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The Option: Still an Offense of Beauty

by: Rex Lardner
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In a recent viewers poll conducted by ESPN research after the October 15 USC-Notre Dame historic match-up, people were asked to vote on the best regular season football game in the past 50 years. The winner: the ND-SC encounter that left Trojan fans relieved and Notre Dame followers emotionally drained.

The game had everything a viewer could want: outstanding plays on both offense and defense, a lead changing hands a number of times, and a dramatic and controversial finish as Trojan quarterback Matt Leinart scored on the last play of the game. One writer mentioned that there were four Heisman candidates on the field that day: Leinart, Reggie Bush and LenDale White for USC and Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn.

What was interesting, offensively, is that both colleges ran the pro-set offense, sometimes with a single back formation but often with multiple wideouts. Similar to many NFL offenses, the trend in college – at all levels – is to use more and more the spread formation and variations of an aerial attack. Let’s face facts: colleges are throwing more than ever before in an effort to attract the best skilled recruits possible.

The evolution of the offense was included the single wing, variations of the T formation, the wing T, the pro set in a variety of formations and the option, among other offenses. A major offense of the 60’s and 70’s, coaches recruited versatile runners – more than passers – to play quarterback in the option offense. Who can forget the succession of great option quarterbacks at Oklahoma under Barry Switzer in the 70’s and 80’s: Jack Mildren, Jamelle Holloway, and J.C. Watts, to name a few.

The regular season game that finished second to October’s USC-Notre Dame contest was the 1971 Thanksgiving Day game that matched the #1 and # 2 teams in the country: Oklahoma and Nebraska. What’s interesting is that Mildren, an option quarterback, led the Sooners that day while the Cornhuskers countered with a basic T formation led by quarterback Jerry Tagge, fullback Jeff Kinney, and wide receiver Johnny Rodgers. Nebraska scored in the last few minutes to win, 35-31.

Some of the colleges running forms of the option today are Rice, Navy, Air Force and Georgia Southern. Limitations on skilled athletes is one reason for the option being used at these schools, but it still remains one of the more popular offenses on the high school level.

This issue of American Football Monthly reflects on the option in a number of ways:

• Our tenth anniversary celebrating Schutt Sports Coaches of the Year includes an interview with Navy head coach Paul Johnson. Having rejuvenated Navy’s fortunes, Johnson won back-to-back NCAA Division I-AA championships with the option at Georgia Southern.

• A feature – ‘Innovators of the Option ’ – discusses the development of the option offense and what’s need to make it effective. Johnson, Air Force’s Chuck Petersen, Georgia Southern’s Mike Sewak, and Rice coach Ken Hatfield give their views on the subject.

Also interviewed in the feature is Warren Central (IN) High School Coach Kevin Wright. After being doormat in a pro set, Wright has revitalized WCHS’s attack by installing the option as the Warriors shoot for their third straight state crown this fall. The option is still alive and well…

We hope you enjoy this month’s issue of AFM.


Rex Lardner
Managing Editor
American Football Monthly


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