Football nerdism of the week: Ohio State’s run-pass options or RPOs

This week’s football nerdism also includes a history lesson (stay tuned) after we define something Ohio State has utilized while rebuilding a stagnant offense over the past month: Run-pass options, or RPOs. 

A catch-all term for a variety of plays, an RPO at its core pairs a run and a pass together.

This differs from the good ol’ fashioned play-action pass because it is truly two plays in one. Play-action passes are, well, passes that simply look like a run at the outset (then of course there is the draw play, which initially looks like a pass but is a run all the way). Ohio State v Rutgers

With an RPO, the quarterback has the option to hand the ball off or throw depending on what the defender who is being read does. (A QB keeper could also be mixed in there at times.)

This goes beyond play action in that it doesn’t seek to trick the defense as much as it wants to paralyze it.

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If the defensive player being read (often a linebacker) plays run, the pass should be open behind him. If he hangs back in pass coverage, there will be room to run. Best-case scenario for the offense: He doesn’t commit to either one and therefore doesn’t defend either very well as the game goes on.

This week Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson gave a brief history of this strategy, noting how it evolved from a pre-snap read in which the quarterback would automatically throw a short pass or a screen if the defense was loaded up inside and the receiver was uncovered.

The decision now isn’t made until after the snap. Receivers run patterns knowing they might get the ball, the running back operates as if it could be going to him and the offensive line fires out as if there will be a handoff, so the decision must be promptly made to prevent them from getting too far downfield.

While RPOs are generally associated with quick slant patterns and hitches, Wilson said Ohio State also has one that pairs a run with a deep pass. The Buckeyes have practiced that but not tried it in a game.

And yet like so much in football, are RPOs really new to OSU?

That depends on how long you’ve been watching the Buckeyes.

They have run them somewhat sparingly the past couple of years, but other versions could be found much longer ago. 

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When I worked for Buckeye Sports Bulletin, I interviewed College Football Hall of Fame quarterback Rex Kern a few times.

In one of our conversations, the leader of the 1968 national champions described sprint out play that had lots in common with today’s RPOs. 

“I would fake to Leo [Hayden, a Dayton Roosevelt grad] and then the fullback would hook the defensive end and so that left me free on outside with [halfback Larry] Zelina and [end Bruce] Jankowski on front side in pass patterns, and many times in that early stage my sophomore year there was nobody on the corner once I turned the corner. Our offensive line and everybody did their job so exceptionally well that I was out on the corner and nobody was there, so I had the option to either run it or throw it, and that just opened things up tremendously for us.” 

“Opening things up” is exactly what Wilson and the current OSU offensive staff have done with RPOs for J.T. Barrett, J.K. Dobbins, Parris Campbell and others on this Ohio State offense.


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