In today’s prologue chapter of the Introduction to the Wisconsin football program’s Dairy Raid offense, we discuss the age-old debate of under-center vs. shotgun.
If you missed my introduction to the Wisconsin football offense, you can read that here.
Running plays under center is not faster, more downhill, or more efficient than from the gun.
There…I said it now that we have that out of the way let’s dive into why. Football is a game that lives at a focal point of history, strategy, and innovation. History reminds us that there’s really nothing new about the game. When history becomes tradition, you often look past the strategic value and comfort yourself with nostalgia.
Nostalgia can often get in the way of innovation. What worked for Dad should always work because of the warm fuzzy feeling it gives you. But warm fuzzy feelings don’t win football games.
When developing an offensive system, a coach has to take into account many factors. He must understand the strengths and weaknesses of his roster. The Jimmies and Joes need to be your focal point and not the Xs and Os.
Even after taking into account your roster, there is still another crucial step, and that is to take into account your own limitations as a coach. You must be able to coach up your system and do so with the confidence to preach your system is law.
An offensive system is not a collection of plays.
The test I use anytime I’m building up a new system or even a weekly game plan is to take a play, any play, and set it against an expected defensive counteraction.
Then from this defensive reaction, I take a play from my playbook or game plan to counter to exploit the action to which there will be a defensive reaction.
This back-and-forth keeps going until I can get back to my original play. If I can get back to where I started, I know I have a complete system to defeat that particular defense. The final, most crucial step to any systematic installation is the ability to deploy it from your gut.
Statistics and analytics are great, but when it comes down to crunch time, I don’t want to have to look at a spreadsheet to figure out what the situation dictates. I should already know because my instincts take over.
“So let’s bring it back to the subject at hand, the debate between running plays under center or in shotgun.”
After developing a system based on his players and his ability to coach it up, the play call for a coach comes down to what feels right at that moment.
Like it or not, many coaches, myself included, believe that running the majority of the plays out of shotgun puts their teams in the best situation systematically, fundamentally, and instinctively.
Let’s get the easy one out of the way, and I’ll give one to you never gunners. Being in the gun takes away the quarterback sneak in the traditional sense. Alright so I’ll give you that one, but let’s try the next most common talking point I hear in this debate.
“For the RB under center hits harder and faster.”
So let’s start simple. No, it is not faster under center, especially when comparing similar plays.
Let’s use a basic inside zone play as an example, starting under center. From a depth of around seven yards, the running back will take a flat step and then come downhill, aiming at the outside shoulder of the play side guard. The QB will separate from the center and work to the back, aiming for five to six yards deep, taking four or five steps to get there.
After the handoff, the RB cannot cut until he gets three steps in the ground, and he isn’t going fast enough to make an effective cut. So that’s why we preach that minimum of steps. Now he’s coming downhill at a slight angle to the guard and reads the double team for his cut.
Shotgun complicates offensive line play.
As for the line, the rules are essentially the same, as we are hunting for double teams. One thing we need to be aware of under center is the importance of blocking everyone on the line of scrimmage. Some teams tell the QB to block the D with their eyes, but other teams will use either a fullback or tight end to block that edge.
How about in the gun? If we look at the alignments of Wisconsin football offensive coordinator Phil Longo, we see the QB five yards with the RB offset either 1×2 or 2×2 yards away from the QB. After the ball has been snapped, the QB takes a step with his play side foot off the midline and then hinges open to square up the read man.
The back takes a quick step to get as close to the midline, so when he gets into the mesh, he can be moving as straight downhill at the play side gap. This creates a more efficient downhill action for the back, and when you have the QB run element, you also create ample room for cutbacks.
So running so when you compare similar schemes there really isn’t a “speed” advantage for under center. You can shorten depths or add a toss element, but now you’re making trade-offs for the sake of speed. When you compare the two styles you end up with one way that has more moving parts to go wrong, and another that is simple and effective.
I know which one I would choose.
“You can run out of the shotgun; you can run under center.”
You can pass, you can play action, you can run everything. Yes, this is very true. On paper, every play from the gun has a similar under-center equivalent. I can assure you that on paper, the similarities stay.
When you get onto the football field everything changes. The biggest change is obviously footwork. Time-honored football math will tell you that a three-step drop under center is equivalent to a one-step drop in the gun. A five-step drop is a three-step, etc. But that math doesn’t add up when you take into account technique, timing, and vision.
Every run play has a different technique. For every advantage you gain in the play-action game, you lose in the run game. For traditional play action to work, you need a definitive reaction to the run action. But with gun play action, even a subtle shoulder feint can cause just enough conflict to open up a receiver. There is no subtlety under center.
Regardless of the play, to run it both ways requires two sets of skills and fundamentals. Unless you are gaining a tactical advantage from a play, there is no reason to learn how to do it twice for the sake of multiplicity.
Cause, Effect, Solution
So, let’s end with applying what we’ve learned to the real world. Why can’t Wisconsin football simply go under center in a first-and-goal situation and just bang three straight QB sneaks and score?
We ran QB sneaks during the 2023 season, and they were less than glowing successes. Maybe it comes down to the coaching staff, through practice and film study, having determined that the best formation to be in and the formation that puts the defense in the least advantageous position is to be in our standard 2×2 with 11 personnel.
As fans, we are going to have to live with this decision because Coach Fickell and Coach Longo won’t pull a Coach Prime and nuke the roster.
But with the removal of dead weight, an influx of talent, and the dedication to get faster and stronger the offense will move in a positive direction. It was high time the Wisconsin Badgers football program joined the 21st century, and like it or not it’s here to stay.
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