Coach's Look: Breaking Down the Zone Read

I initially intended to write this article last week. With all of the media publicity that the zone read got after the Nebraska win, I'm sure many people wanted to know more about the nuts and bolts of the play. However, I wanted to wait until this week to see if it was something that <B>Greg Davis</B> continued to call (or if it was more like the bunch package that got shelved after success) and also see if there were any new wrinkles added. Let's just say that I have been pleasantly surprised.

Earlier in the year, one of the posters on the Members Only board asked me if coaches could, in fact, learn throughout their careers, and if they could, who were the best "learners" in college football. This year, Greg Davis is proof positive that a leopard can change his spots. I believe that he should be the frontrunner for the Comeback Coordinator of the Year Award (now someone just has to go create the award). He has melded the offensive talents of the Longhorns into a fine-tuned, high-octane O, and I never believed that would happen as long as he was at UT.

The zone read has been a fabulous cornerstone of the Longhorn offense, but it was originally brought about by undermanned and outmanned teams (not a team like Texas with a huge conglomeration of offensive talent). One weapon coaches of outmanned teams have always had at their disposal was the option. However, the option of the 70s (Wishbone) and the 80s (Veer) didn’t work for many teams because the offensive linemen also faced a big size disadvantage. Case in point is the Northwestern University Wildcats of the late 90s. Northwestern was in a very unenviable position…they competed in a very tough conference and their high academic standards made recruiting very tough. The end result was a team that was a perennial loser and the runt of the Big Ten. Northwestern had to find a way to compete, and the spread and the zone read allowed that to happen. That offense turned into a good way to mix the run and the pass, create misdirection, and make the blocking easier for offensive linemen. Since that is what Mack Brown has been searching for since Ricky Williams left for the NFL, I guess the only surprise is that it hasn’t been the base of the offense sooner.

The base play of the spread offense is the zone read. In a nutshell, it is no different than any other option play. One defensive player is unblocked, and he is forced to make a decision on whether to take the quarterback or the running back. The only differences between the zone read and the inside/outside veer is that the quarterback has a better vantage point (since the quarterback is in the shotgun), the mesh point between the quarterback and running back is deeper, and the quarterback has a split second longer to read the play (because he is not moving toward the read). The read on the play is the defensive end. If he steps upfield, he has no chance of taking the running back, so the quarterback gives the ball. If he crashes hard toward the center, he has no chance of recovering outside to keep contain on the quarterback. Therefore, the quarterback keeps the ball outside.

There are two ways for the line to block the play, and the Longhorns showed on Saturday night that the best thing to do is mix up these two schemes. The first way to block the zone read is to zone block it. Each player zone reaches the area to the opposite side of the running back lined up next to the QB in the shotgun. While this approach allows for the best pickup of blitzes and slants, it doesn’t create easy blocking angles (Jason Glynn asked to zone reach a defensive tackle). The other way to block the play is to have the playside offensive linemen block down, with the backside linemen pulling across the formation to kick out and seal. This makes for easier blocks for the offensive line (better angles and a double team at the point of attack on the playside), and it becomes a version of the counter trey. The only problem is that a hard-charging linebacker or a hard-slanting defensive linemen could really tear the play apart. You will see what I’m talking about if you follow along with me as we go through the Oklahoma State game tape. Along the way, I will also be pointing out the counter plays or new wrinkles off of the base zone read.







20 yd run by Benson

Scott and Holloway pull across the formation, and Young reads the play perfectly. Two outstanding blocks on the play by David Thomas and Jason Glynn. This was the zone read play.



19 yd run by Young

OSU is slanting hard to the TE side on this play. Young sees the backside slanting hard, so he pulls it. Instead of Benson following the offensive linemen, Young follows the linemen making it an inside quarterback counter trey. This play demonstrates Young’s ability to me tremendously. Either he had enough foresight to recognize the DT (not the DE) slanting hard, pull it, and realize that the defense was slowed enough for him to sneak in behind the pulling guard and tackle, or he was just an athlete making an instinctual play. Either way, I am impressed.



-5 yd run by Young

Almost the opposite of the zone read. This is a good misdirection play. Instead of the linemen pulling for the running back, they are pulling for the quarterback. Since they are pulling opposite of the way they usually pull, it screws up the linebackers’ keys. This becomes an inside QB sweep. The only problem with the play is that the defensive end slants so hard that the guard doesn’t have a chance to kick him out. The end result is that Young doesn’t have a big enough crease to get into, and the play is dead at the LOS.



6 yd out to Roy

With Chance Mock at the helm, you see one of the wrinkles of the spread offense. Everything is the same action, but after Mock pulls it, he runs a waggle and hits Roy in the flats. Roy is in the slot, where he fakes a block, and runs the out. A nice, conservative pass for the offense.



10 yd run by Benson

No TE (4 receiver set). Zone read with no pulling blockers, due to the fact that OSU is moving and blitzing so much. The new wrinkle is Roy running the pitch route from the slot position (making it possible to run the triple option from this set). The pitch route by Roy freezes the pursuit, and the result is a good play.



9 yd run by Young

The same look as the play above, but the end comes hard, so Young pulls it. Roy is still running the pitch route.



13 yd run by Benson

The basic zone read play. The defensive end comes upfield to Young, so he gives to Benson. Thomas makes an outside release on the play (setting up the TE seam later). Benson has great vision and the line does a great job of providing him a solid cutback lane.



33 yd out to Roy

OSU sends its safety on a blitz to stop the run threat. Davis has the perfect play called. After the mesh between Young and Benson, he pulls up and hits Roy on the out route.



-5 yd run by Benson

OSU moves its outside 'backers out to blitz off the corners. Young makes the right read, but Benson can’t cut up behind Garcia’s block because the OLB stopped him dead in his tracks.



Inc for Sloan

Another wrinkle. Straight pocket pass by Vince. OLBs are blitzing off of the corner once again, so Vince knows he has man-to-man. A great play call by Davis.



12 yd crossing pattern to Roy

Pull up by Vince after the zone read mesh. The play action has caused the linebackers to vacate the middle of the field. Therefore, the middle is open for the crossing pattern.

8 (1st drive of the second half)


16 yd run by Benson

Greg Davis goes back to the conventional zone blocking for the zone read play, due to OSU’s blitzing. Glynn does a great job of reaching the playside 1 technique defensive tackle.



4 yd run by Vince

Young does a great job recognizing that they were outnumbered to the side of Benson’s run. He pulls it, not based on the defensive end’s movements, but the fact that OSU had more guys than the Longhorns could block. Good recognition.



4 yd run by Vince

Once again, they pull opposite of the base play, and Vince makes a good read, because he realizes that the defensive end has gotten in the hip pocket of the offensive tackle.



7 yd run by Benson

This read was made easy for Vince. The play before, he had hit Scaife (who released untouched) down the field for a good gain. This time the defensive end made sure the TE was jammed at the line. So, as David Thomas released, so did the defensive end.



23 yd TD run by Vince

(4 receiver set) QB draw off the zone read fake. Another good wrinkle to the base play.

I’m glad to see that Longhorns are having consistent offensive success. As much credit as we give the players, we should also give credit to the play-callers. This may have been their best job of play calling in the last three years.

If anyone has any more questions about the zone read, post them in the Members Only message board. I will try to spend some time answering questions over the next few days.

Mark Kissinger has coached high school football in Texas and Tennessee, coaching OL, TE, WR, DT, DE, and serving as both an offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator. In high school, he was coached by the legendary G.A. Moore. Mark recently retired from coaching and received his M.B.A. from Rice University and is in his second season of writing for IT. His 'Coach's Look' column appears after each game during football season on

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