There was a time in college football when the majority of teams would run some form of the Triple Option offense.
As recently as the 1980s, a good number of teams were still running a form of the Triple Option offense, which at times is called the Wishbone formation.
As the game developed, and younger kids began to get bigger and stronger by the time they arrived on college campuses, though, more teams started getting away from an offense predicated around the Triple Option being the main mode of attack.
Today, only the three military academies – Navy, Army and Air Force – use the Triple Option as their primary offense, and it’s called the Flexbone.
Georgia Tech used to run the Flexbone as well, but that will probably change next season as former head coach Paul Johnson – who once coached Navy – has retired.
While the Triple Option has fallen out of favor at the college level, though, it’s still a prominent offense being run by high school and other youth teams across the country, and it’s an outstanding offense that many teams could benefit from running.
The Triple Option is a run-heavy offense, and gets its name from the number of potential ball carriers on any given play – three.
This is an offense that is designed to be very deceptive, keeping defenses from easily identifying the ball carrier, and giving the quarterback the option of handing the ball off to one running back, pitching it to a second running back, or carrying it himself.
Teams With Offensive Linemen Who Can Bully Defenders - With run plays such a heavy focus of the Triple Option, the offensive linemen will be asked to zone block a lot along the interior of the offense.
Teams Who Have a Few Good Running Backs - The Triple Offense will utilize three running backs in the backfield, as we’ll soon see, and any one of these backs could be asked to carry the football on any given play.
Teams Who Have Wide Receivers and Running Backs Who Can Block - Only one player will carry the football each play, and that will leave three other skill players free to block. This is an essential part of a successful Triple Option offense.
Teams Who Have a Quarterback That Can Run - The most successful Triple Option offenses are those whose quarterbacks are a threat in the running game as well. If they’re not, that removes one of the three options for ball carriers.
Teams Who Can Still Pass - One of the biggest aspects of a Triple Option offense that is different from other backfield-heavy formations is that they still will throw the ball a good amount. This keeps defenses off balance a lot. Recent Georgia Tech teams, for example, have featured outstanding wide receivers such as Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas, who went on to be solid NFL receivers.
Teams Who Can’t Run the Ball - This might be obvious, but if a team doesn’t have multiple running backs who can run, and an offensive line that can’t run block, then the Triple Option won’t be a good fit.
Teams Who Need Extra Help Along the Line of Scrimmage - Similarly, teams that require the help of tight ends and extra linemen to block defenders won’t do well with a Triple Option. That’s because there will only be five offensive linemen in this formation.
Teams Who Have a Traditional Pocket-Passing Quarterback - Again, while it’s a good thing to have a quarterback who can throw in a Triple Option offense, it isn’t suited for a quarterback who isn’t mobile and who would be considered a more traditional passer than a runner.
Teams Who Have Wide Receivers Who Aren’t Willing to Block - The blocking ability of the receivers is essential in a Triple Option offense. If your receivers can’t, or won’t, block, then don’t run the Triple Option.
The personnel that a Triple Option offense employs is sort of a hybrid between other run-heavy offenses such as the Single Wing and more traditional pro style offenses.
Here is the more traditional personnel in a Triple Option offense:
The other three players in the Triple Option are reminiscent of those run-heavy offenses:
Most plays in a Triple Option offense will start with the same formation.
This is a key part of the offense.
When a variety of different plays are run out of the exact same formation, it makes it very difficult for the defense to identify what play the offense is running, whether a run or a pass, and which players will be blocking and which are options to carry the ball.
The standard formation for all Triple Option plays are:
Here, we’ll outline two popular plays that are run out of a Triple Option offense – one running play and one passing play.
The Midline option is a pretty simple play that is run directly up the middle of the defense.
It would seem that since the play is being run straight up the middle that it would be easy to defend, but that is far from reality.
The running options on this play will be the quarterback, the B-back and the A-Back lined up on the weak side of the formation.
Here are the assignments for each position:
Center - Chip down on the nose tackle, sealing him off to the left. The center will then peel off and get downfield to pick up the weak-side linebacker.
Weak-Side Offensive Guard - Block down on the nose tackle.
Weak-Side Offensive Tackle - Jam hard to the inside, sealing off the defensive end from the middle of the field.
X Receiver - Block the cornerback lined up opposite him, sealing him off from the inside.
Strong-Side Offensive Guard - Will be responsible for chipping the defensive tackle and then blocking the middle linebacker.
Strong-Side Offensive Tackle - Jam hard to the inside, sealing off the defensive line from the middle of the field.
Z Receiver - Block the cornerback lined up opposite him, sealing him off from the inside.
Strong-Side A Back - Will run directly ahead at the snap and block whatever defender approaches in front of him. The other three players on the field in the Midline Option could all be asked to carry the ball.
Weak-Side A-Back - Will go in motion behind the B-Back before the snap of the ball. At the snap, the A-Back cut up field on the outside of the offensive tackle and make himself available to take a possible pitch from the quarterback.
B-Back - Run straight forward toward the A gap, and will either take the handoff from the quarterback or be faked a handoff.
Quarterback - At the snap, he will turn sideways. His first move will be to extend a handoff to the B-Back. Then, based on how he reads the defense and the holes the offensive line have opened up, he will choose to either hand the ball off to the B-Back (through the A gap), run it himself (through the B gap) or pitch it outside to the A-Back (through the C gap).
For the sake of this discussion, we’ll assume the defense is running a base 4-3 defense, with two safeties.
This passing play is designed to make the defense think the play will be a run, and then take advantage by passing instead.
This is a passing play that’s designed to gain a bunch of yards, and have the ball thrown over top of the safeties, who will hopefully bite on the run fake. Here are the assignments for each position:
Offensive Linemen - all will have the same responsibility. They will slide to the left at the snap of the ball, first acting as if they are run blocking, but then dropping to a pass-block.
B-Back - Will get a fake handoff and run through the B gap as if he were carrying the football. Once he gets through the line of scrimmage, he will pick up the first threat on the strong side of the offense.
Weak-Side A-Back - Will go in motion pre-snap, and then run to the outside through the C gap, just like he did in the Midline Option. However, since this is a passing play, he will be responsible for the second defensive threat on the strong side.
X Receiver - Will run a drag route at a depth of about 15 to 17 yards, behind where the free safety is lined up
Z Receiver - Will run a skinny post route to evade the cornerback and get behind the strong safety
Strong-Side A-Back - Will run a wheel route toward the strong-side line of scrimmage
Quarterback - Take the snap and fake the handoff to the B-Back. He may even fake that he’s going to sprint to the outside to run the ball himself or pitch to the A-Back, and then drop back to pass. The quarterback will have the option to throw to any of the three receivers on this particular play (living up to the offense’s Triple Option name once again).
Even though no professional sports teams run the Triple Option, and very, very few college teams run it nowadays, it’s still an outstanding offense that can be utilized to great success by high school and youth offenses.
While there is a lot of deception going on with this offense, it is actually pretty simple to teach and install.
Similarly, the Triple Option is actually easy for opposing defenses to plan for, since there are only three options on who will get the ball on each play – whether it is a run or a pass.
The beauty of the offense, though, is it takes advantage of a football player’s nature to predict where the ball is going and react quickly.
At its core, the plays in a Triple Option offense follow the same principles that any other misdirection play such as a counter run or a play-action pass do – make the defense think the ball is going one way when it’s really going another.
Perhaps the most attractive part about the Triple Option offense, though, is that it can still incorporate a passing game quite often, and, as such, there is a place for standard wide receivers to not only play in the Triple Option, but to stand out as well.
As we mentioned earlier, some top-notch professional receivers have come from Triple Option offenses in college, and that’s because they often face single coverage, as the defense is almost always guessing run.