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Understanding that option you’re yelling about

October 02, 2017

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Georgia Southern football has no shortage of traditions whether it be the yellow school buses players ride into games with, baptizing new players in “Beautiful Eagle Creek” or minimalistic navy blue uniforms the team debuts on game day.


More and more nowadays, with the scrutiny surrounding the program and its shortcomings under head coach Tyson Summers, one tradition seems to pop up more than the others.


“Where is the triple option? Why aren’t they running the option?” is something you might have heard yelled with a slur at Gnat’s Landing during a Georgia Southern football game. To many football novices this sounds like a phrase of Mandarin Chinese, but to the regular football fan the phrase is nearly as old as the game itself.


The triple option is an offensive concept of football which has come to define Georgia Southern since the program’s resurrection in the early 1980s. Erk Russell, the coach whose identity is eponymous with the football program due to how quickly is turned Georgia Southern from nothing into a national power, called his offense “the Georgia Power Company” because of how well the Eagles ran the option.


But even as other teams moved to more modern concepts of offense like the spread or the run-and-shoot, Georgia Southern would stick to the triple option with continued success. Paul Johnson won two more national titles with the triple option in 1999 and 2000 to add on to the four the program already had under Russell and Tim Stowers.


So it comes as no surprise fans throw their hands in the air in frustration anytime a new head coach comes in and tries to move away from the option concept. Brian Van Gorder and Chris Hatcher both moved away from the option offense in the years between 2006 and 2009 with disastrous results: a 21-23 record with no playoff appearances.


Under Jeff Monken and Willie Fritz the program came back to prominence using the – you  guessed it – triple option offense. The correlation for success on the field at Georgia Southern is almost directly tied to the the triple option offense, so it’s no wonder fans are quick to get irritated when a coach tries to move away from the concept.


Summers learned this the hard way in 2016 when the team fell to a disappointing 5-7 after going 9-4 the previous year. The spread concept utilized by Rance Gillispie and David Dean fell flat on its face and forced Summers to hire Bryan Cook away from Georgia Tech to try and install a more traditional option attack akin to what Georgia Southern fans are used to.


After reading this entire spiel there are a lot of you are asking the same question: what is the triple option? What does it do and why does it work? Hopefully we can explain that over the next handful of paragraphs to give you a better idea of what the option style of offense entails.


But first, a little history lesson.


Prior to 1940, most offense was predicated on lining up seven men on the line of scrimmage and running straight into it like a battering ram with the occasional pass play mixed in. Don Farurot, the head coach of the Missouri Tigers, had an epiphany while watching a basketball game that would change the way teams played football forever.


Farout noticed during a two-on-one fastbreak play in the basketball gamethe defender could not make a play if the offensive players executed properly. If the defender decided to pressure the ball, the ball handler would make a quick pass to his teammate who then scored a basket. If the defender decided to cover the player without the ball, the ball handler would not pass and score a basket on his own.


Simply put, the defender was forced to make a decision in a situation where he was outnumbered. This is the basic philosophy of the option offense: force the defense to worry about multiple running options on a single play. It’s been used throughout history and still works in various forms today.


Older versions of the option offense can still be seen at high school games all across the country such as the flexbone, wing-T or wishbone formations. Georgia Tech, Navy, Army, New Mexico and Air Force still use these concepts at the FBS collegiate level.


Other teams have evolved to running the option out of the spread formation, which is what most colleges use and some other high school teams. But for the purposes of explaining the option in this article, we’ll stick to the flexbone formation made famous by Johnson when he was the offense coordinator of the aforementioned “Georgia Power Company.”


Use the picture we’ve provided as a reference. The players labeled “T”, “G” and “C” are the offensive line – their responsibilities differ depending what side the play is being run. In this example, the play is being run to the right side of the field so the right tackle is who we’ll focus on.


If the quarterback is labeled “QB”, then there are three running backs “A”, “B” and “Z” while the wide receivers are labeled “X” and “W.” Every basic triple option play – just like any play in football – starts at the snap exchange between the center and the QB. At the snap of the ball the first thing the QB does is read the defensive end, labeled with a No. 1 in the picture.


As the diagram illustrates, the right tackle leaves him unblocked intentionally so he has to make a decision. What the DE will see is the QB trying to hand the ball off to his B-back, who is the first option for the play. The defensive end can make one of two decisions here: he can attack the B-back on the handoff or stay at his spot and wait for the QB.


If the DE stays at “home” as we like to say, the QB will hand the ball off to the B-back where he runs up the middle of the line. That’s the first option choice of a triple option play. If the defensive end crashes inside to the B-back, the QB will pull back the handoff and continue running.


So with the defensive end out of the picture, this leaves the QB with two more decisions to make. Now he has a second man to read – the outermost edge defender, labeled No. 2 on our diagram. Just like the DE, the “S” defender can do one of two things: he can attack the QB inside or stay at home to defend the pitch man, or our A-back who’s been trailing our QB this entire time.


On the diagram you’ll see a dotted line that runs perpendicular to the paths of the QB and the A-back. This is where the pitch can occur and is one of the final two options in our play. If the “S” defender decided to attack inside on our QB, the QB will toss the ball back to the A-back who – if the play is blocked properly – will have a clear running lane.


If the “S” defender decides to stay at home, the QB will keep the ball and turn up field for a gain of yards. So in essence, the three options of the triple option are: dive, keep or pitch. If run correctly this can force headaches upon the defense because they have to stay disciplined in their assignments for the entire 60 minutes.


One false move and a pitch can go for 60 yards and a touchdown. The flexbone formation, shown in our diagram, isn’t the only way you can run the triple option. This play concept can work from the shotgun or I-formation as well. But the flexbone triple option is what Georgia Southern used for years to attain success and it’s what current fans desire in their offense today.


So the next time you’re watching Georgia Southern or Georgia Tech and you hear someone talking about the option offense, see if you can get them to explain it. If they can’t, then you can bust out the knowledge from this article and amaze your friends with your know-how of offensive football concepts.


Or at the very least when the Eagles aren’t running the option, you can claim you know what you’re talking about when you start yelling “Where’s the triple option?” at Summers and his staff. 


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