The Fed-Spread Triple Option

If you want to understand Larry Fedora's offense, the first step is understanding its roots in Fedora's time as an assistant coach under Fisher DeBerry at Air Force.

It seems nearly every college football discussion not about Jadeveon Clowney or Johnny Manziel these days is about the "spread offense" so many teams are now running. Unfortunately, this terminology is misleading. There is no single "spread offense" that everyone runs but lots of different offenses that use spread formations to accomplish their aims. The Air Raid spreads at Texas A&M or West Virginia are quite different from the spread-to-run system at Oregon, and each is different from the Fed-Spread at North Carolina.

If you really want to understand Fedora's version of a spread offense, the place to start is Fisher DeBerry's old Flexbone offense at Air Force, where Fedora was an assistant in 1997–98. Yes, you read that right. Much of what North Carolina does is simply an evolution of the old triple option offense from the Flexbone; Fedora runs basically the same concepts from different looks.

The Flexbone was an evolution of the Wishbone offense, with the two halfbacks moved into a slotback position just outside the offensive tackle instead of in the backfield behind the fullback. This move gives the offense much more flexibility (hence "Flexbone") by putting four possible receivers near the line of scrimmage, providing vertical threats in the passing game, while still offering the same basic packages of the Wishbone offense. Below is a diagram of Air Force's bread-and-butter play from DeBerry's tenure, taken from an article by DeBerry himself:

The play is simple (and should look all too familiar due to Georgia Tech's use of the Flexbone): the quarterback takes the snap and immediately has the option to hand the ball to the "B-back" (Fullback) on the dive depending on what the frontside defensive tackle does. If the DT collapses on the dive back, the quarterback keeps the ball and options the end man on the line of scrimmage, either turning it upfield himself or pitching to the "A-Back" coming around from the backside slot position. By now, those familiar with UNC's offensive personnel should be making a connection between the "A-Back" (a hybrid WR/Tailback lined up as a slotback) in DeBerry's Flexbone scheme and the "A-Back" in the Fed-Spread. You can see the development in the three graphics below:

You can see the evolution from the Wishbone, which could get even more compressed when using tight ends rather than split ends, to the Flexbone and ultimately to Fedora's one-back spread. Essentially, Fedora's A-Back is a bit more receiver than tailback but is still a bit of a hybrid role, and Fedora's current offense usually features a tight end instead of a second A-Back. The real fun begins in recognizing that Fedora's base play is simply an evolved, sped-up version of the triple option.

UNC's bread-and-butter play is the Inside Zone Read (IZR) packaged with a bubble screen on the outside, what they call the "Bounce Package." The same three components are represented: 1) the dive or zone play to the running back, 2) the quarterback keeper, and 3) a pitch or throw to the A-Back. The primary difference between the old Flexbone triple option and Fedora's version is that the first and third reads are handled before the snap rather than after—and the third option is a forward pass that happens much more quickly than the pitch in the Flexbone. The quarterback comes to the line of scrimmage and looks at the defensive alignment to find where the offense has a numbers advantage. If the perimeter defender has leverage over the bubble screen receiver, the quarterback will run the IZR—since that means there's one fewer defender in the box to stop the run. If the perimeter defender is cheating inside, the quarterback will throw the bubble, getting the ball to the perimeter in what amounts to a forward pitch play. This is exactly the same read the Flexbone quarterback performs on the end man on the line of scrimmage, only it happens before the snap rather than as a second read after the snap. Below, you can see a diagram from one of Fedora's presentations at a coaching clinic showing how all this works.

This particular version even includes the basic motion used in the original Flexbone, with the A-Back motioned to the frontside to receive the pitch/bubble. The quarterback is watching to see if the defense rolls a safety down or moves a linebacker to the outside, making it a 3-on-3 and giving the offense no advantage. If there's no movement and the offense has numbers, the quarterback executes the "forward pitch." Fedora explains:

"The perimeter screen is a four-yard run play in my way of thinking. I am not trying to hit the home run on the screen. I am trying to stretch the field so the defensive linemen have to run." (This, as it turns out, is especially important for UNC's first game, as Fedora will aim to have South Carolina's celebrated defensive end chasing receiver screens rather than rushing the passer.)

If the defense neutralizes the outside numbers, the quarterback will run the IZR, because the offense should have a numbers advantage in the running game. As with the Flexbone option, the quarterback reads a defensive lineman (here the defensive end) to determine whether to hand the ball to the back or to keep it himself. The quarterback doesn't need to be an especially good runner to make this work, just good enough to get four or five yards if the defensive end crashes for the back. What really matters is the threat of the quarterback run keeping the end honest.

In balanced formations, the quarterback may also flip the play to the other side. Other times, against specific defensive looks, the bubble may be switched to a "Smoke Screen," where the outside receiver steps back at the snap to receive the pass while the slot blocks—this was the variation that led to the winning score against Virginia in 2012. The shift from the pitch to the quick screen (bubble or smoke) as the outside "third" option provides an additional benefit in that it's one of the few examples where a forward pass involves significantly less risk than a running play since a botched bubble screen is simply an incomplete pass, while a botched pitch on the option is a potential turnover.

The key here is that this base package is a true triple option. The only player who does anything different on the play is the quarterback, who makes the decisions with the football. The offensive line and the back are running the Inside Zone no matter what. The receivers are always running and blocking for the bubble.

This puts a great deal of pressure on the defense, since the aim of this package is to make sure that no matter how the defense lines up, it's going to be wrong. It gets really nasty when the defense is forced to commit an extra deep defender to stop the run or bubble—that's when play action can really gash a defense, throwing to wide-open receivers downfield or to a running back on a screen to the opposite side of the bubble.

North Carolina will often run some version of this run/pass triple option package in excess of 30 times in a game, simply taking the numbers advantage wherever they can get it. (Sometimes the run call is something other than the IZR, but the same concepts apply.) That may mean 20 bubble screens in one game if the defense loads the box; it might mean 20 rushes in another game where the defense is more committed to taking away the perimeter screen.

The aim is to provide a package that consistently delivers four yards or more, thus avoiding 2nd- and 3rd-and-long situations. As such, the success of this package is a good signal about the success of the offense as a whole; if a defense is able to limit this play to fewer than four yards on average, that's probably going to be a loss for the Heels. Either way, this package is Fedora's way of implementing his philosophy of refusing to try to run through brick walls, instead choosing to take whatever the defense gives him.

Jason Staples was a walk-on wide receiver at Florida State in the early part of the last decade and has provided in-depth football analysis on the Scout network since 2007. A member of the Foootball Writers' Association of America, he is presently finishing a Ph.D. at UNC-Chapel Hill and will be providing scheme and stats analysis for InsideCarolina in 2013.

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