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OFD Films: Flipping the Script with the Book on Rees

I take over OFD Films to try and give the Notre Dame offense some help with Rees at quarterback.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports


Though most wish it wasn't so, Tommy Time will likely return in 2013 with the suspension of Everett Golson. So what kind of offense do we expect to see with Rees at quarterback this fall?

Rees can't run, so we won't see the run/pass ratio from last year unless Kelly turns up the 2-tight end power running game that was used so much last season. Yet, I'm not convinced this offense needs more unimaginative running with Rees at the helm:

Will it be back to the 2011 majority passing offense and hoping Rees has matured as a passer and can cut down on turnovers? Or will it be a combination of both offenses similar to what we saw last year? Can the Irish have such an efficient offense without the legs and escapability of Golson?

Does anyone have faith that Rees will be an effective game manager in either offense? He's never been that type of quarterback (nor asked to be), although the Michigan game last year was a great example of him playing that role (the Irish averaged 5.7 YPP with Rees that day in a painfully conservative attack). More precisely, can the Irish offense be effective with a game-manager Rees or more aggressive Rees given the type of offense the team has used under Brian Kelly?

Most would say that the Irish offense can't be successful against the best teams on the schedule because the book has been written on Tommy:

  • Disguise coverages and call defensive audibles late in the play clock to force Rees in to an unfavorable offensive audible.
  • Bring the safeties up on early downs to contain the Irish running game.
  • Crash hard on the running back at all times.
  • Vacate the middle deep portion of the secondary, jam receivers, and force quick throws in to tight windows.
  • Rush 3 on passing downs and flood throwing lanes with 8 defenders.

The Book on ReesTM can be summed up thusly: It makes everyone else's job on offense more difficult, there is more pressure to be perfect at every position (hence my worry with more 2-tight end sets), and in the event that you are perfect (say a wide receiver beats his man deep) you still have to live with Rees' weak arm, poor mobility, and skittish accuracy. You can win with Rees, but it sure makes it tough.

What if Notre Dame could flip the script with the Book on ReesTM, though?

What if an altered playbook could let Rees play within his limitations, didn't rely on a quarterback with wheels, and didn't handcuff the offense or force fans to live with a neutered spread attack? First let me prescribe some help to the problems with Tommy Time which can facilitate flipping the script with the Book on ReesTM.

*Consistent Up-tempo

I've asked this before, and why not? There are teams with immobile quarterbacks who run up-tempo. It doesn't force Rees to run the ball (although he'd have to hustle to the line of scrimmage after a medium to long gain -- crap, is that the downfall of all this?), and if Rees isn't running the ball why not add the benefit of putting the defense on its heels? I'd rather get someone like Amir Carlisle running the ball, with the defense having little time to react even if it isn't the perfect play versus the defense getting perfectly set themselves and having more time to adjust. Either way Rees isn't running the ball, so which style is preferable?

*Reduce the Amount of Audibles

You don't have to completely take away this power from Rees, but an up-tempo offense makes checking at the line less necessary. And also when you do audible, it's not with 3 seconds left on the play clock.

*Work Middle/Deep Part of the Field

This is necessary to take some pressure off the running game and open up the passing game. This is also the only change that is reliant on some natural ability from Rees. Consequently, a lot of this change is dependent upon Rees maturing as a senior, making better decisions, and driving the ball downfield with accuracy.

*Diversify the Run Game Without a Mobile Quarterback

Notre Dame's base offense out of the shotgun depends on the quarterback to run the ball -- at the very least actually pose a threat to run the ball a couple times a game. Rees can't do this, and it makes a running game -- which has the ability to be difficult to defend, force defenses to be honest, and make split-second decisions that can be the difference between a 2-yard gain and a 15-yard gain -- become very predictable and far easier to defend.

There is a way to incorporate all of these above prescriptions to truly flip the script with the Book on ReesTM, and that is to utilize and embrace the loaded pistol, better known as the Diamond formation.


The modern Diamond formation has been around in college since the turn of the century and has been a major part of the offenses at Oklahoma, Louisiana Tech, TCU, and Oklahoma State in recent years. The Diamond is a major component of the Dana Holgorsen offense (first at Oklahoma State, now at West Virginia) and has found its way into the NFL recently through teams like the San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins. In many ways it's simply an inverted wishbone, which supports a diverse running game completely compatible with a modern spread offense.


The Diamond Formation

It works best with an up-tempo offense because it allows the offense so much versatility (most specifically in the run game) while at the same time meshing power running with spread passing principles -- the latter depending upon how creative you want to get or how much motion and shifting you want to use. The Diamond also opens up the door to a lot of Pistol formations and various 2-back sets and is a terrific way to diversify a spread offense.

It's true that in order for the Diamond to work to its fullest a running quarterback is necessary; however, unlike Notre Dame's base option read shotgun offense, the Diamond makes up for it with versatility and misdirection. Think back to Oklahoma's offense under Landry Jones -- he's perhaps one of the few quarterbacks blessed with less speed than Rees.

The Sooners weren't content with solely running the option read from shotgun with cement-legs Jones, so they made a successful transition to the Diamond formation and made it a more prominent feature of their offense. Here are some reasons why the Diamond formation could flip the script with the Book on ReesTM and help the Irish out this fall.

1) Forces the Defense to Declare Strength & Coverage

Obviously the Diamond isn't the only formation to do this, and when Notre Dame goes to their 2-tight end sets the same concept is at work. That is, getting 7 blockers out there and forcing the defense to account for those gaps. The Diamond is also nice because it can be used in conjunction with up-tempo and spread formations (as we'll see below) to quickly put the defense in a bind by having to counter a power run seconds after having to stop a 4-wide passing play, for example.

2) Mismatches on the Perimeter

(California Golden Blogs has a nice piece HERE on new head coach Sonny Dykes and throwing the ball on a passing down and vice versa because of matchups caused by the Diamond formation).

Again, not very different than what the Irish are trying to achieve with their 2-tight end sets. In the Diamond formation the defense has to account for 7 blockers plus the ball carrier, and that means bringing 8 defenders (it would be 9 defenders if Rees could run) into the box. Now, one of your wide receivers is in 1-on-1 coverage on an island with a corner. Rees is still hurting the offense because he can't run -- otherwise you often get both receivers in single coverage -- but you're getting the same strength in the running game with what I would argue is a more varied offense with the Diamond.

3) Lead Blocker

Here's where the Diamond starts to distinguish itself, because there almost always will be a lead blocker (you could even call him a fullback, harrumph!) on every run play. This is a wrinkle that some coaches prefer as opposed to Notre Dame sending a tight end across the line as a lead blocker, since the Diamond allows the blocker more speed and the ability to better see the defenders he needs to put a hat on. Another bonus is that the Diamond fits nicely into Notre Dame's zone blocking scheme with very little additional learning for the whole offense.

4) Running the Ball to Either Side without Shifting

A great benefit of the Diamond is that it's symmetrical; the offense can run the ball to either side without shifting, and using an audible is quicker and less of a giveaway. Again, Notre Dame can run to either side out of a balanced 2-tight end set too but they have to rely on slower tight ends or offensive linemen as lead blockers and the defense knows exactly who is getting the ball on a run play in a 1-back set with no mobile quarterback.

5) Misdirection on any Run Play

This is what really ties everything together and makes it perfect for Notre Dame with Rees at quarterback. The Irish can currently use counters and various forms of draws as a way to "trick" the defense, but everyone knows who is getting the ball when Rees is the quarterback. In the Diamond formation you only need 2 backs at the point of attack (1 blocker + 1 ball carrier), which means a third back can be used for misdirection.

6) Open Up the Middle of the Field

(HERE IS California Golden Blogs again with a look at how the Diamond opens up the middle of the field and did wonders for Louisiana Tech in the redzone against A&M).

The Diamond is primarily a running formation. Defenses typically defend it as such, but it still opens up some hellacious opportunities in the passing game -- just ask Dana Holgoresen. Safeties move into the box, leaving corners on islands, and linebackers get sucked into stopping the run and left in no-man's land. If the Irish could use the Diamond to be a little more dynamic running the ball it would really open up the middle of the field and help Rees in the passing game.

7) Distributing the Football

In connection with misdirection the Diamond allows the offense to get the ball into the hands of various playmakers. It's far less predictable, and you don't need any pre-snap motion to create confusion as to which player is going to get the ball, although that's certainly still an option. If players like Amir Carlisle, Greg Bryant, and Tarean Folston are going to be Notre Dame's most explosive playmakers, the Diamond formation is a simple and effective way to get them the ball and even get them on the field at the same time.


None of this can happen unless the Irish coaching staff is willing to shake up the way they've used their offensive personnel but the great thing about the Diamond is that it sets up well for utilizing Notre Dame's hybrid slot backs and abundance of tight ends---although it would alter the role of the tight end in the passing game a little bit.

We saw the Irish use the Diamond formation for a few plays on the road against Wake Forest in 2011 and a week later some 2-back sets against Maryland popped up but the Diamond has since vanished and the 2-back sets have become quite rare.

This upcoming season the Irish could open up an offensive series in their base 3-wide receiver set with 5 offensive linemen, Niklas attached to the line at tight end, Jones and Daniels split out wide, Carlisle is in the slot, and Atkinson next to Rees in the shotgun. After running a play---let's say an 8-yard completion to Niklas on a short curl route---the offense can go up-tempo and change to the Diamond formation: Atkinson moves 3-yards behind Rees into the Pistol and both Carlisle and Niklas flank Rees as halfbacks (aka wingbacks, aka upbacks).

Boom, done. No substitutions and now the Irish are in a diverse formation where they can attack the opponent with a power running game. What's more, the offense now has an advantage because the defense didn't have time to substitute their nickel corner for a linebacker and the defense is susceptible to being overwhelmed at the point of attack by a running play.

Let's take a look at some Diamond & Pistol formations, including some variations thereof. For simplicity purposes I'm going to focus on the backfield players unless otherwise specified:

Inside Zone

Pretty simple play. The weak-side halfback blocks the edge and the play-side halfback leads the way for the running back. Terrible blocking all around by OU forces the running back outside. I find it highly appealing for a player like George Atkinson to take carries out of the Pistol reaching near full speed with better sense of vision---seems like a great way to utilize his skill-set.

Inside Zone under Center

This isn't as popular in the college game but a few teams will put the quarterback under center and try to jam the ball down your throat.

Outside Zone

Worried about a smaller back like Carlisle having to block a defensive end or linebacker (he'll cut block) or afraid the offense will never run with a smaller back as the lead blocker? Mix things up and give your dynamic halfback the ball on an outside zone.

The play-side halfback cuts the defensive end, the running back moves up from the Pistol to become the lead blocker, and the weak-side halfback attacks the outside zone for a big gain.

Outside Zone Shift

Here is the same play but the slot receiver shifts into the backfield to form the Diamond and then the outside zone is run. You can envision Carlisle, Folston, or Prosise being the ball carrier in this situation.

Clemson doesn't adjust at all to the shift and West Virginia gets to the field-side perimeter for a first down.

Inside Zone Cross aka "Blur"

Here's where the Diamond starts to get difficult to defend. The halfbacks will cross or "blur" in front of the quarterback---the right halfback becomes the lead blocker while the left acts as a threat in misdirection faking a run to the field-side perimeter.


Right before the snap the defense has 7 men in the box and aren't really crowding the line at all. This is screaming for the offense to run the ball with power. The defense does blitz the safety, field side outside linebacker, and middle linebacker but to the wrong side. Remember the symmetry of the Diamond didn't give the play away and the defense ended up guessing wrong.

The play-side halfback acts as the lead blocker, the weak-side halfback offers a fake to the perimeter, and the running back scampers through a hole with help from a pulling right guard.


If you're only looking at the boundary-side halfback and running back this looks just like another outside zone. Except that field-side halfback didn't block down on his side but crossed in front of the quarterback. He gets into the flat and the quarterback bootlegs for a relatively easy 8-yard gain.

Notice how the outside linebacker gets sucked in 3 yards on the fake just enough to take himself out of the play? That's what happens when defenses worry about run stopping against the Diamond. It's not an explosive gain but many teams have a ton of success with this play.

Playaction Pass off Inside Zone Cross

Here the halfbacks cross as one seals the edge as a blocker and the other uses misdirection on a fake to the perimeter just like an inside zone blur. The running back executes a playaction fake and offers additional blocking.

Once again the linebackers get sucked in and the quarterback is able to hit a wide open receiver who found a sweet spot over the middle of the field.

Playaction off Outside Zone

Nebraska is one of the other teams that have embraced the Diamond. Here they execute a pretty awkward outside zone playaction complete with pulling left guard. All three linebackers and a safety get sucked in while the other safety can't recover to break up the touchdown pass over the middle of the field.

Playaction Shift off Power

West Virginia is showing a 2-back Pistol just like the above outside zone shift, and again they shift the slot receiver into the backfield to form the Diamond. Notice how Clemson starts out with 6 men in the box and then brings up the safety and the defender previously on the slot receiver creeps in after the shift?

At the snap this looks just like a power to the right, and the play-side linebackers and safety all get sucked in. They do a good job expanding into coverage but are still caught in no-man's land. That's still a tough throw to complete and not one I'd be thrilled for Rees to attempt, but they had the halfback in the flat for an easy 5 yards too.

Swing Pass

This is a good way to get your running back on the perimeter. The halfbacks cross, one acts as the lead blocker and the other executes the fake to the field side. The running back swings out for the pass while you'll notice the center and right tackle release down field.

Fly Sweep Tap Pass

Here's our first true non-Diamond formation as the Mountaineers are once again in the 2-back Pistol and motion the slot receiver on a jet sweep. A little tap pass from the quarterback and the slot receiver is off to the races on a veritable outside zone with the play-side halfback acting as his lead blocker.

West Virginia also likely would have scored if Smith faked the tap pass, took a few steps and pitched the ball to the running back to the boundary side. That wrinkle is made more dangerous with a mobile QB.

Playaction Fake Reverse Screen

It's creative time. WVU is back in the 2-back Pistol, fakes the ball to the halfback, fakes again to the slot receiver who has come around on a reverse, had the running back out in front as a lead blocker, only to come back to the halfback on a screen after he slipped through the line.

Fake Jet Sweep Pistol 2-back Run

Here's Oklahoma State from a couple years ago in the 2-back Pistol with the slot receiver motioning in front of the quarterback at the snap. Tap pass to the boundary, right?

Nope, it's a fake as the halfback gets out as the lead blocker and the running back picks up 10 yards.

2012 Florida

Pburns recently wrote about Florida 2012 being a role model for the 2013 Irish. Ever wonder how they ran for more yards than any BCS team against LSU in 2012 and beat the Tigers last season even with an atrocious passing game? A diverse mix of Diamond, Pistol, and 2-back variations sets with lots of shifting sure helped.

Oklahoma State

First, you see Okie State shift a halfback to the left side---power run to that side? Notice the safety follow the halfback and leave the the field-side receiver 1-on1? Touchdown on the fade pass.

The second play is the exact same scenario. This time when the Cowboys shift the halfback, the safety gets lost as he hesitates and OSU pounds it in for the touchdown.


Here's what I'm saying. A single back offense and increasing the 2-tight end sets with Tommy Rees is not going to work. The passing game might be alright but the running game will suffer. And when the running game suffers it's game over against any legit competition.

One uplifting sign is that in Rees' lone full-game start last season the offense mixed in a lot of orbit sweeps to add some misdirection in the running game. Of course, George Atkinson would also score on the orbit sweep in this BYU game as well. Those orbit sweeps were a big reason why BYU gave up almost 200 more yards on the ground than their season average.

Infusing the Diamond, Pistol, and 2-back sets (maybe 20% of the time?) brings so much more versatility and fits the meshing of passing from the spread and power running that Kelly appears to covet. It will also help with the problems in the red zone as well.

And it's not as if once Rees graduates that you have to dump it, in fact, with mobile quarterbacks you can build even more off of it and make the formations even more effective---ultimately sucking that 9th defender into the box. Couldn't this be Everett Golson, Malik Zaire, or DeShone Kizer running the Diamond in the future?