South Carolina’s Zone Running Game

In Columbia, the Gamecocks are trying to bounce back from a disappointing 7-6 season. All eyes are on the quarterback derby and the improvement on the defensive line. If those two areas are strong, South Carolina’s season will be better than expected. Although those areas are in desperate need of playmakers and production, a more important part of USC’s success is going to come from the running game.

Steve Spurrier, a former quarterback, has always been known for his passing game. It was his aerial attack that revolutionized the SEC in the 1990s. When he came to South Carolina it was assumed that he would install the same offense there. For the first few years that was what he tried to do, and he had some marginal success. Then he upgraded his running game, and the Gamecocks started posting 11 win seasons.

Shawn Elliott, the offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator, brought his zone running scheme from Appalachian State. The head ball coach wasted no time marrying his passing game with Elliott’s running game. When people talk about the evolution and adaptation of Steve Spurrier in Columbia, this is what they are talking about. This was the offense in which Marcus Lattimore so aptly showcased his talents, and this will be the sine quo non of a successful South Carolina offense in 2015.

The bread and butter of the South Carolina running game is the zone handoff, with both an inside and outside version. In the backfield the action is simple. The running back gets the ball moving at an angle to the line of scrimmage and looks for a hole or cutback. When executed properly the front seems to be moving sideways. That sideways motion is by design and is the result of all of the offensive lineman moving the defenders in the same direction. Leverage and the subsequent lateral movement are the keys to success.

The offensive line blocking is the unique part of zone plays. Blocking schemes are governed by a set of rules, and South Carolina’s zone plays are no exception. Since the offense doesn’t know which defensive formation will be aligned across from it, each lineman has rules which tell him who to block. The rules are set up to ensure every defender is blocked. In a zone blocking scheme each lineman has the same rules. These are the rules South Carolina uses for the zone handoff.

Block Linemen Covering You

The first check for the Gamecock lineman is to see if a defensive is lined up across from him. When this happens the offensive lineman is said to be covered. This is the first question the lineman asks himself. If the answer is yes, then the rule is to block him either to the left or the right depending on which way the play is going.

The lineman will either be blocking the defender alone or with help. Whether there will be help will be determined by the status of the lineman to the backside of the play. If the backside lineman is covered, he has to block his man and cannot help. If he is not covered he will help and the two offensive linemen will execute a combo block.

Combo BlockjA combination (or combo) block is a blocking technique where two offensive linemen block two defenders. one of the defenders is on the line, and the other is a linebacker on the second level. At the snap the defensive lineman is double teamed by both offensive linemen. Then, depending on which way the defensive lineman goes, one offensive player will stop blocking and go block the linebacker.

Combo Playside Defender

As you may have guessed, the second rule involves a combination block on the play side defender. If an offensive lineman is uncovered, he will combo block with the lineman to the placed. they will both try to engage the defensive lineman, and one of them will peel off to the second level. Coaches say ‘try’ because if the defensive lineman slants hard to the placed, the uncovered lineman has no change of reaching him and will immediately move to the second level.

Penetration can kill the play, and hard slanting lineman and blitzing linebackers are threats to blow up the play before it starts. To combat this, it is important every lineman cover his play side gap. Most all coaches teach their lineman to take an initial, lateral step to the play side, and you will see South Carolina’s linemen do that on their zone plays.

Zone blockingj

Aside from the penetration danger, blocking a defender in the play side gap is the ideal scenario for the zone blocking scheme. In a perfect world all the defensive lineman would line up in the gaps because when a defender is in the gap, the offensive lineman will have more leverage and will be able to move the defender laterally. Lateral movement of defenders is what the scheme is trying to accomplish.


Following these rules causes all of the lineman to move in the same direction and to create lateral movement in the defenders. Some defenders will be better at holding their ground than others which will in turn cause gaps to be wider and narrower along the line. It is the running back’s job to quickly find a wide gap and run through it. South Carolina’s Brandon Wilds is quite good at this.

If no wide gap appears, the running back can either lower his shoulder and try to push forward for as many yards as he can get or he can cut back against the flow to the backside. Over pursuit by the defenders or an especially strong push by the offensive line often create large cut back lanes which can be exploited for big gains.

The running back’s cut must be quick and decisive. Alex Gibbs, the father of the zone blocking scheme, coached his running backs to cut on their third step. To do this effectively the running back reads specified defensive linemen, seeing how intransigent they are. Which linemen he reads, depends on the play.

South Carolina will run variations of their basic zone handoff play multiple times each game. In addition, there are two main constraint plays they will run off of the play: the zone read and a trap. Both variations are designed to take advantage of a backside defensive player, usually an end who is cheating to the play side.

Zone Read

With everyone moving play side the zone read leaves the backside end or linebacker unblocked. If the defender aggressively moves down the line, he can catch the running back from behind. The zone read acts as a constraint against this kind of reckless behavior.

In this play the offensive line and running back run the same zone play, but the quarterback reads the backside defender. If the defender moves down the line with the rest of the flow the quarterback keeps the ball and runs to the area the lineman vacated. If the defender holds his ground the quarterback will give the ball to the running back to complete the zone handoff play. USC runs this out of shotgun, so the quarterback can have his eyes on the defensive end the whole time.

The Trap

South Carolina will also use a trap. A trap is when a defender is purposefully left unblocked initially in order to entice him to come upfield. Then, once the defender has come upfield another blocker, with an advantageous angle, will block the overaggressive player.

In Carolina’s most common trap play a defender, usually a defensive tackle or end, will be left unblocked on what appears to be the backside of the play. An uncovered offensive lineman, usually a guard, will pull from the “play side” and come kick out this defender. The running back runs through the hole created. Sometimes a fullback will also be used as an additional blocker at the point of attack to create a power trap.

For the Gamecocks’ season the defensive line and the quarterback will be important, but the execution of these plays is a prerequisite for South Carolina to be successful. If the Gamecocks can successfully run the ball it will take pressure off an inexperienced quarterback. It will also force defenses to account for the run, making the passing game easier. Success running may also lead to more time of possession for the offense which should allow the defense to defend for shorter periods of time. The running game isn’t the only thing that needs to go right, but if it doesn’t go right, the other things may not matter.

About Billy Koehler

Billy Koehler is the founder of and a contributing writer at He has been covering college football since 2006. You can follow him on twitter @billykoehler.
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