaya is an excellent fit for Richt’s offense as he excels in making quick reads and accurate throws in the short to intermediate areas of the field. In addition, over the years Richt has shown the ability to work with and develop different types of QBs, from Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke to Matthew Stafford and Aaron Murray. As such, Kaaya’s transition into Richt’s system could be relatively seamless. At the RB position, Richt inherits one of the best backfields in the Atlantic Coast Conference with the returning tandem of Joseph Yearby and Mark Walton, whose electrifying change of direction and acceleration resemble Georgia’s Michel. In addition, Miami also returns Gus “The Bus” Edwards, a 6’2” 235-pound bruiser with deceptive speed who was slated to the be the starter in 2015 prior to an injury that cost him his season. The combination of these three backs should give Richt flexibility in his approach to the running game.
The WR position is relatively young and not as deep of a group as Richt had in Georgia. Returning starter Stacy Coley, however, has the size, athleticism, and body control to be the primary weapon, working out of Mitchell’s former role. Anything Miami lacks in depth beyond Coley is most certainly made up for by the TE group. The electrifying David Njoku and his partner Christopher Herndon present matchup problems for any defense regardless of where they line up. The only major offensive question mark for the 2016 Miami offense will be the offensive line, who struggled mightily as a group in 2015. The good news is that the group returns 10 of 11 players who received playing time in 2015 and have now had another year to physically develop.
It’s safe to say that Richt won’t just walk into Sun Life Stadium on September 3rd against Florida A&M with the same play script he used in his last game with Georgia, but it shouldn’t be entirely different either. Given the personnel available to him and Miami’s run blocking deficiencies in 2015, Richt may have to use the passing game more to set up the run and continue to get creative with his play constraints and RPOs. While that has not traditionally been his style and he doesn’t have the WR depth that he had at Georgia, Richt has shown the ability to operate his offense out of a variety of formations and personnel groupings. With Kaaya, Coley, Njoku, and the abilities of Yearby and Walton to line up all over the field, Richt can be creative with personnel groupings to structure his concepts in ways that create matchup problems for Miami’s opponents and help set up the running game. Miami fans should be excited for the 2016 season. Despite some potential growing pains that occur with any new regime, with the personnel at his disposal and his ability to use such effectively, there is no reason why Richt and the 2016 Hurricanes shouldn’t sport one of the most prolific offenses in the ACC this coming year.
Follow Sean on Twitter @PhllyDraft.