Bob Davie's Football 101

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Thursday, October 24
Updated: October 29, 1:56 PM ET
Football 101: I-formation football

By Bob Davie
Special to

Over the past several weeks, we have discussed recent offensive trends in college football, ranging from the spread offense to the triple option. Obviously, there are a lot of philosophies and schemes out there, but the most important thing to remember is talent and personnel dictate what style of offense is best for each team.

Because of 8-man fronts and zone blitzing, many offenses have abandoned the I-formation and two-back running game in favor of spreading the field. If you have a dynamic tailback, I-formation football with a lead blocker is still an effective way to run the football. Look at Ohio State, Miami and Florida State for example, all three teams have big-time tailbacks and have chosen to keep the fullback in the game to run basic I-formation plays.

Years ago, Bobby Bowden's Florida State squads were known as a prototype I-formation teams -- running the ball and having an excellent play-action passing scheme. The 'Noles converted to the spread offense -- including the shotgun -- several years ago and enjoyed great success because of their speed at wide receiver and style of quarterback.

With Greg Jones now as the marquee player at tailback, FSU seems to be evolving back to Bobby Bowden's I-formation days and old-style football.

In this week's class, we will show you basic I-formation running plays and how they tie in with the play action passing game. The great thing about the I-formation is the run sets up the pass. For each running play, you have a play-action pass that looks the same. You force defenses to drop down and play 8-man fronts to stop the run which you can take advantage of with play action. The diagrams below display the run play and the corresponding play-action pass.

The isolation play
The isolation play is probably the oldest play in I-formation football. It is termed isolation because it isolates the fullback on a linebacker. It is a hard hitting play where the fullback attacks the linebacker and the offensive line fires out. There is not a great chance of a cutback on this play because it is a straight, downhill play by the tailback.

Isolation Pass
The isolation (iso) pass is one of the simplest plays in football, but very effective -- particularly against 8-man fronts. This is a play where the offense isolates a wide receiver on a corner. There is a hard play-action fake looking exactly like the isolation play. The offense tries to make it look and sound exactly like the isolation.

Isolation draw
A common I-formation play is a slow developing isolation play that is really a draw. It is the same basic blocking as the isolation play but much slower. The offensive line sets pass, inviting the defensive line to get up the field causing gaps in the defense. The fullback shuffles laterally first allowing the linebacker to slightly drop then attack. The tailback gets the handoff deep in the backfield to allow him many cutback opportunities.

Sprint-draw pass
The corresponding play to the slow iso is the sprint-draw pass. The only difference is the fullback takes an angle outside to block the outside linebacker if he blitzes. The tight end instead of blocking the outside linebacker, releases in a pass pattern. There are many combinations of routes, but the standard sprint-draw route has the tight end cross with the X squaring in behind him while the Z runs a deep post.

Power play
The power play gives a gap scheme, meaning the offensive line has angle-down blocks preventing the defensive end from penetrating. It also creates double teams at the line of scrimmage. The tight end blocks down on the defensive end, the front side guard blocks down on the nose guard, the fullback kicks out on the outside linebacker and the back side guard pulls around for the guard. It is a hard-hitting off-tackle play.

Power pass
The power pass looks identical to the power play. The difference is the tight end releases inside the outside linebacker while the fullback comes at the same angle but slips by the outside linebacker into the flat. Again, this comes off a hard play-action pass trying to get the defense to bite up. The ball either goes to the tight end on a corner route or to the fullback in the flat.

Tailback counter
Another gap blocking scheme is the tailback counter. This is a misdirection play where it initially looks like it is going in the path of the fullback. The offense can pull the backside guard and tackle. The guard kicks out the outside linebacker. The fullback fills weak to allow the tackle to pull and to give the defense a misdirection look. Notice again the gap blocking which eliminates penetration by the defense.

Counter pass
The complimentary play to the tailback counter is counter or boot pass. The fullback has the same path he had to fill for the offensive tackle, but this time he slips by into the flat. The tight end, who looks like he's blocking down, continues on his path to the backside flat. The QB fakes the tailback counter and boots weak. This puts a high-low stretch on the secondary and the QB can throw to the fullback in the flat or the tight end on the crossing route.

Toss sweep
Everybody remembers the days when the toss sweep was the No.1 play in the offense. Some teams still utilize it. The toss sweep can be run several ways. In this case, the guard is pulling to block the support of the defense. The fullback fills for the guard and picks up the linebacker. The QB simply takes the ball and tosses it deep to the tailback. Even though the play is designed to go outside, many times yardage is gained by the tailback heading North-South or cutting back.

Boot pass off toss sweep
Off of the toss sweep, the offense can run a boot pass where the QB fakes the toss and boots weak. The offense may pull the guard to help block for the QB. The tight end is the primary receiver coming off the toss fake and running a crossing route. It's tough on the defense because it's a fast flow play where everyone wants to take off and run to the toss.

As stated earlier, successful offenses take advantage of their talent. Florida State is a great example with tailback Greg Jones being there most dynamic player. That is why Bobby Bowden has used more of the conventional I-formation plays. Because I-formation football has the extra blocker in the backfield, the offensive lineman can apply more gap blocking schemes and allow the fullback to be the extra kick-out blocker on the linebackers. Obviously, play-action passing is a key component of I formation because you are inviting defenses to drop into 8-man fronts to outnumber you against the run. The I formation, although not as widely used as in the past, is still an excellent scheme to take advantage of defenses being forced to stop the run.

Q & A with Bob Davie
Thanks for all of the terrific responses and knowledgeable questions this week. Please keep sending in the questions and we'll tackle as many issues as we can this season. Here are a few of your questions regarding the triple-option offense:

Love your column and also enjoy your broadcasting. In the triple option, how do the QB and the fullback handle the handoff. It appears that the QB puts the ball in the belly of the fullback and either leaves it or pulls it away. When is the decision made whether to give or keep it? How does the QB do this without fumbling? How does the fullback know if the ball will be there? Or does he?

Bob Davie: Obviously, you hit on a great point because in the true triple option nothing is predetermined. As the fullback attacks the line of scrimmage, he expects to get the football, but in the same token he does not grab or wrestle the ball away from the quarterback. It's totally done by feel. The fullback makes a pocket, anticipating the football to be handed. From there, it's totally up to the quarterback to make the read.

Coach Davie,
I really appreciate your description of the triple option. As a Rice fan, I have never entirely understood why Coach Hatfield likes to run to the short side of the field so often. It certainly seems to me that, regardless of personnel from year to year, there is a clear preference to run to the right side of the offensive formation. Is there a simple explanation for this.
Larry Weiner
Dallas, Texas

Bob Davie: The simplest explanation is the big advantage the defense has in the ability to align an extra defender to make you run into the boundary. In pro football, the hashmarks are much closer to the middle of the field, it's almost like every snap takes place in the middle of the field. With the wider hashmarks in the college game, the defensive alignment can force you to run into the boundary. So much of what triple-options teams do is count at the line of scrimmage based on the shades of the defense. What you are seeing is accurate. It's the defense forcing Rice to run into the boundary.

Great enlightenment. The obvious disadvantage of the option is if the have to play catch-up late in the game. If the option has so many advantages, why do we see less of it in today's game? Is it because of the evolution of the type of QBs today? the pounding the QB can take? Or just the overall speed of today's defenses?

Atlanta, Ga.

Bob Davie: There are several reasons so few teams running true option football. First, in recruiting it hurts you a little bit that the ball is not thrown. You can be limited in the type of athlete to recruit. Obviously, great wide receivers want to go where the ball is thrown a lot. Great tailback want to go to a team running the I formation. Secondly, it's perceived by fans to be "old school." Coaches can sometimes be affected by what fans think. The fact you are not perceived to be innovated effects it as well. But any defensive coach in the country will tell you the option is the most difficult thing to defend.

Send in your Football 101 questions. Bob Davie will answer a few of them next week.

Editor's note: As architect of top defenses at Texas A&M and Notre Dame, Bob Davie is recognized as a top X's and O's coach. This season, Coach Davie analyzes offensive and defensive schemes as part of his season-long course on football for Each week, he breaks out the chalkboard and break down the X's and O's in college football.

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