Formations and Personnel: What Do You Need?

By Ross Fulton on July 5, 2012 at 1:00p
How many do you need?

Earlier this year I discussed installing an offense and how many plays a team needs.  Today I want to tackle how many formations and personnel groupings an offense needs.  Just as with plays, every additional formation necessitates additional practice time.  Therefore, the gain from being able to present multiple looks and personnel groupings must be weighed against the incremental loss of perfecting any one look.  Further, the more formations an offense runs means that the offenses run any one formation less and thus increases tendencies by formation.  In recent years offensive coaches have identified these downsides and began paring down their pre-snap looks.

The Increased Emphasis on Being Multiple

In his 1969 'Hotline to Victory,' Woody Hayes made clear that he preferred using only one base formation.  To him, this provided a pre-snap constraint upon the defense by preventing opposing teams from being able to spot tendencies by formation. 

Offensive coaches have generally moved in the other direction in the decades sense, however.  This is driven by the evolution of the modern pro-style passing game.  In previous decades, offensive football was series driven.  An offense would be a "wing-T" or a "wishbone" team, and the entire offense would be built upon the same initial action.  Formation diversity only distracted from the tightly orchestrated faking. 

Pro-style offenses do not have the same type of series football.  Instead, the offense may contain mini-series--a run and play-action pass--but the offense is disparate parts.  Having different formations allows an offense to exploit different plays.  Relatedly, the increase emphasis on the passing game provides offenses an advantage in being multiple.  A team may want to be 'pro-style' on first and second down (2 WR, 2 RB, 1 TE), but then go to three or four wide receivers in passing situations.  A pro-style offense gains utility from multiple looks as its the only opportunity for the offense to both be balanced and throw the football.   

Less is More?

In recent years, however, we have seen a growing recognition that, just as with plays, less may be more with formations.  This is driven by several trends. 

One is the success of the Airraid coaches.  Airraid teams assign every wide receiver to a specific position and a specific side of the field, which vastly increases the repetitions that individual can receive.  In other words, coaches like Dana Holgorsen believe that any utility that is gained by being multiple is outweighed by allowing players to get very good at a few things.  The necessary result is that you must have less formations and personnel looks.  This is fine for airraid teams because, unlike a pro-style approach, they are not particularly interested in running the football except as a constraint against a team that does not respect the run.

The second trend is the increased use of no-huddle.  The no-huddle necessarily limits substitutions, which limits different personnel and formation groups.  No-huddle coaches have found a way to split the difference.  Often, they will base from a formation look shown above with a flex Y, but use versatile players, particularly at the Y (TE) and F (slot) position, that can quickly move between the backfield to split out.  Such a team can give slight formation varations from this base look without major changes. 

This approach is precisely the one adopted by Urban Meyer and Tom Herman.  Ohio State largely bases from this basic '11' personnel (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) shotgun look with the H-back adjacent to the offensive tackle, but can use 'pivot' players to increase the offense's options, with a 'Y' that can move into the backfield to block or split out wide, or an 'F' that can come in motion in the backfield for an option pitch.  Like 'series' offenses, the QB as a run threat and use of option allows a spread no-huddle team to run more series football and necessitates less formation groupings.  A spread team can run the football better from such a look than a pro-style team, eliminating some of the need for multiple looks.  Further, for the same reasons Hayes identified, this no-huddle approach provides a pre-snap constraint to the defense by forcing a defense to match an offense's base personnel and limits tendencies, but does provide some versatility through personnel.  It also creates the added benefit of using the available practice time to get better at less things.  Thus look for Ohio State--and other offenses more generally--to trade multiple looks for no-huddle speed and the constraint it applies to the defense.        


Comments Show All Comments

Buckeye_Mafia's picture

Its going to be interesting to see how Zach Boren is used in this new system. Hopefully the staff utilizes him as a playmaker instead of just a blocker. He can catch the ball out of the backfield as well as any other FB in the NCAA and mixing up his roles in the offense with definitely keep the defense on their toes. And I hope Stoneburner gets back into the fold quickly...

"At critical moments throughout the season, we learned about the character of this football team.  This was a team of true character, of true resilience." -- President Barack Obama

Poison nuts's picture

I read all your stuff Ross but never comment & figured I'd say thanks - it's been great to learn a thing or two about how football & particularly UFMs brand of football actually works.

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

vtbuckeye's picture

Same here.  I am always surprised that there are not more comments following your works.  It should get really interesting once the season actually starts and "we" (aka you) get to breakdown game film together.

Riggins's picture

Ross does a phenomenal job of breaking it down to a point where the content is accessible to non-coaches.  I think his articles will get a lot more comments and discussion once we have game tape of Buckeye games to go over. 
I also just finished Mike Leach's book "Swing Your Sword" (highly recommended), and one of the things I remember from his book where he discussed the "being multiple" topic was him saying that "If you want to confuse a defense, increase the formations, not the plays".   If you increase the plays, you're making it harder on your offense and turning 4.5 guys (40 second dash time) into 4.7 guys because they're having to think and hesitate.
As Ross said, they don't have a ton of formations in the Airraid offenses like Leach's, but Leach does use more formations than other Airraiders. They mostly focus on execution and repetition.  It's hard to argue with the results. 
More than anything though, I just realized how high Mike Leach would be on my short list of "If I could choose to meet any living person..."  So far I have Leach and Neil deGrasse Tyson pretty high up there.

Chad Peltier's picture

Ross's articles never fail to improve my NCAA '11 game. And I agree Riggins - would love to meet Leach, but I think Holgorsen is where it's at right now.