The word "spread" is commonly used to describe Gus Malzahn's teams, but that term can't accurately describe an entire offense. Usually, the word just means the quarterback is in shotgun and there are four wide receivers. But that's just a formation, and in Auburn's case, it's not even the most common one. Each week, Tiger fans see many formations: five wide, three backs, unbalanced lines and many others.
So which formations truly define this offense? Where do some of those looks come from? What type of players are used in the different formations? Though it may change some from year to year, this is what Auburn looked like in 2013 and, with so many starters returning, what the offense will likely look like in 2014.
What formations does Auburn use?
Auburn's base look includes three receivers and two backs with the quarterback in shotgun. The three receivers are in either the "20" or "Twins" formation. In both cases, the split end X is typically to the boundary (the side closer to the sideline) and the tight end Y and flanker Z are to the field. With 20, the flanker is in the slot between the line and the tight end, who is out wide. With Twins, the tight end is between the line and the flanker.
The backfield's base formation includes an H-back about two yards behind the line of scrimmage between the left or right guard and tackle, the quarterback about five yards directly behind the center and the tailback to the right or left of the quarterback. If the H-back and tailback are on the same side as the tight end, it's called "Stack". If the H-back is on the same side as the tight end but the tailback is on the other side, it's called "Slant". Those formations are called "Stack Opposite" and "Slant Opposite" if the H-back is away from the tight end. Combined with the receiver formations, that's eight combinations with the same personnel and the same basic look.
Auburn uses plenty of four and five receiver formations, too. 2x2 and 3x1 formations are common, and 3x2 and 4x1 formations are used from time to time. (Each number refers to the number of receivers on each side of the offensive line.) The names aren't too important for our purposes, but they do have different names based on the order of the positions inside out, whether the tight end is in line next to the tackle, or which back stays with the quarterback. For example, the "Doubles" formation is 2x2 with the H-back in the backfield. If the H-back moves out and the tailback moves in, it's called "Spread". If the tight end moves to his traditional place on the offensive line, it's called "Deuce".
Now Auburn doesn't use a typical "heavy" formation with two backs and three tight ends. Instead, Auburn uses the tight end in the backfield. With an H-back and a fullback (what I'm calling the tight end when he's not an end), the formation is called "Diamond". Sometimes the tight end lines up off the line and on the same side as the H-back in a wingback position. In both cases, each receiver could be on his own side of the offensive line, or they could both be on the right or left. Though sharing a side makes the inside player an ineligible receiver, the blocking angles are sometimes worth the tradeoff.
Covering receivers isn't the only way Gus Malzahn uses formations to get extra blockers to the point of attack. He isn't afraid to put offensive linemen in unconventional places. There are a few formations with the tackles split wide but those are mostly used for two-point conversions. More commonly, Auburn uses a tackle-over set with both tackles on the same side of the line. This adds a lot of power to one side of the formation and is mostly used for the infamous Wildcat plays.
One interesting thing about Auburn's offense is that the exact formation is determined by both the formation name and the play call. Take the slot receiver Z for instance. The 20 formation has him lined up between the tackle and tight end but his depth is determined by the play call. If a post-wheel combination is called, he will line up closer to the line of scrimmage. If that player is running a bubble route or a jet sweep, he will be further back. The same is true for the tailback. For outside runs, the tailback lines up next to or even a bit in front of the quarterback. He lines up much deeper for runs inside the tackles.
Where did the formations come from?
As Chip Kelly has said, "If you weren't in the room with Amos Alonzo Stagg and Knute Rockne when they invented this game, you stole it from somebody else." Malzahn's formations are nothing groundbreaking. They are just modern versions of some old looks, specifically the Wing-T, the Wishbone and the Single Wing.
Gus Malzahn began his coaching career on the defensive side of the ball, so when he first became a head coach, Malzahn bought the book "The Delaware Wing T: An Order of Football" (which is now rare and expensive) to learn something about offense. The Wing-T's base formation has a split end on one side, a tight end and wing-back on the other, and two backs behind the line. Malzahn just modernized this formation with spread elements such as a shotgun quarterback and the tight end/wing-back split out wide.
The Diamond was a new formation for Auburn last year, but its ancestor, the Wishbone, was on the Plains in the early ‘80s. The quarterback was under center with a fullback directly behind him. Behind the fullback were two halfbacks. The fullback was a threat to run up the middle while the quarterback and one halfback could run outside with the other halfback lead blocking. With the Diamond (also called the Inverted Wishbone), the quarterback is in shotgun with a tailback behind him. Two H-backs are in front and to either side of the quarterback. Auburn used this formation to either get the tailback up the middle or get the quarterback outside with two lead blockers.
The Wildcat took football by storm for a few years in the late '00s, as Darren McFadden with the Arkansas Razorbacks (coordinated by Malzahn) and former Auburn star Ronnie Brown with the Miami Dolphins took direct snaps. It wasn't sustainable as a self-contained offense, but the formation and play are still around. Specifically, we saw Nick Marshall, Cameron Artis-Payne and even Kiehl Frazier play the central figure in the Wildcat last year. The formation itself is nothing more than a single wing, which was designed in the early 20th century with a few distinguishing features. First, it had an unbalanced line with both tackles on one side of the center. Second, the ball was snapped directly to a running back. Third, the backfield was full of players that could either block or carry the ball on any given play. The unbalanced line and direct snap to a running back remain in the modern Wilcat, while the misdirection is accomplished with the jet motion through the backfield.
Finally, Auburn uses four- and five-wide sets to force a defense to cover the entire field. This is nothing new since the the single-back offenses of the 80s and 90s to the Air Raid offenses of the last decade. But it's important that the Tigers show this sort of variety. The threat of a big pass keeps defenses from consistently loading the box to stop the run. And if the defense gets a run-stuffing personnel group in the game, these spread formations can cause a lot of mismatches.
Why use these formations?
As I discussed in the last article, the Hurry-Up, No-Huddle is supposed to stress not only the defensive players, but the defensive coaches as well. Auburn's base formation does the same thing. Alabama Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart had this to say about offensive formations.
"When we play a two-back team, we are in a 3-4 defense. Georgia and LSU are two-back offenses. If a team is a one-back offense with three or four wide receivers in the set, we match their personnel and play nickel or dime. When we play nickel or dime, we play very little 3-4 defense out of it; we are in the 4-3 front."
Did you see what he said about two-back offenses with three wide receivers? Me neither. It's not that Smart doesn't have a plan, but facing 20 personnel (two back, zero tight ends, three receivers) is probably out of the ordinary for most defenses and their coordinators.
Another way the formations stress the defense is by making so many plays look the same. C.J. Uzomah recently said, "We have so many plays out of formations that look the exact same, and it's really hard to game-plan something like that." This "Same but Different" design means that the same formation can be used to execute many different running plays. Conversely, "Different but Same" can be just as effective by using different formations to run the same play over and over.
Finally, these formations can easily incorporate pre-snap motions. The backs can motion in, out or through the backfield or the flanker can run through or behind it. In fact, this is just another aspect of the Wing-T and Single Wing offenses that Malzahn modernized.
Why is there so much motion?
When motion simply moves a player from one place to another, it helps the offense read the defense and it muddies the defense's read of the offense. For example, the H-back may initially stand out wide with the flanker and tight end but then motion into the backfield. Any defensive reaction to this motion can be a clue to their intentions. Also, the backfield doesn't show Slant or Stack until just before the snap. This can hurt a defense that likes to shift its front seven based on the backfield's alignment.
Auburn also uses motions where the player doesn't stop in a new position. These motions can get the player in an advantageous position or it can just be a decoy. Corey Grant's long runs often come on jet sweeps where he sprints into the backfield, gets the handoff at full speed, and outruns the defense to the edge. Against Arkansas, Grant motioned through the backfield as the ball was snapped, but Auburn ran a simple Power play up the middle. The motion was just a decoy that drew four defenders away from Tre Mason as he walked into the endzone.
What type of players fit into these formations?
Gus Malzahn is great at modifying his offense to fit his available talent. Air-it-out at Tulsa, QB Power with Cam, Zone Read with Nick and Tre. But these formations have specific positions for specific types of players, so, before last season began (and before I hit it big on CaM), I explained those positions by looking at who played where from 2009 to 2011.
Note: Malzahn has used numbers instead of the traditional letters for these positions since his high school coaching days. The numbers are actually part of the pass play calling system. In the descriptions above, I used the traditional letters since they are more universal, but in the quotes below, you will see some numbers.
The Quarterback is the 1
"It makes sense that the number 1 is given to the quarterback. He is the on-field leader of the offense and nearly every play goes through his hands. Malzahn has typically had quarterbacks with great decision-making abilities and an ability to avoid turnovers."
Past Auburn-Malzahn quarterbacks
2009: Chris Todd
2010: Cam Newton
2013: Nick Marshall
Nick Marshall won the quarterback job despite being on campus for only fall camp and having a turnover problem in junior college. Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee get credit for tailoring the offense for him as the season progressed, but they should also get credit for limiting Marshall's interceptions (14-6 TD-INT ratio). Like a typical Malzahn quarterback, Marshall makes great decisions with the ball, whether through the air or on the ground.
The Flanker is the 2
"The 2 is the wide receiver off the line on the tight end (or 5) side. This player doesn't have to be a burner, flying down the field every play. Instead, this player should not only be able to get open on pass plays, but also be able to interact with the backfield when sent into pre-snap motion. This position will sometimes move into a pitch relationship with the quarterback or continue running to the other side of the field. Most of the time, this motion is meant to just slow the linebackers, but when the 2 does receive the handoff, it is usually a big play. It is this backfield (a quarterback, two running backs, and the 2 as a third back) that most displays this offense's Wing-T origins."
Past Auburn-Malzahn flankers:
2010: Terrell Zachery, Kodi Burns, Onterio McCalebb
2011: Onterio McCalebb
This position is really hard to pin down sometimes. It is used for home run balls, bubble screens, sweeps, and end-arounds. And over the course of a season, several players may get playing time here doing what they do best. Look for Corey Grant to run sweeps and Duke Williams to run routes down field, while Ricardo Louis does a little of both.
The H-back is the 3
"The 3 is the now famous H-back, the spread offense's version of the fullback. He is different from a fullback in that he must have more lateral speed, able to block from left tackle to right tackle, while also being a threat to receive a pass. (I think of fullbacks as straight-line, between-the-tackles, lead blockers, though they can catch passes, too.)"
Past Auburn-Malzahn H-backs
2010: Mario Fannin, Eric Smith
2013: Jay Prosch
One of the big losses from last year's offense is Jay Prosch, no doubt the best blocking H-back Auburn has had. C.J. Uzomah and Brandon Fulse played there some last year, too, and Fulse should be able to get the starting job. True freshman Kamryn Pettway could find himself as the 3 before season's end. Look for more carries and catches from this position this year.
The Running back is the 4
"Running Back U should have no shortage at the 4, the tailback position."
Past Auburn-Malzahn running backs
2009: Ben Tate
2010: Mario Fannin, Michael Dyer
2011: Michael Dyer, Tre Mason
2013: Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne
That quote doesn't describe what an Auburn running back does, but if the names listed above don't mean anything to you, you haven't been paying attention. Since joining the college ranks in 2006, Malzahn has always had a 1000 yard rusher. Tre Mason topped them all with 1816 yards, but out of Cameron Artis-Payne, Peyton Barber, Roc Thomas or even Corey Grant, this offense will find a player more than capable of getting tough yards on the ground.
The Tight End is the 5
"In today's football, the tight end is a special player, a sort of hybrid between a wide receiver and offensive lineman. In Malzahn's spread, the tight end is the 5, but the 5 is more on the receiver side of the spectrum. In fact, he rarely lines up next to a tackle. Instead, he is often detached from the line. This forces the defense to either send a linebacker over or bring a safety down to cover him as a receiving threat. It also gives the 5 a better angle for blocking when a run goes wide."
Past Auburn-Malzahn tight ends
2009: Tommy Trott
2010: Philip Lutzenkirchen
2011: Philip Lutzenkirchen
2013: CJ Uzomah
C.J. Uzomah should be the starting tight end again this year as he provides Marshall with a big red zone target. Brandon Fulse may also get some time at the position.
The Split End is the 9
"The split end is the other typical receiver, and in Malzahn's offense, he is the 9. He is almost always on the opposite side of the formation as the 5 and 2. He usually runs his routes down field, trying to "take the top off" of the defense, posing as a home run threat while opening holes for intermediate passes. The 9 also must be a decent enough blocker to keep the backside cornerback or safety from making the tackle on running plays."
Past Auburn-Malzahn split ends
2009: Darvin Adams
2010: Darvin Adams
2011: Emory Blake
2013: Sammie Coates
Last year, no one really knew what to expect out of the receiving corps. After all, part of downfall of the 2011 and 2012 teams was a lack of quality receivers. How those fortunes have changed. Sammie Coates had a breakout year last season, several young players made clutch plays, and they are all back this year. With so many teams likely primed to stop Auburn's running game, Coates should have another big year over the top.