The Puzzle of 22: How Mullen's Offense & the RPO Evolved

Updated: Jan 20, 2020

Kyle Trask evaluates the Tennessee defense—Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

It’s the puzzle of 22.

That moment before the football is snapped, everything—everyone—is still. In the space of a breath, each man can scan his eyes from sideline to sideline, take account of each body in relation to him, make assessments, adjust thinking, change a plan. But for half a second, no one moves. All 22 men know where each of the other 21 are; what they do with that understanding affects what comes next.

The ball is snapped and the shot slings those pieces every which way. That puzzle gets jumbled. The pieces are discombobulated. Now, beginning with the quarterback, in the space of a three—maybe five—second play, that puzzle must be put back together.

That’s how Brian Johnson, quarterbacks coach for the No. 7 Florida Gators, sees the RPO—run pass option—offense.

“Having a great picture and a great concept of the puzzle of 22 every single snap and not just worried about what the quarterback position is doing but how it all fits together, the more that they understand that, obviously the more you can do and the more creative you can get.

“From the quarterback position, once you can kinda understand that and make sure that all the pieces fit and got guys where they need to be and you can make— you gotta just make sure that everybody’s where they’re supposed to be and how you can manipulate it.”

The RPO has evolved over the years, as good offenses do, even now reaching the highest level of the sport. It’s labeled at times as sandlot football due to its tendency to quickly send quarterbacks willingly out of the pocket on something other than bootlegs. As such it’s complex in its simplicity; simple in its complexity…which is just a fancy way of saying it gives credence to improvisation on the quarterbacks part.

That’s part of of putting the puzzle back together.

Lamical Perine runs after the handoff versus Miami—Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

So what is the run pass option—a staple of Dan Mullen’s offense—exactly?

For lack of a better term, the RPO is a modern day triple option.

“You can hand it off, the quarterback can run, you can fake a handoff, fake the mesh point and throw it,” explains ESPN and SEC Network analyst Marcus Spears.

“It doesn’t help that offensive lineman can get three yards down the line of scrimmage either so it distorts the reads for defenses as well. But it’s an innovation that’s amazing.”

And, it is a numbers game. Every scheme in football looks to exploit advantageous matchups with each offensive identity dictating where the bulk of the attention goes. But the RPO is willing to take matchups in varying ways dependent just as much on the numbers as the personnel.

It’s the job of the quarterback to read the defense and his own unit before the snap, during and immediately after. Over the years, more and more passers have dropped back into shotgun for this very reason, so as not to have to turn his back to the defense and take away the read. So while a certain play may be called, there could be a multitude of options that branch off said call.

The five offensive linemen across the front are tasked with handling the defensive line and any blitz. A tight end can take a rusher and from there it’s about reading the secondary compared to receivers and the defensive end. If the defensive end crashes towards the running back, the quarterback can keep and rush to the edge where a zone is now vacant. If the end stays to contain, the quarterback can hand off to the back or still pull and throw a slant, a screen or down field. Or, he can sweep outside with the back shadowing along for a possible pitch.

Gator fans have seen all of those at some point this season but the last one came in a particularly exciting manner. In the win over Kentucky, down 21-10 at the time with just over 12 minutes to go in the 4th quarter, quarterback Kyle Trask went around left tackle on what first appeared to be a keeper. As he was being tackled to the ground, he pitched the ball—or sliced it up, as he describes—to running back Lamical Perine who scampered in for a touchdown.

It looked like, as mentioned above, backyard football. But it was built in from the beginning as an option. That’s why it’s not too shocking that Trask described a more recent play—a scramble on 4th and 3 to Kyle Pitts in the win over South Carolina—as just that as well.

“They were bringing a little pressure and I was looking for Josh [Hammond] over the middle but they dropped out under that and I was forced out of the pocket and you know it’s just, it basically turned into backyard football and you had to get three yards and make a play.”

So just how many options does a quarterback have on a particular play?

“It’s just so hard to answer,” admits former Heisman and National Championship Florida Gators quarterback—and current ESPN and SEC Network analyst, Tim Tebow.

“There’s so many different options, so many different choices, depends on the play. Certain times at Florida where we had the option to, depending on the defense, there’s so many things at play and now they put more into the same play…you’re kinda playing it on the fly.”

As long as the puzzle gets put back together with each piece creating the picture the offense wants.

One of the first to do this on a national level was Alex Smith at Utah under then head coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen. And in an ode to the birth of penicillin, it was born of an accident. On the sidelines was a freshman Brian Johnson, learning at the time from Smith, the Heisman finalist and still current quarterback (currently out inured) with the Washington Redskins.

"We were running a shovel play,” recalls Johnson, continuing, “and [Alex] pulled it and the guy came and we pitched it underneath. I do remember that; it’s interesting how in the game of football stuff like that develops.”

Meyer and Mullen had began experimenting with different offensive spread concepts while at Bowling Green, but in that moment, knew they had something special.

“A lot of things you stumble on come from that,” recalls Mullen.

“There are different route combinations when you see a guy kind of, ‘hey this guy is supposed to run across field’ and next thing he kind of pivoted out and ‘wow that opened up a huge area.’ Little things comes from those types of mistakes.”

Like all good things in the sport of football, the RPO evolved out of high schools in Texas. That’s where Chad Morris—current head coach for University of Arkansas—first began to mold the idea for 16 years before taking it to Clemson with Deshaun Watson and a National Championship. The Seattle Seahawks realized they could flip their playbook on its head with mobile quarterback Russell Wilson running more read option plays. And who can ignore Cam Newton and how he energized the Carolina Panthers offense. Joe Moorehead was brought in to replace Dan Mullen at Mississippi State and one of the perks was his ability to run the same offense, given the roster he was gifted.

Dino Barbers now runs the system at Syracuse but while running it at Eastern Illinois, he helped turn Jimmy Garoppolo into a 2nd round NFL quarterback (who currently has his team undefeated). Dak Prescott—a Mullen product—has worked with offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to shake up the Dallas Cowboys offensive playbook to the point whereas around 50% of the Star’s plays are RPO based. LSU brought in Joe Brady from the New Orleans Saints and has turned college football on its head this season simply by running the RPO offense that others have been using for a decade now. Granted, the No. 2 Tigers are shredding defenses—the Gators included—by running it to perfection.

Related: The RPO was born in high school and took over college. Now it's the NFL's favorite play

Each coach puts their own fingerprints on the scheme, tweaking it to his team and roster along with defensive adaptions. We can spend hours tracing all the different ways the RPO has risen through football, who has put their own spin on it along the way and where it is now. The fact that the roots can’t be seen for the branches though is what really gives the offense its identity, at least according to Dan Mullen.

“A lot of those come sometimes in seeing somebody else or seeing something that, you know, maybe wasn't done exactly right or someone made a mistake and you look at it and say, 'Hey, that can be a good idea. Let's really look into it and polish it up.”

The Philadelphia Eagles won a Super Bowl in the 2017-2018 season on the backs of a primarily RPO based offense. Of course the most memorable play of that RPO inspired season was the “Philly Special” which was technically more a wildcat with a twist as opposed to a run-pass-option, and featured a perfect pass from tight end Trey Burton, ironically a guy fully capable of running the RPO considering he was recruited to college to do just that.

Burton, a high school quarterback, was recruited by Urban Meyer to come to Florida and be one of the chess pieces in his offense . By then Meyer—and Mullen—had figured out how to adapt their playbook to a SEC grind. But by their own admission, that took time, self reflection and even humiliation that forged success.

After that initial Alex Smith improvised pitch in 2004, the Utah coaching staff began to tweak plays here and there to borrow—as Mullen mentioned—from things they’d seen while playing with some house money as well to see what they could get away with.

"Those early years we were innovative in trying a lot of new things that were out there,” reminisced Mullen.

“I thought we did a lot of that throughout our years. We've kind of looked and you kind of run some plays and you stumble into some things and you try some new things and creative things.”

And while the state of college football’s changing offenses at that time meant taking notes from different game films, Meyer, Mullen and that staff were able to create their own unique offense, unknowingly laying a foundation at the time in Brian Johnson that he’d be able to build off of now as the Gators quarterbacks coach.

“It was just so different,” remarks Johnson.

“We were getting such base defenses back then and there wasn't very much variation of what you were getting so the ability for us to go out there and kind of build it from scratch and kind of have trial and error to see what works and see what doesn't work, it's something that definitely worked out.

“We did kind of just tinker with stuff and at that point in time as we were building it, like I said, we had a chance to be really, really creative in what you were doing cause it was kinda trial and error. So just like a lot of things, you kinda go through periods messing stuff up and trying different things and it not working and finally get it to figure it out. It’s been good to see it evolve over the course of the last 15 years or so.”

They called it a spread and it’s the moniker Mullen still likes to use from time to time. But it’s a spread that leans on the run game. In other words, a RPO identity. No matter what you want to call it though, no one thought it would work at Florida. And for a while, it didn’t.

During their first season at Florida, in 2005, an early season 31-3 loss to Alabama and a 21-17 loss to LSU before the bye week had the coaches admittedly a bit dumbfounded. Following the LSU loss, Meyer called his staff early Sunday morning. He told them to cancel their plans and come to his house because ‘we’re going to revamp a bunch of things.’ They spent the day and into the night. During the bye week, they implemented their new ideas, marrying a new philosophy with the offensive style that had brought them that far up the coaching ladder.

It’s a weekend that Dan Mullen says changed him as a coach.

“For me as a young coach, probably a little bit of inexperience at the time, you just think, ‘I’m really smart, I know what I’m doing. We’ve created this scheme that is awesome and nobody could stop at Utah, so we just plug it in at Florida and it works.’ And it didn’t really fit the personnel that we had all that great.

“One of the things that we did is we went into that bye week and said, ‘OK, we’ve got to make sure we’re running stuff that fits the personnel that we have to go execute really well.’ So, we made some tweaks and we made some changes, especially during the bye week. That bye week was more then about putting in some new schemes that we hadn’t before. Then kind of, owning up on technique and fundamentals we don’t normally get. We kind of tweaked the offense around what fit our personnel for what we had here at the time and how to make it work.”

They realized they were trying to use different puzzle pieces to create an older picture. Once the new vision was established though, the pieces, well, fit. Quarterback Chris Leak was able to run the offense given to him that week and led the Gators to four more wins that season before spearheading a National Championship the following season.

It was followed up with a National Championship in 2008, thanks in large part—according to Tim Tebow—for the ever evolving style of the offense.

“I think a lot of it was early on when I got there so they were a whole lot of five wide at Utah and being able to get their athletes in space. And then the first year they’re at Florida, that defensive line is really good in the SEC and every defense has a good defensive line so they’re getting a lot of pressure so it was hard to adjust some things. So they did more with fullback with [Billy] Latsko at the time and being able to moon over him and give different looks so the defense wasn’t able to tee off and so that kinda changed a little bit and we just continued to adapt from there.”

Perhaps the biggest misconception about the RPO is its need for a mobile quarterback. It helps when your quarterback can take a hit, which is why Mullen was able to use Prescott, Nick Fitzgerald and Tim Tebow so effectively and made sure to bring in Cam Newton to take over the reigns behind Tebow. Oh, still too soon? Let’s move on then.

Dan Mullen and Tim Tebow celebrate the 2008 National Championship

As we were saying, it helps when your quarterback can take a hit since you are placing the ball in his hands for more contact plays than otherwise would be asked. But the most important part—as Mullen has repeatedly said—is the need for a “willing runner.” He had it in Feleipe Franks and has it now in Kyle Trask, both bodies around 240 lbs. For reference, that is Newton and Tebow’s size. Chris Leak that was not.

But for an offense that predicates itself on having multiple options each play, it would stand to reason that they are enough options that can cover having a variety of skill sets. To harp on the theme Brian Johnson built for us, as long as the quarterback knows how to put his particular puzzle back together, nothing else matters. Kyle Trask, for his part, has a 67.5% completion mark so far this season with 14 touchdowns to four interceptions and has added two rushing touchdowns.

“To me the biggest part in understanding it is understanding defense,” explains Johnson.

“Once you understand how can you put the defense in conflict and put those guys in a position to where they have a run responsibility and a pass coverage responsibility, and the different ways you can manipulate it and once you teach that, I think it makes it much, much easier. And to me it starts with the quarterbacks being able to have great confidence in identifying the run game and knowing who’s being blocked and who’s being accounted for in the run game.”

For longer than most defensive coaches like to admit, the RPO did in fact put them in conflict, until finally they said the “BUCK” stops here.

As the RPO offense has evolved, so have the defenses. Coaches fought it for a while, falsely thinking the new fangled scheme was a fad that would fade away. Instead, it’s adapted and the defense was forced to adapt as well or get left behind. The sign of a good coach is one who can change with the times, something Nick Saban has had to do in recent years at (current) No. 1 Alabama.

“It's much more challenging nowadays, and I think statistics bear this out. I think like 2010 or something, [2011] team, I don't know when, gave up eight, seven points a game per year. And I think now if you give up 15, twice as many as that, you'd be one of the national leaders," lamented Saban during the 2019 SEC Media Days.

“So it's been more challenging with the advent of RPOs, some of the rules we have in college football, certainly favor the offense, blocking down field on passes behind the line of scrimmage. I'm not complaining about the rules. I'm just saying it makes it harder to play good defense when you have some of the rules that we have, and we try to take advantage of those on offense, to be honest.”

Marcus Spears, a former defensive star for Saban at LSU and for Todd Grantham with the Cowboys, shakes his head and gets a passionate look in his eye when asked how defenses have adapted to the RPO, that same strain of exasperation that Saban presented evident in his voice.

BUCK Jon Greenard watches the Miami quarterback—Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

“It puts such a strain on defenses and puts you in a terrible predicament. That’s why now the ability to rush the passer and your linebackers and secondary being so good is paramount. Because you have to have guys that are super fast at the linebacker spot to play run and pass.

“[So the BUCK is] one of the most important players in football now. I played with one of the best to ever do it, Demarcus Ware. His ability to run, play in space, cover downfield. Those guys are being asked to do as much as anybody on the football field now because of how much area they have to cover. And the strain is put on them because they’re on the end of the line of scrimmage. So when you are running RPO, they have to make a decision to either go down and think the back is getting the ball. Try to play the quarterback if he pulls it. And then if you are late, you gotta have enough speed to get to the quarterback. So it just puts them in a predicament. That’s why you see a lot of special guys in that position.”

Dante Fowler Jr. played the position at Florida and parlayed his Gators career into a No. 3 overall pick in the NFL Draft. The Gators have possibly the best to do it since Fowler in the position now with Jon Greenard. He transferred from Louisville to play under Todd Grantham again and to play this position. Despite Greenard’s absence the last two games while recovering from an ankle injury, he’s still become arguably the Gators best defensive player this season thanks to his ability to be everywhere at all times on the field. And in a world now largely dictated by RPO’s, he knows the onus on his position and knowledge.

Related: Jon Greenard's Destiny

“They’re reading you. Most of the time, you’re not even getting blocked sometimes. They wanna read what you’re gonna do and if you bite down on the running back, he’s gonna pass it or take off running. So that guy’s really crucial. You have to make a smart decision and just do what you’re coached to do. And sometimes you gotta play a little bit, play with the quarterback a little bit, play with his mind, give him things he’s not used to…fake his reads. Give him something that he thinks we’re gonna do this and we come out of it and do something else. Just messing with his head, make him think something’s there when it’s really not.”

Of course as the defenses evolve and match the RPO, so must the offense. It’s cyclical and Brian Johnson—who has grown with the run-pass option from its inception in college—won’t be surprised when if it eventually fades.

“It kind of works in circles, the more people are around it and try to develop stuff. I think pretty soon people will be back in the I-formation and running downhill. It's been interesting to see how offensive football has evolved and the game has evolved in general over the course of the last 15-20 years.”

But that’s another puzzle for a later time.

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