Many professional football fans first learned of RPO (run-pass option) plays during Super Bowl LII because of the Philadelphia Eagles’ liberal use of them in a 41-33 win against the New England Patriots, but college football fans had been in on the secret for some time. At least, some college football fans.
In 2018, South Carolina fans are going to have to familiarize themselves with the concept in a big way.
Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp fired offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kurt Roper at the end of the 2017 regular season, promoted wide receivers coach Bryan McClendon to coordinate the offense and hired Dan Werner to coach quarterbacks. The hiring of Werner was a sure sign that Muschamp was ready to enter the modern era of college football, and that meant incorporating more RPOs.
Werner was one of the first college coaches to fully embrace the idea while he was an assistant coach at Ole Miss, and last year, he helped Alabama incorporate the plays as an offensive analyst during the Crimson Tide’s national title run.
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“I love the RPOs,” said South Carolina senior backup quarterback Michael Scarnecchia. “I mean, you saw how it worked with the Eagles. If you can execute them right and just have everyone on the same page, I think RPOs will be a killer to any defense.”
The concept is simple. The quarterback, junior Jake Bentley for the Gamecocks this season, has the option to hand off to his running back or make a quick throw depending on the position of a specific defender. That read can happen before the snap but usually is made immediately after the snap based on which way the targeted defender, usually a linebacker, moves initially.
“It creates what I call run-pass conflicts,” Muschamp said. “You’re asking a linebacker to play the A or B gap, and then he’s got (coverage responsibility) on a receiver running down the field. You can’t do that. It’s impossible. They create a lot of issues.”
Run properly, the play creates a situation that whatever decision the targeted defender makes is wrong.
“It’s indefensible. That’s what we try to get our players to believe,” Werner said. “I always tell the quarterbacks, ‘If you make the right decision, it’s going to be really hard on the defense.’ Now, we’ve got to make the plays. It may be the perfect read and perfect defense, but we still have to throw and catch it, or, if they are playing the perfect defense to hand it off, we still have to block the people. It all boils down to blocking and tackling, throwing and catching.”
Not every play South Carolina runs this season will be an RPO, but Bentley estimated that 75 percent of the run calls will leave the option available.
“You don’t want to be stuck running a bad run play into a bad look,” he said. “You want to challenge the defense to cover both. Unless we’re just trying to run the clock out, it’s probably going to be an RPO.”