The Origins and Philosophy of an Offensive Guru – Part 1
Part 1: Gus Malzahn and the Delaware Wing-T
When I first started this little adventure I really didn’t know what information I was looking for or if I would even be able to find one specific offensive system that Gus’s offense can be traced to. I knew that I had done quite a few game breakdowns in which diagrams of plays either from Malzahn’s playbook in previous years or a snapshot of a play from a game were dissected and elements from the Power I, Veer, Option, Air Raid, etc. were all visible or discussed.
I knew, or felt like I knew, what the Gus Malzahn offense was really about and I tried to convey that to anyone brave enough to try and decipher what I had written. Still though, I really couldn’t pinpoint where it all came from. I couldn’t put a finger on the exact system or philosophy that started all the gears turning in Gus’s mind which eventually spawned an offensive system that has absolutely destroyed defenses, shattered records, and inspired coaches from little league football all the way to the NFL.
So, what did I find? Well, for starters Gus definitely borrows and adapts concepts from many different offensive systems into his own (shocking right? I didn’t just state that in the first paragraph or anything). What I’ve always found unique about him is that, in my opinion, he sees the field and defenses from a different perspective. I guess another way of saying this would be that there seems to be an inherent philosophy that’s stuck with him regardless of where he’s coached and the personnel or talent level he’s had to work with. Combine that with the fact that Gus is a pretty creative and innovative coach and you get the product you see today.
That still doesn’t answer my original question though…where did it all start?
It all started in the small town of Hughes, Arkansas where Gus Malzahn was given the keys to his first program as head coach in 1992 at Hughes High School. What may be a little shocking is that Malzahn was promoted to head coach after only one year as defensive coordinator at Hughes High School, which also happened to be his first full-time coaching job outside of being a graduate assistant.
At the time of his promotion he knew nothing about being a head coach and very little about offense so he went searching for answers as well as an offensive philosophy. He found those answers in what may be one of the most important books ever written about offense in American football, “The Delaware Wing-T: An Order of Football” by Harold Raymond.
Malzahn followed this book word for word and its influence is still just as clear today as it was when he first began implementing this system with his teams at Hughes High School. With one book and the ambition to change the way football is played Gus Malzahn laid the foundation for an offense that would do just that…
The Delaware Wing-T
Below is and excerpt from Harold Raymond’s book in which he describes the Wing-T:
“The Wing-T is more than a formation. It is a system of offense that is versatile and multiple in nature. It is best described as a four-back formation that originates as a running offense. However, the presence of the wing forces a defense to play at least three deep. In spite of its dependence on the running game, it is, paradoxically, initially dependent on the threat of a passing game. The passing, however, is action in nature with the quarterback keeping the ball with or away from the flow of attack. It may be best described as sequence football. This should not imply that every play is run in order, but that the offense is run in series where several points are threatened as the ball is snapped. Its sequential aspect is shown not only from the series pattern of the backs but, just as significantly, from its blocking.”
It’s important to understand that the Wing-T does several things on every play:
1) A “Wing Back” is used in every formation which presents the defense with multiple receiving threats, an extra blocker, or provides backfield motion
2) With three backs (running back, full back, wing back) in the backfield the system is able to utilize motion and misdirection both before and after the snap
3) The offensive blocking scheme presents problems for the defensive line independent of backfield motion or receiving threats.
4) The majority of the offense is run out of the same base formation which lends itself to carrying out the idea of sequence football.
The Wing Back
The Wing Back is used in multiple ways and, as stated earlier, presents a third receiving threat to the defense and is either lined up close to the offensive line or sent in motion before the snap. The motion of the Wing Back before the snap can either be an indication of the offensive flow of attack or can be nothing more than deception. The Wing Back can also be as used as an edge blocker to flank the defense on either end. This often forces the defensive front to stretch and widen to compensate for the flanking angle of the Wing Back, which creates wider running and passing lanes.
The blocking scheme in the Wing-T is designed in such a way that any decision the defensive players along the line of scrimmage make there is an inherent counter block for that decision. If the defensive tackle pursues the down block of the offensive linemen he’s opened himself up to be blocked by the Tight End or full back, if the linebacker or defensive end follow the motion in the backfield then he’s done exactly what the offense is designed to do which enables the Tight End/H-back/Wing Back to kick them out and block them out of the play. Even if the defensive ends or linebackers don’t follow the backfield motion the Wing Back or Tight End can engage and then release to run his route into the secondary in which case the running back or full back can pick up the defensive end in the back field if necessary.
The majority of the Wing-T is run out of the same offensive formation….quarterback under center, running back/h-back directly behind the quarterback, running back/h-back to either the left or right of the quarterback, the Wing Back lined up as either a slot receiver or slightly off of the offensive line, and one true wide receiver. Out of this base formation the offense presents multiple running and receiving threats to the defense within the same play. With multiple backs in the backfield the offense is able to use pre-snap motion and misdirection to counter a defense’s response to a play.
The term “sequence football” shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that the offense has a set of plays that must be run in an exact order to work. It refers more to the idea that as the offense runs its plays the defense will react and as the defense begins to “catch on” to what the offense is doing it will leave itself open for a counter attack by the offense. The offense, in some sense, wants the defense to eventually adjust to stop their initial plan of attack. When the defense shifts or rotates defenders to add run support or pass coverage there will be a lack of support on the opposite side which should lead to a big play. If an offense is run from the same or very similar formations with multiple running and receiving threats present, setting a defense up for a big offensive play becomes much easier.
*This concept is one of the most important aspects of the Wing-T and Gus Malzahn’s offense and we will look at an example later on in the article from an Auburn game in 2013 that should make this a little easier to understand.*
While sequence football can be visually seen throughout a game and even in the blocking schemes of the Wing-T, it’s more of a philosophy or way of thinking that can be applied to just about any type of offense. I think of it as the offense setting off a sequence of events once the ball is snapped on the first play and the direction or shape that these events take are dictated by the defense.
Wing-T Playbook: “Belly Series”
To understand the base offense of the Wing-T we need to look at several diagrams out of the Delaware Wing-T playbook called the “Belly Series”. Keep in mind that all of these plays are run out of the same base formation but attack the defense at different points and the blocking scheme for the offensive line is essentially the same. Using these diagrams we see examples of the power running game, the play action pass, and the use of misdirection/backfield motion as thought out by Harold Raymond.
Example 1: Inside, Power Run
The inside, power run is one of the oldest plays in football history but over the years coaches and teams have adapted this play to fit into their scheme and this is no different. Looking at the diagram we can see that the Wing Back is sent in motion from left to right and at the snap, the quarterback hands off to the Running Back who runs up the middle while the Full Back blocks either the defensive tackle or linebacker and the Wing Back flanks the defensive end. The offensive line is down blocking with the left Offensive Tackle leading the Running back into the hole and blocking the defensive tackle or first defensive player he sees.
Example 2: Play Action Pass
This is another play that has been around in football for quite some time but just as power running plays have evolved, so has the play action pass. In the Wing-T, the play action starts with pre-snap motion from the Wing Back. Once the ball is snapped the quarterback fakes the hand off to the Running Back which freezes the linebackers and the secondary just long enough for the outside receiver to run past the cornerback or for the H-back to slip into the flat and while rolling to his left the quarterback throws to his open receiver. Again, the offensive line is in a similar blocking scheme as the power run even though this a designed passing play…linemen on the attacking side are down blocking with the only exception being the left Offensive Guard who pulls to the outside to block the defensive tackle.
Example 3: Attacking the defense away from backfield motion
In this example we see that the pre-snap motion moves from right to left. At the snap we see that the running back takes the hand off and runs off tackle to the right side of the play (opposite of the pre-snap motion). The idea is to have the defense watching the player in motion, believing that he may be an added blocker for the run game or an additional receiver out of the backfield. With the defense flowing toward the motion (hopefully), the running back takes the hand off and runs off tackle to the opposite side for a decent gain.
Similarities to Malzahn’s current offense
It’s easy to see that the Wing-T is a power running based offense that uses motion and misdirection to set up the passing game which is almost always based off of play action. Malzahn ran this system for four years as the head coach of Hughes High School all while making tweaks and drawing up some of his own plays. Fast forward to today (or last season for specific examples) and we can take a look at how Gus still incorporates the core philosophy of the Wing-T into his offense.
The diagram below is a great example of Gus’s offense as it stands now. It may look very familiar (as it should) because this same formation and sequence of plays was run in the fourth quarter of the Iron Bowl which led to the game tying touchdown pass to Sammie Coates. Out of this base formation two things immediately come to mind: 1) there are 3 true receivers that the defense must account for and 2) there are multiple running backs/h-backs in the backfield (2 specifically but 3 if you include the QB).
Based on Auburn’s sequence (notice how I continue to use this phrase) of plays throughout the game, and throughout this drive specifically, the defense knew that as soon as the ball was snapped there were at least 3 true and viable options for being attacked: 1) the screen pass, which is setup based on the alignment of the boundary side (far right side of the play) defensive backs relative to the boundary side receiver 2) inside/power run in which the QB hands off to the running back 3) the QB keeps the ball and runs outside.
As the defense begins to adjust to the plays that are being successfully run against them, they have to shift and rotate their coverage in the secondary to provide support for the potential running threats and the screen pass. When making these adjustments though, they begin to leave themselves vulnerable to being attacked in a different way. The field side coverage (far left side of the play) begins to come closer and closer to the line of scrimmage to provide run support to the outside. In the last play of the drive Nick Marshall fakes the hand off to Tre Mason (play action) which freezes the linebackers and allows Jay Prosch to get into the secondary for blocking. Marshall then pulls the ball down as if he’s going to run which pulls the field side cornerback in and allows Sammie Coates to run right past him and as the cornerback bites on the QB run, Marshall completes a pass to a wide open Sammie Coates for an easy touchdown.
This is a perfect example of how the philosophy of sequence football is actually carried out. Remember that sequence football is the concept of running multiple plays from a base formation that presents multiple threats to a defense and then allowing the defense to actually dictate how the offense strikes. Auburn’s offense allowed the defense to adjust to their plays and when the timing was right, the offense took advantage of the defense when they gave up defenders in one area in order to protect themselves in another. This is philosophy is something that, in my opinion, Gus Malzahn has absolutely mastered.
Going a step further in dissecting this play, I would say there were actually 5 or 6 viable threats to the defense out of this formation. If we take into consideration the sequence of plays Auburn had run over the course of the game the defense should also be considering an outside run or counter from the running back (# 5) with the h-back sealing the edge and blocking the outside linebacker or defensive end as well as the h-back being open in the flat as a fourth receiving threat (# 6) if the outside linebacker vacates his zone.
Had the defense not rotated their coverage and played straight up and/or decided to blitz from the boundary side of the field we’re looking at 6 – 7 real options that the defense must consider. Again, this is all part of the core philosophy of the Wing-T…for every defensive counter there is an offensive counter.
Now that we know where the core philosophy comes from, where do we go from here?
Honestly, I could go on and on giving examples of plays in which all of the principles of the Wing-T are incorporated but I don’t think I need to. If you watch much game film where Gus Malzahn is in control of his offense, the footprint of the Wing-T should be clearly visible. Obviously, there are some differences and Gus no longer follows the Wing-T verbatim as he did in 1992 at Hughes High School but even his adaptations are still purely from the Harold Raymond Wing-T mold.
These differences and adaptations shouldn’t be underestimated though and are just as important to Gus’s offense in its entirety as the Wing-T. In Part 2 of this series we will look at a second offensive system and an unconventional idea that ignited his meteoric rise through the coaching ranks leaving shattered offensive records and dumbfounded defensive coordinators in his wake and how I think the offense that permanently changed the landscape of football will evolve…
“The Delaware Wing-T: An Order of Football” by Harold Raymond
*This document is not to be sold or used for profit in any way and is not to be copied and/or distributed without the consent of the original author. The original photos and diagrams contained in this document can be found in the sources listed above this statement. This document is to be used for entertainment purposes only.*
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