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TDG Football Seminar-What is a RPO?

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NCAA Football: Minnesota at Oregon State Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to TDG’s Football Seminar. Today we will be taking a look at one of the essential concepts of Minnesota’s offense-the Run Pass Option or RPO.

Before we start defining what a Run Pass Option is, let’s first define what it is not. An RPO is not a simple read option. The word Pass is important. Second, not every play in the playbook is an RPO, though every play could conceptually be one. Demry Croft’s touchdown run at the end of Oregon State game was not an RPO because there was not an option to pass the ball. He read the defender, kept the ball, and sprinted to daylight. He did not have another read after that.

So if a RPO is not simply a read option, what the heck is it? A RPO is a play that is designed to put a specific defender in conflict, should he defend a wide receiver route, or should he defend against the run. If run correctly, the point of a RPO is to make this defender wrong every single time. Keep in mind that the play is designed to put some defender in conflict, not necessarily the same defender. For example, let’s look at this play that Western Michigan ran last year.

Western Michigan’s offense last year was, with some exaggeration, throw the ball to Corey Davis. The formation may seem familiar because the Gophers lined up in this exact formation over 20 times against Oregon State. Here Davis is lined up in the slot at the top of the screen and is being shadowed by a linebacker as well as safety help over the top. WMU is going to target the linebacker on this play. The primary option on the play is a Run, specifically an inside zone. The linebacker shoots up to close his assigned gap on the run. As a result, he has now vacated space that Corey Davis walks into. Zach Terrell tosses Davis the ball and Davis proceeds to accumulate yards after the catch.

When done well, you could run an entire offense that is just RPOs. Auburn puts some kind of pass tag on most of its running plays. It’s usually a bubble screen or a hitch and go route to the side that the QB will run towards. Conor Rhoda does not have the same mobility as Nick Marshall, but there’s reason to believe that the Gophers will implement an RPO with a similar bubble screen option.

RPOs are far more prevalent in college than the pros because the rules about lineman downfield are different. In college, an offensive lineman may be up to three yards downfield before he is considered an ineligible man downfield, in the NFL this is reduced to just one. The defense, usually the linebackers, read the offensive line to determine what kind of play is being run. This is why an oft repeated aphorism is to sell a play action fake pull a guard. When a guard pulls (leaves his assignment on one side of the field to go block someone on the other side), this usually means that it’s a run play. Similarly, lineman pushing upfield instead of staying back usually means run. After all, why would you try and block people downfield if the goal is to set up a pocket? The three yard rule is flagrantly abused by offenses in college. I am sure that it has been flagged at some point, and with Minnesota’s history will probably happen to the Gophers this year, but that would be a rarity. Referees seem unwilling to ever throw the flag.