When Brandon Streeter and Kyle Richardson put their heads together in evaluating Clemson’s passing game this offseason, an overhaul was never part of the plan.
Changes, they thought, didn’t need to be drastic because neither one wanted to overreact to an outlier. But after an offense that had grown into a juggernaut in recent years plummeted to 103rd nationally in passing yards and 112th in completion percentage last season, some alterations were undoubtedly needed.
The shakeup to the Tigers’ coaching staff also provided the perfect time to reassess some things. Streeter was promoted to offensive coordinator once Tony Elliott left to take the head coaching job at Virginia, and Richardson, formerly an off-field staffer, was given an on-field position as tight ends coach and passing-game coordinator, a title previously held by Streeter.
One of the primary tweaks they formulated? The implementation of option routes, a concept that’s exactly what the adjective implies.
After the ball is snapped on a passing play, anyone in the pattern – a receiver, tight end or running back – has the option to run a certain route based on the coverage run by the defense. Let quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei further explain.
“So (against) Cover 2 (zone defense with two high safeties), a receiver can break this way. And versus another coverage, he can break that way,” Uiagalelei said. “If he sees another coverage, he can sit. Just giving us different options on each play to work versus multiple, different coverages.”
It’s not exactly a new concept for Clemson, which occasionally used option routes under Elliott and Streeter. But Richardson said making them more of a focus was a byproduct of simplifying what the Tigers were doing with their passing game.
Richardson and Streeter decided to throw out concepts that Clemson spent a lot of time practicing but rarely if ever used in games. The idea was to perfect a few core concepts and branch off from those rather than having the quarterbacks and receivers think through a bunch that never came out of the playbook.
“For us, I don’t want to be locked into a route,” Richardson said. “There’s times you have to lock into routes, and then there are other times where it’s, hey, let’s give you some options. But in order to do that, you can’t have 1,000 plays where they’re thinking through options. And that’s the biggest thing we’ve probably done is we’re going to give them some options in some routes, but we’ve got to bring it in to this (fewer passing concepts) and not be out here with this.”
The coaches’ hope is that drilling on select concepts such as option routes will unclutter players’ minds, allowing them to operate at a faster tempo.
“I think we’re definitely doing it more than we have in the past,” Streeter said. “There’s definitely some concepts where we want to be able to adjust the route based on what kind of defense we’re getting.”
But if the quarterback doesn’t know exactly which route his receivers are going to be running at the start of a play, it begs the question: Is there confusion?
“There’s a fine line with that,” Streeter said. “There’s a fine line of being on the same page, so the quarterback and the receivers, the quarterback and the tight ends, the quarterback and the running back, they’ve got to be on the same page when they’re reading these routes.”
That’s where Richardson and Streeter are counting on more reps of fewer concepts to help. With a full spring and more than half of a preseason camp’s worth of practice time for the quarterbacks and receivers to rep them, Uiagalelei said the execution is at a largely smooth point between quarterback and receiver
“For us, we’re all just reading the same thing. Reading the same coverage,” Uiagalelei said. “As long as we talk about what I want and what (the receiver) wants and he knows exactly what I’m on the page with, we’ll be in the right window. So it hasn’t been that bad.”
How the operation translates to games remains to be seen. So far, though, the reviews have largely been positive.
“By being able to do this throughout preseason camp, they’ve done a really good job of getting on the same page,” Streeter said. “We might’ve had a miscue here or there, but that’s always about going back in there correcting it.
“Just really, really putting the defense in a tough situation when we have guys that can read routes and be able to adjust on the fly. We’ve got a lot of confidence in that right now.”
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