Scouting a college football team for their opening game is difficult. Unlike high school teams, which generally have one or two scrimmages, or NFL teams with their preseason schedule, college teams are explicitly barred from lining up against another team in a scrimmage form. Thus, outside of physically being at a practice and watching installation periods or being in meeting rooms, anticipating changes in scheme becomes an operation in guesswork.
The rise in popularity and media coverage of spring games has given us a bit more information, but coaches are notoriously paranoid about putting information on film. So you have to take clips from any spring game with a gigantic grain of salt. Both the offense and defense are very vanilla, particularly defenses. New defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys ran Cover 3 for the majority of the Washington State Cougars’ spring game.
Despite being hamstrung by a lack of information, one element did seem to stand out at the spring game. The offense was in an empty backfield a surprising number of times, usually with the running back in the slot. Considering the depth and talent the Cougs have at the receiver position, swapping the back out for another receiver certainly seems like a reasonable thing to do.
We’ll take a look at how splitting that receiver out places an additional stress on the defense, and how the offense will look to exploit the extra space a fifth receiver creates. And we’ll see if we can improve the best play in football.
We’ll start with an Air Raid staple, and a play that has been big for the Cougs over the last several years, Y-Cross. Here’s how it looks in the playbook from Leach’s stint at Oklahoma in 1999.
Not much has changed since then; Leach simply has the Y and H in the slot instead of at tight end and in the backfield, respectively. Y-Cross is designed to stretch the linebacker level of the defense from sideline to sideline, allowing the Y receiver to settle into a gap in the zone or run away from man coverage. River Cracraft made some of his most memorable catches running this, and Kyle Sweet has the potential to do the same.
Running Y-Cross out of the Empty look stresses the linebacker level of the defense even more. This is what it looked like at the spring game.
James Williams is lined up to the offense’s right, creating a trips formation on that side with Sweet and Easop Winston. Tracy Claeys’s defense aligns to the Empty set by sliding a linebacker out of the box and locking up man against the F. That’s an important adjustment. Against the typical Air Raid back releasing into a route out the backfield, the defense was staying home in their zones, which meant that there were two linebackers in the middle of the field. By sliding to Empty, that removes a linebacker and creates a wider throwing lane for Trey Tinsley to find Kyle Sweet in the first zone window of the Cross route.
Next up is 96, which in its base form is all curls.
96 is similar to Y-Cross in that the goal is to find a soft spot in the zone somewhere, in this case with static curl routes behind and in between the linebackers. So again, if you can stress the linebacker level with an extra receiver, you have the potential to create wider passing lanes between the zone defenders.
In the diagram above, the T tries to pull a defender out of the middle of the field by running a swing route. When the Cougs ran 96 out of the Empty set, the extra receiver (F) lined up on the offense’s left and ran a crossing route in front of the linebackers, accomplishing the same thing. But again, because the defense’s adjustment is to pull a linebacker out of the middle and lock him onto the F, natural gaps are widened.
Tinsley or Leach actually tagged Renard Bell to run a post, so this is Lion 96 H-Post. Two things stood out to me with this play. First, If Bell takes an inside move instead of the outside track he takes to avoid the flat defender, he’s open in an early window. And second, Williams crosses Dillon Sherman’s face and it pulls him up a few steps, opening up a window for Tinsley to hit Kyle Sweet curling up behind him. Tinsley was feeling a little bit of pressure and I think that made him drop his eyes to scramble.
If you’re familiar with the Air Raid, you’re most likely familiar with its signature play—Four Verts. The next logical step with that play in five-wide formation is five verts. Missouri was one of the first teams to adopt the empty set and marry it with Air Raid concepts. One of the architects of that offense was a coach with which Cougar fans are very familiar—David Yost.
The diagram above shows Five Verts out of both a 3x2 set and a 4x1, or quads formation. In the 3x2 set, the fifth receiver (listed as F3) acts as bait for the strong side safety. As that safety sees the F3 cross his face, his instinct will be to step towards him, creating space for F2 to slide past him going vertical down the hash. The 4x1 set operates in much the same fashion. The F4 is the bait in this case, drawing the strong side safety away from F3, or holding the backside safety on the back side of the play, preventing the defense from matching up to the quads on the front side.
I wouldn’t anticipate seeing 4x1 from WSU this year, as it breaks a lot of the balance that Leach prefers in the Air Raid. But we’ve seen 3x2, and should see it a bit more often. Why not Five Verts?
Going five wide is not brand new to Leach or this offense. We saw it relatively regularly with Kyrin Priester running a sort of reverse from a tight slot formation. But it was used primarily as a wrinkle or a change of pace, and certainly could not be considered a staple of the offense. With the talent, depth, and speed at the wide receiver position, getting more of those guys on the field more often could be a way that Mike Leach, Gardner Minshew, and the rest of the offense can exploit one of their strengths in 2018.