Breaking Down the Oregon Offense
The University of Oregon’s football team has been associated with explosive offenses since Chip Kelly arrived as offensive coordinator in 2007, and subsequently became the head coach in 2009. Mark Helfrich took over after Kelly left for the NFL, and together with Marcus Mariota put up record setting offensive numbers, leading the Ducks to the inaugural College Football National Championship game. Since then, Oregon has struggled to find consistency, replacing Helfrich with Willie Taggart, who left after one season for Florida State, with Mario Cristobal being promoted from co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach to head coach.
Cristobal’s promotion meant that the Ducks would have some consistency with the playbook and offensive scheme, but still suffered the typical ups and downs of a first-year head coach. This led to a frustrating season for Oregon fans, finishing with a 9-5 record that featured exciting wins over eventual PAC-12 champion Washington, but tough losses to Arizona and Washington State where the offense struggled to put up points. Even their Redbox Bowl win versus Michigan State left doubts, as the Ducks scraped out a tough 7-6 win with barely 200 yards of offense.
Expectations are high for the Ducks in 2019 with Cristobal and senior quarterback Justin Herbert returning, with sights set for the college football playoffs. In order to get there the Oregon offense will need to take the next big step forward. I took a look at how Oregon can take that next step by looking into their favorite plays, schemes, and personnel groupings from last season.
2018-19 Team Rankings
While these are respectable rankings for a team, especially under a first-year head coach, if Oregon wants to compete for a national championship this coming year, they’ll have to find a way into the top-15 or top-10 in total and scoring offense. That is where the juggernauts of the college football world like Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, and Ohio State routinely rank.
Looking at their season statistics, it’s clear that while Oregon runs a fairly balanced offense (running 55.8%, passing 44.2% plays), Cristobal wants to run the ball. This is no surprise looking back at Cristobal’s history as a player and a coach.
Cristobal played offensive tackle for the two national championship Miami Hurricane teams of the late 1989 and 1991. Following his dismissal as head coach at Florida International, he took over as the offensive line coach, assistant head coach, and recruiting coordinator for Nick Saban and Alabama. There he recruited and developed future top NFL picks Ryan Kelly and Cam Robinson, while leading dominant run first offenses. Cristobal has taken the same philosophy with him to Oregon, developing arguably the best offensive line in the country and emphasizing a strong ground attack.
Returning as offensive coordinator is Marcus Arroyo, who has experience calling plays at various levels of college football, and even a one-year stint as interim offensive coordinator the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2014 under Lovie Smith. Arroyo has experience in a variety of offensive systems, including Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State and Todd Monken, now with the Cleveland Browns. Arroyo’s experience with different systems shows in the variety of plays he utilizes.
While the exact details of what personnel groupings Oregon likes to run weren’t available, I was able to track what they ran in five games that were available to me to get a better picture. In the Bowling Green, Stanford, Washington, Washington State, and Arizona games Oregon operated out the following personnel groupings (formatted ## with the first number being the number of running backs and the second number the number of tight ends on the field):
The two smaller unlabeled slices, were one play each out of 23 and 13 personnel near the goal line. In addition, Oregon operated out of the pistol 76.2% of the time and out of shotgun the other 23.8%.
This information matches up with Cristobal’s desire to run the football. The pistol formation allows Oregon to run the ball more effectively to both sides of the field and the use of inline tight ends allows for added blockers. Oregon primarily used the shotgun on obvious passing downs or in the two-minute drill when they were trying to move down the field quickly. While they do like to line up their tight ends flexed in the slot, the majority of the time they were used traditionally inline. Oregon rarely utilized an empty backfield, preferring to have their running backs run routes out of the backfield.
Oregon utilized a variety of formations with their different personnel groupings, with the common trend of using bunch or stacked formations to force defenses into off coverage and manufacture free releases for receivers off the line of scrimmage.
The Ducks primarily run a zone blocking scheme, that their experienced, athletic offensive line runs exceptionally well. The Ducks will be returning all of their starters from last year, and have a chance to win the Joe Moore Award for the nation’s best offensive line unit. Senior’s Calvin Throckmorton, Jake Hanson, and Shane Lemieux will be starting for their fourth consecutive years at right tackle, center, and left guard respectively. In addition, Dallas Warmack will be returning for his senior year at right guard, and top ranked recruit Penei Sewell will be returning at left tackle after a promising freshman season.
In the backfield the Ducks have leading rushers CJ Verdell and Travis Dye returning, after strong freshman seasons. In addition, they’ll have excellent depth with Cyrus Hibibi-Likio and incoming four-star freshmen Sean Dollars and Jayvaun Wilson.
Rounding it out, tight ends Jacob Breeland and Ryan Bay will be returning, with Cam McCormick returning from a season ending leg injury he suffered in the season opener last year. This unit showed they were capable of handling their own as run blockers, both as traditional inline tight ends and H-backs.
The Ducks rushing offense consists of a basic zone concepts that they do a good job disguising with different formations and pre-snap motions. This includes basic inside and outside zone, split zone, pin and pull, counter, and the read option variations off of these. Below I’ll highlight a few of these concepts that Oregon successfully ran last year.
Inside and Outside Zone
The inside zone is a simple play, with the offensive line stepping in unison to the play side working together and the running back attacking the play side B gap. Oregon uses it from various formations, personnel, and off of different jet motions and split concepts as well. Below is one simple example, motioning wide receiver Brendan Schooler across the formation to simulate the jet sweep. The added motion occupies the inside linebacker, forcing him to take a shuffle step to the outside, making him late to come down hill and make the play.
Here are two separate instances of the Ducks running outside zone, and CJ Verdell reading the play beautiful. Running backs are often taught to read this as a “bounce, bend, or bang” from the outside-in. In this first instance CJ Verdell sees that tight ends Jacob Breeland and Ryan Bay are able to hook the outside defender inside, allowing him to capture the corner. Verdell does a great job working through the arms of #45 for Arizona State and getting in the end zone. On the second play you see Verdell’s eyes start to the outside and see the outside linebacker setting the edge. His eyes work to his second read and see the defensive tackle working horizontally to close, leading him to look inside where he quickly gets vertical, not giving the backside defender a chance to cut him off.
The outside zone is a simple concept that Oregon consistently runs with a high level of success, mainly due to the athleticism and harmony of the offensive line. In the plays above they do an excellent job stepping together and working to the second level, with CJ Verdell having the vision to make the proper read.
The Pin and Pull
One run concept the Ducks had success with last year is the pin and pull sweep, a variation on the outside zone. This play can be seen executed to perfection in this 48-yard touchdown run by CJ Verdell in the 2nd quarter of the Stanford game.
Here the Ducks line up in 12 personnel on 1st & 10, with the tight ends Jacob Breeland and Ryan Bay to the boundary side. Stanford lines up so that both guards are left uncovered, with the center and both tackles covered. The covered linemen are going to “pin” the defenders directly across from them inside, while the uncovered guards are going to pull. Right tackle Calvin Throckmorton and Breeland do an excellent job on the 3T, washing him back and into the weakside linebacker, who gets caught up in the traffic jam. Bay uses an arc release and works directly to the outside corner at the second level, leaving the defensive end to get kicked out by right guard Dallas Warmack, and left guard Shane Lemieux to come around and clean out the middle linebacker. This leaves Verdell one on one with the safety, and the rest is history.
The Ducks run variations of this with sometimes the play side guard and center pulling, and others the backside guard and center pulling, depending on who is covered up or not.
The athleticism of Justin Herbert allows Oregon to use him as a dual threat to attack defenses. Even on designed running back handoffs, working from the pistol and shotgun sets allow Herbert to show a read option look the majority of the time.
In the play below, on a crucial 3rd & 4 late in the Stanford game, Cristobal went to the read option to get the first. On the snap, the tight end is going to come across as if its split zone, but instead of blocking the outside linebacker, lead to the second level. Herbert reads the outside linebacker, who collapses to the running back, and makes the correct read to take off for the easy first down.
This next play versus Washington is a nicely designed run that shows the threat of Herbert able to freeze up one defender, and allow CJ Verdell to pick up a nice chunk of yards. Both tight ends release to the second level, with the backside guard and tackle pulling. The outside linebacker (#92) has to respect Herbert’s ability to pull the ball, preventing him from crashing down the line, and allowing Verdell to make it to the second level untouched.
Oregon’s passing offense is well rounded, utilizing a variety of concepts to attack the field at all levels. Justin Herbert has the arm strength and accuracy to make every throw in the playbook, and Oregon has receivers and tight ends of different skill sets to utilize. A large portion of Oregon’s passing offense is built off their ability to run the ball, utilizing lots of play action and run-pass option concepts.
Oregon likes to utilize a quick passing game built on timing that maximizes their receiver’s ability to make plays after the catch. They tend to save most of their down field passes for play action passes. On intermediate and deep passes, Oregon loves to use crossing and switch routes to confuse defenders in zone or create traffic jams in man coverage to free up receivers down the field. Oregon also likes to move the pocket with designed bootlegs and rollouts for Justin Herbert, giving him the option to tuck it and scramble if need be.
Below, I’ll highlight some of Oregon’s most effective passing concepts from last year.
Quick Passing Game
To start out we have a staple play of any offense, and one many of us have probably used playing Madden or NCAA: the quick slant. Here in the red zone (we’ll get into more red zone passing concepts below) with the Ducks lined up in twins, they run a slant-speed out combo to the field side, and double slants to the boundary. The Cardinals are in cover 1-robber, with a single high safety and a linebacker covering the middle.
Herbert does a good job identifying man coverage and getting the ball out on time to his tight end out of his break.
On the next play, with the offense struggling against Arizona, Oregon was able to turn a quick hitter into a touchdown thanks to the post catch playmaking of Dillon Mitchell.
Oregon runs a double “China” with Mitchell and the second receiver running quick in breaking routes, and the third receiver running a corner route over the top. Arizona ends up bringing 6 men on the blitz, and rolling to a cover-2 look. The first underneath defender goes with the second receiver, leaving Mitchell uncovered. Mitchell is able to turn a quick pass into a long touchdown to give the Ducks offense life.
The next play we’re going to look at, is versus Washington on a crucial 3rd & 6. The Ducks go empty with Washington trying to disguise where they’re going to bring pressure from. Washington rushes five, playing cover-1 man across the board. The Ducks do a use tight splits to the boundary side, with Dillon Mitchell (#13) off the line of scrimmage, guaranteeing him a free release and forcing the defensive backs off of him.
The play itself is simple once they get this look, Mitchell runs a quick drag route while the other receivers ran clear our routes. Byron Murphy (the 33rd pick in the NFL Draft last year) is put in a tough position to cover him across the field. Mitchell is able to make a couple guys miss and turn an easy 1st down into a touchdown.
The mesh concept is a simple one that was recently popularized in the public by the Philadelphia Eagles in their Super Bowl win, and one most of you are probably familiar with. It’s an excellent play design as it can stress both man and underneath zone coverage alike.
Oregon liked to run the mesh and clear-out in order to give their speedier receivers like Dillon Mitchell the opportunity to make plays after the catch.
With Mitchell gone to the NFL, and the rest of the wide receiver group struggling last year, look for Cristobal to implement similar quick hitting concepts that simplify things for the receivers and allow them to create after the catch.
Naturally as a run heavy offense, Oregon likes to use play action to complement their passing game.
This first play showcases some of Cristobal’s creativity with use of personnel as well as Justin Herbert’s ability as a dual threat quarterback. Oregon lines up in pistol with 13 personnel with Dillon Mitchell in a tight split. It’s a critical 4th & 1 from the 7-yard line, with the game quickly getting out of hand versus Washington State.
The Ducks run a bootleg play action off of an outside zone look, with the offensive line blocking down to the left. Mitchell and the tight ends work a flood concept to different levels with tight man coverage. Herbert recognizes no one accounting for him on the rollout and quickly takes off for the easy touchdown.
Oregon also liked to work in their “big shot” plays downfield off play action. This can be seen on the play below versus Bowling Green.
Oregon does an excellent job disguising the play. Tight end Kano Dillon (#85) is going to motion inside and then begin his wheel route like he is going to block the outside corner before turning upfield. Johnny Johnson III (#3) is going to fake the crack block inside before turning it up the seam. On the backside of the play there’s just a simple post-out combo.
Bowling Green is in a simple 2-man. When the safety sees the right guard pulling he bites hard upfield. Johnson does a good job fighting through the jam, with the cross from Dillon creating extra space to work. Herbert sees the safety step up and lets it rip down the seam. It’s not a perfect throw, but Johnson is able to pull it in and fight his way into the end zone.
Oregon likes to utilize the switch routes like the one above with the inside and outside wide receiver to stress corners in man coverage or cause them to lose track of their assignments in zone.
Here’s one more example, once again from the shotgun going play action off of their zone split run. With a loaded box, a single high safety, and press corners on the outside, Arroyo saw a chance to take a shot downfield. Dillon Mitchell does a great job working through the press and stacking the corner. The Oregon offensive line gives Herbert a clean pocket and plenty of time to give a quick glance to the left to hold the safety in the middle of the field before dropping the ball into Mitchell down the right sideline.
With a strong run game, Justin Herbert’s arm talent, and an offensive line that is capable of providing extra time in pass protection, look for the big plays off play action to continue to be a big part of Oregon’s offense moving forward.
As with any football writer or commentator today, I of course have to mention the run-pass option (RPO). It’s been a popular addition to playbooks in college football and the NFL as a complement to a strong run and play action passing game, and the same is true for Oregon.
On this first play Oregon runs inside zone with the H-back leading. Both linebackers are sucked up and Herbert pulls the ball to zip it in to Dillon Mitchell on the quick slant coming in behind them.
This next play is also a staple of the RPO passing game. The Ducks line up in the shotgun with three receivers and their tight end all set to the field side. The number three and two receivers are going to run a bubble screen, while the number one receiver Brenden Schooler (#9) runs deep slant, and the tight end Jacob Breeland runs the seam.
CJ Verdell is going to run inside zone, with Herbert reading the inside linebackers. They both step up reading run, while the two slot defenders aggressively attack the bubble screen. This leaves Breeland wide open up the seam. Herbert puts a little too much air on the ball, but luckily Schooler is there to pull the ball in.
Intermediate and Deep-Passing Game
Here we have the infamous overtime interception play by Justin Herbert against Stanford. To the boundary side, we have a switch route, with tight end Jacob Breeland running the wheel route and Dillon Mitchell running the deep crossing route. To the field side we have Brenden Schooler and Jaylon Redd running double in routes. Travis Dye is going to run a delayed-out route after checking for work in pass protection.
The Cardinal are going to run quarters coverage, with both outside corners and the two high safeties sinking into their zones, and the nickel corner and inside linebackers playing underneath zone coverage.
Herbert is going to immediately look to the boundary side, but once he sees the safety and corner successfully pass off each route, he looks back to the two in routes. This is where it gets bad. Herbert clearly sees that the passing window that Brenden Schooler (#9) is going to open between the two underneath defenders. But instead of letting it rip, he hesitates just a little bit too long, bouncing on his feet instead of trusting his eyes. Instead of a touchdown, the corner has time to recover and drive on the route to force deflect the pass into the safety’s hands.
This is one of those Justin Herbert “wow” plays. It’s 4th and 14 in the season opener, and the offense had been struggling to move the ball. Down 10-0, and in that awkward distance to close to punt, but too far to attempt a field goal, Cristobal dials up a play to let Herbert just rip it.
Bowling Green comes out in off 2-man coverage. Herbert is able to hold the boundary safety with his initial read before seeing Jaylon Redd has his man and the safety beat. Herbert lets it rip, and drops it right in the bucket for the touchdown. This play jump started the offense that would end up rolling easily to a 58-24 victory.
Justin Herbert deciding to return for his senior season was a huge win for Oregon, and has led to fans going all in on a college football playoff berth. Even after only one season, Mario Cristobal has brought some much needed stability to the program, and set them on the right path, already bringing in two of the Duck’s best recruiting classes in school history.
The next goal will be to find more consistent play on the field. If Oregon is going to seriously compete for the PAC-12 title next year then they can’t have games like Stanford and Washington State last year. Late in the 3rd quarter versus Stanford, up 27-7 with a 1st & goal and the opportunity to end all hope for the Cardinals, center Jake Hanson snaps the ball too high, bouncing off Justin Herbert’s hands, and is recovered by Stanford for a touchdown. Oregon would go on to lose in overtime. Versus Washington State, it took Oregon until the third quarter to get in the end zone, after going down 27-0. While they were able to make a minor comeback, it ended up being too little too late, losing 34-20. Oregon has the players and tools to be a high-powered offense, but the play calling and execution needs to be more consistent.
Part of that solution will be more consistent and a high level of play from Justin Herbert. While Herbert has all the tools in the world to be a game wrecker, his anticipation, recognition, and poise all need to continue to improve. All the flashes were there last season, but those flashes need to turn into consistent play if he wants to elevate Oregon to the upper echelon of college football. Even with the emphasis on the ground game, I expect Cristobal to give more control of the offense to his quarterback and unleash him more.
The running game in 2019 should improve from last year, with all five starting offensive linemen returning along with CJ Verdell and Travis Dye. With four senior linemen looking to put a strong final season on their resume for the NFL and another season of tutelage under Cristobal, this unit should dominate.
The biggest question mark for the offense next year will be at wide receiver. Dillon Mitchell, who accounted for 38% of Herbert’s passing yards last season, left for the NFL, leaving a solid but unspectacular group behind. Johnny Johnson III and Jaylon Redd showed flashes last year as big play threats, but like the rest of the offense were inconsistent. The x-factor is Penn State grad transfer Juwan Johnson, who at 6’4” and 230 pounds is big bodied threat similar to what offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo had during his stint in Tampa Bay in Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans. Johnson and Herbert showed a strong connection during Spring Camp, and that’ll have to continue into the fall for the offense to grow.
The tight end group for the Ducks will be particularly deep next season with starters Jacob Breeland and Ryan Bay returning and Cam McCormick returning from injury. Breeland, McCormick, and Bay are all big bodied athletes capable of being mismatch weapons, as well as being valuable blockers in the ground game. Look for the continued use of 12 personnel and increased 13 personnel for short yardage situations in order to take advantage of the tight end experience.
Overall, Oregon’s offense is more than capable of putting up top-10 numbers next year and carrying the Ducks to their second college football playoff berth. The team should be more comfortable in year 2 of Cristobal and Arroyo’s system, leading to more consistent and efficient offense. I believe this is the year Justin Herbert puts it altogether, leading the team with his veteran offensive line to a top-10 offense in 2019, and competing for a PAC-12 championship.