Summer Study: Orbit motion in the flexbone option offense

·7 min read

Summertime in the football media space is my favorite time of year. Removed from the hustle-and-bustle of the regular season, the playoffs or even the draft, time can be spent studying schemes and learning more about the game we all love.

This summer, for me, is about returning to the roots. Specifically, flexbone/option offenses. While you are probably familiar with the teams employing these designs on the collegiate level (Army, Navy, Air Force, Georgia Southern) the offense that took the college football world by storm last season, Coastal Carolina, also has its roots in these systems. As illustrated by Ted Nguyen from The Athletic in his masterful dive into the Chanticleers offense:

In 2020, the Chanticleers proved that their offense wasn’t just a novelty. They scored 37.2 points per game and finished with their first undefeated regular season. Although they lost to Liberty, 37-34, in the Cure Bowl, Coastal Carolina finished 14th in the final AP Top 25. Their offense was born and evolved out of necessity.

“It’s a 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two receivers), spread-option offense,” Coastal Carolina co-offensive coordinator Willy Korn explained. “We’re going to get into a bunch of different formations and have a bunch of different motions and shifts and different presentations but run a lot of the same core concepts over and over and just try to window dress them the best we can. At the end of the day, it’s option football, option concepts but not in the traditional sense.”

Chanticleers head coach Jamey Chadwell began his coaching career at North Greenville, where there was a big talent and resource disparity between his team and the schools in its conference. He knew he couldn’t just run the same scheme that everyone else was running and expect to be successful. He needed an edge.

“(Chadwell) spent a lot of time and visited with Wofford College,” Korn said. “They are an FCS program in South Carolina that has been really consistently good for a really long time. They are a gun triple-option team. They are a little bit different from the service academies. I guess Air Force gets into the gun a little more now, but Wofford is different because they do everything from the shotgun — not everything but a majority of their option stuff was from the gun.”

So as we get ready for another fall, we’ll be spending some time this summer here at Touchdown Wire diving into various elements of these offenses. We start with a look at motion, specifically “orbit” motion, and how it sets up a few different plays.

Here is a basic “spread” 2×2 formation:

Now let’s put one of the “A backs” in orbit motion before the snap:

As you can see, one of the backs starts in motion behind the formation, and aims behind the “B back” in the offense. This is how orbit motion looks on paper, now let’s add it to some run designs.

First is a basic triple option design, with the B back running the dive and the motion back serving as the pitch player. Here is what that looks like on paper:

And here you see Army running this design against Middle Tennessee State:

The motion back starts in motion just before the snap, and that puts him in position to relate to the quarterback as the pitch man. The QB takes the snap, works the dive option with the B back, and pulls the football to then come down the line of scrimmage to read the end man on the line, in this case an outside linebacker. That defender does a good job of trying to split the two (the quarterback and the pitch man) and ends up dragging the QB down for a loss.

Also, you might notice how MSTU staggered their defensive tackles back off the line. More on that later this summer.

You can also use orbit motion on a “lead option” design, where the orbit player is not the pitch man but rather a lead blocker, along with the playside A back. The quarterback and the B back run what looks like speed option, albeit with two lead blockers in front of them to handle the playside cornerback and safety. The end man on the line of scrimmage is left unblocked, and the QB will read and pitch off of him:

And now you see Army running that against MTSU:

Note: This is very similar to the “load option” design, with the difference being that on lead option the end man on the line of scrimmage is left unblocked. On load option, that player is blocked and the quarterback will end up reading the cornerback.

Another run design that pairs well with the use of orbit motion is the “rocket toss,” a play that relies on speed to get to the edge. Here is that design drawn up out of a “twins” alignment:

On this play, Navy runs the rocket toss using orbit motion against Temple:

Upfield penetration from the linebacker knocks the pulling guard off his path, which helps prevent this from becoming a much bigger gain. But you can see how the speed of this play, coupled with the convoy of blockers that get in front of the ball-carrier (the playside A back and the two pulling offensive linemen) can make this an effective run call.

So far, all of the designs and plays we have looked at involve using motion in the direction of the playcall. That is why this next element — “orbit return” — is perhaps my favorite use of motion in these systems. The motion player starts in orbit motion, but then “returns” back towards his starting point at or near the snap:

A foundational principle of these offenses is that you force defenses to play assignment-strict principles. But when you layer motion into these designs, that can wreck havoc on the assignments as defenders have to adjust in real-time. Let’s see how this orbit return motion can impact a defense, as it does on this example from Army against MTSU:

The A back on the right starts in orbit motion, but then at the snap reverses course and aims for where he began the play. You’ll notice the safety across from him initially slides in response to the motion, and what that does is give the motion player a better blocking angle. The safety fights to get back to outside leverage to force this run to the inside, but the A back who started in motion is able to cut block him and give his teammate additional space and yardage.

Here’s Navy against Temple with the same design, using orbit return motion on the option:

Of course, today a lot of this need to be viewed with an eye towards Coastal Carolina. Also of course, the Chanticleers incorporate these movements into their system. On this play against Kansas, you see the orbit motion element, which becomes the “pitch” player in this design:

Or on this design, with the orbit player serving as a more traditional pitch option:

Then of course there is orbit return, which Coastal Carolina uses here with the motion player releasing on a swing route in the passing game:

We will have more on the passing game elements from these offenses as the summer rolls on.

But those are some of the ways that these teams incorporate both orbit and orbit-return motion into their playbooks. And with the explosion of Coastal Carolina this past season — and the fact that this is after all a “copycat sport” — you might see even more teams using these elements in the fall.

(Such as Alabama, who used a lot of both orbit and orbit-return last season).