Plays the NFL should pinch from College Football: Part II
All aboard the Chip Wagon!
We’re continuing with our series on the plays/concepts/designs that NFL teams should look to pinch from college football.
Football is a bottom-up structure. The inverted pyramid of pressure allows guys at the high school level to innovate, college guys to evolve, then the pro guys to steal, often laying claim to creation in grand, sweeping media profiles of their genius. That’s the game.
NFL coaching staffs comb through film wherever they can find it (the SEC, PAC-12, high school, Japan) to find creative designs that can help on Sundays — the Chiefs under Andy Reid, for instance, dedicate one member of staff to trawl through high school, international tape, and social media to find the whackiest and most imaginative designs.
One of the joys of the pre-draft process for those of us no longer writing about college football on the daily is being able to dive deep into the schemes, systems, and individual designs that are new or interesting at the college level. Over the coming weeks, we’re going to dig into some of the most compelling designs from college football that pro teams can pinch and install for the upcoming season.
If you missed Part I on Lincoln Riley, you can find it here. Now, it’s time to climb back aboard the Chip Wagon.
Have you been keeping tabs on Chip Kelly’s run at UCLA? The on-field results may not have (yet) lived up to the zen-masters profile, but what’s happening underneath the surface is endlessly fascinating.
Kelly has had an about-face. He’s evolved. Or, rather, he’s completely uprooted the style that made him the foremost innovator in the college game and landed him a pair of plush gigs in the NFL.
You don’t need a reminder of what went wrong in the league – Kelly the GM kneecapped Kelly the coach. But remember those sparkling Oregon teams and the opening MNF game where it looked like the Eagles had exited this mortal plane and moved into a different dimension entirely? Everything — and I mean goddamn everything — was executed at warp speed. Kelly was not a revolutionary, but he was the most extreme practitioner of the shifting sands of college football. He mastered all the pace-and-space goodness of the spread-option game and extended it out to its logical conclusion.
There were always going to be issues running such a turbo-charged, mundane, you-go-there-I-go-there style in the NFL. But as a theory, as a base that a coach could build upon, it was sound. By the time he wound up in San Francisco, Kelly’s style had run its course; his attempts at evolving his style fell short.
When he returned to the college game, it was assumed Kelly would return to his Oregon roots: he would default back to a typical pace-and-space style and plug in a bunch of California athletes, turning UCLA into a PAC-12 force and a national contender.
It’s not gone that way. Kelly has shifted. The idea of pace-and-space remains, in part. But as he did when he first rocked up in Eugene: Kelly is zigging while others zag.
What Kelly is running today is not some Eugene redux. He’s charting a different path forward.
As all offenses across the country morphed into RPO-heavy, zone-option styles, Kelly decided to get bigger. He has embraced the smashmouth-spread style, betting on big formations, chunky interior o-linemen, gap-scheme principles, line movement, and condensed formations paired with all of the post-snap optionality that was at the heart of his Oregon days.
Kelly, as much as any college coach, has experimented with heavier personnel packages. As noted around these parts time and again, the next wrung on the spread movement ladder is the power-spread, subbing out classic ‘zone-read’ designs, which defenses have adjusted to halt, for more power-oriented designs.
Lincoln Riley has hammered fools by blending counter-oriented run designs with RPOs and play-action looks. Kelly has taken a similar tact. If defenses are getting smaller and looking to defend as horizontally as possible, why not get bigger on offense and play with more verticality?
The most intriguing part of Kelly’s development has been his usage of the offensive line. Kelly has leaned into a confuse-and-clobber style that uses the deployment of his offensive line as an additional pre-snap weapon. Forget motion and shifting and the classics to create disruption. He’s instead looked to tinker with unbalanced and overloaded offensive lines to prod and move the defensive front, to push an extra defender into the box, and to take advantage of defenses being down a defender in the run fit or pass coverage with RPOs.
The closest corollary you will find at the pro level is with Shane Waldron in Seattle. Waldron’s offense (my bid to title it the Waldrfense has yet to get off the ground. Print the bumper stickers, people!) is one of the least discussed developments in the scheme sphere – as defenses evolve to catch up to the McVay-Shanahan-LaFleur-Stefanski wide-zone-then-boot era, everyone is looking for a fresh style. Waldron has returned to the classic principles of power-football but wrapped it up with the juicy stuff from the spread era: the formational diversity; unloading the box through formation (when he wants); using unbalanced offensive lines to create havoc along the defensive front.
Waldron has incorporated a ton of quirky, interesting, unbalanced stuff to great effect. And he’s done so without a legitimate burner at quarterback. Kelly has had the luxury of a running threat bringing a triple-option dynamic to the proceedings. It is smashmouth, win-in-the-trenches, vintage football – albeit with a modern twist.
The foundation is bulkier formations and gap-scheme runs. Just as his counterpart in LA has done at USC, Kelly bases much of the run game out of concepts with multiple linemen pulling and moving. The best rushing attacks strike fear into defenses when all five members are a threat to pull and move. Whereas Riley uses vintage counter designs as the staple of his gap-oriented run game, Kelly unloads everything. Every member of the line is a threat to pull and move – in any number of ways – on each and every snap. Sometimes it’s a single lineman. Sometimes it’s two working in tandem. Sometimes it’s one lineman pulling one way while the other heads in the opposite direction. Sometimes two head in one direction while a third heads the other way. Sometimes it’s three players pulling and once. And it’s not just the linemen; the skill positions get in on the act, too. Everyone – all ten of the non-QBs – are a threat to pull, wrap and cut as a blocker, be it on their lonesome or as part of a larger procession.
UCLA averaged 8.3 yards per carry last season on concepts with a pulling lineman last season, by far the highest mark among the power five. You have to drop down to William & Mary or Houston Christian to find schools putting up that kind of consistent churn when pulling or moving a lineman in the run-game. Kelly’s offense finished first in EPA/play on such looks among the power five, while running gap elements at a scale that would make anyone this side of Jim Harbaugh blush.
Remove the blur of post-snap motion, and UCLA is the only side that still holds strong. UCLA and Oregon State (more on them soon!) were the only teams to pass the +0.3 EPA per attempt threshold when running some form of gap-scheme element – and the Bruins ran gap-style runs without movement three-and-a-half times more than Oregon State.
Whatever the merits of Kelly as a program builder and recruiter, something is going on here – and the league will have taken note. Kelly has found schematic solutions to the problems that will begin to pop up for those scheming at the next level.
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