(Editor’s note: When he’s not WINNING and bemoaning the rise of the spread offense, ex-North Carolina Tar Heel Michael Felder is giving his readers and podcast listeners a film room junkie’s perspective on the finer points of college football at his site In The Bleachers. As “Best of” Week wraps up, Michael takes us inside some of his favorite plays in the game. Follow Michael of Twitter: @InTheBleachers.)
When I got asked by Allen to participate in the “Best of” Week series that he had planned, I instantly started thinking of rankings and which coach could go where or which players were the best this or that. I even thought about bowl games and which matchups I most wanted to see or that we had already seen. But, as I got a little bit deeper into my decision-making and saw what the other guys were doing, I decided to get back into my wheelhouse and just talk a little raw football.
I’m not talking about the “greatest plays,” folks. There will be no Peter Warrick 9-yard run that took 30 seconds here. No Doug Flutie Hail Mary on the day before I was born either. I’m also not talking about the “coolest” or “neatest” plays. There is no room for trickeration, y’all – I am doing my best to spare the Sooner faithful the Statue of Liberty play and the madness that led up to that. Nope, just talking “best plays,” as in the plays that, for my money, you’re going to get legitimate success and absolutely crowd-inspiring results out of as long as you’re calling them at the right time and in the right situation.
Football is football and since every phase of the game is important we’re going offense, defense and special teams. Yes, special teams has plays, not just run around and try to hit somebody. In fact I’m going to kick it off with special teams for you.
The Wall Return
The most exhilarating or soul-crushing special teams play, depending on the side your on, is the return for a touchdown. It can give you hope and renew your faith in your squad, or it can only serve to compound the issues that you’re already experiencing. There’s not too much special about the kick return; perhaps a reverse, a few double teams and if you’re fancy an X-block, but on punt return you can really get exotic. Teams hold guys up at the line, they do X-blocks, double team gunners and, of course, the uber-fun 11-man punt block. However, as exotic as you want to get in your scheme, the best way to get results out of the punt return is with a tried and true method: the wall return.
Players fire off the line, hold up the punt team a bit then peel off down the side, forming a wall around the bottom of the numbers. All the return man has to do is get to the wall and he’ll have a convoy of destroyers waiting to break down the unsuspecting punt coverage team. This is where you’ll see some of the nastiest blocks in football, as coverage unit players chase the punt return man without looking to notice the six or seven other guys waiting to throw de-cleater blocks.
The trick to beating it is easy – get inside the wall – but with so few teams employing this return method regularly, players are often clueless as to when they’re being set up for this type return. Run it once every few games and you’ll see legitimate success.
1st Down RB Screen
Your defense just gave up a 3rd and medium by missing a tackle on an out route, and the safety had to stop the guy a few yards past the 1st down marker. Your guys are tired, but they’re angry because they were so close. You know this team runs 68 percent of the time on first downs. You’re screaming to get a stop, you know if you can force them into second and 10+ by stuffing this running play, you’ll be in great shape to get off the field this time. They line up in 12 personnel, one running back and two tight ends, a traditional run set. Play starts, your guys fire off the ball, the running back goes to block, it must be a pass, your defensive line is breathing down the quarterbacks neck, all four have broken through the line!
Then the quarterback dumps it off for a screen pass to that same running back who looked to be helping on the blocks. He’s got three 310 lbs guys running in front of him, your linebackers are out of position in their pass drop zones and the safeties and cornerbacks are getting swallowed whole by the big boys their running back has in front of him. You get that sinking feeling. Yeah, this one goes for big yardage.
That sinking feeling? That is what it feels like on the field, on the sidelines, in the booth, in the stands and on the couch when a team pulls off a well-executed and, more importantly, well-timed screen. Third down screens are predictable, safe plays to stop increasing field goal distance or shorten the punt. Second and long screens are about getting to third and manageable. Screens immediately after getting a first down on a frustrated defense or starting a drive against an overly aggressive defense are about slowing down the pass rush and taking big chunks of yardage.
This play can’t be called all the time. However, the beauty of it is a good offensive coordinator has a feel for screens, when the right time is and while you may not see it for a couple games even, when he does call it this play is the most beautifully orchestrated offensive play in the book.
The Weakside Corner Blitz
For those who have followed me long enough to see the maniacal tweeter that I am during games in the season, you might already know this. For those who haven’t: The Weakside Cowboy is my favorite play in all of football when you can come from the short side of the field. It is largely indefensible, especially at the college level, and your only hopes are that your quarterback is big enough to absorb the hit, that the corner misses the kill shot or that your offensive coordinator happened to call a quick pass or a running play so that the quarterback doesn’t have the football in his hands.
In college football, teams do the bulk of their work to the strong side of the formation, when you have one receiver to the back side he is largely neglected, made to run dummy routes or be the last option after the quarterback goes through his progression. Most quarterbacks are not very advanced and rarely even look at the back side of a formation unless they’re stuck in no man’s land. Oh, and let’s not forget that most quarterbacks, and by extension teams, are right handed. That’s the first reason this play is so dangerous, the total lack of awareness on the quarterback’s part.
Secondly, the field itself makes this play far more successful as a “surprise” in college than it generally is in the NFL. The hash marks for college are wide – really wide – and that means when your team gets the ball on the left hash, the quarterback is only 20 yards from the sidelines. You line your wide receiver up at the bottom of the numbers, and that defensive back is 13 yards from the quarterback with a free run. Your quarterback takes a five-yard drop and we’re talking 13.9 yards of free run at the quarterback – that’s Pythagorean Theorem football baby!
Scary part for an offense is, if the corner starts creeping and gets a good jump, most guys are fast enough to be there as your QB starts to set up his throw. That’s when balls come out and the scoop and score happens.
For my money folks those are the best plays in football. Look for them this upcoming season and by all means if you’ve got other plays you enjoy let Allen and myself know.