Chip Kelly, His Return to College, and Why the Zone Read will Still Be His Offense's Centerpiece

by Tyler Morales

Chip Kelly is back in college football after a six-year hiatus that involved coaching the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers. Kelly’s NFL stint’s may have not been what many expected but there is no denying his success in the college game. 

While coaching at Oregon from 2009-2012, Kelly orchestrated one of the most exciting and productive offenses college football has seen in some time. The all out focus on running the football with tempo is what made Kelly’s offense so difficult to defend for these college defenses. 

The inside zone and outside zone are the two staples of a Chip Kelly offense and when executed it can be a nightmare for defenders to try and contain. These offensive concepts are not anything world breaking as nearly every offense uses it but Kelly has been able to involve tempo into his run game and that can make all the difference.  

Let’s take a look at what made Chip Kelly’s offense such a dominant force in college football. 

Inside Zone Read

Before the snap, defenses can tell what play is being called by the way the running back is lined up. If the running back is offset to the left or right it is an inside zone read. Kelly has no problem showing the defense what he is going to do because each play has multiple reads to it. 

 The basic inside read in a spread involves the quarterback reading the defensive end. If the end crashes the quarterback keeps it but if the defensive end stays at home the quarterback hands it off. Kelly’s goal is to get the ball to the running back but having an option built in gives the quarterback an option just in case the inside run isn’t there. 

Below is a basic inside zone run that Oregon ran against Oregon State. Before the snap the running back shifts sides of the quarterback because Oregon State knows a zone run is coming and Oregon decides to flip sides on them.  The tackle leaves the play side defensive end to pick up the outside linebacker and try to pin him inside to clear a lane for the running back. 

The defensive end takes one false step up field and Kenjon Barner is off to the races. Kelly often states that his offensive line is the key to all the success this team has running the ball. By keeping the defensive end unblocked it allows Oregon to have an extra man blocking and that is exactly what Kelly wants. 

Here (below) is another example of an inside zone run by Chip Kelly that breaks for a big gain. This play is blocked perfectly by the offensive line of Oregon and it helps springs LaMichael James for the first down. 

The center has the most important block on this play, he needs to chip the 3-technique and get up field to pick up the middle linebacker who has the best shot at tackling James. The center is pick up the linebacker and James runs right behind him for the first down. 

Once the inside zone run starts gashing defenses this is when you add the element of the quarterback keeper. Defenses will start keying in on the inside zone run once the offense keeps getting big plays from it. 

The quarterback keeper is the real big play threat of this offense because the defense flat out won’t account for the quarterback if the inside zone is beating them that bad. 

Below you can see Tennessee committed to the inside zone run. The defensive end crashes and tries to take it away after being gashed on the previous play. Darren Thomas reads the defensive end crashing, keeps it and is off to the races. When the offense has reached its peak and is able to expand off the inside zone not many defenses will be able to contain it. 



Outside Zone Read

In the outside zone runs Kelly uses the running back is always next to the quarterback. Inside zone the running back is offset but with outside the back will always be either on the left/right side of the quarterback. A successful outside zone run requires near perfect blocking from the offensive line. These plays result in more negative gains than an inside zone run but when it is blocked perfectly it is a big play waiting to happen.  

Oregon lines up LaMichael James to the left and it is an indication that an outside zone play is coming (below). USC tries to take away the run outside of the tackles but Oregon is able to pinch the USC defenders and open up a huge lane for LaMichael James to run through for the touchdown. 

The USC defense tries to stop the outside zone run but the right side of the Oregon offensive line blocks the Trojans towards the sidelines leaving a huge lane up the middle for James. USC knows an outside zone is coming and still fails at stopping Oregon from executing its play. 

The same exact thing happened to Washington when they went against Oregon (below). Washington saw LaMichael James to the right of the quarterback and the defense tries to stop the outside run. Washington sends five defenders to stop the outside run but Oregon just forces them to the outside leaving a huge hole for James. 

When the defense is not containing the outside runs, plays like the one below occur. This requires immense patience from the running back because he is looking for a running lane to cut up field. Once the running back doesn’t see a lane he takes it outside and has a huge lane to run. Remember, all of this has a read to it so the quarterback can also keep the ball if he see’s the opportunity for a huge gain. 

Once Kelly feels comfortable enough in his running game they will add variations like triple options, play action throws and power runs to mix up the looks. Kelly runs a bunch of power runs using outside zone looks. 

Do not let Chip Kelly’s NFL coaching stint fog your memory of what his offense can do at the college level. While these concepts can seem basic, they require an enormous amount of practice and execution to get it to work this well. 

Kelly has shown he’s a great offensive mind and with a few years off who knows what he might do next but the inside/outside zone will no doubt be the centerpiece of the offense he implements at UCLA.