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Football Concepts, Schemes, Formations: TDG Football Seminar Week 7

We discuss the Single Wing, the original football offense.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Week 7 of TDG's Football Seminar. For this week, we read two chapters on the Single Wing from Chris B. Brown's The Art of Smart Football.

The Single Wing

The Single Wing is perhaps football's first real formation. Invented by Pop Warner, the Single Wing recalls the original days of football when men were men and those men frequently were stricken with cholera. The Single Wing is a precursor to the shotgun, and by extension almost every modern offensive innovation. Shifts, motion, and deception are key to the Single Wing's success.

The Wing is more than just a formation. One of the most popular coaching books of all time, The Delaware Wing-T: An Order of Football, describes it as a full fledged offensive system. Philosophically, the Single Wing is a pure offense. There are base plays, then there are counters, and then there are counters to the counters. The offense takes what the defense gives, and makes decisions to make them wrong every time.

That sounds familiar for readers of this series because the goal of every offense is to put more offensive players in an area than defensive players. Back during the Single Wing's popularity, Bernie Bierman used the following unbalanced Single Wing formation to create the first team to win three consecutive national championships.

Nowadays, hardly anyone runs the Single Wing at the college level and above, but the offense sees heavy use in youth and high school football. That does not mean the principles have gone away. What used to be a deceptive snap is now a read. In the modern age, the spread zone read keys a series of actions based off of a defender. Guz Malzahn's HUNH at Auburn is one of the best modern examples of a Single Wing inspired offense.

Explaining the Single Wing

Based on my research, just about everyone who explains the Single Wing has a moustache. Here is a website where you can print out a cutout before we get started.

The Single Wing usually features four backs, a tailback, fullback, quarterback, and wingback. In the pure form, the quarterback never aligns under center. Instead, he lines up between the guard and tackle. Rather than the be the dictator of the offense, he's most often a blocker for a running back. The goal of the formation is to create double teams at the point of attack, and use deception to free up backs to find open space.

When effective, the defense's first challenge every play is to find the ball. The offense makes a play call based on defensive alignment, and then the defense must react. As we discussed last week when describing Michigan State's defense, defenses want to dictate to the offense. When a defense lacks the initiative, the offense is able to have the dual advantages of knowing the play call, and knowing where it's going.

Like the modern era, the center is the most important lineman in the Single Wing. His job is to snap the ball to one of the four backs and then find his man to block. These snaps must be accurate for the deception to succeed. The rest of the line's responsibility depend on the play call.

Updating the Single Wing

Everything new in football is an old concept with a wrinkle, and modern football owes much to the Single Wing. Guz Malzahn's playbook staple the Buck Sweep is a modern take on a Single Wing play. Here is a diagram of the Buck Sweep.

It should look a lot like Power. Most of the concepts are the same. The offense wants to cut off backside pursuit, freeze linebackers, get blockers going in front of the running back to open lanes, and build a wall away from the point of attack.

Now here's Auburn's update to the Buck Sweep.

In this formation, the QB will take the snap, and motion is optional. Still, despite a different start, the principles remain the same. Brophy had an excellent breakdown of every single player's offensive responsibilities here.

Modern defenses use a variety of tactics to overwhelm the offense. With updated principles of misdirection, offenses must now be able to counter defenses designed to exploit new weaknesses. One method is to use a fullback to arc block (the arc refers to the motion of the blocker) the read man. While this is not a pure single wing tactic, the subtle change to counter a defensive principle is pure Wing. Minnesota likes to use an arc blocker on zone reads.

The Single Wing lives on at the youth and high school level as a full fledged offense, and influences all levels of football. Creating a philosophy of plays that follow from the defensive formation and scheme, and building in counters is the core of offense development in the modern era. Motions are found in offenses as diverse as Boise State and Boston College. It would not surprise me if another coach reached back to the Wing to find another, perhaps forgotten, concept to wreak havoc on defenses in the future.

Readings for Next Week 

Next week, we are going to discuss Monster Mash, the chapter not the song.