• Diane Roberts

Paul Johnson Breaks Down the Triple Option: Part 1

by Diane Roberts

Navy football runs the triple option offense. So does Army. So does Air Force.

What is the "triple option" offense and why do the Service Academy teams use it? To an untrained observer, who may be accustomed to NFL or Power-5 college offenses that emphasize the passing game, watching the Academy teams run the triple option can be . . . confusing. The ball gets snapped, everybody runs in one direction, and somehow Haaziq Daniels scores a touchdown. But what's really going on inside all of that chaos?

We had the good fortune of catching up with former Navy Football Head Coach Paul Johnson, who initially brought the scheme to the Naval Academy. His knowledge of all things football is immeasurable and Behind The Lines correspondent Diane Roberts picked his brain about the triple option. We'll be sharing their conversation over the next several weeks. Here's Part 1:

Diane Roberts: My first year in Washington, DC, when I was covering sports and covering Navy you were the head coach at Navy, so it's nice to see you again!

For people who don't know, Coach, can you tell us what the triple option offense is?

Paul Johnson: Well, the triple option is actually one play, but it's designed that it has any of three ball carriers that can have the ball and is based -- after the snap -- on reads.

There's an initial read: You leave two guys unblocked, one to play the dive and one to take the quarterback. And then you have numbers and angles that, hopefully, you can outnumber the defense if you can do the thing right, and read the thing right.

On the way out, so the [defensive] guy doesn't take the fullback, or the B-back, you [the QB] hand him the ball. If he [the defender] does [take that B-back] the quarterback goes to the second option. If the [defensive] guy takes him [the QB] he pitches [to the halfback]. If he [the defender] doesn't [take the QB], he {the QB} runs the ball {himself].

And there can be variations -- there's all kinds of variations of it -- and you can change blocking schemes, but it's actually just one play in the offense.

Diane: Service academies, they can't compete with the Alabamas and Floridas and Georgia, they have to be different. Is that why the triple option works for them?

Paul Johnson: The thing about the academies ... the recruiting is different. And the one thing I learned after leaving Navy and going to Georgia Tech is -- in a typical year at Navy we probably signed 70 or 80 guys, counting direct and prep school -- and at those other schools, you're limited. Probably the most we ever signed at Tech in a year was 24. So it might not be getting the guys that are, you know, graded as high by the recruiting sites, but you're also getting a lot of guys in that 80 that are diamonds in the rough that they have missed on. So, it gives you a chance to be competitive.

Diane: Who introduced you to the triple option?

Paul Johnson: We actually ran the stuff when I was in high school, playing. We were a wishbone team. And then when I started coaching, I went back to my high school and I was fortunate enough to be the offensive coordinator right back out of college.

And then after that, I went to a junior college and got away from it. We were more of an I-formation team back then. I left there and went to Georgia Southern as a defensive coach, and then we were a combination, kind of, run-and-shoot, a little bit of option at Georgia Southern while I was coaching defense. And when I moved over to the offensive side of the ball we just kind of evolved into what we did pretty much my whole career.

I think the academies, because it's hard to find the fast receivers and the guys that can do that, you don't throw it as much. At Georgia Southern we could do whatever we wanted. We had some really good teams and we went 62-10 while we were there. So we didn't throw it as much because we were usually ahead in the games and didn't have to.

But over my whole career, somebody did a study a few years ago and looked at 30-some years of doing the triple option, it averaged about 34 or 35 points per game and well over 400 yards. So it had been successful pretty much everywhere we coached.

These days you can find Coach Johnson enjoying retirement in North Carolina where he sometimes helps his brother coach the junior high team.

edited for web by Joe Harman