Film Breakdown: ASU Offense

Arizona State offensive coordinator --now deputy head coach -- Mike Norvell, is one of the nation's top offensive minds. Since arriving two seasons now he has orchestrated a deadly offensive attack, leading to top 10 ranks in numerous categories. His schemes are at the forefront of innovation and has had many defenses playing on their heels, trying to catch up to the efficient yet fast approach.

The Sun Devils, akin to the majority of the teams in the nation, utilize the running game to set up the pass. When discussing the offensive scheme, both Norvell and Todd Graham like to describe it as a "Run / Play pass" attack. Yet it's not that simple.

Norvell doesn't like to pigeon hole his offense into one style. He draws aspects from schemes such as spread, pro style, Nevada pistol, triple option, and innovates where he needs to. Throughout the rest of this post, I will touch on some of the unique parts of the Arizona State offensive scheme.

Package Plays:

While they're not new by any stretch, package plays are becoming more and more a part of play callers' arsenals in today's football. Norvell seemed to be a huge fan of the package play in 2013. To put it simply, a package play is one in which the offense has the opportunity to run or pass after the snap, depending on the quarterback's read of one defensive player.

Norvell's favorite package plays were an inside "zone-read" combined with either a backside bubble screen, a slant, or a smoke screen. On these package plays, Taylor Kelly had three, and sometimes four, options to attack the defense: hand it off to Marion Grice, keep it and gain yardage with his own feet, throw a bubble to D.J. Foster from the slot, or a slant to Jaelen Strong behind the linebackers.

Kelly is an established runner from the quarterback position, and Norvell liked to utilize his talent as a ball carrier in space quite a bit as the season progressed. In the next set of screenshots, you'll see one of the most common "package play" calls in Norvell's arsenal, and a design that's slowly catching on in the collegiate level. (Sorry about the poor image quality)

Here we see Foster split out to Kelly's left off the line of scrimmage, Grice in the backfield to Kelly's right, and Strong in the slot on the right.

Before the snap, Foster goes in motion (first screenshot) and lines up behind the left tackle, Evan Finkenberg. At the time of the snap (second screenshot), you can see that the offensive line is run blocking and Kelly reads the defensive end (red) to see if he crashes or stays put. Because the DE crashed in, Kelly didn't hand the ball off to Grice, choosing to keep it himself and sprint out to the right with Foster crossing the formation as his lead blocker to seal the edge if Kelly pulls the ball to run.

What makes this play -- and package plays in general -- dynamic is after Kelly pulls the ball he can choose to run it himself or throw it out wide to Strong, who's running a bubble screen (bottom).

With a defender closing in on him quickly, Kelly throws the ball to Strong and the Devils pick up 10 yards for a first down.

In that Washington State game, the Devils ran multiple combinations of package plays throughout the first half leading to their offensive outburst against the Cougars. Kelly had two touchdowns on the ground that were both a product of him keeping the ball on package plays near the goal line.

Another example of a quality package play came in the Pac-12 Championship game, when ASU was desperately needing an explosive play to gain some momentum back heading into halftime. This play is different than the one against Washington State because it looks as though Kelly makes his read before the snap, opposed to after the snap.

Here you see a trips right formation with Foster in the slot, Kevin Ozier and Richard Smith flanking him to his right with De'Marieya Nelson in the backfield next to Kelly in the shotgun. Stanford is in their nickel package with no one lined up over Foster, and the corners seven yards back at the snap, giving Kelly the look he needs to make a quick decision.

At the snap, similar to the first play we broke down the offensive line is run blocking, and the play looks as though it will be a simple read option, but Kelly, having already made the conscious decision that his best playmaker had plenty of space to work outside the hash, pulled the ball and threw the bubble screen. Stanford's field safety and SAM linebacker both took a step inward, biting on the run fake, giving the Devils the precious millisecond/misstep that it takes for a play to work. With blockers ahead of him, Foster just had to haul the pass in, make the safety miss, and outrun the SAM linebacker on his way for six.

While we saw more intermediate passes in 2013 as opposed to 2012 from Norvell and his offense, he still loves to throw the ball behind the line of scrimmage and get his playmakers in space like he did with Foster right before the half in the Pac-12 Championship.

Package plays allow Norvell to attack the defense in a variety of ways on one specific play and they were an integral piece in the 2013 offensive scheme. There's the threat of the shifty slot receiver getting the ball in space, or the bruising back carrying the ball against a soft box, or the fleet-footed quarterback keeping and picking up yardage; a multi-faceted attack that has proven to be tough to stop.

HB Wheel:

What has set ASU's offense apart from a majority of the nation in the last two years has been the pass catching ability out of the backfield. Aside from their tremendous vision and running skills, both Foster and Grice have exceptional hands for running backs, which gave opposing defenses fits all year.

All year, and even last year, ASU loved to send the HB out on a wheel route, utilizing Grice and Foster's skills as receivers. The wheel route kills both man and zone defenses because of the speed of the HB out of the backfield to burn a linebacker, and the route combination from the rest of the receivers finding holes in the zone coverage. One of the best examples of this came against Wisconsin earlier on in the season.

Here we see a trips right formation, Grice to the left of Kelly and Coyle on the line next to Finkenberg.

As I said before, this route combination is excellent for beating both man and zone. On this particular play, Wisconsin was in a man-zone concept with an edge rusher as well as the MLB manned up on Grice and the boundary safety responsible for Coyle. Grice gets the jump on the edge rusher and beats him down the field.

You can see the open space between the sideline and the racing linebacker for Kelly to drop the ball in to Grice's hands for a nice pickup of 13 yards and a first down.

Earlier on in the game, ASU ran the same play against a zone defense from Wisconsin. Kelly read the coverage and let the route combination do the work for him. The underneath crossing pattern drew down the MLB and Coyle slipped behind him on his 10-yard in route for a first down pick up.

The HB wheel was money all year for Norvell.

Personnel Groupings:

At a basic level, the goal of football is about outplaying the opponent. One way offenses try to outplay the defense is by creating mismatches. ASU was terrific at just that with their personnel groupings all year in 2013.

One of Arizona State's favorite personnel combinations all year was "12 personnel," meaning one back, two tight ends and two wideouts. The versatility of ASU's tight ends (3-backs) Chris Coyle and De'Marieya Nelson, provided Norvell endless play calling opportunities. Typically with 12 personnel, Norvell loved to go hurry up, and had a set number of "fire plays" that he'd shout out after a positive play to get the offensive tempo up.

In any given drive with their 12 personnel, ASU could be a power run team, a four-wide shotgun passing attack, or a creative option style offense out of the pistol.

With Coyle graduating, it's going to be hard to duplicate these looks in the 2014 season. Yet, with the offensive firepower coming back next year, it won't be very hard to find the right combination of players to outwit defenses once again.


For my last snippet on the offense, I'll quickly cover the pistol formation.

Over the 2013 offseason, there was a lot of talk about how the Arizona State offensive coaching staff met with Clemson's offensive coordinator Chad Morris and his staff to share schemes and strategies. The Sun Devils made it no secret that they wanted to learn more about the pistol formation and how they could incorporate it into their already explosive style of play.

As the year unfolded, we began to see more and more implementation of the pistol from Norvell. Toward the end of the year, the Devils seemed to play out of the formation on 60% of their offensive snaps. The way Norvell and ASU executed the pistol truly embodied their offensive mindset, they ran a significant amount of the time and found their most play action pass success from the set.

One of the more unique runs that Norvell had in his offense was out of the pistol formation with the 12 personnel that we referred to earlier. We'll take a look at the "strong power" out of the pistol ace set.

Here we see the Devils in a standard balanced "ace" formation with a tight end and a wide out to either side of the formation and the running back 2.5 yards behind the quarterback. The uniformity of the formation doesn't give the defense any hints as to what the direction the play might go.

What makes the running play unique is the dual-pulling guards instead of just the backside guard. Chris Coyle, the play side tight end kicks out the OLB and Evan Finkenberg crashes the right defensive end inside to give both guards a seam to run through and plow a path for Grice. Jamil Douglas, the left guard, is tasked with going in the hole first and pushing out the first linebacker he sees. Then, Vi Teofilo comes through and seals off the backside linebacker to give Grice a crease.

The pistol set is still in the infant stages of what it will become. We've seen it installed in most, if not all, NFL offenses this season and it's proved to be effective for a solid downhill running attack coupled with a play action pass element that is unrivaled in a non-under center look.


There is so much more to this offense than what I have touched on, but I hope this gives you a better understanding of what you watched throughout the 10-win 2013 season.

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