The RPO has probably been the defining innovation of college football’s recent offensive revolution. If you ask a defensive coach, they’d tell you it’s tantamount to cheating and they aren’t entirely wrong. RPOs themselves have undergone a revolution of their own. No longer do RPOs just help you deal with that extra guy in the box, nor are they just a screen or a free-access route tagged to a run play. Offenses are now packaging entire quick game concepts into run plays and are attacking all levels of the field on the RPO. The advantages of this are twofold. First, it puts the defense in incredible amounts of conflict. The run fit responsibility of 2nd (and even 3rd) level defenders allows you to manipulate coverage structures and clean up the looks for your packaged quick concept.
For instance, UNC has a slant/flat concept paired with a zone scheme. The inside linebackers are forced into the run fit which leaves the apex defender there completely alone to defend the concept. It’s just too much for a defense to handle, especially if/when they put a 2 high beater on one side and a 1 high beater on the other. Keep in mind, that the defense still has to fit the run.
The other major advantage of RPOs is that they are just so assistive to the quarterback. Instead of having to read out a full 5-man quick concept with good timing on straight dropback (which requires precise technique and sharp process/anticipation), most of the mental legwork is done pre-snap.
In an RPO structure like this, you have a quarters beater to the bottom (Ohio concept) and a cover 3 beater to the top (stop route). In cover 3, the outside linebacker can often be asked to cover the flat to deal with these stop routes being thrown against their deep third corners. If you RPO the guy, he is in run/pass conflict and is wrong either way. Either he can’t make his run fit against the counter scheme they have called, or the flat is wide open under this stop route and the corner is too deep to get there in time (he has to account for the receiver vertically). For the QB, the read is super simple post-snap. The bulk of the decision is made pre-snap, when the bullets aren’t flying. If they’re in quarters, he reads the outside linebacker to the bottom here I believe, if he stays in to fit the run, you can throw the out route. If he covers the out route, he’s not in the run fit. When the bullets are flying, the QB is ultimately only tasked with reading a single defender. Some offenses have used RPOs to mostly supplant their dropback quick game on standard downs (and used play action to supplant their dropback intermediate game), which dramatically reduces the mental requirement of the QB position in said systems. The point is, there are worlds of conflict for the defense with minimal mental demand on the QB, win-win.
Due to that last part, modern offenses have built RPOs into the very bedrock of their offense. They are no longer a gadget or a changeup, they are foundational. That’s how I wish Mike Denbrock would use his RPOs. He does some of these things to a degree as you’ll see below, but RPOs aren’t used at the incredible frequency you see in offenses like North Carolina and Ole Miss. That said, they are a decently significant feature of the offense, they just haven’t used them to supplant traditional dropback passing, which makes things a bit tougher on the QB than I think they need to be.
Their most common WR-Driven RPO is this double hitch/slant combo. This concept accomplishes a lot of what I was alluding to with the UNC clips and wish they had more concepts like this. Against 2 high, the QB will work the double hitch concept. If the outside-most 2nd level defender stays inside to fit the run, you throw the stop route to the slot. You can also throw the outside hitch if it’s more favorable on free access. I’m not sure if the read is just taught like “against 2 high, work the hitches inside-out” or if it’s defender-based, but the general idea is to put that outside-most 2nd level defender in conflict when the defense has 2 high safeties. Unfortunately this ball gets Burrowed back into Ridder’s face and he catches/runs with it
Against single high, the QB’s read is off the weak safety who is rotated down into the box. If he collapses into the fit, you throw the slant behind him.
Another concept they put into RPO structures a lot is “Ohio.” Ohio is simply a vertical/out combo. The QB is tasked with reading the overhang defender there, he stays in so the QB throws the out.
Additionally, the QB has the option, if the corner jumps the out or plays a cloud technique (corner defends the flat), to throw the fade. This requires some impressive mental adjustment on the fly though to react to the corner jumping the out and throwing the fade with the required timing/placement.
One of their favorite RPOs, particularly in the mid-high red zone, is just this mirrored 5-step slant. I’m not sure what determines which side they read, whether it be matchup, high safety positioning, etc, but the read is the same as the 5-step slant in the double hitch/slant structure.
As with any team that runs RPOs (so any team, basically), the QB will often have the ability to take free access against favorable looks like off corners. This is on an alert, if the QB simply likes the look, he can throw whatever route is packaged. If not, he gives the ball.
In this offense, there are two main tight-end RPOs, “SKIP” and “COPY.” Simply, in SKIP, the TE releases into the flat on the same side as his alignment. In COPY, the TE will cross the formation and release into the opposite flat.
The read is the end man on the line of scrimmage. Generally, if he collapses, you throw the skip route to the TE and vice versa. According to Mike Denbrock in his Coachtube course on Tight End RPOs, if the SAM backer (strong-side outside linebacker) is split out over the Z receiver (the slot in Denbrock’s language), the Z blocks him and the QB just reads the end man to give to the RB or flip to the SKIP route by the TE. If the SAM is inside, he is another read for the QB and it becomes almost a triple-option type concept with the QB reading the end man to give or keep, then reading the SAM to flip to the tight end or run the football himself. If the SAM runs out with the TE and the end man collapses on the RB, the QB has room to run.
In the gif above that wall of text and visuals, you can see the SAM linebacker aligned inside, so the Z works to block the safety. The end man collapses on the run and the SAM stays inside the TE’s SKIP route, so he flips to the tight end.
Here, you can see a give-read triggered by the DE staying wide with the TE. Thus, the QB will just hand it off.
Here in a short-yardage situation, the QB gets a lane to keep. The end collapses on the RB and the SAM moves out with the SKIP, so the QB has some room to run with it.
Z Crack Tag
Additionally, Denbrock will attach what he calls a “Z crack” tag where the slot blocks down on the SAM when he’s inside if the defense tends to task the SAM with pursuing the flat and you expect the Safety will be slow to trigger. In that situation, the SAM is the higher danger defender for the SKIP route and the angle is good for the Z to block down on him and pin him inside. Pictured below:
Copy is the RPO version of the “Fax” tag in their run schemes (TE across the formation) where the QB can throw to the TE in the flat. if in 12 personnel (1 back, 2 TE, 2 WR) you have the numbers to just read the end man on the line and block the SAM linebacker, but if in 11 (1 back, 1 TE, 3 WR) personnel, you can triple option like in SKIP and give the QB the option to keep if the second defender from the edge (who the frontside TE is blocking in this case) runs with the COPY route. Here, they are in 12p with QB reading the end man and flipping the ball to the TE since the end collapses inside on the back.
In this clip, the QB gets a look that causes him to keep and carry it himself. This is a wrinkle on the typical look, with a WR motioning in. His man defender follows him on his COPY route, which opens up a lane for the QB to keep the ball.
Another look at motioning a WR in to run COPY, which messes with the safety rotation here in single high. The motion across the formation triggers the nickel and safety to essentially trade places. The COPY route then takes the WR back across the formation, which catches his man defender, the spun-down safety, in the wash, freeing the WR up in the opposite flat. This is a good wrinkle to throw in against teams who deal with motion in this way and utilize a lot of single-high shells.
So while the offense doesn’t lean as hard into RPOs as some others, which keeps an amount of pressure that is, in my view undue, on the QB, Denbrock does some cool things with RPOs that they get a lot of mileage out of. The tight-end-centered RPO stuff is especially big for the offense and has been deadly against even fronts. It does, however, underscore LSU’s need to get talented, versatile, and athletic at the tight end position.