clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

OFFENSIVE PLAYBOOK: Spread Offense 101

The typical spread offense looks like those you see at Hawaii, Texas Tech and Oregon, right? This is the most common misconception about the spread. The extreme examples are flashy and high powered, but the norm is something very different. What these teams have done is take the basic spread philosophy and put it on a steroid cycle, creating a scheme that's more its own genre than the basic spread itself.

This is where WSU comes into play. When Wulff was hired, many thought we'd see a fast-paced, high-powered spread offense. The words no-huddle spread offense conjure up images of a run and shoot that doesn't so much march down the field, but turns games into a track meet. That's not what we have here.

In order to understand what the Cougs are running, we need to examine the basic spread offense, from the history to the philosophy of the modern spread.

History of the spread

Since I'm no history expert, let's take a ride in the wiki-mobile.

The father of the spread offense is Rusty Russell, a graduate of Howard Payne University, in Brownwood, Texas, and coach of Fort Worth's Masonic Home and Schoolfor orphaned boys. Russell began coaching Masonic Home in 1927, and due to the fact that his teams were often over matched physically by other schools, they were called the "Mighty Mites." While there, he deployed the earliest form of a spread offense to great success.[1] Russell's team is the subject of a book by author Jim Dent entitled, Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football.[2]

So the spread has been around quite a while. Like any scheme that's been around this long, the spread has evolved numerous times over since its inception.

An updated version of the spread reared its head in the 70's Portland State.

Its first evolution came about in 1962 when current Portland State Offensive Coordinator, Darell "Mouse" Davis adapted Ellison's philosophy to create a more pass-oriented version. The "Spread Offense" emerged in the US in the mid to late 80's with coaches trying to get the benefits of the Run & Shoot (spreading out defenses and dictating defensive personnel with a 4 receiver set) without having to rely as much on QBs, receivers, and running backs making the correct reads on every play.

The basic spread offense allows the coaches to be in control. They call the plays, they set the progression the quarterback needs to take in his reads, and they are ultimately more in control than a typical offense that relies reads.

Of course in the more modern versions of the spread, the players are more responsible for the reads, creating a more dynamic offense. Diabolical minds like Mike Leach, Rich Rodriguez, Chip Kelly, and Urban Meyer took the spread and made it their own. We''ll examine what these coaches did later, but the unique schemes they created revolutionized the spread offense and breathed new life into an age old philosophy.

At WSU, the spread has also been around for the better part of two decades. Remember the shotgun, five wide formations that WSU legends like Drew Bledsoe, Ryan Leaf, and Jason Gesser ran under Mike Price?. That's a variation of the spread. The ace -- or single running back -- formations that were also popular on the Palouse during the 90's and early 2000's? Also a form of the spread. It's not necessarily something new for the Cougs.


There's no cookie cutter mold for a spread offense. It's an offense that can be tailored to the strengths of the personnel , no matter what they may be. If the offense has a mobile quarterback and shifty running backs, a spread option offense can work with incredible success. If there are an abundance of talented receivers, empty sets with five wideouts are in order. The power of the offense lies in its versatility.

An ideal personnel set involves a quarterback that is mobile enough to take what the defense gives him. The wide receivers need to run crisp routes and spread the field. The running back needs to be able to get into space and make people miss. A power back is not necessarily required for this scheme. Believe it or not, a spread offense also needs pass catching tight ends. The scheme utilizes the seams and tight ends that can get free over the middle open up the playbook even more.


The spread does exactly what it's named for: spread the field. Pre-snap, this means spacing. It doesn't mean throwing a ton of receivers out all over the place, but the splits (distance between receivers) are larger than a typical west-coast offense. The goal is to spread the defense out and open the middle. In that regards, the split ends likely line up outside the hash marks and closer to the sidelines. The slot receiver(s) split the difference between the offensive line and the split end, again spreading out the defense. 

In addition to spacing, the spread also utilizes pre-snap shifts and motion. Like some of the defenses we've covered, the spread attempts to deceive the defense through motion, shifts, and giving them the unexpected. The motion also enables the quarterback to quickly decide what kind of coverage he's looking at. Does the corner covering the receiver in motion follow him? You're likely looking at man coverage. Does the corner stay put and pass the receiver off instead? It's likely some kind of zone. Of course reading the defense is a bit more complicated than this, but using motion is one of the ways to make life easier for the quarterback.

A spread offense can also use a multitude of formations. The beauty of the scheme is the ability to run one play from a variety of different looks. A simple bubble screen can be done using 2 TE sets, or 3, 4, and 5 wide receiver sets. Typically a formation can tip the defense off to the playcall. With a spread, if the defense cheats because they see a jumbo set, for instance, they're liable to get burned.

Bottom line

At it's most basic level, the spread does exactly what it advertises. The scheme spreads out the defense and opens the whole field for the offense to make plays in space. Where a traditional offense allows defenses to crowd the box and jam up running and passing lanes, the nature of the spread leaves a wide open field. It forces the defense to play sound, assignment driven football and make tackles in space to keep the offense from consistently reeling off big plays.

In the next post, we'll look at the real power of the spread: the playcalling and passing routes.