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College Football Offensive Coordinators Must Be Watching More NFL

On the opening drive of the college football season, the Nebraska Cornhuskers lined up in “11 personnel,” a package that features one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers. Coach Scott Frost, marketed as an offensive guru after leading Central Florida to an undefeated 2017 season, used the grouping on 81.7 percent of his team’s offensive snaps in that game. On the other sideline, as his team inched closer to the end zone, Illinois coach Bret Bielema — himself a defensive-minded coach, who made his bones with tepid 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offenses at Wisconsin and Arkansas — dialed up some pre-snap motion that resulted in a touchdown. 

These two coaches with wildly dissimilar orthodoxies were both employing schemes commonly used in the NFL. Personnel packages and pre-snap motion aren’t exclusive to the pros, of course, but these specific examples reflect strategies that over the last decade have taken hold in the pros and are also surfacing in the college game.

In each of the past seven seasons, 11 personnel has served as the base offense in the NFL. 

Two seasons after then-coach Ben McAdoo relied on it for 90.1 percent of the 2016 New York Giants’ offensive snaps, Sean McVay raised the all-time mark with a 91.2 percent rate and led the Los Angeles Rams to an appearance in Super Bowl LIII.1 Only three teams last season used it on fewer than 40 percent of offensive snaps, and it was found on 57.5 percent of total offensive snaps — down from a high of 62.2 percent in 2018.

It’s not quite as widespread at the college level, but it was still used on 55.4 percent of offensive snaps in 2020. Many of the top offenses in the sport last season relied upon the package the most, including three teams — Clemson, Florida and North Carolina — that ranked in the top 10 in both offensive efficiency and percentage of snaps taken out of 11 personnel.

Motion has also come for the college game. At its core, motion is meant to inject variables into an opponent’s calculus and sow confusion — at the very least, it should test a defense’s assignment discipline.

Last season, more than 45 percent of NFL offensive snaps involved motion either before or at the time of the snap, the highest single-season rate for which data is available.2 Tampa Bay spent the 2020 regular season as a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of its use, and then incorporated it on 71.4 percent of offensive snaps in Super Bowl LV, the highest single-game rate by nearly 15 percentage points.

Why the leaguewide uptick? Well, because it works. Plays with pre-snap motion from 2017 to 2020 averaged 0.08 expected points added (EPA) per play and a success rate (the share of plays with positive EPA) of 46.3 percent, while those that didn’t averaged 0.03 and 44.2 percent. 

Motion has helped offenses in the NFL

Offensive success rate and expected points added (EPA) per play by type of motion employed per snap in the NFL, 2017-20

Situation Share of plays EPA/Play Offensive Success rate
With motion at snap 8.5% 0.08 46.3%
Set at snap 31.0 0.05 44.6
No motion 60.5 0.03 44.2

Share of plays is of all plays for which motion was recorded.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

College has been slower to adapt to the in-motion landscape. Last season, the rate of pre-snap motion was just 3.6 percent, which was still the highest mark since 2018 (the first season for which data is available). Success and motion go hand in hand at the college level, too; from 2018 to 2020 EPA per play more than doubled when motion was incorporated, and teams’ success rate jumped from 43.2 percent to 46 percent. Elite offenses like Alabama and Iowa State ranked in the top 10 in use of pre-snap motion in 2020.

Though these trends are more popular in the NFL now, their roots might actually be in the college game. The unified adoption of 11 personnel is likely a result of the pace-and-space modern offensive era and the proliferation of spread principles that were popularized in the college ranks. Opposing defenses have to consider four receiving threats and a run option, threats both vertical and horizontal that open up much-desired space for offensive skill players to operate. The package creates an environment where defenses, in the words of former Rams center John Sullivan, “have to prepare for everything all the time.” 

Offensive concepts are plucked from all levels, it seems — Kevin Clark of The Ringer defined this phenomenon as “the great merging of all levels of football.” The fly sweep, for example, is a staple of pre-snap motion and was first conceived of by a coach at a Division II program. A few years ago, I polled a handful of Division I head coaches about the adoption of offensive principles and schemes. Everything from the size of the ball to the design of the field differs, yet schematic inspiration seemed to be passed up, down and around the sport. One of the best offenses in NFL history and among the first in league history to operate almost exclusively out of shotgun?The result of Bill Belichick sending his coordinator to study the University of Florida’s offense. The run-pass option that came to define the sport for years? Born at the high school level

Some coaches, like Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, told me their programs look more to the NFL for play-calling inspiration. Others, like Western Michigan coach Tim Lester, said the flow of creativity often travels upward. All coaches agreed that creativity wasn’t lacking in the sport. 

“What’s radical becomes the norm two to three years later,” said former Tulane coach Bill Blankenship, who asserted that college football is more creative than it’s ever been. “In a lot of ways, these guys at the high school level are learning from colleges, but may also be willing to put a little more of a twist on it. And I think the NFL is trying to figure out how to embrace all of it, too.”

No coach is above poaching the fruitful ideas of others.

“I draw from everybody,” Lester said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a high school, you know, anyone that’s trying to find new ways. I’m willing to listen.”

So too it seems are Lester’s peers.

Footnotes

  1. The Athletic now even has a Rams podcast named after the go-to offensive formation.

  2. Since 2017.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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