By Danny Holmgren
One of the more frustrating parts of the Doman era at BYU has been the odd increase in the number of times we have seen the option run by BYU. Even more frustrating is that it has yet to be run successfully, yet it continues to be a part of the offensive strategy. What’s that line about the definition of insanity again?
Why Doman likes the option
It makes sense that Brandon Doman would have a certain affinity towards the option. Doman was recruited to BYU after being a very successful, you guessed it…option quarterback. During the 90’s, Skyline High School (Salt Lake City) dominated Utah prep football. More seasons than not the team went undefeated and ended with a 5A state championship, including a streak of five straight at one point. Skyline rose to dominance under head coach Roger DuPaix (father of current BYU assistant coach, Joe Dupaix). Running the triple option like clockwork, the Eagles punished their opponents offensively on their way to 15 consecutive state championship game appearances. Doman won 27 games as the Eagles starting quarterback, but his career ended with more rushing yards (3,550) than passing (2,950).
BYU recruited Doman because of his athleticism, speed, and probably family name (three other Doman brothers also played at BYU). The likelihood of him playing QB for the Cougars didn’t look very promising. In fact, had it not been for injuries to the two quarterbacks in front of him (Bret Engemann and Charlie Peterson), Doman would have considered changing positions and playing safety. But he got his chance at QB towards the end of his junior year, and his senior year was one of the best years in the history of Cougar football. Doman led the Cougars to a 12-2 record that year, and the option was a big part of the offensive package installed by first year head coach, Gary Crowton. Doman had improved his passing numbers since his days at Skyline, but his arm was never the strong point of his game.
The option was a big part of Crowton’s offense that year because Doman ran it well, and he had Doak Walker Award winning running back Luke Staley to pitch the ball to. So putting up big numbers in the air wasn’t what made BYU great that year. It’s doubtful that you can remember any “deep threat” receivers from the 2001 squad. The best receiver was a 5’10” receiver Reno Mahe, who made most of his catches on slip screens and short routes and was really just an extension of the running game. With Doman engineering a successful running attack featured around his option attack, Staley’s big play ability, plus the ability to keep the defense honest with throws to the backs, receivers, and tight ends, BYU had one of its most successful seasons ever. However, once Doman graduated, Crowton found little success trying to run his offense and was fired after the 2004 season.
Why Doman should STOP trying to run the option
Besides the obvious (it isn’t working!) there are two main reasons why BYU should leave the option out of it’s game plan this week and until further notice. The first is that they don’t recruit the right personnel. Perhaps Doman has assumed that the word “scrambler” in front of Riley Nelson and Taysom Hill’s names mean that they know how to run the option. Neither played in high school programs where they ran the option much, if at all. Both ran in spread offenses that allowed the quarterbacks to use their athletic abilities to scramble and run when the defense allowed, but neither ran the option. They both piled up huge passing numbers and added impressive running statics as well, though those were due to scrambling, not to either running a designed option offense. Starting running back Michael Alisa is hardly the prototypical option half back either. Jamaal Williams’ skill set more fits in with an option halfback due to his speed, explosiveness, and cutting abilities, but he is a true freshman and isn’t ready to take on the load of the 25-30 touches of a starting halfback. BYU’s offensive linemen have been recruited as pass blockers. They’re big boys, not quick, nifty linemen who can chop, pull, clear out, and block down field.
The second reason is that the evolution of college football in the last 10-15 years has decreased the effectiveness of the option attack. An effective option attack is built on having a smart, athletic quarterback, with tough, fast running backs, and a quick, athletic offensive line. Today’s quarterback is judged more on his arm strength and accuracy than his 40 time. The game has evolved from a run-the-ball, grind it out style of football into a flashy game where the ball is thrown 40-50 times. Running backs are just as important for their ability to catch the ball as to run the ball. In order to protect the quarterback while he throws the ball on nearly every down, lineman have evolved into big, strong players, though not necessarily quick. Their job is to get in the way of defensive attackers and give their QB enough time to throw the ball. Basically, take up as much space as possible.
Defenses have evolved as well. The effectiveness of a successful triple option play rides on the quarterback’s ability to first read the defensive tackle, then read the defensive end. When the defensive end commits to the quarterback, he pitches to the halfback. If the defensive end commits to the halfback, the quarterback keeps the ball and turns it up field. Against defensive ends of the past, it was impossible to defend the option when executed correctly. But the defensive end position has also evolved. Defensive ends today are big, strong, and incredibly fast (as evidenced by Boise State’s defensive end who chased down Riley Nelson from the backside and caused a fumble in Boise last week). The defensive end of today is able to often cover both the quarterback and the halfback, rendering the play useless. For this reason you have seen many of the powerhouse option teams of the past (Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Syracuse) completely abandon the option in favor of a more exciting, and successful, passing attack. BYU would do well to do the same. Even the teams that are still running the option, such as the military service academies, are passing the ball more and more as they try to remain relevant in the ever changing college football landscape.
With the exception of the Doman QB era ending in 2001, BYU has never had the option be a viable part of their offensive history. What is in BYU’s history is the same thing it should be doing now and the same thing that will make it successful again. Throw the ball down the field. Work the ball to the backs and tight ends. Run the ball 20-25 times a game to keep the defense honest, but you had better be setting up play-action out of it. The talent is in place to have an explosive Cougar offense right now. If we can get the option off the playcard, we may actually get to see it.