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Whiteboard Wednesday: Florida State’s offense and the evolution of the spread

Taking a deep dive into what we saw on Saturday.

Don Juan Moore

Tomahawk Nation is bringing you more and more analysis about what the Florida State Seminoles are doing under their new staff, breaking it down to each of the important coaches and their philosophies. We will be turning our focus toward the now as we get an idea of what the new staff is doing.

As we dive into the depths, we know there are some concepts that bear explanation. Scheme takes time to be installed and we want to take the time to give our readers an understanding of what is happening. We will take a much closer look at the Mike Norvell and Adam Fuller offense/defense.

One of the exciting parts for our scheme team is to discuss football in the comments section. We always look forward to your feedback and questions. Please don’t be shy to ask follow-up or clarifying questions after reading.

Florida State’s offense appears to have found an identity against Jacksonville State. In this Whiteboard Wednesday, we take a closer look at what FSU does, how they do it, and what they may add on to the offense during the course of the season as the new identity evolves.

They must evolve in order to have an answer or counter for how defenses will gameplan to stop them.

This deep dive will not focus on the talent — FSU clearly needs better offensive line play, for example — but rather on the X’s and O’s.

Ancient History Meets Young and New

Head coach Mike Norvell and offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham gave Tate Rodemaker the entire first quarter to run the offense. Unfortunately, the true freshman was not up to the task.

Jordan Travis took over with 10:35 left in the first half, and this was FSU’s first play:

A zone read, which is a post-snap read where the quarterback reads the unblocked defensive end. If the end stays home to guard against the quarterback running, the quarterback completes the handoff for the running back - with the blocking scheme usually being inside zone.

One major benefit of leaving a defender unblocked is the offensive line has a numbers advantage against the remaining defensive linemen, which is an obvious help to a struggling offensive line.

If the end crashes down to take the running back, the quarterback pulls the ball and sprints into the vacated crease.

This may all be familiar so far. The key concepts to note for today’s purposes — in the zone read the quarterback and the running back are going in two different directions, and that the quarterback reads the backside of the play. As opposed to the frontside which is the direction the offensive line is blocking.

Here is another play featuring FSU’s zone read later in the first half, a conversion on 4th and 1.

Rich Rodriguez created the zone read in 1990, using the new concept to catapult up coaching ranks with it and popularizing it in major college football at West Virginia in the mid-2000s. Rick Trickett, longtime FSU offensive line coach, coached the big uglies at WVU for Rodriguez.

Going back to the first FSU play above, you can see the offensive line push toward the boundary (short side of field), which is the frontside of the play.

To the field side (wide side of field) on the backside of the play there are two receivers. Interestingly, the slot receiver is actually running back Lawrance Toafili, who swings out for a bubble screen.

That a true freshman RB is being split out wide is notable on its own. But the main reason to discuss the bubble is because 2 + 1 = 3.

In other words, tagging the zone read with a bubble pass option creates a more modern version of the triple option.

You can call this the zone-read triple, or the triple option, or a zone-read bubble. These are all the same, interchangeable jargon.

The key is the pass element puts another defender into conflict. That can open up big plays for either the quarterback on the ground or an explosive run after the catch for the receiver.

The Middle Ages

Coaches around football quickly added this pass option to the zone read when first emerged. Programs like Urban Meyer’s Utah, or Herb Hand at Tulsa or Rodriguez’s West Virginia started doing it quickly.

Norvell was Tulsa’s passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach during this time in 2009-2010. Oregon lit up the scoreboard with that play in 2010, which evolved as a necessity as defenses learned how to shut down the zone read on its own. The video above shows a wrinkle Oregon added — once defenders commit to the bubble, you throw to a receiver who faked a block and leaked behind them — which could maybe be something we see later on in the season.

None of this is new territory. In fact, high school teams run this all over the country. Simplifying the offense isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as the offense continues to evolve so it can answer what defenders will attempt to use to shut it down.

Right now, FSU is doing a lot of window dressing to make these concepts appear more complex than they actually are. The below play is simple Counter Trey — a power run call the whole way — with pulling the backside guard and tackle to lead the back. It looks just like the zone read and/or zone read triple though, and Toafili in the slot runs a bubble just like in the first play.

This appears to be a run call all the way - because if it was a read, Travis should have pulled the ball.

You can argue that he simply missed the read, but regardless, it is important to note that while many of their plays look like the zone read triple, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is. This triple option is not the backbone of their offense. They didn’t even run it half the time, but they will run it quite a bit as long as Travis or a quarterback like him is the starter. And many plays will be dressed up to look like the triple in order to keep defenses honest.

Florida State also already used their zone read action in this game as a play-action fake to pretty good success. They also made liberal use of rolling the pocket, the benefits of which are two-fold.

This gets the quarterback moving, which can simplify his reads (half-field as opposed to a potential full-field) and defenses have to account for his running ability on a scramble. This can help free up receivers.

Putting together everything discussed so far, here is an example of this concept late in the first half. It looks like their zone read fake with the Counter Trey, but this time Travis does pull the ball and attempts to hit the backside bubble screen. It does not work, but this is a good constraint to have. They simply need to work on the execution.

The Renaissance

The next evolution of spread offenses changed blocking schemes and angles to be more favorable. Instead of reading a defender on the backside of the play, offenses read one on the front side.

The benefits are obvious — secure a numbers advantage going in the direction of the play, not away from it. One way to accomplish this is Veer. The Veer has been around football for decades, at least since the 1960s, but the last decade brought its resurgence with the spread offense.

The Veer is not always run to the playside; it can go to the backside as well. What makes it different from the zone read however is the quarterback and the running back attack in the same direction, like this:

Pistol Veer

There is a chance FSU did run some veer in their game against Jacksonville State, but it is difficult to be certain based on FSU’s blocking schemes. Most of the read game attacked the backside of their plays.

If FSU did not run veer, that is a potential area we may see them explore in the future. There are variations of it as well, depending upon which defender the offense chooses to read.

Getting into more recent spread offense history, however, starts right at the beginning of this past decade.

Which brings us to the Inverted Veer. It’s the same as Veer, except the quarterback and the running back switch or “invert” their paths. So, the quarterback runs vertically inside the key defender who is being read, often in between the tackles, while the running back goes outside.

This was first used against first-year head coach Dabo Swinney by TCU and their head coach Gary Patterson and offensive coordinator Justin Fuente.

One fun and interesting development includes running the play not with inside zone blocking, but with power and pulling linemen, which Norvell loves to do anyway. When blocking using this power scheme by pulling lineman, the play is also known as the Power Read.

Perhaps the best example of the Power Read is Gus Malzahn and Cam Newton riding it all the way to a national championship in the 2010 season. But there are more examples. Remember when Lamar Jackson whooped FSU 63-20 in 2016?

Of course you don’t, none of us do.

So as you watch that clip for the very first time, notice the inverted veer and how Jackson runs up the middle while the running back goes wide.

The inverted veer could definitely be a concept Florida State adds this season, as I did not see them run it against Jacksonville State. A significant question would be the punishment Travis would take running up between the tackles. He is not the freak athlete Lamar Jackson is and is not as big (or also freakishly athletic) as Cam Newton. I suppose that’s why a play they did run several times against JSU, including for two touchdowns, is so interesting.

That’s the Toss Read.

Present Day and into the Future

The Toss Read is a recent innovation within the last few years, and while it looks similar to speed option, this concept is actually an evolution of the inverted veer.

The quarterback reads the outside defender like normal (not always the edge defender on the defensive line), but the running back is lined up next to the quarterback and flares out in a pitch relationship. Here’s what it looks like:

As discussed above, FSU ran this play several times last Saturday, but the key examples to highlight come in back-to-back plays at the end of the third quarter.

In this first example, note how guard Andrew Boselli pulls around in the same direction Travis and La’Damian Webb are running. This read is being run to the frontside of the play.

Travis reads the outside defender, decides to keep, and runs vertically upfield, picking up the first down.

By running the inverted veer with the toss, Norvell can run the concept but still get Travis out in space and cleared outside of the tackles where he is less likely to get buried by big bodies. On the very next play, they run it again to the other side and Baveon Johnson is the puller. Travis reads the unblocked edge defender and chooses to pitch it to Webb who takes it wide to the corner for the touchdown.

These are building blocks, a foundation from which to build and evolve. It is quite clear a good chunk of plays FSU ran against Jacksonville State with Travis were just for him, as the coaching staff would not ask James Blackman or Rodemaker to do some of the concepts covered today.

Please do not take away that Norvell’s offense needs a running quarterback to work. It absolutely does not. No one would confuse Memphis QB Brady White for a run first signal caller, and yet Memphis was and remains explosive on the ground.

Florida State’s offensive line is still a work in progress, and there are some teams the Seminoles will not have success blocking up front. But the coaching staff is clearly doing what they can schematically to help them out. Using zone reads to give them better numbers, moving the pocket, and quickly getting the ball out into space. Some concepts are even significantly similar to what Kendal Briles did last season as FSU’s offensive coordinator.

The read based ground game should be a large component of an offense that Chubba Purdy can execute, and this seems to fit his skill set. He appears to have bit more size than Travis. Regardless of who is under center for the rest of the season, FSU will need to keep evolving, adding wrinkles and counters and constraints like some of the concepts covered, as the solution to much of what they’re running was figured out years ago.

Better defenses will scrape exchange (linebacker and edge defender will switch gaps to blow up the zone read), blitz the mesh point, or drop a safety into the box. They may run junkball coverages to the backside of plays to confuse Travis and his reads. If Florida State’s staff can continue to grow and evolve the read offense, they will have more in their toolbox to answer some of these defensive strategies they are bound to see. That is a pretty good place to start this rebuild.

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