Lou Holtz' Offensive System
In most college football towns, a pre-season announcement that the local football team is implementing a new offensive system generates excitement and energizes the team's fanbase. But this is Gamecock land. In this topsy turvey land, rain or shine, fans loyally pack Williams Brice stadium to watch losing teams. At the same time, beaten down by decades of mediocrity, a large minority of fans remain skeptical and reserve the right to gripe, groan, and grumble. What is going on in this bizarro world? Are the vocal, pre-season-2004 naysayers right about Lou Holtz's offensive system when they assert it is a boring, one dimensional, old-fashioned attack easily thwarted by even the weakest of SEC defenses?
With the season opening with two SEC opponents, we will soon find out if the naysayers or the optimists are right. But in the meantime, why don't we get up-to-speed on the history of the Lou Holtz offensive system? That way, as the 2004 season unfolds, fans of the Gamecocknation.com can thoughtfully analyze his veer offensive system with a keen eye.
As I wrote this spring, I am a novice and non-expert in football theory. However, I became curious about the technical meaning of this veer thing. My curiousity naturally created this little research project, and I hope you will possibly learn something about an offense favored by our old ball coach. This is the second column which looks in detail at the Holtz offensive system. The factual material for this piece is derived exclusively from a now out-of-print 1978 Lou Holtz book, The Offensive Side of Lou Holtz.
Will the system work at South Carolina? The season will answer this one.
First, let me address what the veer is not. It is not the spread. However, it is my understanding that the new offensive system this year will retain the threat of the spread offense. The spread offensive formation has been used by Skip and Lou Holtz since Lou came aboard here at South Carolina? My understanding, based on feedback from those who have been to the practices, is that this 2004 offense will, from time to time, as circumstances dictate, occasionally break out the spread formation. As most are aware, the spread formation features a shotgun snap to the quarterback, and three or four wide receivers.
Occasional use of the spread formation, or even the threat of it, should help to keep opposing defenses from stacking up on the line of scrimmage to stop the run. However, the majority of the time, we should expect to see the Lou Holtz veer.
The veer can be run out of multiple formations with the quarterback under the center for a direct snap. Holtz' book indicates his preference is for split backs set as shown in the image to the right. The wide receivers may be on opposite sides of the formation, or in a twin set, as shown in the diagram. On the other hand, during this off-season, Holtz has indicated that Gamecock fans should expect to see the offense lined up in an I-formation. In the I, the two running backs are lined up directly behind the quarterback, the fullback in front of the tailback.
In a veer offense, formation is mostly irrelevant anyway. In general, veer offensive plays can be run from multiple sets, including either the I, the split set (as diagrammed), or with only one running back.
The biggest naysayer critism of Holtz's proposed veer system is that it is a one-dimensional offense. Clearly, a major element of the veer is the triple option. The negative nellies argue that an option offense equals a boring, non-viable passing attack. They assert that opposing defenses will "stack the box" with eight men, stop the running game, and leave the offense floundering.
Does this argument hold water? Well, no, it doesn't. This offense does have a sophisticated and well-designed passing attack. According to his books, Lou Holtz' veer offensive system is designed to "run and pass with equal efficiency." Holtz' says his offense "puts a great deal of pressure on the secondary by forcing them to be involved in both run support and pass coverge." Holtz designed this offense when he coached at William & Mary. His self-described plan was aimed at creating an "offense that could attack over a broad front as well as have a threat of a pass." Holtz acknowledges one must pass to score points. Holtz states in his book, "you make first downs against the defensive line, but you score against the defensive secondary." Therefore, the Holtz offense threatens "to throw or run on any down as well as from any formation."
In the previous column in this series, we emphasized the option element of Holtz' veer system. However, in his book, Holtz downplays the option as the offense's primary weapon. Make no mistake, the option or "inside veer" is a part of the system he has implemented here.
Holtz states "[w]e have to be able to execute successfully [the triple option] play against any opponent who is not totally committed to stopping it." But "when the defense is in the correct position and adjusting properly to stop the play, we will run other phases of our offense." He also stated that the triple option can force defensive adjustments that open up the rest of the offense.
Lou Holtz' book tells a story about his 1977 Arkansas Razorback's game against Texas Tech. Arkansas trailed Texas Tech at halftime 14-3. Holtz decided that Arkansas would run the triple option as their base play in the second half. Arkansas ran the triple option play three times, all in the first three minutes of the second half, and all for big gains. Holtz said, "that play just opened up our entire offense. They adjusted their defense and it just opened everything else up." The Arkansas offense gained over 200 yards in the second half of the game, defeating Texas Tech.
As mentioned above, the triple option is only one element of the system's running attack. Besides an option attack, Holtz states the offense is a "hard dive and misdirection offense." One of the staples of his running attack is the quick hitting straight dive. Holtz states that the dive is one of the most effective running plays in his offense. His book also describes multiple misdirection running plays. These include the misdirection trap, the misdirection option, and the toss sweep, running plays all designed to take advantage of teams attempting to defend the flow of the option.
Ok, this is all fine and well and good, but what is going to stop opponents from stacking eight into the box to stop running plays? Naturally, that question brings me to the passing elements of the offense, which are deep and varied.
Holtz states "everything we do with our formation, motion, adjustments and strategy is designed to open up our running game." "We would like to be able to run the football against any opponent at any time. However, there are times when the defense will stack up to stop our running game, and we must be satisfied to go to the passing attack in order to open up the running game once again." With this goal in mind, his system uses sprint out and drop back passing, and screens and flares.
Holtz believes that "the twins formation sprint out passing attack is very important to the veer offense." The quarterback executes the sprint out passing attack running in the direction of the twin receivers, and passing the ball while on the move. The twin receivers execute a variety of patterns depending on the defensive allignment of the two men covering them, the upshot being that one or both of the receivers should be open. The aim of the sprint out attack, Holtz states, is to force the defenders to use three defensive backs to cover the two wide outs. If this can be achieved, then there will be fewer people available to defend against the run.
Holtz' offense also will use a drop back passing attack. The drop back passing attack is predicated to throwing the ball to the receiver in single coverage. The quarterbacks are taught keys and throw accordingly. "Timing of the throw is critical." Holtz expects that quarterbacks will more effectively complete passes by delivering the ball on the break or before the break.
Meanwhile, when throwing the ball in the drop back attack, the offense will seek to control the underneath coverage. Holtz states, "the success of any pass defense greatly depends on the help that deep coverage men get from their linebackers." Therefore, Holtz emphasizes screens, draws, delays and flares to his running backs. Holtz states if a linebacker rushes the passer and the back blocks him, then we control him. On the other hand, if the linebacker drops into coverage and the back runs a flare route and influences him, we control him. "Flare control can only be effective if the quarterback takes what they give us and dumps the ball to our flare whenever the situation dictates.
Another element of the passing game in Holtz' system is the screen pass. "Screens have always been a BIG PLAY part of our offense when they are executed properly. We have found that screens have aided our dropback passing protection immensely as they tend to cut down on the defensive pass rush."
Finally, the offense will include a devastating play action passing attack. "One of the best passing attacks we employ is one which looks exactly like our running attack." Therefore, Holtz states that many of the offensive passing plays in his offense will come off play action fakes. The play action passing attack is a deadly passing attack, aimed at exploiting safeties who creep in to overplay the run. With wide receivers who have blazing speed on the corners, i.e., Troy Williamson and Matthew Thomas, opposing safties risk giving up huge plays against the play action passing game.
So there you have it. The Lou Holtz offensive scheme. Is it a boring one-dimensional offense? I think you will agree with me that the Lou Holtz offense is a balanced and exciting offense. I for one am looking forward to watching his veer offense tear through the Gamecock opponents' defenses.