LSU’s new offensive coordinator, Matt Canada, is one of the most innovative offensive minds in the country.
His expansive system doesn’t have a signature play. He overloads defenses (and his own team) with every kind of look, formation and concept you can imagine. But one of his destructive plays while the OC at Pitt was the power shovel-option, which blended two old-school principles into one new-age design.
Its obscure style is something every LSU opponent will have to prepare for heading into 2017. Canada may not go to it every week, but if he catches an opponent who’s unprepared, he won’t be afraid to call the design — as he did against Clemson in 2016.
In fact, Canada may look to use it sparingly against lesser opponents. He’s a diligent self scout. It’s why he uses so many different looks and introduces fresh concepts each week. He doesn’t want his opponents to have an accurate tendency chart. He now finds himself in a fortunate position where he can run a base offense against much of the Tigers’ early schedule, simply overpowering inferior teams with more talent.
To that end, it wouldn’t be a complete surprise if he kept this mouth-watering concept under wraps until LSU hits its pivotal midseason games against Alabama and Florida, hoping to catch the pair off guard.
Canada created the play while at Pitt in order to add more option elements to his attack. His quarterback, Nathan Peterman, was a decent athlete who could move outside the pocket, but wasn’t a traditional burner that struck fear into read defenders.
Without genuine speed at the QB spot, defenders were able to hold their keys against traditional option concepts. Or, they would gamble — firing downhill to attack the mesh point, or sitting and gobbling up the running back. Even if they guessed incorrectly, Peterman didn’t have the speed to turn the mistake into a punishing run.
Canada, as the best minds so often do, found a nifty solution. He fashioned an option play that relied on deception over athleticism, using an unlikely source: The H-Back. As defenses played what looked like a normal option, it was left bamboozled as a tight end scampered away up field.
At Pitt, Canada used a constant barrage of multi-tight end and H-Back sets (or up backs) in a variety of different formations and alignments. They were fullback/tight end hybrids who lined up anywhere and everywhere, blocking, catching and running. The Trojan horse-style shovel pass harnessed all of that.
The concept of the play is simple: A shovel pass masquerading as a veer-option, with a lead blocker clearing an avenue for the H-Back.
The base option
Let’s start with the base and most common power shovel option.
Like any power play, the principle element is a backside guard pulling around the frontside guard. On this design, an H-Back follows the pulling guard. But rather than being an extra blocker — who may seal an unblocked end like on a split-zone play — he’s there to receive a pitch.
Here’s an example from the Pitt-Clemson game from 2016:
It may look like simple pitch and catch stuff. But it’s a highly intricate design that caught the Clemson front, literally, flat-footed.
The deception started with the running back. The back drove hard to the edge, never turning his hips up field, creating a mesh point with the quarterback that looks like a veer option — the quarterback riding the mesh down the line with back, before deciding whether to pull the ball out or not. This both sells the idea of a normal looking option play, and helps out-leverage the defense, creating a nice lane off the left tackle. Part of the beauty is the running back isn’t selling the play, he may indeed get the ball.
Here’s where things get tricky. The quarterback’s responsibility was to read the C-Gap defender. Traditionally that would be a defensive end or outside linebacker. In the example above, however, Clemson attempted to confuse the Pitt QB. Instead, it played right into Panthers’ hands.
Clemson walked down an extra linebacker to overload one side of the formation. Defenses often do this against option looks – Pitt was running its own style of a full-house formation: Two H-Backs and a back flanking the quarterback. The goal of the defense was twofold: Confuse the quarterback and make him read the wrong defender, thereby screwing up the blocking assignments; or to get a free-run at the mesh point, which often leads to panic or a free shot on whoever his carrying the ball.
That would have been an issue if the rotating linebacker stuck in his lane, and the original C-Gap defender – the defensive end – also committed to an outside rush through that lane. Instead, the end attempted to knife inside the Pitt offensive tackle. That made the blocking mechanics that much easier for the Panthers.
The linebacker who had rotated down from the middle of the field, was the read defender, left unblocked and asked to pick his poison.
The speed of the back forced the read defender to sit flat-footed. He was reading the mesh point, trying to pick up whether the back or quarterback had the ball, with no clue the H-Back was sneaking in behind him with a free lead blocker.
While your eyes are most likely drawn to the frontside of the play where all the fun and games are taking place, it’s mostly window dressing designed to confuse. It’s the backside that really makes this play sing.
The center has the key reach block. He must get across the face of a twitched up interior tackle, to allow the backside guard to pull – in this case the right tackle. Miss the block, and that Clemson three-technique would explode into the backfield and detonate the play.
The right tackle is crucial, too. He must sell a dummy block. Initially, he’ll kick toward the three-technique, before resetting and cutting off the outside linebacker – who aligned over the H-Back who will eventually receive the pitch. The H-Back must also sell he is there to block that linebacker. Everyone is working in concert. This play doesn’t rely on one mauler up front or a playmaker in space, everyone must execute.
Everyone executed perfectly on the Clemson example. The center sprung across the face of the three-technique, with some help from his buddy at right tackle. With the backside sealed, the right guard was free to loop around and go head hunting for a linebacker or safety. Smash the first thing you see in a different colored jersey, that’s the job of a pulling lineman – it typically winds up being the linebacker who was designated to cover the H-Back if he were to run a route.
With the read defender stuck in mud, the guard pulled through his vacated gap, with the H-Back following in behind. Peterman read the read-defender and flipped the ball to the H-Back who was able to gallop into acres of space.
The Clemson defense was out-leveraged.
The pulling guard was able to seal the second-level defender – a linebacker – and the H-Back turned a possible 10-yard play into a 40-yard gain.
The concept is a labyrinth of individual assignments that helps form a can’t-win situation if each player executes properly. Pitt’s group mastered it. Now, Canada must introduce it to his new group at LSU.
Fortunately for Canada, the most difficult part of the play – besides the quarterback making the correct read – falls on the center. William Clapp, the Tigers’ best lineman, will be shifting from guard to center for 2017, a move that should pay big dividends.
Clapp is a hyper-athletic interior player who excels in close quarters rather than when he’s asked to pull. His location skills leave something to be desired, but he’s a fighter, who seems to find himself in an excellent position. Some of it is innate – his size – but he’s also shown the hip fluidity to set up defenders and then twist them wherever he likes.
On the play above, watch how Clapp – lining up at left guard – is able to get his hands inside the edge defender, maintain position, then comfortably twist the defender to neutralize him from the play.
He should have the springiness to get across the face of interior defenders and set everything in motion for the shovel option.
The base option is one thing. But Canada ran all kinds of different looks at Pitt to keep defenses guessing and the yards coming. Most of it was window dressing: adding in a ghost motion; faking a jet sweep and building in an additional reverse option; or opening up an empty set before shifting and flexing the tight end and wide receiver into the roles of running back and up-back – one of the advantages of having hybrid players,
The quarterback keep variation
The niftiest variation is the quarterback keeper. It answers the biggest question you probably have: What if someone reads the play and cuts off the H-Back who’s supposed to catch the pitch? Simple, the play converts into a speed option.
Here’s another example from the same Clemson game, though this time the running back is flanking the quarterback on his left:
This time, with the non-pitch H-Back uncovered, he’s turned into a motion man. He drives across the front in a bid to get a linebacker to follow him, thereby leaving the defense a man down and out-leveraged into the boundary.
As the quarterback pulled the ball, Clemson’s middle linebacker jumped the play. Peterman, the quarterback, recognized that and pulled the ball, leaving a 2-on-1 situation outside against a boundary cornerback.
As option football is intended to do, the defense was left in a no-win situation: drive to the running back and Peterman would keep the ball himself; move toward the ball carrier and Peterman would pitch the ball to the running back who would have the edge and an easy to path to a touchdown.
The cornerback played this well. He held the edge and forced the QB to keep it. Peterman also made the right choice, keeping the ball all the way to the 2-yard line, where a safety corralled him.
The beauty of this option is the ball is never put in harm’s way. There’s no mesh point that could be screwed up. Instead, it relies on the quarterback reading the play properly, which comes with reps. At worst, the quarterback takes a hit for no gain by misreading the play.
It’s a design that will fit the LSU offense in 2017 as it did Pitt in 2016. Danny Etling, like Peterman, is a quarterback who can move a little on rollouts and bootlegs. But he’s no traditional option threat. This style of option uses his legs as a means to create favorable advantages for others, and it’s his decision making that’s tested. And yeah, every now and then he will be presented with acres of grass to skip into.
The design is one concept, dressed up in many different ways, with every eligible player a threat or playing a key part. It’s the epitome of Canada. There’s no doubt he’ll feature the play at some point. And he’s likely got a fresh variation hiding up his sleeve. The SEC best be prepared.