By Devin Gates
Special Assignment Researcher (X&O Labs)
Former Offensive Coordinator
Fitchburg State University (MA)
We would be remiss presenting a report on Clemson’s offensive system, without appropriately detailing the various RPO’s that it uses in its offensive menu. Without getting too engrossed in the intricacies of the RPO system (X&O Labs has already published three special reports on this topic alone) the simplest definition of an RPO is a pre-snap or post-snap read by the quarterback where he makes a decision on whether to give the ball to running back, keep the ball himself or throw it to a potential receiver. It’s the new option football, and few teams run them as effectively as Clemson.
Before getting into the types of RPO’s that Clemson uses, it’s important to note that they will use two different types of RPO’s. Pre-Snap RPO’s and post-snap RPO’s. The definitions of each are below:
Pre-Snap RPO’s- These are run/pass options that are determined pre-snap by the quarterback. The decision is based on pre-snap leverage of defenders. Some of these routes include screens such as now screens, flair screens and bubble screens. Quite simply, if the quarterback in this system feels he has a numbers advantage or if his receivers have a leverage advantage, he will throw the ball out on the perimeter.
Post-Snap RPO’s- These are run/pass options that are determined post-snap by the quarterback. In these situations, the quarterback is reading a particular defender (dependent on the coverage) to assess if he will play the run or pass component of the scheme. Whatever component of the scheme that defender plays, the quarterback executes the other option. In other words, whatever he does is wrong.
Second vs. Third Level RPO’s
There is a substantial difference between RPO’s that manipulate second level or third level defenders. Second level defenders are classified as cornerbacks and linebackers while third level defenders are classified as safeties. Clemson has RPO’s to manipulate both of these levels, which is why we segmented our research based off these two distinctions.
The Simplicity of Clemson RPO’s
The RPO offense can be overwhelming for younger quarterbacks who are asked to make real time decisions based on an action of a defender. Because of this, sometimes less is more when designing these concepts. Clemson has had success with multiple quarterbacks running their system because they are simple in their approach with RPO’s. They are not flashy. They aren't using RPOs to attack the middle of the field or push vertical, but really just to put horizontal stress on the second level conflict defender. They mostly used wide receiver bubble screens to achieve this, as well as a couple of quick game concepts. The success of Clemson's RPO game isn't the scheme or structure; it's when and where they utilize the RPOs to increase the chances of a positive play at crucial times. First, in establishing rhythm when starting a drive in their own territory, and by gaining positive yardage in point scoring territory to increase their chances of scoring.
Second Level RPO’s
Bubble Screen RPO
The majority of the Clemson’s zone/bubble RPO’s are utilzed out of 11 personnel (one back and one tight end) formations either with an attached wing or the tight end on the line. Because they will run out of both 3x1 and 2x2 formations it makes the linebacker to the two wide receiver side the conflict defender. This gives the quarterback the clear give/throw read. If the defense plays a zone coverage and that conflict defender leans towards the box with the mesh, it gives the offense a two on one with the wide receivers vs either the cornerback or safety, depending on who the deep player is. Because of its dual threat quarterback, Clemson has the ability to combat man coverage or seven in the box by making this play a triple option look and having the quarterback be a dynamic run threat.
Clemson’s Variations of the Bubble RPO
In this illustration, the RPO concept here is a six-man zone read blocking concept with a bubble to protect it. This is a triple option read for quarterback. The first look is to the single receiver. In the illustration below, the safety to that side is aligned almost on the hash. There is an over hang level two player to the single receiver so that cancels the throw and moves the QB to the next phase of the triple option, which is the run action. Here, the defensive end for Pitt gives the quarterback a pull read by crashing down the line of scrimmage. The quarterback then attacks and reads alley defender for his second read. The alley defender leans into the alley, giving blocking leverage to wide receiver. The quarterback sees this, throws bubble. The wide receiver is now one on one with safety (Diagram 54).