How (not) To Run the Option

Turn on the TV on Saturday, and you’ll see the option being run.  If you’re watching Georgia Tech or Navy you’ll get a heaping dose of the traditional triple option.  If you’re watching other games you’ll see the read option and the speed option.  You’ll see quarterbacks trying to convert in short yardage situations and at the goal line.  You’ll see defenders left unblocked on purpose, and, more often than not, you’ll see bad football.

The option itself is not bad football.  Far from it, it is technically sound, and when run properly, it is effective.  The bad football you are seeing is almost always the result of poor quarterback play.  Triple option teams know how to run the option; spread teams running the read option are usually competent, too, but a great many teams have the speed option as a part of their offense, and they’re not running it well.

Speed Option 1In any of the option variations there are three moving parts.  First, there is a ball carrier.  Second, there is another potential ball carrier, either a pitch man or a running back able to take the handoff.  Third, there is a defender who is being optioned.

The option is designed so that no matter what the optioned defender does he is wrong.  If he takes the quarterback then the quarterback pitches the ball.  If the defender covers the pitch man, the quarterback will keep the ball.  Implicit in this reasoning is the assumption that the defender will make a choice.  Given his druthers the defender won’t choose at all.  He’ll string the play along and wait for other defenders to come help make the play.

He cannot be allowed to do this, if the option is to be successful.  It is the quarterback’s job to ensure that the defender makes a choice.  How does the quarterback do this?  He forces the choice by attacking the defender.  He must aggressively, quickly and decisively run at the defender.  If the defender is still there when he gets there, the QB pitches the ball.  If not, keep running.

So many quarterbacks are running this so poorly it seems that there must be some coaching deficiencies.  Maybe there are; maybe there aren’t.  Perhaps this skill is difficult to fully internalize unless you spend lots of practice time with it.  That makes more sense.  Whatever the reason, the problem is prevalent in college football.Speed Option

The mistake quarterbacks are making is not being decisive.  They are running generally where the defender is, and then they are slow in making a decision to pitch or keep.  That doesn’t work.  They must be fast and decisive.  They are slow, it appears, because they are thinking too much.  They are in a position where a decision must be made immediately, and it is being made glacially.

The key to making this decision rapidly, other than practice until mastery, is to teach the quarterback the right mindset.  He must be thinking that he is doing one thing unless.  He has to be in an either/or mindset.  “I’m running the ball unless that defender makes me pitch.”  That’s the mindset.  The quarterback is going to run at the defender and turn up, unless he has to pitch.

Watch the speed option when it works and when it doesn’t.  What is the quarterback doing?  Is he being decisive?  Is he attacking and deciding or is he being slow?  This decision and the speed with which it is made will make or break the play.  Done properly, the play is great; done poorly you might as well punt.

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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