Duke Blue Devils: Stopping the Triple Option


This week the Duke Blue Devils face the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Next week the North Carolina Tar Heels get their shot. All this means the triple option comes into focus for Tobacco Road practices. The triple option was a favored system of the eighties and nineties. It created the Nebraska dynasties and legends like Tommy Frazier.

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Option football gave way to more pro-style systems in the nineties. Those systems could attract the nation’s top quarterback prospects. Some teams still had option packages but the offense was not an emphasis. Option football did influence some of the new spread offenses that began to pop up. The spread option of coaches like Urban Meyer and Rich Rodriguez is still a major weapon today.

The triple option itself though disappeared from the scene, taking refuge in one place uniquely suited for it. That place would be the service academies. Unable to recruit the best athletes, the triple option fit the type of player the service academies could deploy. The option needed fullback types and wing back types. These were more achievable. The option also requires discipline, precision, and decision-making to work. You would think that the future military leaders of America would be good at those.

So the option survived at Air Force and Navy. This is where Paul Johnson enters the story. Johnson used the offense to reenergize the Navy program. After years of success, he was hired by Georgia Tech to do the same thing there with better athletes. So far he has done just that, having won an ACC Championship and been a major player in the Coastal Division every year.

So how does he do it? Unlike the wishbone teams of the eighties, Johnson uses the flex bone formation with a b-back behind the quarterback and two a-backs even with the tackles or just outside of them. At the snap, the quarterback has three options. He can give it to the fullback (b-back), keep it himself, or pitch it to a wide receiver depending on what the defense does. Establishing the base system allows for Johnson to move pieces around, set up end arounds, or deliver the rare option pass.

Defending the option is all about assignment football. Each defender has a responsibility. Someone hits the fullback, someone spies the quarterback, and the secondary players key the pitch men. A triple option team will try to manufacture the ball down the field and wear you out with cut blocking. Eventually they believe the big plays will come, but in the meantime they will control clock like no one else.

ECU’s first half performance against Navy was an example on how not to play the option. ECU did not key on fullback Chris Swain. With Swain able to bruise his way through, the ECU defense adjusted to stop him. That only opened up the edges for quarterback Keenan Reynolds. Notably Reynolds never really used his pitch men. Both runners had over a hundred yards running. ECU was better in the second half, but it was a little late at that point.

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  • Duke will face a difference challenge than ECU did. ECU had a three man line with linebackers that could theoretically clean up mistakes. Duke plays the 4-2-5. One of its two linebackers is a converted safety. There will be a lot of pressure put on those linebackers and Jeremy Cash to make the right assignments. Last year turnovers and their own brand of ball control offense enabled Duke to beat Georgia Tech.

    Turnovers are the Achilles heel of the option. The ball has the potential to do a lot of moving around and therefore the possibility of fumbles opens up. An option quarterback may not have the best passing accuracy if they are to throw. Justin Thomas was recruited as an Alabama track star, not for his arm.

    So Duke will be challenged as the Jackets come to Durham this weekend. I can guarantee that the game will not look the same as it did last year.

    Next: Power Rankings: Old North Banter Week 4