Peeking into the Playbook: Counter Read, in Oklahoma and Alabama's Offense
Spread-option concepts of all sorts have been on the rise for decades now, from Rich Rodriguez’s zone read implementation in the early 1990’s to the now-popularized RPOs (or run-pass options.) Being able to create a numbers advantage in the box, via reading a defender (or two), and “blocking” him by playing off of his leverage or action has become an integral part of many offenses from the high school to professional level. Because running the ball is more about creating a numbers advantage than anything else, it only makes sense to use options as often as possible to generate advantages, instead of aimlessly running into unfavorable box counts.
As the regularity of options continues to increase, so do the creativity in which they are used. G/T counter read has become an increasingly popular choice among the brightest offensive minds across the college football landscape. The play works very much like zone read, but rather than inside zone being the core running concept, the core concept is G/T counter. The rule of thumb with counter plays is that frontside offensive linemen are asked to execute down blocks with a “kick out” block and a “pull block” flowing from the backside.
G/T counter in and of itself is already an effective spread concept because its downhill nature takes advantage of smaller box counts, along with being able to get a free-moving blocker onto a linebacker. Adding a read element helps to further weaken the defense’s box count and enable the offensive line.
Oklahoma's G/T Counter Read
Oklahoma preferred to run the play like a traditional counter play, with the guard kicking out and the tackle looping inside to lead the way for the running back. The difference from a traditional counter play is the read defender on the back side.
In this example (video of play below), Oklahoma is in 11 personnel with the tight end set to the read side. Since the tight end will block the defensive end, who is normally the read defender, the slot player becomes the read defender (circled in yellow). The read defender is already far away from the hand-off, so quarterback Baker Mayfield can read the defender’s leverage to determine before the snap that he will hand the ball off to the running back. If a player is not a threat to chase down the “give” (handoff to the back), then it the quarterback will automatically hand the ball off to the offset back.
With a tight end this time around (play below), the read defender is standing up just off the left tackle’s outside shoulder and in a typical spot for an edge player. Mayfield now does not have the luxury of deciding to give or pull pre-snap and must read the defender’s leverage during the play.
As the run unfolds, the read defender shuffles slightly forward and takes a wide stance so as to prepare to catch Mayfield if he were to pull the ball himself. Mayfield reacts properly to the defender and gives the ball to the running back. With no back side defender to catch him, the running back follows the pulling left tackle straight to the end zone.
Over the course of the season, Oklahoma sprinkled in a number of different tweaks to this concept. Adding a H-back/tight end pop pass, converting the play to an RPO, was one of their favorites. Oklahoma still almost exclusively ran this play to be set up for the running back, though. The variations to the play were often about tweaking formations or adding pass options, not changing the direction of the run itself. Alabama offensive coordinator Brian Daboll had a different idea for the concept.
Rather than center the play around the running back, Daboll took to making the play about the quarterback and convert the traditional counter concept into a bash (or “back away”) concept. In “bash,” the quarterback’s path was the inside run which utilized the pulling blockers while the running back’s path was the outside run answer to an inside crashing read defender.
Alabama's G/T Counter Read
In essence, Oklahoma ran the ball inside with their running back and used their quarterback to keep the perimeter defense honest. Often, Alabama ran the ball inside with their quarterback and used their tailback to keep the perimeter defense honest. Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts is a fantastic athlete, particularly as a downhill runner who wins through balance and explosion. The downhill style of running suits him well and Daboll must have figured he could mix this variation of the concept into the offense to keep defenses on their toes.
There are two reads on this play (below): one for the give/pull and one for the swing pass (red arrow). The initial read (circled in yellow) determines whether Hurts will give or pull the ball at the mesh point (two blue arrows). If the read player takes a wider route, he is trying to catch the running back, thus Hurts pulls the ball and considers the next option: the “conflict player.” A narrower route would mean the read defender is collapsing on the quarterback and Hurts should give the ball.
The secondary read (circled in orange) determines whether Hurts will run the ball himself or throw to the swing route outside. If the “conflict player” widens, Hurts has room to run opposite of the widening defender, with his pulling blockers. If the conflict player stays inside the box, the swing route will be open to the field side of the formation.
Of course, this already assumes Hurts did not hand the ball to the running back after the initial read.
In the example above, the “read defender” takes an outside angle (cancelling out the “give read” handoff to the running back) and the “conflict defender” takes an outside angle (cancelling out the swing pass option), leaving Hurts to carry the ball himself. Hurts is met with a bit of a logjam at the point of attack with his pulling right tackle, but is able to bounce toward the sideline and pick up a decent chunk of yards on a correct read.
Comparing Oklahoma and Alabama's Use
The variety of ways in which this play can work is part of what makes it so damaging. Just among the two teams featured here, ‘Bama hardly used a read when running traditional counter plays, but often did when running counter with the quarterback, whereas Oklahoma was the complete opposite.
Alabama saw fit to utilize Hurts’ impressive athletic ability to threaten both inside and outside the tackles. For Oklahoma, funneling the ball to strong running backs rather than an adequate athlete in Mayfield made more sense. Both teams found great success with their brand of counter and counter reads. Despite their structural differences, they catered to what best fit their personnel.
Given that counter is not as basic a concept as inside zone, it is unlikely counter read concepts ever become the household phenomenon that the zone read once was. However, for the teams that are comfortable with pulling offensive linemen and a decent athlete behind center, the blend of power and finesse that counter read concepts can bring are highly valuable.
If offenses as dissimilar as Alabama and Oklahoma can find success with the concept, plenty of teams in between can do the same. Look out for NFL teams and college programs of all different types of philosophies share common ground over counter read concepts as the season gets underway.