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How can the Gophers defend Georgia Tech’s triple option?

When Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson was a defensive assistant at Georgia Southern, he realized how difficult it was to defend the triple option. After experimenting with the system, Johnson knew he wanted to run the package as a head coach. He brought the concepts with him to three different stops, before cementing the system as a staple of Georgia Tech’s program.

After 11 seasons, Johnson is set to coach his last game at Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl. During Wednesday’s bowl appearance, the Gophers will have the honor of defending Johnson’s infamous triple option one last time.

The vast majority of Georgia Tech’s playbook emphasizes run-heavy option plays, but the threat to pass out of these packages is equally possible. Johnson has added various wrinkles to the spread flexbone over the years, including the use of motion to confuse defenses. This type of deception makes it difficult for the defense to determine the strength of the formation. Elusive quarterback TaQuon Marshall commands attention and the Yellow Jackets continually rotate running backs into the formation.

If the offense wants to pass, they can motion to a doubles set or get into a twins set at the last second. In the event someone is overplaying a certain tendency, an adjustment can be made to attack it. The cornerbacks also can’t take a vacation on the outside because it takes just one play action look to get burned over the top.

Not only that, but the way these receivers are aligned puts stress on the second level of defenses. In the triple option, wide receivers are usually split out at three-foot depths instead of the traditional two-foot distance. This makes the angles difficult for defenders from the alley and limits the ability of backside defenders to chase down plays.

It is important to restrict the amount of success Georgia Tech has on first and second down. If they’re in third-and-long situations, the entire landscape of the offensive set changes. When triple option teams manage to control the tempo, things can get out of hand. This is the type of offense that can simply chew clock and wear you down.

This season, Georgia Tech led the country in total rushing yards with 4,019 (5.73 yards per carry). The Yellow Jackets always rank in the top half of rushing because of this unique system. Teams who have Georgia Tech on their schedule often start dedicating portions of spring practice to triple option circuits. Every coach has a different mentality when it comes to teaching players to defend this system. In the triple option, there are essentially three main things to keep track of: the dive back, pitch man and quarterback.

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Many coaches I’ve spoken with have a three-ball circuit where the quarterback, pitch and dive players all have the football. The point of this drill is to teach the responsibilities and reads. If each player knows their role and keeps their eyes in the right spot, the offense loses its firepower. Generally, Johnson and his staff will tweak the formations, motions and alignments based upon what the defense is giving them early in the game. It’s those adjustments that throw a wrinkle into defending this offense.

There are a few necessary traits for the defense to emphasize when trying to stop a triple option system. The most important thing is eye discipline. With so many different motions and subtle formation tweaks, it sometimes can be hard to identify the strength of the formation. If a linebacker makes a poor read and gets too far up field, the space in the alley makes the angles difficult for the backend. Each player has to execute the correct read in order to prevent big plays. The A and B gap players have to take care of the dive player, while the high safety usually has to help cover the quarterback and redirect if the ball is pitched. The play side defensive end has to crash and contain to force the pitch. After that, the safety must flow downhill and protect the alley (the space between the outside wide receiver and the defensive end). More importantly, the nose tackle has to get a good push to help the second level players flow downhill.

It will be interesting to see how Minnesota’s defense schemes against Georgia Tech. The coaches may maintain 4-3 principles by running more Cover-0 looks with a single-high safety manning the backend. They then could slide Jacob Huff into the box to help defend the alley for the quarterback and pitch option. Out of a 3-4 defensive look, there is the chance to be a little more creative. Many teams who play against the triple option use a hybrid three down linemen look. These defenses often widen the front out with two three techniques (playing outside shoulder of the guard) and place outside linebackers deeper on the edge to help with contain and alley responsibilities. In this type of look, the safety can step down into the box and flow to the ball to defend the pitch. In the case below, the nose tackle is lined up over the center (zero technique), they adjust the alignment of defensive ends and place the outside linebackers in a wider alignment. This allows them to have the flexibility of moving the safety around the box. This safety can then flow downhill and can defend the pitch and quarterback keep responsibilities.

 

There are a variety of different ways to handle the responsibilities within this set. However, the alley is the important area to defend well, especially considering the quarterback and pitch man will be carrying the ball in the space between the receiver and edge.

Georgia, a top SEC program, has shown a similar wrinkle in the past, including a package where they stack linebackers and create a hybrid “jack” defender. They widen the alignment with two three techniques, shift the outside backers to the five-technique and align a prototype athlete behind the Mike defender. Coach Dan Casey recently highlighted this package on his Twitter account and it may make sense for the Gophers to explore:

Thomas Barber is a solid run defending linebacker and Carter Coughlin could shift back to the “jack” spot. His athletic profile, range and strength profiles align well with this package. With less pass rushing needed in this game, it may make sense to shift his role and use all of the versatility within his skill set. This would be a package that can be added to cause headaches for the Georgia Tech triple option attack.

The Gophers could also install a 4-2-5 defensive package, but it probably doesn’t align well with the personnel they currently have. If your roster has really physical and explosive defensive backs, this is one of the best ways to defend all of the triple option looks. Right now, it feels like they have the linebacker and edge personnel to play a hybrid 3-4 package to defend Georgia Tech.

The roles of defensive back Jacob Huff, defensive tackle O.J. Smith and linebacker Thomas Barber will be critical throughout this game. Minnesota has to play physical up front and maintain discipline in the backend. If second level players get their eyes in the wrong spot, there will be situations where nearly impossible one-on-one tackles follow. The blend of eye discipline, executing assignments and physicality at the point of attack are necessary. Minnesota will almost certainly mix personnel packages to account for the new offense they are seeing. Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi has defended this offense four times during previous stops at Maine and Rutgers. With three weeks to prepare, the coaches have had an opportunity to teach the system. Not only that, but it’s given them an opportunity to tweak packages and positions to account for this unconventional offense.

Now, we will see the approach they take to slow a unique offensive system.

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