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Option Strategy Report: Alcorn State

CPJ’s offensive unit showed flashes of greatness, but also proved there’s still a lot of work to be done

NCAA Football: Alcorn State at Georgia Tech Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the first edition of the Option Strategy Report, where each week we’ll take a close look at the performance of Paul Johnson’s flexbone offense. We’ll highlight plays that worked well, break down plays that went wrong, and speculate on what we might see defensively from next week’s opponent.

The Alcorn State Braves were given 2018’s first chance at trying to stop the Jackets’ spread option attack. The Braves entered Saturday’s game hoping to improve on their 2015 Week 1 performance when they were walloped by Georgia Tech 69-6. This time around, the Jackets didn’t put up quite as many points, but the victory still showcased Tech’s dominance in every phase of the game. Let’s dig in and look at a couple plays that went well and should give fans confidence for the 2018 season.

Counter Option, 12:43 remaining in the 1st Quarter

Tech’s first Counter Option of the game was ran to perfection, with every player on offense correctly identifying and executing their blocking assignments. As its name would imply, in the Counter Option the offense appears to be running an Inside Veer (aka the Triple Option) to one side of the field, only to turn on a dime and run the option in the opposite direction. The Counter Option is particularly effective against aggressive defenses who try to shift with the A-back in motion pre-snap. The blocking assignments on this specific Counter Option are as follows:

  • Left guard Parker Braun is pulling and must block the playside defensive end
  • B-back Jordan Mason must block the backside defensive tackle
  • A-back Nathan Cottrell is coming in motion pre-snap and must quickly reverse direction to block the playside safety
  • WR Jalen Camp must block the playside cornerback
Above: A-back Clinton Lynch (GT, #22) runs for a 25-yard gain on a Counter Option

The playside linebacker is left unblocked and is the pitch “key” (the defender who the quarterback will read to determine whether he will keep or pitch the ball). Everyone executes their blocks perfectly and A-back Clinton Lynch takes the pitch and sprints ahead for a 25-yard gain. While these blocks will certainly be more difficult against FBS talent, it’s reassuring to see that in Week 1 the Jackets were identifying and executing them correctly.

Zone Dive, 12:14 remaining in the 1st Quarter

The very next play of the drive was a Zone Dive to B-back Jordan Mason. The Zone Dive is one of the most common plays called by Paul Johnson. It starts just like an Inside Veer with an A-back coming in motion in the backfield, but instead of the quarterback reading the defense to determine whether he should hand the ball off to the B-back, the handoff is predetermined. This allows the offensive linemen to block solely for the dive, instead of blocking for both the dive and the pitch.

An extra wrinkle on this particular play is that Tech lined up in an Over Green formation. An “over” formation is when a wide receiver is moved “over” to the slot on the other side of the field. In this case, wide receiver Jalen Camp was moved over to the left slot instead of lining up wide right. In order to maintain his status as an eligible receiver, Camp lined up a yard behind the line of scrimmage and the left side A-Back stepped up to the line. This variation is called Over Green. On this play, lining up in Over Green and placing two wide receivers on the same side of the field forced the Alcorn State secondary to give a huge cushion, preventing them from providing effective run support.

Above: B-back Jordan Mason (GT, #24) runs for a 24-yard TD on a Zone Dive

The key to the success on this play is that the entire left side of the offensive line drove the defensive line backwards with ease. While great blocking guaranteed this play would pick up positive yards, it was the elite vision of B-back Jordan Mason that turned this from an 8-yard gain into a 28-yard TD run. When Mason receives the handoff he’s already scanning for a running lane. While most B-backs would run straight up the gut, Mason instantly recognizes that a huge chunk of real estate is about to open up to his left. On his first step after receiving the handoff he plants his right foot into the ground and bounces the run to the outside. From there his speed, paired with a great block from A-back Qua Searcy, allows him to cruise into the endzone untouched.

Counter Option, 6:45 remaining in the 2nd Quarter

One of the few negative yardage plays for the Jackets offense came on another Counter Option in the 2nd quarter. Let’s look again at the first two blocking assignments we discussed a few moments ago (keeping in mind this play is a mirror of the previous play):

  • Pulling right guard Brad Morgan must block the playside defensive end
  • B-back Jerry Howard must block the backside defensive tackle

Neither of these blocks were executed properly, with Howard’s miss being the far more egregious. Howard should have recognized that the backside defensive tackle would be coming straight at the quarterback through the hole vacated by the pulling right guard. It appears Howard never even realized this was his responsibility because he makes no attempt to make the block. As a result, the defensive tackle comes through the line completely clean and easily takes down quarterback TaQuon Marshall for a 4-yard loss.

Above: Quarterback TaQuon Marshall (GT, #16) is brought down for a 4-yard loss on a Counter Option

This is a perfect example of how one missed blocking assignment can completely blow up a play. Fortunately in this game the impact of one bad play was negligible, but as we learned on the final play of last year’s thriller against Tennessee, one missed block can change the outcome of a game.

Up Next: USF

This week the Jackets will travel to Tampa, FL to play Charlie Strong’s USF Bulls. This game presents us with an interesting matchup between Paul Johnson and USF Defensive Coordinator Brian Jean-Mary. If that name sounds familiar to seasoned Tech fans, it’s because Jean-Mary was the Georgia Tech linebackers coach from 2004-2009, serving under under Paul Johnson for his final two seasons. Jean-Mary left Tech to join forces with Charlie Strong, who he has coached for at Louisville, Texas, and now USF. While Jean-Mary has never game planned for an opponent running a flexbone offense, his time under Johnson gives him valuable insight into slowing down the spread option attack. While Paul Johnson called a very vanilla game against Alcorn State, he may need to reach into his bag of tricks a few times this week to defeat his former colleague.