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Cal football film room: Air Force's veer triple option

Cal is tasked with stopping one of football's greatest concepts

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The veer triple option is one of football's classic plays.  With roots dating to Don Faurot's split T at Missouri in the early 1940s, the triple option has powered many of college football's most prolific offenses - from Bud Wilkinson's 47 consecutive win Oklahoma Sooners to Bill Yeoman's Houston split back veer (which still powers Bay Area juggernaut De La Salle High School) to the Wishbone that drove National Championship teams at Texas, Alabama, and Oklahoma to the flexbone that continues to consistently place the service academies among the top rushing teams in the country.

So, what is the veer?  Faurot sought to create a play that mimicked a 3 on 2 fast break in basketball.  To do so, the offense does not block two defenders, known as option keys.  For the inside veer, these are the first two defenders outside of the play side guard. This allows the front side blockers to double team or block downfield, which is why the offense is a "big play" running offense.  The dive back hits the hole hard, between the guard and tackle.  This is the quarterback's first read - while there are many different teaching methods, essentially he hands to the back unless the back will be tackled or if the option key's shoulders are perpendicular to the line of scrimmage (making it hard for the option key to also play the quarterback).  If the quarterback keeps the ball after the first option, he continues to the next option key, with a similar read.  If the key attacks the quarterback or has his shoulders perpendicular to the line of scrimmage (numbers facing the quarterback), the quarterback pitches to the pitch back.  All the while, the offensive line seeks to wall the defense inside (made easier by the numbers advantage it gains by not blocking two defenders) while the tight end/wingback and receiver use various methods to block the secondary.

The play is the basis for service academy offenses for several reasons.  It allows the offense to succeed without having to drive defenders off the ball.  This is key for undersized teams, and allows them to rely upon quickness, toughness, and intelligence.  The offense is also good for teams who have less practice time and thus less time to game plan each week, because it does not require as much game planning for each specific opponent.  Many teams will create a new defense for their game against a veer based offense (a so called "defense of the week"), which is difficult for a veer team to predict.  Thus, it is more important for a veer based offense to continuously prepare for any defense that they might face, and less important to focus on a specific defense in the week leading up to a game.  This means that they can spend their entire season and offseason preparing to react to any defense that they might see, and do not need to "cram" to prepare for a new scheme each week.

What are the downsides to an offense built around the veer?  The veer is very time intensive - if you want to be a veer team, you have to fully commit to it.  You cannot be a veer team and try to dabble with another system on offense and expect to be good at anything you do.  Thus, your system will lack flexibility and a traditional passing game.  The flexbone (which is the wishbone with backs flexed to the wings) somewhat rectifies the passing issue, with four immediate vertical passing threats.  But while some teams can pass well out of the flexbone (often incorporating run and shoot concepts), the vast majority of practice time must be dedicated to the ground game, which is where the offense will live and die.

Full disclosure: I ran the split back veer for two years as a head coach in Denmark, and this was when we found our greatest success - a co-championship and 10 game winning streak (before injuries, retirements, and other personnel losses dictated that we had to rebuild with another offense).  As a coach, I liked facing aggressive defenses with one or no safeties that loaded the box.  These defenses would often make stops for no gain because of their numbers, but I knew that if we hit a crease, it was a big play or touchdown, and it opened up a simple play action passing game.  Of course, talent discrepancies account for much of the results, and Cal has a talent advantage - but Air Force is used to that.  The defenses that I felt were hardest to play against had two safeties and reacted to the ball - we could often get a few yards, but it was hard to break a big play.  This style of defense is what I would hope Cal would run against Air Force, as (I believe) it would best allow their talent advantage to shine, without the risk of big plays.  This style is not overly aggressive and does not seek to create a ton of plays behind the line of scrimmage (aggressiveness that a well run veer team will exploit), but rather keeps shoulders squared, muddies option reads, rallies to the ball, and tries to make plays in the 0-2 yard range.  There is no correct answer to the question of how to attack such an offense, only personal preferences - overwhelming with numbers at the line of scrimmage certainly can work well (and at times did in my personal experience).  This is just something to keep an eye on - whether Cal will play with two safeties and slow play the option, or whether they will play a more aggressive, attacking style.

Below is an example of a basic Air Force veer triple option.

AF veer 1

The assignments - the two option keys are squared.  Note the basic concept of the play - wall the defense inside, hit the outside with one of three options (the dive back is obviously most likely to hit straight ahead, but if the veer is blocked perfectly and executed as on paper, he will also bounce to the outside behind the wall).

AF Veer 2

You can see that the defensive lineman's shoulders are turned. He can tackle the dive back, and cannot react to the quarterback. This is a clear keep read for the quarterback.

AF veer 3

The next option key has his shoulders turned to the quarterback. He can tackle the quarterback, and cannot tackle the pitch back. This, again, is an easy pitch read for the quarterback. Also note that the first option key has tackled the dive back.

AF veer 4

The play has achieved its goal - Air Force has the ball on the perimeter with space.

Air Force is more than just a flexbone team. They will have more formation variety and will attempt more concepts than will other flexbone teams. But at their core, everything is built off of their ability to run the ball, and the veer triple option remains the staple play. Stopping the veer will put Cal in good position to put the cap on a nice rebuilding season. Not doing so will give a smart, tough, and skilled Air Force team the chance to shrink the game, keep the Bear Raid off the field, and have a chance to win.

And if you hadn't noticed, I greatly admire veer based offenses.  I was happy to see this matchup - the chance to watch the Golden Bears as well as a style of offense that is based on deception and execution and that is truly unique in today's spread offensive world is a treat, in my opinion.