No two spread to run offenses are alike. Within the overarching goal to alter the arithmetic against a defense each spread team emphasizes different concepts. The principal variance comes in the run game, which is the foundation for all spread read offenses. To oversimplify, teams generally take one of two tacks – they feature outside zone, or a combination of inside zone and power.
The Clemson offense under Chad Morris is certainly the latter. The Tigers have two key concepts. Clemson lines up in pistol and run inside zone. Each offensive lineman takes a 45 degree step to block play side gap. By blocking an area rather than a man, the offense seeks to obtain double teams, with the offensive line coming off on the linebackers.
The Tigers also utilize ample doses of power. With power blocking, the front side offensive line blocks down. The backside guard pulls around on the play side linebacker, seeking to put an additional body at the point of attack.
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One of Clemson’s favorite running plays is power read, meaning that rather than block the end man on the line of scrimmage, the quarterback will read him. If the defensive end bites down on the quarterback, he will give on the sweep. If the end follows the sweep, the quarterback will keep and follow the pulling guard.
Clemson is a quarterback-centric offense behind likely early-round pick Tajh Boyd. Boyd does not have ideal height, but does a nice job moving in the pocket to keep the play alive and find slots to throw. He also is skillful changing arm angles to deliver the football. As a consequence, he can get sloppy with his footwork and throwing motion, resulting in occasional inaccuracy. But he compensates for those deficiencies by extending plays and finding ways to deliver the football.
Irrespective of how dependent Clemson is on Boyd, everything the Tigers do is predicated upon inside zone and power. For instance, the Tigers’ preferred method to throw the football is to feature Boyd on play action off those looks.
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Clemson likes lining up in doubles, meaning the Tigers utilize four wide receivers with Boyd and a tailback, and two receivers to each side. In addition to a variety of wide receiver screens, the Tigers want to throw the football vertically to the outside. Two favorite routes are four verticals and smash. Four verticals are just as it sounds. Each wide receiver releases deep, allowing the offense to get a horizontal stretch against deep zone defenders. That means that the offense wants to put more receivers across a horizontal plane then the defense has defenders, such as four vertical routes against three deep cover 3 defenders. Clemson also uses four verticals to attack man coverage.
Smash provides a hi-lo vertical stretch against an outside corner. In other words, across a vertical plane the offense wants to force one defender to cover two receivers. One receiver will run a shallow route such as a hitch or out, while another receiver gets deeper, often with a corner route (see diagram below).
Both four verticals and smash provide Clemson the opportunity to throw the football deep to utilize one of college football’s most explosive players in Sammy Watkins. Watkins is not tall, but he is adept at going up and getting the ball and also has the power to run through arm tackles.
Morris also turns to Boyd on designed quarterback runs in short yardage and goal line situations. For a quarterback, Boyd is a north-south inside runner, which is why the Tigers utilize plays such as power read. Indeed, Boyd is a more physical runner then the Tigers’ shiftier tailback Roderick McDowell. Below the Tigers ran quarterback power as a lead run for Boyd. Clemson’s wing back kicks out the outside linebacker and Boyd followed the backside guard into the end zone.
Despite having such explosive playmakers, however, the Clemson offense has at times been inconsistent. This is reflected in the fact that the Tigers are only averaging .5 points per play.
For instance the Tigers only managed two offensive touchdowns against Boston College. The Eagles were successful in taking away Clemson’s preferred method of attack and keeping the Tigers off-balance. Specifically, the Eagles sought to prevent Clemson from utilizing their inside runs by placing one additional defender in the box, often cheating off a slot wide receiver.
This strategy allowed the Eagles to successfully slow down Clemson’s run game outside Boyd. This forced the Tigers outside of second and third and short situations – where their play action game is most dangerous – and instead put the Tigers in must pass down and distances.
In passing situations, Boston College brought a variety of blitzes. Clemson’s offensive line was kept off-balance, resulting in unblocked rushers and pressure upon Boyd. Though the Tigers won, they were never able to get in a rhythm offensively.
Look for Florida State to adopt a similarly aggressive game plan, as this dovetails with Florida State’s general defensive approach. The Seminoles often seek to bring an additional defender down against the run, playing cover 1 man defense with a free safety in the middle of the field behind the aggressive fronts.
In fact, Boston College was able to take advantage of Florida State’s aggressive defensive posture against the Seminoles, using several throwback plays for touchdowns.
Clemson will need to better establish their running game against Florida State then they did with Boston College. To do so, look for the Tigers to similarly try and exploit Florida State’s aggressive framework, namely by featuring Watkins on a variety of screens and reverses early. Clemson will then seek to rely upon Watkins to win against man coverage to throw the football over the top off play action, in an attempt to get the explosive plays that have been so crucial to the Tiger offense.