(EDITOR’S NOTE: Originally ran in my old blog prior to the 2009 season. Re-posting for reference in a new post and because I’m not sure what’s going to happen with the server that hosts my old blog.)
To gun or not to gun?
We’ve previously talked about how much I-formation Ohio State will use in 2009 (see my story from the spring about the Buckeyes’ intention to preserve the ‘I’), but maybe the better discussion is how much shotgun?
I say that for a couple of reasons. While the ‘I’ must rely on the development of some good young fullbacks, Ohio State could still maintain its familiar pro-style power running game with two-tight-end and one-back sets. The Buckeyes showed the ability to gain yards both ways both last year, notably switching to more one-back stuff against Michigan.
In either case, Terrelle Pryor would be under center rather than off the line of scrimmage receiving a shotgun snap.
I shouldn’t take full credit for the idea to change the direction of the discussion, though. That came from Jim Bollman earlier this year when I was pursuing a story with the ‘I’ vs non-’I’ angle.
“First of all, let’s talk about under center versus in the gun, whether it is one-back or two-back,” Ohio State’s offensive coordinator said. “The thing that is appealing about having a guy under the center is he can read the whole scheme of things efficiently. He never has to worry about catching the football. He doesn’t have to look at catching the ball and then seeing what the safety has done. There are some NFL teams that will never go in the gun because they want their quarterback to be able to see the safety the entire time and see what’s going on as he’s going back there and never take his eyes off anything but the defense.”
Admittedly, I hadn’t considered that, but running backs coach Dick Tressel (Jim’s brother) and assistant coach Nick Siciliano (who works with the quarterbacks mostly) both brought it up, too.
“I think there are some pieces to the shotgun offense that maybe some people that aren’t very aware of the whole package aren’t aware of what limitations that puts on a quarterback,” Dick Tressel said. “If you have to be in the shotgun, there’s a second that you can’t watch the defense, so the defense has an advantage when you’re in the shotgun because the quarterback’s got to be watching the ball. Under the center, he’s always watching the defense. Those are a couple of reasons right now you’re going to be under the center. If you have a great quarterback, you want him to be able to see what’s going on. You’re not going to put Peyton Manning back in the shotgun all the time, they want him to see what the defense is doing. The quarterback wants to, also, so it helps the passing game.”
Added Siciliano, “There are certain things to have him in the shotgun for, different threats, but there are also threats from underneath.
“Your play-action game is usually a little bit better from underneath. It’s a little more difficult for the defense (from under center) because you can hide the ball from them a little bit more. When you have a guy like (running back) Beanie Wells who is a better downhill guy than he is across-the-formation guy, it’s better to be underneath. So there are some various things and various formations that you’d rather be under and some various things and various formations that you’d rather be in the gun.”
And what benefits are there to having the quarterback in the shotgun?
“More often than not you’ve got to account for the quarterback (as a runner), from a defensive standpoint,” said Siciliano. “It’s a little easier dropwise from the shotgun. One thing about underneath is you never have to worry about catching the football. In the shotgun there are always things that go wrong that don’t happen when you’re underneath.”
In recent years, running variations of the option with an athletic quarterback such as Pryor has been something of a fad in college football, most notably at Texas where Vince Young led the Longhorns to the 2005 national championship, and at Florida where head coach Urban Meyer’s spread-option offense has played a role in two national championship teams in the past three seasons as well as earned Gator quarterback Tim Tebow a Heisman Trophy in between.
Particularly with Pryor’s 6-6, 235-pound build nearly identical to Young’s, many had visions upon his choosing Ohio State of seeing a second coming of the Longhorn legend and that kind of attack. Now with Pryor about to begin his first full year at the helm of the Buckeye offense, there are plenty of fans out there who dream of seeing the scarlet and gray shift strategy to resemble something more burnt orange.
But will they?
To a certain extent, they already have. According to numbers compiled by our friends at The O-Zone, Ohio State lined up in the shotgun 44 percent of the time last season, making that the most-used look (The Buckeyes were in some sort of two-back set with the quarterback under center, most often the ‘I’, 32 percent of the time), and the running quarterback has made appearances in Tressel’s OSU playbook all the way back to his first team with athletic senior Steve Bellisari and his second squad, which won the national championship with Craig Krenzel running the ball as a scrambler and occasionally by design (particularly in the title game, of which he was named most valuable player after finishing as the game’s leading rusher).
Joe Daniels, Ohio State quarterbacks coach in 2008 and one of the men credited with playing a large role in convincing Pryor to become a Buckeye, confirmed that Ohio State did as much conforming the new quarterback to the system as melding the system around his talents in 2008.
“The things that we did even formationwise with Terrelle have been part of our offense for quite a while,” said Daniels. “It’s a matter of how much you use. So he had been exposed to all these different things offensively. Then (when he became the starter in week four) it became a game plan that will deviate a little from your base. But we kept the I-formation and we kept the spread with three receivers and four receivers, that’s stuff we’ve done for quite a few years now, and then it’s just a matter of emphasis.”
So what should we expect for this coming season?
Considering how diverse the Ohio State playbook (if not always the playcalling) has been during eight seasons under Tressel, there would seem to be plenty of possibilities.
Dick Tressel called Pryor an “all parts of the puzzle quarterback,” saying he could effectively run an offense from the gun or under center.
Keeping that in mind, it makes sense to take a look at some of the other pieces, both those who return this fall and the big one who is gone.
The latter would be Wells, a 6-1, 237-pound battering ram with breakaway speed described by his coaches as the type of back who can do everything but is best going forward, particularly with the type of head of steam best built from deep in the backfield after dotting the ‘I’.
This season, Dan Herron and Brandon Saine return as veterans able to do just about anything a running back might be asked to, sometimes better and sometimes worse than the average starting Big Ten tailback. And to be sure, neither has anything near Wells’ size. Herron is much smaller but has some extra shiftyness and runs with power despite his 5-10, 193-pound frame, while the 6-1, 217-pound Saine is a high school sprint champion who is strong enough to break tackles but not blessed with the vision that helped Wells pick his way through holes before using his impressive power and acceleration to explode through them.
“You’ve got to evaluate the guys you’re using in the backfield,” Bollman said. “Beanie could run from anywhere, but he was pretty good when he was in the back. Sometimes it was easier for him just to be back there and hand him the ball. So those are all different things that you’ve got to look at.”
And other times, the easiest play called for Pryor to take a snap and take off on his own, especially from the shotgun.
“That shotgun offense puts a little pressure on the defense that more often they have to think about the quarterback being a ballcarrier, (but) that wasn’t the best for Beanie because he wasn’t going toward the goal line to start with,” said Tressel. “When you’re 235, going to the goal line makes people more nervous than if your first couple steps are laterally. (Shotgun) wasn’t best for Beanie, but it’s not like it wasn’t a fit. That would be stretching it. His first big play as a Buckeye was running that stretch play. He did a little spin move and went about 50 against Michigan (as a freshman in 2006). He can do all of those things, but there’s no question if you give him a choice he’d rather go back there and dot an ‘I’.”
That scintillating run against the Wolverines two years ago aside, the trouble last season was meshing the strengths of Pryor and Wells, but wouldn’t Wells’ decision to go to the NFL with a year of eligibility remaining open the door for an all-out Pryor attack from the gun?
In the story I linked above, Bollman talked about wanting to avoid exposing Pryor to too many hits, a risk that goes up in a shotgun-heavy offense because running the quarterback (or even faking a run with the zone-read) is essential to keep defenses off balance. From the ‘I’, there is a greater variety of possible running plays, and play-action fakes are more effective.
Queried on their preferred formation – shotgun, one-back, dotting the ‘I’ – neither Saine nor Herron would identify one over the others, but few observers would judge either as good as Wells from the ‘I’.
While there is little doubt Pryor and Herron or Saine give Ohio State the opportunity to run out of the shotgun, the coaches sounded concerned about limiting themselves to running only that way. And Tressel pointed out that nothing stops them from running Pryor from under center.
“The thing with Terrelle, maybe if we look at his runs, maybe his biggest runs are when they’re not counting him as a ballcarrier,” Tressel said. “So now he’s under center and they don’t count him as a ballcarrier and all of a sudden he’s running around the corner for a big gain versus, ‘Oh yeah, they’re in the shotgun. They might run that zone-option stuff. So we better make sure we tackle Terrelle.’ So he becomes maybe a bigger factor when he’s under center running the ball than he did when he was a gun guy.”
Added Bollman, “The second thing is, we get into some lead, two-back kind of schemes when we want to put a blocking back in there as a lead back then we’d like to be able to be in the ‘I’ because there’s a threat of two different ways. You can go either direction. You’re not necessarily giving it away in that situation.”
Such a luxury is denied in a single-back, under-center set because motion from a tight end is required to produce a lead blocker. That gives the defense an easy-to-read presnap key. Misdirection is more difficult in the typical shotgun spread formation because the lone running back lines up to one side of the quarterback.
Either way, Bollman is keeping his options open.
“Now, when we’re doing those kind of situations that doesn’t mean that Terrelle can’t run. There is still a threat of him running whether we are in the ‘I’ or in the gun.”
So there you have it. Or maybe you don’t. I guess we’ll have to wait and see how things play out between now and the Sept. 5 opener with Navy.
And, after more than 2,000 words, I have to acknowledge the at least remote possibility these coaches were just blowing smoke, that the shotgun as a dominant formation is here for the time being as there’s nothing anyone can do about it.