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Ol’ Faithful

The History and Secrets of the Triple Option Offense

Though it may be hard to believe there once was a time before the game of football added the wrinkle of a Triple Option, and much like the RPO systems that permeate football at the high school college and professional levels. At this point it seems as if Yale and Harvard when they began their rivalry loaded the backfield with three backs and a quarterback capable of reading the movements of defensive lineman faster than you can say hut, but the initial use of the triple option offense began under coach Emory Bellard in 1968 while he was coaching in the high school ranks. After being hired to coach linebackers at the University of Texas he was then moved over to the offensive side of the ball and he went forward with his original idea to have three backs in the backfield and brought the idea to legendary head coach Darryl Royal. Royal was intrigued by the concept feeling that they had three high caliber running backs on the roster and decided to allow Emory to move forward installing his then revolutionary offense.

What made the triple option different was the idea that each play would have at least one lead blocker, sometimes two, and every play would have an option for the quarterback to hand the ball to the fullback or keep the ball himself and run off the end either same side or opposite of the initial fake. In some of his play designs he would also bring the far side running back to follow the quarterback as he ran for the “pitch” option off the edge. What seems now as one of the more rudimentary concepts in football set the world of college football in the then Big 8 conference on fire. The inaugural season saw the Longhorns score 37 touchdowns on the ground in an 11 game season, gain 3,315 yards as a team, and opened up the field for quarterback James Street to throw for nearly 1,100 yards as well. The dynamic trio of running backs each had over 500 yards with the leader Chris Gilbert holding a staggering 1,132 yard total along with 13 touchdowns. The word was out and Texas would be chased by all the other top schools at the time to innovate and master the triple option.

Why are we discussing the triple option offense and its origins on the Mountain West section of this site? Simple, the Air Force Academy Falcons. Along with their fellow military schools Air Force continues to institute the triple option as their base offense, with a few more modern upgrades in recent years. On the base in Colorado Springs you will still find a fullback and two wing backs navigated by an overly athletic quarterback who may or may not able to throw the ball better than your little cousin but he can juke out a bear in a phone booth and read linebackers attacking like enemy bogies in an air field. The times have changed and the athletes have progressed very far since the late 60’s and contrary to the conventional wisdom where in an offense needs to change with the times Navy, Air Force, and Army have stayed true to what they believe does best for their future cadets and officers.

The military academies are able to run these offenses and probably are the only ones able to run it due to their discipline in assignment and technique. Since the athletes on the field for the Academy are not playing for NFL contracts but for the love of the game and to develop bonds to their future officers they benefit from the mutual respect used in running the option. On every single play all 11 offensive players need to execute their assignments to a T on time and they rely on the entire unit to do the same. The lineman are given the duty of forcing the opposition into making a decision on which possible ball carrier they want to attack, and in theory whichever one they choose should be the wrong one as a contingency back is always in play. The players who attend the Academy to play football they do so knowing that they aren’t going to have Baker Myfield or Patrick Mahomes type seasons, 50 touchdowns are not an option when 60% of the playbook is designed to run even for the quarterback, and the players are willingy put in positions to make a situation better for the player next to them and if the favor is turned back it is welcome but not necessary. This is why Air Force is perpetually competitive in both the conference and the bowl game schedule nearly every year. So sometimes it is not worth teaching an old dog new tricks, or in this case and old Falcon a new offense.