Talking Option Football with Jim Reese

Talking Option Football is a column written by Jim Reese, Option Central Staff Writer. In this article, Coach Reese interviews  Coach Mike DiMatteo, currently the Head Football Coach at Buffalo Grove H.S. Buffalo Grove, IL., and formerly Managing Editor of Option Central, who provides insights, perspective and food for thought for every coach.

1) Jim Reese: Mike, why has option football remained the offense of choice for so many football programs, both high school and college, for so many years?

Mike DiMatteo: I think that the primary reason is that an option based offense on the high school level allows small, lesser talented players to compete with anyone. Size is not the primary concern, rather technique and precision is. These are things that can be drilled, taught and players can take pride in, essential ideas when trying to rebuild a program or maintain excellence. There has been a stigma attached to option football over the years that it is a three-yards and a cloud of dust offense as well. I would counter that by saying that coaches have realized that it is more of a fast break type of offensive system, one that is exciting and fun to watch. All one has to do is watch Oregon, Texas A&M and Ga. Southern to see that. Finally, option based offenses force defenses to play assignment football. At the high school level, this is not an easy thing to do, especially in three days of preparation. I think that the same thought process occurs at the collegiate level as well. Paul Johnson of Georgia Tech has stated as much, and I do agree with him.

2) JR: What do you find to be the most effective option offense and why?

MD: It depends on your personnel. We’ve run with great success the spread triple (Ga. Southern, Ga. Tech) while at Lake Zurich High School, and the Shotgun Spread Triple Option while at Hinsdale Central High School, where we reached the state title game for the first time in school history. Both schools had different personnel and that was the key consideration. At Lake Zurich, we had a good offensive line, but an exceptional B-back (fullback) with two excellent A-backs (slots) who were bigger kids. We had a trigger man who was fearless and quite intelligent. He didn’t have the best arm but could make things happen and was a natural leader. This, we felt, lent itself to the spread triple option. At Hinsdale Central, we had excellent skill position players who were a bit undersized, a quarterback that could run, throw, and was the best athlete on the field. He was quite exceptional. We felt that the Shotgun Spread was the better choice as we wanted to put him in space. I do think that if coaches are considering the Shotgun Spread, they need to realize the importance of the passing game, more so than the spread triple. If coaches don’t have the receivers or the ability to pass pro consistently, it is going to be a struggle. Analysis of a team's personnel is of the utmost importance in our view. At Buffalo Grove, my current assignment, we began with the Shotgun Spread, but went back to the Spread Triple as it best fits our personnel at this point.

3) JR: Is the quarterback under center offense a dinosaur?

MD: I don’t think so. At the high school level especially. At the collegiate level, coaches can recruit better athletes, so there is an opportunity to get a very athletic player at that position. One other consideration .. .I think that it is important to be consistent in whatever approach you take. If you believe that being under center is the best thing for your players and program, be consistent with it. Don’t dabble in other things but get really good at what you do. That, in my opinion, is the achilles heel for all of us coaches. We get so many ideas and want to get them implemented that we forget that we have to teach all of that. At BG, we believe that the spread triple is the answer for us, so we will be under center.

4) JR: The pros seem to be moving in the direction of read option. Yet, Flacco beat Kaepernick in the Super Bowl. Are multitalented quarterbacks making the option the future of the NFL?

MD: I’ve said, as have other option coaches that I associate with, that the option at that level would be a true game changer. The counter argument has always been the injury factor, that NFL defenses are too fast and too good. I think that argument has been put to rest in a lot of ways. NFL defenses are uber aggressive and the option is built for that attitude which is why we see so many teams being successful running variations of the option. Having said that, Flacco, a traditional QB, won the super bowl because he was part of the better team, not necessarily that he was a traditional QB. I do think that the athletes that are available to the NFL at the QB position can certainly change the game. I see it this way ... guys that may never have been given a shot in the NFL as they were not “traditional” will now have an opportunity to be a factor. Change is generally difficult to embrace, but what is going on in the NFL certainly shows that option football can be a game changer with the right scheme and people in place. The QB position is continually being redefined, and this is just the latest definition in the NFL, but we option guys knew it was just a matter of giving it a chance. LOL.

5) JR: Can a program or a franchise bet the farm on risking hurting their quarterback by asking him to run, as might have been the case with the Redskins' RG III?

MD: Injury is part of the game. Dan Marino had his knee blown out and he was a traditional QB. I think that risk is inherent at that position. Look at it this way - getting blindsided to me is much worse than a QB who can protect himself by being smart. Slide, run out of bounds, be a bit smarter. How many quarterbacks were injured a few years ago in the traditional offense? It was almost an epidemic. There are only so many Brett Favre's out there. In my opinion, I don’t buy that argument, but it is certainly a way to avoid implementing an option based offense. There are many ways to lessen the impact on a QB, and while I realize that the speed, impact, and force of an NFL player is exponentially greater than a high school player, the policies that the NFL is implementing now with regard to player safety, as well as player awareness of their own safety, offsets that particular concern to my mind. It is always prudent to have more than one QB ready to go ... just ask Earl Morrall and Bob Griese about that one.

6) JR: X and O wise, what is the most difficult thing to teach and learn between a coach and a quarterback in an option offense?

 MD: I think that the most difficult thing to learn between a QB and Coach is for the coach to get across to the QB to trust his reads and put his eyes in the right position. If the QB is not looking at his read, his read percentage goes down dramatically and he is doing just a bit more than guessing. To me, the coach has to position himself so that he can look at the QB’s eyes on each and every rep during individual time, or the “ride and decide” period each day. There should not be a time in which a QB is meshing and not having his eyes in the right position. Footwork can be taught and drilled, and the QB can even work on that in his basement. The eyes are the key in my opinion, and that, to us, is non-negotiable. When his eyes are right, his percentage goes up, and the game starts to slow down for him. This results in a much higher percentage of successful option reads. We teach our QB to look into the eyes of the reads. A defender is not going to look one direction and then go another. The other intangible is “feel”of the game. We teach our QBs that during a game it is a game of cat and mouse. Feel what your opponent is doing. Get a feel for him. Eventually, you will figure him out. Trust yourself. Finally, I think that the QB has to really trust his coach and what he is teaching him. That goes for anything in the relationship between the coach and QB, but this one is special as the option QB is put out there on every plays. Our QB is given a “check with me” on almost every play. He has to know the offense as well as the coach. That takes a lot of trust and time. When done right, it is a great relationship that develops.

7) JR: In your opinion, is it practical to have a two-quarterback system running the option?

MD: Personally, I have never been a fan of a two quarterback system at any time, so I would say no. An option QB, just like a passing QB, gets in a rhythm, and when shuttling guys in and out, the coach does not allow him to get into that essential rhythm. The option QB is also the key component in the offense, the “trigger man”. The rest of the offense needs to know and have absolute confidence in him.! know that other coaches disagree, but that is my view on that particular topic.

8) JR:Is the huddle dead?

MD: I don’t think so. Certainly, there are many advantages to the no-huddle, but like anything else, you have to commit to it. In our case, we huddle the vast majority of the time, only going no-huddle in specific situations. It is certainly fashionable to go no-huddle, but there are still some diehards like us that think that the huddle still has its place.

9) JR: Russell Wilson notwithstanding, what size are you looking for in an option quarterback?

MD: I think this is a great question, and I get asked this all of the time. We look for these things in our QB candidates: 1. Toughness 2. Intelligence 3. Work ethic 4. Leadership ability 5. Willingness to be an option QB 6. Quick feet/athleticism 7. Gunslinger mentality Size doesn’t mean a whole lot to us, but toughness does. Some of the best option QBs have had very little size, but great competitive spirit and great intelligence. Dee Dowis (Air Force), Greg Hill (Georgia Southern) come to mind right away. Neither was very big, but they understood what the option game was all about. I think that is more important than anything else.

10) JR: Is the (UNLV) pistol better than the (Baylor) zone-read-bubble with a packaged play and why in your opinion?

MD: Having run both, they are different in their mentality and approach. Personally, I love the pistol as it is closer to what we do, but the zone read, which we ran successfully for a number of years, combined with the true triple, has some great advantages as well. I would say that to run the zone read scheme successfully, you need larger, more dominant linemen to get the true zone. With the pistol, like the Ga. Tech spread option, you don’t need those dominating linemen. That is the primary reason for me as to why the pistol is more appealing to me on the high school level. In the end, I think that the overriding factor is what the coach can get his players to believe in. Once the players buy in, the coach can do just about anything as the players will find a way to make it work. Option football takes endless reps, and that can get boring for the player. We always tell our guys that "Champions don’t get bored."

Mike DiMatteo served as Managing Editor of Option Central for a period of time during what we've referred to as The 10 Years of Option Central. Coach DiMatteo also contributed to the Option Central Article Library, with his Formulating Formations article while he was Head Coach at Hinsdale Central, Hinsdale, MI and The Lake Zurich Outside Veer while Head Coach at Lake Zurich H.S., Lake Zurich, IL.