In order to run the ball effectively in the highly competitive Missouri Valley Conference, where four of the top 10 defense units at the FCS level reside, it became necessary to find ways to get uber disciplined second level defenders to misfit base zone concepts.
By Adam Hovorka
with Jason Eck
Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach
South Dakota State University
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To compete in the Missouri Valley Conference in the late fall you must be able to run the ball and run it with physicality. South Dakota State University believes in this philosophy wholeheartedly and they major in both inside and mid-zone concepts. Offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Jason Eck has been utilizing the concept of split-zone runs in the SDSU run game. Coach Eck is using the split concept (he calls this Swipe) with his Mid-Zone and not just with the Inside Zone action that many teams are running throughout the country at every level. Mid Zone is similar to the outside zone scheme, but with tighter aiming points. Coach Eck explains the term Mid-Zone as an alternative to Outside Zone as a way to remind the back that he is not just trying to get to the sideline but is trying to give the illusion of a wide play and then cut it back to the inside. The “split” part of the concept comes from when a player will line up to the call but come across the formation and block the C gap defender, who is usually being unblocked or read in zone runs.
Mid-Zone is a staple run play for many teams across the country and at various levels of football. The play starts with offensive linemen working in combination trying to take over down lineman by reaching them or stretching them horizontally to the sideline. The ball carrier will read these blocks and either run it to the sideline or see the defensive lineman being washed down the line and cut it up the field getting vertically right now. Part of why the mid-zone is so popular is how many different formations and personnel grouping the play can be successfully run from. Offenses can read the backside end and have all the secondary manipulations that go along with reading the run game. Offenses can also go heavy personnel and overwhelm defenses at the point of attack with the mid-zone.
Coach Eck and the staff at South Dakota State found that meshing its mid-zone concept with the swipe principle provided solutions to the following four problems:
- Back-gapping by second level defenders off divide action
- “Spill” defensive ends coming underneath swipe blocks
- “Lag” technique defensive lineman who played underneath reach blocks
- “Rock Back” 2i technique defenders that were used to eliminate cutbacks
Coach Eck will run this out of many formations, with many trades and motions, and from different personnel groups. This is part of the foundation of the SDSU offensive plan. They can do this because they are a huddle team that commits to packaging 3-4 players in and out of a game at any time. We’ve notice that against four-down fronts, defensive will naturally set the 3-technique to the side of the Y-off, promoting a high percentage cutback in the backside B gap. Against Odd defenses, the Center and backside Guard are able to combo the Nose to the Mike linebacker.
2x2 Closed Formations:
Coach Eck will employ many unique formations when running this play and likes to change these up for each opponent. This causes defenses to plan for many different looks and not spend time on fundamentals. Coach Eck says that the better the team is that he is facing the more variable he will give an opponent with formations and motions. The first formation that SDSU will use when installing the Split Mid-Zone is from a 2x2 formation with an off Y/H to the single wide receiver side. Most even front defenses will set the 3-technique to the Y/H off, giving the bubble backside for cutback. For defenses that set the 3-technique to the back, we’ve noticed that Coach Eck will motion him before the snap to guarantee the bubble backside.
3x1 Open Formation:
The 3x1 open formation also provides for an extended open B gap weak for four-down defenses who will need to make the choice between playing two-high safeties or invert coverage. The mid-zone action stretches the second level defenders increasing the opportunity for cutback.
Coach Eck will also run this action in Bunch formations. Many coaches feel this works against the run game because you are bringing more bodies into the box. If you can be successful running mesh and rub routes in bunch formations it causes the linebackers a moment of reaction time against the split Mid-Zone. Another way SDSU will run Split Mid-Zone is from a Trips Bunch look. The inside player in the Bunch is the Swipe player and the Outside guy is running a reverse action to create more misdirection. These two movements really freeze everyone and open some possibilities for long runs back to the original Bunch side.
Using the mid-zone divide concept from 2x1 formations allows for a backfield player to be the “swiper” on the backside. The Swipe player who is responsible for that backside end is taught to treat this block the same as a back kicking out an end on power. This player can be a FB type or TE/H-Back player. Coach Eck is also comfortable with the other running back in the game, making the Swipe block out of 20 Personnel. This is true vs. teams that are going to stay square and shuffle down the LOS instead of forcing a violent collision with the player performing the Swipe action. This really opens the offensive possibilities when you have 20 Personnel in the game.
Shuffle or “Yo-Yo” Motion:
Coach Eck will also have the Y-off be the Swipe player shuffling back and forth to get that swiper closer to the EMLOS to help against teams that wrong-arm because of how quick that block happens.
Packaging with Jet Motion:
Coach Eck likes the action that is created when there is a Jet Motion attached to the play. This can do this from the 2x1 Y-Off formation and have the motion go to the play. Or, it can be done from a Trips Formation with #3 as the Y-off and the motion going away from the run action. SDSU will run a couple of Jet Sweeps per game that making this motion having to be respected. Again, this is an easy way to create trouble with defensive players’ eye discipline and make 2nd-3rd level players a step late to the play. As detailed in the clip below, second level defenders work laterally with the jet motion action, allowing interior entry points for the ball carrier.
Coach Eck like's running this play out of one-back formations with back and forth Jet-Motions vs 4-down very sound teams. Against sound 4-down teams, the Jet motion will create movement in the shell and when he returns it creates even more movement. If one kid is wrong then the defense will misfit the play.
30 Personnel Mid-Zone:
Another variation Coach Eck will use in the Split Mid-Zone look is out of 30 Personnel. SDSU will align in split backs and an offline Y or fullback as a sniffer with a wide-out on each side of the formation. The Y will come across the formation and block the edge, while the additional back can be used as an option player. We’ve found that the “double swipe” optic causes linebackers to get horizonal displacement, allowing the ball to hit front side.
In-Line Tight End Formations:
Coach Eck really likes running 21 personnel with an in line Tight End to the front side when facing a true 3-4 team. With a Tight End front-side, you can now have the Center and Backside Guard can get up to the backside backer and PSG and PST get up to the play side backer. The backside Tackle can reach the backside 4i and the swiper will have that backside edge. This enables the Tight End to block the edge player front side. This look creates great angles for cutbacks by the Running back.
Pro Wing Formation (22 Personnel):
Using the Pro/Wing formation from both 12 and 22 personnel assures that four-down teams will set the 3-technique to the Tight End with the bubble away. As shown in the clip below, this allows the play side Tackle to stretch the defensive end to open the B gap. The swipe player can cutoff the backside C gap defender to promote cutback.The Wing would shuffle motion opposite and then be the Swipe player back toward the tight end. The back who is not getting the ball would run his option path.
Pro Wing (12 Personnel):
One unique formation is a 21 Personnel formation with the TE and two Receivers on the same side and the backs aligning to the play call. Here he can attach the Jet Motion action away from the call and block the play to the tight end surface.
One last variation is to run this out of a Wildcat Alignment. Coach Eck will go with a Tight End trips formation with the middle player of the trips being the swipe player. This player will shuffle motion and on the snap, perform his swipe responsibilities creating the misdirection. The Wildcat QB will take the snap and the RB will lead block play side for the Mid-Zone being run to the tight end.
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- How teaching the reads of the ball carrier negates potential back gapping by second level defenders off swipe action.
- What H/F backs are taught to do against “spill” C gap defenders that attempt to work underneath kick out blocks.
- What covered lineman are taught to do against first level defensive linemen that try to “lag” on reach blocks.
- The adjustment Coach Eck will make against 4-down fronts that attempt to rock the 2i technique to the backside.
- The “3-step” vertical technique for uncovered lineman used to make decisions to block first or second level defenders.
- Plus, 20 separate playlists of the mid-zone swipe concept, segmented by each formation above.
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The Mid-Zone is a staple of the SDSU running game. By attaching the Split/Swipe looks to the play it gives the offense built-in misdirection while only teaching one player something new. Coach Eck will use a variety of formations and motions when installing this play to keep good defenses always guessing and challenging the defensive player's eye discipline. The play also helps protect all the power and insert Inside Zone runs when the H/Y is blocking play side.
Meet Coach Jason Eck: Coach Jason Eck is a 1999 Graduate of Wisconsin and player for the 1998 Rose Bowl Team under Barry Álvarez. He has been coaching for 20 years and just completed his first year as the Offensive Coordinator at South Dakota State University after being the OL coach since 2016. Before SDSU, he has coached at Minnesota-Mankato, Idaho, Winona State, Ball State, Hampton, and Western Illinois.