Peeking into the Playbook: The Newest Wrinkle in the Spread Offense

by Derrik Klassen

Reno, Nevada is home to more innovative football than one would ever assume. Most famously, the increasingly popular pistol formation was designed by then head coach Chris Ault in the mid-2000’s. The coaching staff went through plenty of changes to the formation and their philosophies surrounding it over the years but saw the most change when Colin Kaepernick became the starting quarterback. 

Kaepernick opened up the quarterback running game for Nevada in a way that they had not experienced yet. As a result, the zone read was incorporated into the offense so as to enable Kaepernick’s mobility. Nevada put their own spin on the concept, though. Rather than let the quarterback read the end man and be left to fend for himself, Nevada started to pull an H-back across the formation toward the quarterback side to act as a lead blocker. This blend of zone read and split zone became known as “arc read” or “zone bluff,” depending on who you ask.

Of all places, Hawaii has birthed their own wrinkle to this concept. Current Hawaii head coach Nick Rolovich served as Nevada’s quarterback coach and/or offensive coordinator from 2012-2015, which included a one-year overlap in 2012 with Ault. Rolovich held on to many of Ault’s principles and his unique spin on arc read is a testament to that. 

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Arc read is traditionally run with an H-back cutting across the formation. Hawaii does not do that. Instead, Hawaii brings the backside guard around and ask him to read the end man on the line of scrimmage. If the defenders step inside to wrong arm the pulling guard, the guard sidesteps him like a matador would a bull and the quarterback follows him to the outside. Conversely, if the defender hugs the perimeter and wants to squeeze the play, the pulling guard executes a kick out and the quarterback cuts inside. 

Above is the same play from two different angles. The right guard pulls across toward the quarterback "keep" side and reads the defensive end. Colorado State’s defensive end sticks tight to the formation to begin with but eventually makes a move to jab inside and spill the play outside. The moment the defensive end steps inside like that, Hawaii's right guard dances out of the way and lets the defensive end carry himself inside toward nothing. The quarterback then follows the guard to the outside and proceeds to pick up a 21-yard gain that puts Hawaii in scoring range. 

This example highlights the same concept, and Colorado State’s defensive end even plays it the same exact way, but this time you get a chance to see the lead blocker in action. The pulling guard gets into space and takes on a CSU safety, leaving just one defender for the quarterback to juke out on his way to the end zone. 

Now for what it looks like when the quarterback is forced inside. This time versus Navy, the pulling guard is engaged on without being able to execute on his read. It looks as though the guard wants to skip outside, but the Navy defensive end turns to hit him and forces the quarterback inside. Because Navy had a light box, forcing Hawaii's quarterback inside did not do much damage for Hawaii and they were still able to pick up the first down and more on the play. 

Where Rolovich and his staff have gotten particularly unique with this concept is that they also run it with the running back as the primary ball carrier. Arc concepts are almost exclusively designed for the quarterback, with previous exceptions being like when the Chicago Bears ran arc read out of the Wildcat with Tarik Cohen taking the snap. Hawaii instead brings a puller across the formation in a standard shotgun set and again ask the puller to read the end man for the running back. 

Hawaii brings a tackle around rather than a guard this time, but the idea is still the same: get a backside blocker out in front of the runner and read an unblocked defender. As Colorado State’s defensive ends did for most of the game, the defender in this example keeps tight and sets up to wrong arm the pulling tackle. At the last moment, it looks as though the defender recognizes what Hawaii is doing and tries to attack the running back, but by then, it is too late. Hawaii's tackle is already in position to scoot by the defensive end and get out in front for the running back as he bounces the run to the outside. Once again, Hawaii picks up a fresh set of downs with their special arc concept. 

The value in Hawaii’s tweak to the arc concept is that the personnel can be more flexible because there is no need for the H-back. Most spread teams operate out of four wide receiver looks, something that is not possible when you have two players in the backfield. Additionally, an H-back in the backfield can tip-off that arc read is in the cards, but pulling an offensive lineman better allows for the formation and personnel to protect the play. The read itself brings flexibility, too, because the run can seamlessly flip-flop between being an outside run or an inside run depending on how the defense tries to play it. Hawaii’s arc concept is sneakier than a traditional arc concept, but can be just as effective.

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A fresh spin on the arc read concept is only one of many reasons Hawaii's offense is among the most exciting in college football. Hawaii has scored 145 points in their first three games of this season on their way to a 3-0 record, coming off a 3-9 2017. They have rebooted their program through a unique rushing approach and high-octane passing attack that emphasizes downfield passing.

If the creativity this team has shown through the first three games is any indication, Hawaii will continue to intrigue as the season unfolds. The most recent AP Poll and Coaches Poll both have Rolovich's program in a striking range of a Top 25 nod. According to the AP Poll, Hawaii is the fourth-best Group of Five team behind Mountain West rival Boise State, UCF and Houston, the usual suspects. South Florida, Appalachian State and Cincinnati join the group in the Coaches poll, but just by a hair. 

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Every college football season brings a new, random Group of Five team that everyone should cling to. Hawaii is a great candidate this season, and with almost all of their games set to start late on Saturday nights, there are not any big games you need to push aside to enjoy the Rainbow Warriors. All there is to do is kick back, make a late-night cup of coffee, and enjoy Hawaii obliterate the Mountain West conference — I know I will be.