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Diamond Backs – For a team with many playmakers, the Diamond formation may be the best way to showcase their talents.

by: David Purdum
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In April, after a West Virginia spring practice, a few Mountaineer defensive coaches strolled over to running backs coach Robert Gillespie with troubled looks on their faces. They had just been introduced to the new facets of the Mountaineers’ already-potent three-back Diamond set Head Coach Dana Holgorsen and Gillespie had been installing.

The defensive coaches’ initial reaction was shock. They said, “Man, that’s very tough to deal with,” Gillespie recalled. “They talked about how much they were going to have to work with the safeties on different run fits. And the thing that they really had problems dealing with was having their corner out there on an island against our best receiver, while the safety’s in the box. They said, ‘this is going to take some time to game plan for.”

Clemson had close to a month to prepare for West Virginia’s Diamond attack in the Orange Bowl. The Mountaineers hung 70 on the Tigers. Around the Big 12, defensive coordinators are sweating.

Dissecting the Diamond

Advantages of the Diamond formation are still being discovered, but the three-back set that isolates receivers and adds a power running element to spread offenses is already giving defensive coordinators headaches. In West Virginia’s Diamond or Trey package, as Gillespie calls it, the quarterback is 5 ˝ yards behind the center in a Pistol look. The quarterback is flanked by backs, lined up evenly with him in the B gaps. A third back is 2 ˝ yards directly behind the quarterback (See Base Formation – Diagram 1).

Holgorsen first began tinkering with the three-back formation in 2010 at Oklahoma State. “When you switch jobs, that’s the best time to change things up,” said Holgorsen. When he arrived in Stillwater from Houston to be Mike Gundy’s offensive coordinator, he inherited a unit that had just four returning starters. But Holgorsen quickly recognized that there were some talented playmakers among the newcomers, like a young receiver named Justin Blackmon and a deep stable of running backs. He just had to figure out how to get more of them on the field at the same time.

“We were sitting around in the office at Oklahoma State, kicking around ideas,” remembered Holgorsen. “Robert [Gillespie], Doug Meacham and few other guys were in there. We had a good group of backs and were messing around putting the halfback in the Pistol to eliminate some tendencies.” From there, Holgorsen surrounded his quarterback in the Pistol with split backs. “It wasn’t until that summer that we added that third back in there,” Holgorsen added.

Picked to finish near the bottom of the Big 12 in 2010, Oklahoma State went 11-2, averaging 44.2 points with the help of the innovative offensive formation that is flexible enough to utilize all types of personnel. “We always ran a two-tight end set with split backs,” said Holgorsen. “I think Justin Blackmon caught 15 touchdowns off that one set.”

When he assumed the head coaching position at West Virginia in 2011, Holgorsen started with three tailbacks, but rapidly introduced different types of personnel into the package. “As the season progressed,” said Gillespie, “we’d go no-huddle and put a bigger tight end back there and didn’t have to substitute. In the bowl game, [wide receiver] Tavon Austin was back there with two tailbacks.”

The initial benefit of adding a third back in the backfield was creating an extra blocker for “any safety that gets nosey in the box,” said Gillespie. But he admitted that he was still discovering positives from the formation.

“That first year at Oklahoma State, we went into it thinking it was going to help us in the run game, which it did, but we also found out that it was very good in creating a matchup problem between our best receiver in a one-on-one matchup with a corner,” Gillespie explained. “Now, we had seven blockers sitting in there, so we had a hat for that safety that wanted to sit in the box and stop the run. If he did that, we had Justin Blackmon, an All-American receiver, out there against a corner on an island.”

Holgorsen and Gillespie brought the Diamond to West Virginia and continued to tinker with it as they installed the offense in Morgantown. The ease of adding the formation to the original scheme and the versatility in personnel it allows is something that attracted Gillespie to the Diamond. “The great part about it is that you don’t have to steer too much away from your offense to add it in,” said Gillespie. “We can stay true to our zone principals.”

West Virginia’s offensive staff spent more time developing and adding to the Diamond prior to the season. “We started doing basic divide zone,” Gillespie said. “We had an extra hat to go backside and cut off, create the running back once he fit through and we led up on the front-side backer with the lead fullback, creating a one-on-one with the safety.

“If the safety comes up in the box to stop the run, then your QB has the option of raising up and throwing either a fade route or post to that isolated receiver based on what the safety wants to do,” he continued. “If the safety wants to play down in the box to stop the run, we’ll throw the ball behind him. Or, if he gets out there and wants to take away the post or the comeback or help the corner on the fade route, now we’ll just hand the ball off and run it. It gave us a lot of opportunities to put the defense in a no-win situation. Off the inside zone, we just added the outside zone. We have some reverse concepts off it and then, as the season progressed, we started doing some play-action stuff off of it. In the Orange Bowl, we had a whole month to figure out different things to do off it.” The results were impressive.

Doing the Diamond since 2002

Holgorsen and Gillespie are quick to point out that they weren’t the first to use the formation. Legendary Illinois high school coach Ken Leonard added what he called the Zac-bone - his version of the Diamond - in 2002.

Heading into his 29th season at Sacred Heart-Griffin, Leonard is 267-56 with three state championships. In the spring of 2002, he visited Urban Meyer at Bowling Green to learn more about the spread offense. Leonard adopted a lot of the spread principals but felt like he needed to add a power running element, especially against the 3-5-3 defenses he was seeing more often.

“There are some big bubbles in a 3-5-3, so that was something we could attack with some power,” Leonard said. “If teams were read and react defenses, then we felt that we could smack them in the mouth a little bit and push them.”

In his first season utilizing the Zac-bone, he had a big H-back and a pair of quality tailbacks. “I put my big tight end, fullback-type kid behind my quarterback,” said Leonard. “Then, I put my two tailbacks next to the quarterback.”

He started running some load option and triple option out of the Zac-bone. He went unbalanced with one wide out, he covered his tight end or brought the tackle over toward the split end for an unbalanced look. “We ran the triple, where we faked the dive and brought the backside tailback and the fullback (behind the quarterback) led and we read the outside backer,” Leonard described. “The wide receiver blocked the corner. The other thing we did was run Belly with it. We down blocked and the guard pulled and kicked out, then we’d hand it to the tailback to that side.”

Now, Leonard has added even more power sets to his Zac-bone as he continues to see defenses go with more three-man fronts against his spread options. “Against the 3-man fronts, we’ll go unbalanced,” Leonard said. “We’ll double-team the Mike linebacker with the guard and center. The tackle will base block the 4-tech. My lead back on the playside will go to the stack linebacker to the left. I will pull the backside guard around, just to help out on anything, and then I would run the tailback up through and the backside back was my pitch.” (See Diagram 2 – The Counter Play against a 4-2 defense).

In Leonard’s version of an Iso option to the weak side out of the Zac-bone, the center and guard on the weak side will double-team the nose guard. The tackle on the two-man side then scrapes around to block any defender that shows up on the outside. The lead back goes up through the B gap to the linebacker (See Diagram 3 – The Veer Iso against a 4-2 defense).

We’ll run dive to the tailback, reading the 4-tech,” Leonard said. “If the 4-tech comes down, the quarterback will keep and then will option off the corner to the pitch man.”

Leonard also runs basic power plays out of the set to either side. “To the three-man side, we’ll down block to either the four or the five back to the Mike,” he explained. “The lead back, which is usually a fullback, will kick out. The other back to the other side, will pull up around for the playside linebacker. Then, we’ll just run power that way.

“If you really want to go power, our center and guard will double-team,” Leonard added. “Against a 3-man stack, we will pull that backside guard. He’ll have a kick out with the back also pulling around and then just a power.”

Overall, Leonard says his team is much more of a spread offense than a three-back team, but he does believe it’s an important element to have. Like at West Virginia, Leonard emphasizes the personnel element of the three-back look and appreciates the fact that he didn’t have to change the fundamental principles of his running game to implement the three-back game. “We’re a gap team and an outside-zone team, so we’re not going to change that,” Leonard. “But we’re going to adjust our personnel.”

In the passing game, Leonard says, the Zac-bone forces a defense to cheat a defender toward the wideouts. “It’s a run set, but what is the defense going to do?” he asked. “Are they going to single you up out there? They’ve got to cheat a guy over there when you have good wideouts. When you go two split, it’s kind of like a double-wing. When you do throw the football, it’s a whole different animal. We always put our best receiver at the single, and anytime we get one-on-one out there, we’ll have a choice route,” Leonard added.

Diamond’s biggest benefit

As coaches continue to expand on the Diamond formation, new advantages will continue to be discovered. But the most important one in Gillespie’s opinion is how easy it is to add to the offense.

“The biggest benefit is that it didn’t take us long to practice it,” said Gillespie. “We just took anything we did in the run game and added it into the mix. On the other hand, for a defense to prepare for it every week, it may take 30 or 40 minutes. It gives us an advantage. The defense has to work on it – I guarantee it.”


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