In college football, RPO’s are a common feature across many offenses these days. RPO’s are giving offenses huge advantages by forcing certain defensive players to make a decision in which they can’t be right. Most RPO’s operate off of some type of zone run action. We have had a lot of success running RPO’s off of draw action in a 10 personnel 3×1 formation. This article will walk you through all the different layers and coaching points of the “Draw RPO.”
The basic premise of this play is that the offense is going to try to spread the defense out by being in 10 personnel, 3×1 and make the play side linebacker commit to staying in the box and playing the run or expanding out in coverage. We determine the play side linebacker by drawing a line down the middle of our center and the first linebacker to the call (play) side is our read. It does not matter if, traditionally, our play side linebacker is the “Mike”, “Sam”, or “Will”.
The offensive linemen are going to handle the four down linemen and the backside linebacker, which is why it is important to identify the play side linebacker. The tackles and the guard, who has the three technique on him, are all man-on blocking. These are jump sets in which the offense is trying to set up the draw by giving pass action with their sets. The center and guard, who have the shade or 2i technique, will double team him on the jump set. Depending on who has the cleaner path after the jump set, that lineman will work his way up to the backside linebacker. Usually it is the center that can climb the easiest. Having healthy splits (two and a half feet or more) will help with run lanes while allowing lineman to climb to the second level.
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The quarterback is aligned with his toes at five yards off the ball with the running back in the sidecar position beside him, aligned on the outside leg of the guard. At the snap of the ball, the running back is to slide beside the quarterback and wait for him to present the ball. He cannot move forward until the ball is presented to him. Leaving early makes the running back susceptible to fumbling the hand off or getting in the way of the quarterback trying to throw.
The quarterback has one read which is the play side linebacker. When he catches the snap, the quarterback will show quick game posture while taking his eyes directly to the play side linebacker. If the linebacker drops, at all, in pass coverage, the quarterback will drop the ball down to the running back for the run. If the linebacker holds in the box, at all, after the quarterback has received the snap, the quarterback will then turn and throw the hitch to the number three, or inside, wide receiver.
All four wide receivers have specific roles and all have the opportunity to have the ball thrown to them. Starting with the single receiver, he is on the pick route concept. The quarterback will signal to him before the snap, what route he wants him to run based on leverage and match up. These routes can be a hitch, quick out, slant, or a vertical takeoff, the default route. The number three, or inside, wide receiver to the trips side, will run a 5-yard hitch route. The number two wide receiver will run a flat bubble, where it is more important for him to get width immediately rather than get any depth. His number one job is to stretch the flat defender and make him expand. The number one, or outside, wide receiver runs an outside release takeoff route. Healthy spacing between all three receivers in the trips formation is crucial to the success of this play. See Diagram 1.
That is the Draw RPO on the surface level. We will get into specific looks and how to handle five, six, and seven-man boxes.
Draw RPO vs Five-Man Box
This is the look that is the easiest to execute with the least amount of thinking. A five-man box against a 10 personnel 3×1 formation is an automatic handoff every time. The key coaching point for this formation is the offensive line must realize it is a five-man box and that they are now responsible for the four down linemen and the box linebacker. This breaks away from the original rules pertaining to four down linemen and a backside linebacker.
There has to be more communication between the center and guard, who have the 2i technique, or shade, over them as well as the linebacker, who is more than likely lined up on top of the center. Instead of a true double team, the center will have to give initial help to the guard and then climb a little quicker. The quarterback should be the first to recognize the five-man box, so this is an automatic handoff. Some game situations might dictate a throw, but the base rule is to always hand it off against this look. See Diagram 2.
Draw RPO vs Six-Man Box
The six-man box is where some thinking and reading takes place. As in the introduction, the quarterback is now reading the play side linebacker to make his decision. The offensive line goes back to its base rules of being responsible for the four down lineman and the backside linebacker. The offensive line’s spacing will help with defensive line movements and stunts as well as allowing the lineman to climb to the second level.
The quarterback will signal to the single receiver what route he wants him to run. If this is a good matchup or the single receiver gets a clean release, the ball can be thrown to him in this look. The same goes for the outside receiver to the trips side. If that is a good matchup and the quarterback takes his eyes there quickly, he is a viable option. On the snap of the ball, the quarterback can take a quick look to either outside receiver to check their release before bringing his eyes to the play side linebacker. As stated earlier, if the linebacker drops into coverage, the quarterback is to hand the ball off to the running back who is waiting beside him. If the linebacker stays in the box and does not expand, the quarterback should look to throw the hitch to the inside receiver.
The person that can defend against the hitch is the apex defender who we identify as number two. However, if he tries to defend against the hitch, the quarterback throws the flat bubble to the middle receiver. The play side linebacker and the number two are in conflict with their responsibilities and they both cannot be right. See Diagram 3 and Diagram 4.
Draw RPO vs Six-Man Box (3 over 3)
When we refer to 3-over-3 toward the trips side, that means we are seeing three defenders all on the same plane, which indicates man coverage. This look proposes a problem for this play because there is not a player in conflict anymore. All four of our routes can be covered and the play side linebacker can remain in the box to take away the run. Like I stated earlier, the six-man box is where some thinking and reading takes place. The quarterback has to recognize the man coverage look and know that everything is covered up. We have to create some kind of advantage now.
When the quarterback sees a six-man box and 3-over-3 look on the outside, he must turn to the running back and say “LEAD”. By telling the running back to “LEAD,” the running back now knows that he is no longer getting the ball. His responsibility is to lead up on the play side linebacker and serve as the lead blocker in quarterback draw.
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The quarterback still has the options to throw one of the outside routes. After receiving the snap, the quarterback should look at either outside route and, if he likes what he sees, throw it. If he doesn’t like either option, it is now time to tuck the ball and run behind the running back. The offense is now hat for a hat and the quarterback should be matched up one on one with the safety. If the defense decides to check out of the man coverage to some type of zone look, then the offense is still in a good play. Once the quarterback tells the running back to “LEAD,” leave it on. The last thing any offense needs is confusion in the backfield. See Diagram 5.
Draw RPO vs Seven-Man Box
The seven-man box against this formation is a tell that the defense is selling out and playing some form of ‘Cover 0’ whether they bring pressure or not. For the offensive line it is very important that they identify the play side and backside linebacker as another linebacker has now entered the box. Their responsibilities do not change, however, as they will still handle the four down lineman and the backside linebacker.
For the quarterback this is a very similar look to the six-man box with a 3-over-3 look. He will turn to the running back and tell him to “LEAD” with no safety in the middle of the field. This is the time we really want the quarterback to throw the vertical to the single receiver. Whatever the route is, it must be a great man beater.
On the snap of the ball, the quarterback will take the best matchup. He must play fast, especially if the defense is in a blitz posture as he will be hot. In this look, we clearly want the ball to be thrown for a big play. However, if neither outside receiver gets a clean release and the defense is not in a blitz posture, the quarterback has to pull the ball down, he must follow the running back and know to beat the or runaway from, the unblocked defender, or the seventh man in the box. While this approach is not ideal, if the quarterback can make him miss, there is no one left to make a play until the quarterback reaches the end zone. See Diagram 6.
In 2018, we called this concept 22 times and gained 157 total yards. That’s an average of just over 7-yards per call. We ran the ball nine times and gained 40 yards, which is an average of a little over 4-yards per run. We threw the ball 13 times and gained 117 yards, which is an average of 13-yards a throw. There were two negative yardage runs and four incomplete passes. However, as you can see from the stats, this is a highly efficient concept complete with answers. This is also a concept that can be called in any down and distance situation.
Ryan McManus was appointed as Senior Offensive Analyst at East Carolina University in March of 2020. Prior to accepting his post with the Pirates, McManus served as the quarterbacks coach and director of football operations at Winston-Salem Sate for four seasons (2016-2019).
He earned his first full-time position as varsity quarterbacks coach at South Brunswick High School in 2015. Prior to that, he served as a graduate assistant coach (offensive line) at his alma mater, Wake Forest University, from 2012 to 2014.