Breaking Down Tim Lester's Offense takes an in-depth look at what Syracuse's new offense could look like next season.

One of the biggest questions heading into the 2015 football season for the Syracuse Orange is what their offense will look like under new offensive coordinator Tim Lester. According to the message being conveyed to recruits, the offense will be a “12 personnel” base.

What exactly will that look like and how can Syracuse be creative within that structure? We examine what could be the Orange offense next season.

12 Personnel

Here is a little football 101 in order to further understand the base in Lester’s new offense. Twelve personnel tells you how many players at each position will be on the field. The first number, a one in 12 personnel, tells you the number of running backs. The second number, a two in 12 personnel, informs you of the number of tight ends on the field.

That means a single back set with two tight ends. If you add five linemen and a quarterback, that leaves only two wide receiver spots available to form an 11 man offense.

This type of personnel is often associated with power running. Utilizing two tight ends allows for some flexibility. In a traditional formation, one tight end will line up on each end of the offensive line. This gives the offense the option of running in either direction, and doing a simple check to switch the direction depending on how the defense lines up.

You can also have two tight ends on the same end of the line, giving an unbalanced formation. That will provide more blockers to the strong side, where an off tackle run can be quite successful. Countering off of that would be a misdirection to the weak side of the line, especially if the defense shifts their linebackers towards the strength of the formation.

In order to find mismatches in the passing game, one or both tight ends can flex out in the slot. This can get them one-on-one with a linebacker or safety, providing an offensive advantage in each situation. It also spreads out the defense to set up a quarterback or running back draw.

Twelve personnel can be very multiple with all of those different looks. It can also be multiple in terms of play calling. Not only can an offense utilize power running, but a quick tempo power running game can be used to keep defenses off balance.

Off of that, play action is a big weapon in the passing game. That does not mean, however, that play action is the only way to make plays through the air. With the ability to use tight ends in the slot, put two receivers on the same side of the formation and several other variations, there are a variety of combination routes that can give the offense an advantage against different coverages.

The quarterback can also line up under center, in the pistol or shotgun to provide even more variety. Given that Terrel Hunt has spent most of his career in the shotgun, it seems likely that the Orange will go that route.

Another option is to come out in 12 personnel and use one of the tight ends in the backfield as a lead blocker in more of a power I or offset I formation. This is a good option in third and short or second and medium situations.


Tim Lester has suggested in various interviews that while a 12 personnel base will be important, his offense will have the ability to be extremely multiple. That means several formations, packages and personnel options. This includes both 20 personnel and spread elements.

Twenty personnel, using the rule described above, means two running backs and zero tight ends. That also means three wide receivers. Most often this is with the quarterback in the shotgun with a back on each side. The receivers can either be trips to one side, or have an outside receiver on each side of the formation with the third receiver lined up in either slot.

This formation allows for some zone-read looks, where Terrel Hunt and A.J. Long have both shown the ability to run with some success. It also allows for the option of lining up a running back in the slot to give a four wide receiver type look and further spread out the opposing defense.

Ervin Philips would be a prime candidate to line up there, and would have the ability to come in motion on a jet sweep or be the target of a bubble screen.

The zone-read/spread look is not limited to 20 personnel. They can run zone-read out of the 12 personnel base as well. In fact, out of the 12 personnel, tight end screens and bubbles to running backs split out in the slot can also be utilized.

Outside of those two personnel packages, expect Syracuse to also spread the field with four wide receiver looks, some power I and other options. Lester’s offense will not be a one trick pony, and he will likely have some surprises that he unveils as the season goes along.

Emphasis on Ground Attack

The new Syracuse offense will likely put a premium on the running game. With returning running backs Ervin Philips, DeVante McFarlane and George Morris to go with incoming freshmen Dontae Strickland, Jordan Fredericks and Tyrone Perkins, the Orange will once again have talented depth in the backfield.

Expect each of the top three backs to see plenty of action.

The power running game with counters, movement and tempo can help bring Syracuse closer to competing with some of the upper echelon teams in the conference. Look at Boston College for example. Their physical style of play has allowed them to be competitive with Florida State two years in a row and pull off an upset of USC last season.

Syracuse’s talent throughout the roster is certainly not worse than B.C.’s and may be better in some areas. Utilizing this type of an approach can help get Syracuse back on track next season.

With the return of three offensive linemen next season, a plethora of talented running backs and mobile quarterbacks, the ground game will be a solid foundation of next season’s offense.

Look for Syracuse to be creative in their approach on the ground. Traditional power running between the tackles and off tackle will be critical. Also look for misdirection and counters to keep defenses honest.

The more successful the running game is, the more the Orange can use play action to attack teams through the air. The multiple personnel packages allow Syracuse to utilize these elements in a variety of formations designed to confuse.

The Personnel

Syracuse has mobile quarterbacks, several running backs, versatile tight ends and some young receivers. The tight ends appear to be a critical part of Lester’s offense. Josh Parris should be utilized as more of a receiving threat this season.

Don’t be surprised if you see him line up in the slot in addition to the traditional tight end spot at the end of the line.

Incoming tight end Trey Dunkelberger can also be used in a variety of ways. Not only can be act as a traditional tight end, but his combination of size, strength and speed will allow him to create mismatches in the slot. Think of a Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham type. Not to say he is on their level, as few are, but it gives an idea as to the role he could play.

Dunkelberger is also a good enough blocker to be used as a traditional h-back and be a lead blocker.

All three running backs that figure to see the majority of the carries, Philips, McFarlane and Morris, can run between the tackles and get to the outside. Philips was utilized on jet sweeps this past season, and that figures to be a part of Lester’s offense as well.

The Syracuse quarterbacks are a good fit for the 12 personnel. They can run the ball well and put pressure on opposing defenses. That allows them to utilize play action to give them bigger windows through which to throw.

The receivers on the outside, if they can stay healthy, provide a solid group of playmakers. Steve Ishmael figures to improve from a strong freshman campaign. The return of Brisly Estime and Ashton Broyld give Syracuse two receivers who can make plays after the catch.

Final Thoughts

The current personnel on the roster suggests the Tim Lester offense could be a perfect fit. Look for Syracuse to be a more physical offensive football team this season where they attack opposing defenses in a variety of ways. Head coach Scott Shafer preaches hard nosed football, and the offense appears to be trending in that direction.

Scout's John Garcia Jr. contributed to this report.

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