Coaches Corner: The evolution of the option

This week Coach Johnson talks about the evolution of the option in part one of a two part series

This week lets kick around a subject very dear to a lot of the Sooner fans. That subject being the pros and cons of option football. Every follower of the Sooners in the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties remembers the glory days of option football.

We can still see those QB keeps, the pitches to those fleet halfbacks and those slashes up the middle by those darting fullbacks. And, yes, even a successful pass on a rare occasion off of an option fake.

Could that offensive philosophy still do it in today's football? Would it be as successful as it was in those days? Why did almost all college programs leave it? Why don't they try it in the pros? These are all questions we hear all the time.

The first thing I think of when you mention a scarcity of option football today are the type of defensive backs we see now. Cornerbacks who can run and stick to a receiver like glue and big, physical safeties who can fly around and knock your head off. These players have been specialists at their positions since junior high — unlike many of the converted high school quarterbacks we used to play against. These type of athletes are what the pro teams play with.

In the glory days of the wishbone or veer option offenses everyone played a standard zone defense and defenses weren't used to — and didn't enjoy — supporting physical option offenses. In many games each year the opposition didn't understand how to play the option offenses. They couldn't teach their scout teams to emulate the speed and deception they saw on Saturday. Because of these factors the right quarterback with the proper set of running backs could "hang half a hundred" on you by halftime. And just as importantly eat up the clock and huge chunks of yardage.

Texas — when they had fine personnel in the early eighties — and Nebraska when they modified their defensive scheme began to signal a change. Nebraska, when they modified their defensive scheme began to signal a change. In those times they began to use those athletic cornerbacks and those big, fast headhunters at safety. Oklahoma had excellent talent, too, and still won often but the going got a lot tougher. Now, almost every college team can, and will, employ a lot of man-to-man defense and involve eleven players instead of the old-time seven or eight to stop the run.

In an effort to spread defenses and make those good defensive backs respect the pass more and more and play more "honest" teams have evolved to more wide receiver formations. Since you have to have five linemen on the field, simple math tells us that the more wide receivers you use the fewer backs you can have. Hence, the fewer players you have in position to fake or block the option play.

When you deploy additional players lined up as receivers you are forced to pass the football and make those receivers a threat. Can your outstanding option QB throw that well? If he's a top-notch passer capable of threatening those quality defensive backs are you willing to have him execute and run 20 to 30 option plays a game like Mildren, Davis, Lott, and Holieway had to? If you run the option that much can you recruit a quarterback talented enough to make your receivers threats?

Next week I'd like to continue the topic of option football and where I think it fits in today's game. Because, as you saw Saturday in Dallas, there's still a place for that good old option play.

Merv Johnson is currently the Director of Football Operations at Oklahoma and also serves as a color analyst on the Sooner Radio Network.

In his 19 years as an OU assistant coach, he helped the Sooners build a 150-67-5 record, win a national championship and five Big Eight Conference titles and post seven bowl game victories.

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