Study Hall: Rich Rodriguez and the concepts that have built his reputation
The mention of the Rich Rodriguez offense, to most, brings to mind visions of Pat White and Steve Slaton dicing up defenses from the (now extinct) Big East. SEC fans may remember Rodriguez's offense jumping out to a 21-0 lead on their way to an upset over Georgia in the 2006 Nokia Sugar Bowl.
While the memories of White being flanked by Slaton and FB/H-back Owen Schmitt are likely fun, they do not tell the whole story of the Rich Rod offense. While much of the success of this offense has been made on the ground, Rodriguez has made a living off adapting his schemes to fit his players' skills and keep defenses off balance.
While I do not pretend to have an understanding of the entire playbook, or even an understanding of his thinking or teaching, I think that a review of his schemes do show an offense rooted in a strong foundation, yet versatile enough to be molded around the talent available. In many ways, this offense seems to be rooted in simplicity and repetition.
Because of this, there are certain “standards” of his schemes that everyone will see in the Ole Miss offense next fall. At the same time, tracking Rodriguez through the years shows a clear desire, and willingness, to evolve. This element makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly what Ole Miss will look like in 2019 and beyond. Do not think of this piece as a preview of what is to come for Ole Miss. Instead, consider this a review of the many elements that have made the offense so effective.
Rodriguez is probably most commonly associated with 10P formations. The “10” personnel grouping consist of four wide receivers and one running back to accompany the quarterback and offensive line. In more recent seasons you see that the offense spends a large chunk of their time in his Rip or Liz formation (seen below).
According to his 2005 playbook, this common 2x2 formation sends the Z & Y to the called strength, while the H and the X go away from the formation. As Ole Miss fans should be aware, many tempo offenses have gone away from this approach & used Right and Left designated outside receivers in recent years. It is hard to tell if Rodriguez still flips the receivers, or if they stay to one side.
The primary running back in the offense is labeled as the “SB,” or Super Back. You will see many alignments from the SB, regardless of formation. Based on recent film review, the back seems to typically align with his toes even with, or slightly behind, the heels of the QB. He often appears to be about a yard outside of the quarterback.
The running back will occasionally move up to a position that is even with the plane of the quarterback.This mostly happens on passing downs and lateral running plays. The running back will sometimes align in a “Pistol” set, meaning that he is directly behind the quarterback.
At times the pistol alignment seems to be used to protect the tendency of a particular scheme, or as part of a “check with me” call. It may also be used when the quarterback wants to check the play to a particular technique or alignment from the defense.
In each of the examples, the Super Back moves during the cadence into a “sidecar” position before the ball is snapped and the play is executed. That said, there are some snaps where the back remains in in the pistol alignment and the play is run with him in that position.
In the early years of the offense you see traditional tight end sets used quite a bit. Using YouTube as a film database, I was able to find clips of the Rodriguez offense at both Tulane and Clemson. In these clips you will see many 11P formations. In these clips you can see that a receiver is removed and a tight end enters the game. Rodriguez liked to use formations such as his RAM (below) or Lion formation.
By the time Rodriguez found his groove at West Virginia, he had begun to use versatile players like Schmitt in a myriad of roles that resembled that of a traditional fullback and the modern day H-back or “sniffer.”
During his stint at Arizona, Rodriguez continued to use hybrid players in his offense. Though I didn’t see anyone carry the football like Schmitt, There was plenty of evidence of Rodriguez using an H-Back or tight end type-player in many formations. At times during the 2017 season, he often liked to use two of those players.
This first screenshot from a 2017 game between Arizona and Cal shows a two-back formation using the TE as a “sniffer.”
Later in the same game the offense uses two tight ends. One aligns in a traditional alignment while the other aligns in the backfield.
In the same game you see the offense align in an inverted wishbone formation that uses the two tight ends both as an H-back type player. This formation has become especially popular for offenses that have a mobile quarterback. The alignment of the two tight ends allow them to be versatile in the blocking scheme and create gaps on either side of the center.
Despite the departure of Dawson Knox to the NFL, Ole Miss still has the bodies on the roster to employ all of these sets. Which personnel grouping will Rodriguez lean to the most? That is the question. To some degree, I expect that to be determined by talent and ability (and not only the talent of the tight ends).
The development of the young receivers may have just as much to say about the use of the tight ends next season. I do think that Matt Luke wants to see the offense use tight ends to create gaps in the run game, so they will certainly have a presence.
One thing that I said on the RebelGrove.com message board not long after the hire was that I do not necessarily think that what you see offensively in 2019 will be a true blueprint for the future of this offense. A review of games over the years shows diversity in his offense.
For the most part, I think that the diversity is in many ways a result of the talent that Rodriguez inherited and the talent that he was later able to recruit. From a personnel standpoint, the most impressive thing to me is the effectiveness of the offense regardless of personnel.
For the purpose of this article I tried to hunt down as much quality film as possible. Thanks to another message board poster, I was able to upload one film into HUDL and break the game down to analyze it. The All-22 copy of the 2014 Arizona vs UNLV game allowed a thorough study of the schemes employed that game. I also watched select games from other seasons (ranging from White days at WVU to the final season at Arizona), though it is hard to break them down using the broadcast copy of games.
During the 2014 Arizona vs UNLV game Rodriguez appeared to use three personnel groupings: 10P, 11P, and 20P. There were 99 snaps of offense in the game (including those negated by penalty). The offense used an 11P grouping on 50 of those snaps.
Of those 50 snaps, the tight end was used as an inline tight end on some snaps and as an H-back in some snaps. They jumped back in 10P for 47 snaps and used 20P formations sparingly. One thing that stood out in this game was the use of 11P late in the game and in the red zone.
With a late lead, Rodriguez used his 11P grouping on 29 of the last 30 offensive snaps. On the film it looks like he slowed his tempo down and committed to running the football to protect his defense and get out of the game with a win.
RICH ROD AND THE ZONE READ
Finding the background story on Rodriguez’s happy accident at Glenville State in the early 90s isn’t hard to do. For years the term zone read has been part of the modern football dialect. By the early 2000s the scheme had become a mainstay in college football. Much like how broadcasters force “RPO” discussions on viewers during today’s games, the zone read was the talk of college football for some time.
In its purest form, the zone read is a simple concept. The offensive line executes a zone blocking scheme while the quarterback reads a pre-determined defensive lineman to determine whether he hands the ball off or keeps it himself. Over the years the play has gained some nuance. Wrinkles and adaptations have popped up in playbooks all over the country.
To most, Rodriguez is the father of this movement. The blend of old-school option concepts with the structure of a modern day spread attack has become a staple for offenses throughout the football landscape, from middle school all the way up to the Kansas City Chiefs. Like so many other facets of the Rodriguez offense, this too has evolved over the years.
In the beginning, the zone read often asked the wide receivers to block. Later, teams began to assign a screen to the receivers, thus giving the quarterback a third option on the play. Some coaches teach the screen as a pre-snap “Key.” In other words, if the offense has numbers or leverage, ignore the run fake and sling it out wide.
Other offenses use the screen as the “pitch” phase of the option scheme. With the emergence of post-snap RPO’s, many offense now give the receivers route options down the field. Who benefits most from this? The receivers. I would imagine that will be one point of emphasis when Luke and his new offensive staff go into homes to recruit elite receivers.
Many traditional run-heavy schemes have seen improved receiving corps over the years due (to some degree) to the possibility of catching the ball even on run downs. The Ole Miss offense will be no different.
One important thing to know about Rodriguez is that he does not rely solely on inside zone when implementing his zone read scheme(s). Many teams run their shotgun inside zone in a fashion that hearkens back to old-school inside VEER. For those teams, the path of the running back is often aimed at the near guard. In this scheme, the offensive line often invites WASH and wants to get a vertical crease that almost always cuts behind the ball (below).
Other teams treat inside zone a bit differently. Those teams will have the back utilize less of a downhill path and aim towards either the center or the inside leg of the play-side guard. The results in a path that is more likely to break on either side of the ball, based on the fit of the defense. It is not uncommon that teams using this scheme teach the running back to read the linebacker to determine their path. His aiming point doesn’t change, but the linebacker’s fit determines his cut.
One thing that Rodriguez believes in is the use of wide or mid zone to put additional stress on the defense. By changing the aiming point of the back, and changing the angles that the offensive line are working, you can make it more difficult for a defense to fit gaps. If a team wants to use a “Scrape/Exchange” method of defending the zone read, then using wide zone makes like more difficult on the defensive end that is assigned the running back in his run fit.
I am a big proponent of middle and wide zone, more so that inside zone. Where have you seen middle zone run effectively? Anytime that you have watched Alabama in the past eight years or so. Remember the run scheme that helped Terrell Davis (and a slew of running backs) from the Denver Broncos run through and past defenders for years? That is mid zone. Take that same run scheme and add a read element with an athletic quarterback.
That is what you often see out of a Rodriguez offense -- a blend in inside zone (not veer) and mid or wide zone. Using the 2014 UNLV game as my primary research, I saw Rodriguez call some version of zone read 35 times. In total, Arizona had 94 offensive snaps in the game (plus a few that were negated by penalties). Of those 94 snaps, 54 of them were zone blocking schemes and 35 of them had a “read” element built in.
Doesn’t that get boring? Doesn’t the defense figure it out? I am not crowning the 2014 UNLV defense as great run stoppers (they were not), but on that night it worked for 353 yards rushing and (due to the RPO’s) a solid chunk of Anu Solomon’s 425 yards passing. So, despite the repetition, how does it remain effective?
During that 2014 game I counted 10 different variations of the same scheme. Nine of those variations were all blocked the same way but presented a different picture for the picture for the defense via route distribution. The most common example that I found in this game paired the zone read with a “Slot Fade” route combination.
For this scheme, the quarterback will first read the defensive end, like he does on any traditional zone read. If he gets a pull read he has the route combination available if he doesn’t have a window to run. The Slot-Fade route combination is generally used to attack Cover 1. In this game UNLV plays a good bit of Zero with a middle of the field robber (to stop the run). Of the nine times that this scheme was called, there was o e false start, five handoffs, one quarterback run and two pass attempts. The lone completion was good for roughly seven yards and a 1st down. The six carries resulted in 42 yards of offense.
The next most common scheme paired zone read with bubble on the perimeter. The most explosive zone read in the game was bubble out of a 3x1 formation resulted in an 85 yard touchdown run. Both the Slot-Fade RPO and the bubble RPO serve the same purpose. They both can be used to control second and third level defenders and take them out of the run fit.
On the long touchdown run UNLV is again playing their Cover 0 Robber. The robber (underlined in the photo above) is responsible for the quarterback in the run game. Knowing that the entire secondary is going to be pulled away by the RPO action, and that the read key (circled in the picture) is responsible for the back, the offensive line is left with five guys to block five defenders. If the line executes then the offense has a chance to win the numbers game if the defensive end can’t make the play on the running back.
Building off of the same bubble RPO, Rodriguez also called a bubble & slant RPO twice in this game. On this play, UNLV has gone to a coverage. The outside receiver shows that he is blocking the force defender, just as he would on bubble, before slanting inside to the void left by the filling safety.
The result is a 92 yard touchdown pass. Much like the explosive plays Ole Miss fans are used to seeing out of players like AJ Brown, Metcalf, and Lodge, Rodriguez uses RPOs to create these one on matchups for receivers and gives his quarterbacks a chance to distribute the ball in space.
Other variations of the zone read RPO in this game prove equally as effective. Rodriguez uses quick slants, spacing concepts, and simple fade/out combinations to stress the perimeter of the defense while keeping things routine for the offensive line. In many ways, this is the beauty of the Rodriguez run game.
With the offensive line relying so heavily on their zone blocking principles, you rarely see bust in assignments. Do guys get beat? Sure. Personnel and ability will always matter, but when teams chose to “major” in a specific run game philosophy, I believe that you see fewer bust in the scheme. Combine that with the tempo that he can use to stress the defense, and the multiple route concepts that he uses to attack the perimeter of a defense, and the offense can become really hard to stop.
RICH ROD AND THE PASSING GAME
Much has been made of the season-by-season statistics (and rankings) of Rodriguez’s offense. There is no doubt that the running game is what put him in the conscience of most football fans and media. That does not mean that he doesn’t understand the passing game.
Rodriguez's passing game is much like his running game: he uses many tried-and-true concepts while blending them with modern nuances to attack the multiple defense that you see in football today.
Some of the concepts that he employs find their roots in pass-happy systems like the air raid or the run and shoot. Others likely date back even further. One scheme that showed up several times in my study was use of the COP route. The COP route was developed as a variation of the traditional smash play that has long been used to defeat Cover 2.
During the 2014 UNLV game alone I saw Rich Rod use COP three times. As I continued to watch more film, I continued to see this play. Ole Miss fans have seen this route before. Hugh Freeze loved it and so did Evan Engram. He was a matchup nightmare who really understood the nuance of the route.
Hunter Renfrow might get all of the notoriety because of the little rub route that he caught in the championship game a few years back, but it is the COP route and the slot option that have made him such a valuable member of the Clemson offense for the past few seasons.
Based on what I have seen, Rodriguez will use a couple of different formation variations to run this play. Primarily a 2x2 concept, I have seen him use traditional “Doubles” formations as well as compressed sets to get the coverage and matchup that he wants.
The play is designed to look like a smash concept. Smash stresses the defense by flooding an outside third and placing the flat defender in a high-low situation. If the cornerback sinks off, the quarterback is typically instructed to dump the ball off to the hitch (or designated flat route).
Otherwise, the quarterback will look to work the window between the cornerback and the safety to throw the corner route. The COP route attacks the aggressive nature of a safety that is trying to protect the outside. The tagged receiver starts his route in the same fashion as the corner but then breaks inside to the space voided in the middle of the field. When thrown on time, this route is tough to defend. Though it is designed to attack Cover 2, the route can be used to attack over coverages as well.
One concept that many Ole Miss fans will be glad to see is the stick concept. Stick is one of the most utilized concept in all levels off football. The play gives the offense an opportunity to attack a match-up with a vertical shot, provides an underneath player to find the soft spot in the zone and gets the running back into the route with a chance to get him the ball quickly. Many will tell you that stick (along with its many variations) is one of the more complete quick game concepts in football.
Here stick is drawn from a typical 2x2 formation that Rodriguez uses frequently. The right side of the play (the three man side) is the primary read of the play. If the quarterback gets a press on the Z receiver, and likes his matchup, he throw the vertical to Z. If he doesn’t like the matchup, or if the route is called by alignment, the quarterback works the horizontal stretch placed on the invert defender.
This stretch is made by the route of the Y and the T (or in Rich Rod’s offense, the SB). The concept is very versatile on the backside and coaches can utilize a myriad of concepts. Rodriguez used the stick concept three times in the 2014 UNLV game. Twice he used this 2x2 formation and once he used a two-back formation.
In the 2x2 set, Rodriguez employed the fade-out combination to attack the defense (left-side of the above graphic). Coaches have different reasons for using this route combo backside. Perhaps the most common is because of the ability to attack defenses that are rotating a safety to the running back side. This would give you a 1-on-1 away from the pressure (see below).
Based on film, Rodriguez likes to use other quick game concepts to keep the offense on schedule. I have seen variations that rely on slants, quick outs, and spacing concepts. He certainly relies on more than quick game. Rodriguez likes to take vertical shots. Similar to the COP route mentioned below, Rich Rod will use double-moves and vertical stems to attack defenses vertically. That aspect of the Ole Miss offense will not disappear.
One thing that I liked during the 2014 UNLV game was the way that he built on the concepts that he had used in the open field and adapted them when he got into the red zone. The offense presented the defense with a fade-out route combination several times during the game.
At times this combo was part of an RPO scheme. At times fade-out was attached to a quick game concept (like on the stick diagram above). On three occasions it was used in conjunction with a sprint out protection. On Arizona’s 45th offensive snap of the game Rodriguez showed the same sprint out protection with a fade-out route concept that the defense had seen earlier in the game.
With the ball on the 13-yard line, right hash, the defense is in a position to be aggressive in nature. Rodriguez converts the out route into a simple out & up. The natural aggression in the red zone results in a defender jumping the out route and quickly finding himself in a trail position as the receiver breaks vertical for the open touchdown.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
As mentioned, I do not have a ton of All-22 film available to study many games, but I was able to watch some others via YouTube. Here are some general notes from those films:
He used more gap schemes in the run game in 2017 than in many of the earlier films that I watched. Some of it was likely due to his willingness to have designed runs for Khalil Tate.He used them in the read game as well.
The 2014 game only used Jet motion once or twice. It seemed more prevalent in the later film.The same could be said for “orbit” motion from the WR as well.
By 2017 he was back to using the tight end-H-back much more often.They were big in the blocking scheme, pass routes and in the RPO game.
Defenses will get creative when defending this offense.They will crowd the box and use secondary defenders to help account for the quarterback in the run game.What does this mean? Receivers on the outside will get tons of 1-on-1 coverage.If they can win, they will get the ball.
I really like the way Rodriguez called the first opening drive of almost every game that I watched. He had a plan and a purpose. I am not sure if he scripts his openers, but I appreciated the way he attacked defenses.
I can’t promise that the red zone woes will improve for Ole Miss, but I do like the wrinkles that Rodriguez uses in the passing game when he gets inside the red zone. For a few years now fans have complained Ole Miss relied too often on winning a 1-on-1 matchup down tight. While that exists in this offense, you see several solid red zone concepts that utilize “rubs” and double moves to create space and free guys up. I am stealing one from the 2017 Oregon game to use in my playbook.
Again, this is far from a complete review of the Rodriguez offense. With a career that spans more 20 years as a Division I play-caller there is a massive library out there. I am interested to see what the year off will bring to the offense. Did he spend much of the season scouring other coaches’ schemes and seeing what works with his? Has Luke asked him to use more gap schemes that Rodriguez prefers? Does the current roster have the players needed to run this offense to its potential? While I have none of these answers, I am excited to see them all play out next fall.