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If the defensive player being read (often a linebacker) plays run, the pass should be open behind him. If he hangs back in pass coverage, there will be room to run. Best-case scenario for the offense: He doesn’t commit to either one and therefore doesn’t defend either very well as the game goes on.
This week Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson gave a brief history of this strategy, noting how it evolved from a pre-snap read in which the quarterback would automatically throw a short pass or a screen if the defense was loaded up inside and the receiver was uncovered.
The decision now isn’t made until after the snap. Receivers run patterns knowing they might get the ball, the running back operates as if it could be going to him and the offensive line fires out as if there will be a handoff, so the decision must be promptly made to prevent them from getting too far downfield.
While RPOs are generally associated with quick slant patterns and hitches, Wilson said Ohio State also has one that pairs a run with a deep pass. The Buckeyes have practiced that but not tried it in a game.
And yet like so much in football, are RPOs really new to OSU?
That depends on how long you’ve been watching the Buckeyes.
They have run them somewhat sparingly the past couple of years, but other versions could be found much longer ago.
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When I worked for Buckeye Sports Bulletin, I interviewed College Football Hall of Fame quarterback Rex Kern a few times.
In one of our conversations, the leader of the 1968 national champions described sprint out play that had lots in common with today's RPOs.
"I would fake to Leo [Hayden, a Dayton Roosevelt grad] and then the fullback would hook the defensive end and so that left me free on outside with [halfback Larry] Zelina and [end Bruce] Jankowski on front side in pass patterns, and many times in that early stage my sophomore year there was nobody on the corner once I turned the corner. Our offensive line and everybody did their job so exceptionally well that I was out on the corner and nobody was there, so I had the option to either run it or throw it, and that just opened things up tremendously for us."
“Opening things up” is exactly what Wilson and the current OSU offensive staff have done with RPOs for J.T. Barrett, J.K. Dobbins, Parris Campbell and others on this Ohio State offense.