Photo: Air Force runs the triple-option at Navy
“The option is still revered at certain high schools, but – despite the zeal of some coaches – the once venerated scheme has been languishing at the college level for years. Now rule changes may doom it there too.” – Sports Illustrated, Oct. 8, 2018 issue.
By Tom Shanahan
The option offense is entrenched as vital to service academy football success. So if new rules limiting cut blocks handicap the scheme’s future, this might come to be known as “Todd Berry’s Revenge.”
Berry, you see, is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. He also was fired as Army’s coach when he couldn’t win playing a pro-set style at West Point.
Under Berry’s AFCA watch, a 2018 rule was passed restricting the cut block. Army and Navy rely heavily on the cut block to drive the triple-option, although Air Force has modified its option in recent seasons to mix in a two-back formation.
Let’s be clear: “Todd Berry’s Revenge” is stated tongue in cheek.
This is not to suggest he wants to undermine academy football. He has served his profession long and honorably -- on the field and now in administration directing its future.
Let’s also definitively state the new cut block rules have been implemented with the player safety in mind. It has become a primary focus of the AFCA. But if the rules ultimately negatively impact the triple-option, circumstances have put Berry on the wrong side of conspiracy theories.
Berry’s Army teams went 1-10 in 2000, 3-8 in 2011, 1-11 in 2002 and his 2003 team was 0-6 when he was fired. The Black Knights flailed their way to a 0-13 record.
However, in defense of Berry, colleagues contend West Point brass ordered him to run a pro-set offense during a period Army joined Conference-USA. He was thus hired to an untenable position.
The problem with the pro set is the academies are unable to recruit tall, 300-pound offensive tackles that are necessary cornerstones to the scheme. Such size is needed to protect the quarterback from onrushing defensive ends. They have to be able to hold their blocks long enough to provide time. At Army, that meant wide receivers needing additional time to get separation against quicker defensive backs.
This is why the cut block – an offensive lineman rolling into the defender below the knees to take his feet out from under him – drives the triple-option and it fits the academies. It levels the playing field when smaller linemen fire out to open a quick-hitting hole.
The textbook example of leveling the playing field unfolded earlier this year when Army took Oklahoma to overtime before losing. The Black Knights controlled the ball 44:15 to the Sooners’ 15:19 time of possession.
But despite the concerns in some corners, one authority could paraphrase Mark Twain, saying reports of the triple-option's death are greatly exaggerated. Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, who is on his way to the College Football Hall of Fame through success that is now his 11th Annapolis season, says alarm bells over the triple-option’s future ring too loudly.
“People make a big deal about it, but you look at every offense and everybody cuts,” Niumatalolo said. “I think a lot of other people have had to adjust how they slide protect or zone block and cut the edge man on line of scrimmage. I don’t think it has affected option football at all.”
Army coach Jeff Monken clarified his past remarks about the triple-option’s future. He said the Black Knights, who are 3-2 with their only losses to Power 5 schools Oklahoma and Duke, can still run the offense effectively. His concern, he explained, was future rule changes altering the game’s nature.
“They changed the rules for blocking below the waist, but they haven’t cut it out completely,” Monken said. “The coaches are wise enough to realize it would be insane to cut out cut blocking all together. If they do it’s going to go the way I’ve talked about; it’ll be flag football. It’s not going to be the same game. It’s a physical, tough game. What I love is we play a physical, tough style of offense.”
Fans may not pick up on the nuances of cut blocks in the trenches, but cut blocks also are now forbidden on the perimeter. Blocking for sweeps, screen passes or by wide receivers outside the 5-yard are spots the new rule’s differences can be noted.
The triple-option was wildly popular with teams throughout the 1970s and 1980s – the Texas wishbone and Oklahoma triple-option won national titles -- before relaxed pass defense rules opened the current trend toward passing games.
Far fewer teams run the triple-option these days – Georgia Tech under Paul Johnson is an even rarer example at the Power 5 level – but as Niumatalolo says, “the teams that are running it are successful.”
Before Johnson landed the Georgia Tech job, he enjoyed success at Navy. Niumatalolo and Monken were both on his Navy staffs; Monken also coached under him at Georgia Southern.
Johnson showed what the triple-option offense means to service academy football when he took over Navy a program that went 0-10 in 2001. His second year, in 2003, he guided Navy to its first bowl in seven years and only the Midshipmen’s second since 1981.
Johnson coached Navy to five straight bowls before Georgia Tech called. He has continued to use the offense successfully at the Atlantic Coast Conference school.
Niumatalolo, who succeeded Johnson, has guided the Midshipmen to continued success, including while the program stepped up to the American Athletic Conference.
In 2015, Navy finished the year 11-2, tied Houston for the AAC West Division title and was ranked No. 18 in the final Associated Press and USA Today polls. In 2016, Navy won the AAC West outright.
Last year Monken lifted Army to a 10-3 record, beating Power 5 member Duke and eight Group of 5 teams, Temple, San Diego State, Rice, UTEP, Buffalo and Eastern Michigan.
The triple-option formula for academy success started with Air Force’s Fisher DeBerry, who in 2011 was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame based on his 21 seasons in Colorado Springs. DeBerry’s Falcons from 1984 to 2006 routinely gained Top 25 rankings and won three Western Athletic Conference titles.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe, one of the game’s elder statesmen, is an impartial authority outside the triple-option family to ask for a before-and-after perspective.
The Blue Devils lost at Army last year, but they beat the Black Knights in their 2018 season opener. Also, Georgia Tech is an ACC Coastal rival the Blue Devils face annually.
Cutcliffe and his staff have been watching film to prepare a game plan to face the Yellow Jackets Saturday in Atlanta. The Yellow Jackets certainly weren’t handicapped in last week’s 66-31 win over Louisville. They rolled up 554 yards total offense.
“I haven’t seen a change in option football,” Cutcliffe said. “Army was the same (last year and this year). It’s the same with Georgia Tech.”
Cutcliffe said he is sensitive to rules potentially handicapping service academy football, but at the same time he said he first falls on the side of player safety. He added he’s often discussed the issue with colleagues.
“There is really no change,” he said. “There is a possibility it can get to that point. But if player safety is the issue, then we’re (the coaches association) responsible. It’s no different than the new kickoff rule.
“If we have a problem, we’re responsible for continuing to look for the best path. I’m not resistant to change if it’s for the right reason. I don’t like giving player safety lip service. If we’re going to do something, let’s do it the right way.”
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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
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