Understanding College Football’s Spread Offense

Origin- The Spread Offense was started in the 1930’s. Mattie Bell of Southern Methodist University (SMU) and Dutch Meyers of Texas Christian University (TCU) are credited with the development of the offensive scheme. It was designed in order to expand on the Single and Double Wing offenses; which were established by Pop Warner in the earlier years of the 1920’s.

Those offenses were tight formations, heavy on inside and outside runs with a strong emphasis on size and strength over speed and quickness. The original spread offense was set in place with shotgun snaps to the fullback and tailback; in order to give the running backs a head start on their runs.

When passing was emphasized, they tended to run bootlegs and preferred to roll the quarterback outside of the pocket or allow him to run from the initial shotgun snap. The offense still utilizes those concepts today, but have added new wrinkles since it’s inception.

Today- The spread offense is currently used by at least 40 schools in the NCAA. Michigan, Oklahoma, Purdue, Texas, Texas Tech, Florida, are a few prominent teams that feature this attack. The basic concept of the spread stays the same – spread the defense thin, by having wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs take wide splits (sideline to sideline) which give them space to make plays once they receive the football – every team features a different combination of alignments (5wr, 4wr & 1te, 2wr & 2rb etc.).

The option/quarterback keeper is also seen in the spread; not all spread teams utilize it in their package. The option spread is an effective way to keep the defense on their heels and slow down their reaction time. In the standard spread the quarterback will take most if not all of his snaps 5 yards from the line of scrimmage (shotgun), the goal being to create one-on-one matchups, quick passing reads for the passer, clear throwing lanes and big plays.

StrengthThe quarterback is often designated one side of the field to throw the football, he has little worry of looking over the entire field.

The shotgun set allows him time to make his two quick reads and release the football quickly. Both the running game and play action pass (fake handoff) benefit greatly; running backs have a clear vision of any cutback lanes and will usually find an open hole with one-on-one blocking assignments, an effective running game makes the spread that more dangerous when utilizing play action; keeping the linebackers and safeties on their heels, which interferes with dropping into coverage or attacking the line of scrimmage. Once the ball is caught by the wide receiver, tight end or tailback they will find clear space if they are able to get behind their defender or catch the ball in front of them- due to the wide splits defenders take to cover the field.

The Spread Offense forces you to play sound defense, prioritize proper technique, and show discipline in your pursuit angles when flowing to the ballcarrier.

Weakness Not every team has the personnel to run the spread effectively. In 2008, the Michigan team under coach Rich Rodriguez, his first year, was a prime example of the wrong personnel for the system, now the spread is highly effective with Denard Robinson at quarterback.

The system takes time to develop in the college ranks and takes a specific athlete, escpecially at the quarterback position to be succesful. In a different way, the same can be said for a pro-style offense. In the spread, the tight end position is a position based more on athleticism and pass catching than blocking, wide recievers must have sure hands and react quickly with focus, offensive lineman must be athletic enough to move quickly in space and  be intelligent about stunts and looping defensive lineman.

The system forces one-on-one blocking with little help coming from the tight end or running back. The quarterback should have a quick release and good accuracy in a non-option spread with solid athletic ability when outside of the pocket. If even one of these areas are inconsistent, the offense will have trouble moving the football down the field and creating big play opportunities.

Scout’s takeThe spread is a good system to study the matchups between the offensive and defensive line. It’s a system that allows you to clearly see any breakdowns in technique; most battles are one on one, making it hard to disguise a lineman’s weakness when you watch 100 or more snaps of that player, especially offensive tackles and defensive ends. The quarterback position can be hard to evaluate.

Quarterbacks rarely scan the entire field, diagnose holes in defensive coverage, audible out of set plays or take enough snaps from center to see their footwork. They are trained to have one or two reads and either take off or throw it away. The wide open structure allows even the most average quarterback to put up decent numbers and a good one to put up great numbers. Wide receivers also tend to run limited routes, most spread systems don’t have their wideouts run a complete NFL route tree.

NFL potential- The spread offense hasn’t been completely embraced by the NFL so far. The level of athleticism and quickness at the NFL level on defense make it hard to be effective on a week to week basis. Lineman and Linebackers are too quick to be consistently held up by one-on-one protection schemes, and cornerbacks are strong and athletic enough to jam receivers and throw off timing, while still being able to recover and run up the field.

The 2008 AFC champion New England Patriots, 2009 NFC champion Arizona Cardinals, and current Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints have been effective running a spread dominant offense. Those teams possess(ed) quarterbacks with an extremely quick release and accuracy, high football intelligence, and very  talented receiving options. I believe that in time, with specific drafting for the scheme, more NFL teams will be utilizing the spread offense due to the recent success of the system.


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3 Responses to “Understanding College Football’s Spread Offense”

  1. FloodOne says:

    Since when was New England the 2008 NFC Champions? For that matter, when were the Cardinals NFC Champs in 3009? those were the 07 and 08 seasons, respectively. Get you facts straight, maybe do a little proof reading before you post.

    • FloodOne says:

      HA! Maybe I should do some proof reading too.

    • Abraham says:

      You’re right, I was a year behind on the seasons that New England and Arizona represented their conferences. Thanks for reading the post and I’ll definitely be sharper on my proof reading moving forward.