AUBURN, Ala. — Since Chip Lindsey arrived as Auburn football’s offensive coordinator in January, three little letters have become widely discussed on the Plains — R-P-O.
RPOs, or run-pass options, became key selling points of Gus Malzahn’s decision to bring Lindsey back to the program. And throughout Auburn spring practice, RPOs have grown in importance to a Tigers offense that wants to air it out more effectively in 2017.
“The run-pass options have been good for my guys just to get some more balls on run plays and also some deep shots that we’re doing now,” wide receivers coach Kodi Burns said. “It’s been a really good situation so far with Coach Lindsey coming in, calling the offense and putting in some RPOs for our guys to make some more plays out in space.”
As a play, the RPO is exactly what its name suggests. On these types of plays, an offense has the option to either run the ball or pass it, depending on what kind of looks it gets from its defense.
Instead of a standard running call or a strict play-action, the offense gets to choose what type of play it will run after the snap. In a split-second, the quarterback must decide whether to hand the ball off to a running back, keep it for an option run or pass it.
At Arizona State, Lindsey’s offense was built around the RPO. The Sun Devils ran few traditional play-action passes, and plenty of running plays featured receivers running routes on the outside.
The installation of RPOs have been a welcome sight for Auburn’s wide receivers — a young but talented group that didn’t get many opportunities to beat teams deep last season.
“I see we have put in a lot of different RPOs that are going to help,” sophomore wide receiver Nate Craig-Myers said early in camp.
While most of the decision-making in an RPO comes down to a quick-thinking quarterback, Lindsey’s receivers at previous stops had their own read-and-react obligations.
As an inside receiver runs a route, the outside receivers read the coverage. If the cornerback plays off by several yards, the receivers run hitches or slants that turn into easy yardage. If the cornerback plays tight, the receivers have free reign to burn them deep. The routes are simple and quick, because the front side of the defense still reads it as a run.
“Yeah, typically on the RPO you don’t have time to double move, but you just have to understand the timing of the throw because it’s a run pass option, so it’s a run play,” Burns said. “The quarterback’s not going to drop back into protection, it’s a run play, so that means you just have to understand that as a receiver.”
The ultimate goal of any RPO is to keep the defense guessing. Auburn led the SEC in rushing yards per game last season, and it often faced extra defenders in the box. RPOs can be perfect counters to defenses that overplay the run, as they open up easier matchups in the passing game.
“We’re traditionally one of the best rushing teams in our league and to be able to hurt defenses when they roll an extra guy down and cheat the box, that’s something (Lindsey) has got a little expertise in,” Malzahn said.
While Malzahn said his previous Auburn offense “used some non-traditional RPOs” — think Nick Marshall’s game-tying touchdown pass to Sammie Coates in the 2013 Iron Bowl — other college offenses built their attacks around them.
Former Baylor coach Art Briles first experimented with RPOs as a high school coach in Texas and later used them extensively with the Bears. New Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham, the favorite to start the 2017 season, ran that type of RPO-based offense both in high school and in his one year at Baylor.
“Some of the RPO stuff that we’re doing right now is just really comfortable,” Stidham said. “I felt really comfortable with it because at Baylor most of the offense was RPO. I think it’s going to be good for us and add another element to our offense.”
The running element of Auburn’s offense should still be strong, even with a greater emphasis on throwing the ball. Running backs coach Tim Horton said the move toward more RPOs “hasn’t been a whole lot different” for his players. But having the threat of the pass open up more room on the ground — and vice versa — has been a welcome move.
“It’s been good to change a little bit,” Horton said. “It’s been good for the coaches, it’s been good for the players. It is not the same old, same old all the time in every aspect. But I thought for the first time that we really did it a game-like situation (in the first scrimmage), it went really well.”
In terms of the running game, Burns said being able to tell receivers they don’t have to block is “always a positive thing.” By running routes on RPOs that turn out to be rushing plays, Auburn’s wideouts can take defenders out of the play without ever touching them.
Meanwhile, the action in the trenches stays mostly similar to a standard running play — Auburn’s speciality in recent years under Malzahn.
Offensive line coach Herb Hand has to worry about his players getting too far down the field while blocking in an RPO, which carries a penalty. However, the second-year Auburn assistant said that hasn’t been a problem this spring.
“It’s been timing up pretty good in terms of having a run call, but also having a downfield pass,” Hand said. “We haven’t had many issues with our guys being downfield or anything like that. That’s really the biggest impact area of it. Because we stress so much the double teams and handling of level-one defenders, it really hasn’t really impacted us much in terms of RPOs.”
While the action stays mostly the same at running back and along the offensive line, the RPO brings new possibilities and challenges for Auburn’s quarterbacks and wide receivers.
The unique plays should be a major focus in the annual A-Day spring game this Saturday, as the Tigers show off Lindsey’s new offense for the first time in front of fans.
“It’s been really refreshing to do some different things because we have a really good run game,” Burns said. “We’ve been successful all the time running the ball, but now it just adds another dimension. If you run an open box, now we have some passing options off the run game that have been really good.”