There is a simple defensive adjustment that can all but put a stop to the proliferation of run-pass option plays in college football.
“Recruiting guys who can play man-to-man,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said.
So, the solution is simple in the sense that it’s easy to understand but very difficult to do. The RPO has been the most recent offensive adjustment in the constant back-and-forth between offensive and defensive coaches and systems.
“Football is a cyclical thing. That’s the thing that is hot right now, and people are doing a good job with it,” said South Carolina defensive line coach Lance Thompson. “It’s a challenging concept that we have to defend.”
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The plays target a specific defender, usually a linebacker, and quarterbacks make the decision to hand off the ball or make a quick throw based on the initial movement of that defender. It usually means an open passing lane or bad numbers against the run.
“They are obviously putting us in a bind,” said Gamecocks linebackers coach Coleman Hutzler. “To me, the RPOs are trying to make us indecisive. Is it a pass? Is it a run? Is it a pass? Is it a run? If we have a run fit, we’re going to fit the run. Our job is to fit the run. They don’t pay us to cover people. That’s the DBs’ jobs. We’re going to fit the run and not create indecisive linebackers. You hesitate and they hand the ball off, and they’re on you.”
That’s the same rule Thompson teaches South Carolina’s defensive linemen.
“First-level, second-level defenders, they are playing run,” Thompson said. “It’s a real stress on the back end, really stressful on the back end.”
Beyond playing run first, there’s a specific coaching point that Thompson gives to his players.
“If they blow it and the tackle doesn’t fan on the end, and we get a shot on the quarterback, we need to come hit that quarterback so that whoever is calling those plays says, ‘Is it worth getting a 6-yard completion and my quarterback getting drilled and having to play with my second quarterback?’” Thompson said. “That’s the tradeoff of those kinds of things.”
Georgia and Clemson both hurt South Carolina with RPO plays last year, and one of the chief reasons Muschamp hired Dan Werner to coach quarterbacks in the offseason is Werner’s familiarity with RPOs.
“The answer is you have to recruit man-to-man, then the issue you get is, ‘Can we match up against some of these guys?’ ” Muschamp said. “When you don’t match up well and you are in a situation where you’re playing a bunch of man coverage, that can create issues for you as well.”
Until the Gamecocks can recruit well enough to play dominant man coverage on every snap, South Carolina’s defensive coaches will continue to try to figure out how to stop the newest offensive weapon schematically.
“Everybody has different ideas on it,” Werner said. “The old saying with coaches is, ‘Whoever has the chalk last wins.’ They’re going to say, ‘Well, we’re going to do this to stop this,’ and we’re going to say, ‘Well, we’re going to do this.’ It’s a constant chess match, that’s what football is.”