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Breaking Down USF's New Zone Read

USF will be running a spread offense this fall, in an effort to find more success than the pro-style offense has given them in the last two seasons. The system revolves around a refreshing new phrase: the USF zone read.

This is a new system in Tampa and it takes a lot of practice to master, so don't look for USF to be doing anything super complicated. Most of these players were not recruited to play spread and many of them (especially quarterbacks, running backs and guards) will have different offensive responsibilities in the new system. From what I have seen in spring practice, the team is familiarizing itself with the basics. The quarterback remains in the shotgun most of the time and there is no huddle. The offense is not terribly different, it is just going to look less like a pro set, and instead of being based around blind hand offs to Marlon Mack, it will be based around zone reads.

The zone read is a simple concept that pretty much all of college football uses in one way or another. Basically, the players in the backfield do not know what they are going to do until they "read" the defense after the ball is snapped. The quarterback lines up in the shotgun because he needs to keep his eyes forward. The running back is right next to him. After the ball is snapped, the quarterback and running back cross paths and the quarterback reads what a particular defensive player in a particular zone is doing. Hence the name "zone read." Usually the zone that is being read contains the defensive end, but often teams read the zone that is covered by a nose guard or linebacker. The quarterback reads the zone like this: if the defender chases the running back, the quarterback pulls the ball and runs with it himself. If the defender goes after the quarterback, he hands it off to the running back. If this is executed well by the quarterback and running back, the defender will essentially be eliminated from the play: whichever player he pursues, he will be wrong. This is why on Saturdays you often see defensive linemen frozen in their tracks or tackling running backs that do not have the ball.

The best thing about reading a defender like this is that he does not need to be blocked. Not having to block him means that the offensive line can move up and block linebackers and give the rusher more of a push.

Handing off or keeping the ball are not the only options that a quarterback has in a zone read. He can call for a receiver to go in motion and give it to him (like that Rodney Adams end-around play that worked fairly well last year), and he can also pull the ball from the running back, run up to the line of scrimmage and then pull up to pass after the defense has been sold on it being a run play.

The picture below shows an outside zone read. Here, the left guard pulls and blocks on the right side while the offensive line pushes the direction of the play to the right. The defense will scramble to get to that side and stop the run, giving the quarterback the option of pulling the ball and skedaddling upfield in the opposite direction. At least one of the defensive backs will probably give up on his coverage and come down to stop the run, giving the quarterback an easy pass option.

The following picture shows an inside zone read. The offensive line will block straight ahead and the ball will go up the middle. With five offensive linemen blocking three defensive linemen, two of them can push straight forward and block the linebackers. Whoever keeps the ball will hightail it between the tackles.

Last season, the strategy seemed to be to run the ball up the gut hoping that would scare defenses enough to start loading the box. Once they started loading the box, the pass game was supposed to stretch the defense out. This didn't work very well because the basic run play was rarely established as a threat. Also, USF never really got the pass game going, so defenses were not scared of that either.

A zone read is much harder to defend than a simple run between the tackles. Defenses are getting better at it, but with this as the base play of the offense, it should get the Bulls a yard or two more per snap than a simple power run would. The zone read stretches a defense north, south, east and west and forces them to stay in position instead of just coming in and stuffing power runs.

Defenses will see the zone read formation and be prepared to defend it. This is when USF can call the plays they've known for the last two years. When the defensive line and linebackers go all in to swarm a zone read, that's when you throw deep, hit your tight end in the flat, or do a bubble screen. You can even line up for a zone read and then do a simple power run to confuse the defense.

A zone read is pretty easy to understand, but it isn't easy to execute. It requires the quarterback to be very alert and make split second decisions all throughout the play. It also requires the offensive linemen to know which direction to block the play and whether or not to pull. In game situations, between jitters and inexperience with the play, mistakes will be made. The hand off is not a simple one, so it's easy to fumble. It's also easy to misread the defender and get tackled for loss. The Bulls should get better at it the more they do it, but you can expect things to be shaky at the beginning of the season.

I don't know if the new system will win more games this year, but I do think it's a better fit for the talent that USF has. Had the Bulls shifted to a spread years ago, they may have mastered it by now. As things are, they are beginners at this. So expecting a 2015 turnaround is a bit much, but you can expect the games to be more interesting to watch.