In year two, Luke Fickell has transformed Cincinnati’s football program. In 2017, the Bearcats were just 4-8 and had the No. 111 ranked offense in college football. In 2018, Cincinnati finished 11-2 and had the No. 23 ranked offense in the country. What a difference a year can make, and the Bearcats were a young group. A big part of their turnaround was being able to run the football. Cincinnati had the No. 15 ranked rushing offense in the country, averaging 239.5 yards per game. They also averaged 5.19 yards per rush with 38 touchdowns. A big part of their success was inside zone/split zone. Cincinnati saw a multitude of fronts and looks, and they were able to run inside zone with tremendous success. Cincinnati bases out of a 11 personnel set (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB). They consistently run their inside zone/split zone scheme with a tight end. They hang their out on split zone and will constrain their split zone with their tight end. They will do this in a multitude of ways. Some of the different ways they change up their basic split zone is with RPO’s (pre and post snap), or by using different unbalanced sets that force defenses to show their hand.
Before we get into Cincinnati's constraints off their split zone, below is how they run their base split zone play. On an inside zone scheme, the quarterback is always responsible for the C-gap player. When running split zone, the tight end will be responsible for the C-gap player instead of the quarterback. When running splits zone, many programs will push the quarterback’s read to the force player away from the call side (See video below). Offenses always want to put a player in conflict, and by making the force player (LB) that player, it helps lighten the box.
In most cases, linebackers will have both a run and a pass responsibility. When you attach both a pass and a run to any given play, this makes the linebacker think. When he commits to the run or the pass, the quarterback has to take advantage. In the video below, you’ll see the force player (SLB) in a pass responsibility, so the ball gets handed off. When you give your quarterback the freedom to read a certain defender, you have to make sure the footwork and read keys stay consistent. For example, most coaches on inside zone will teach their quarterback to read the outside shoulder for cues. If his shoulder is downhill, the ball will be pulled. If his shoulders stay square, then the ball should get handed off.
When reading second- and third-level defenders, this has to stay consistent. In the video, you’ll see the force player’s (SLB) shoulders stay square post snap on the speed out, giving the quarterback a give read. On split zone, Cincinnati will push the read to the flat defender in many different ways. This is a base set up of how they do so. The No. 2 receiver runs a speed out while the No. 1 WR is running off the CB. Cincinnati will give their front side receivers freedom in certain situations which you’ll also see.
The next series off their split zone involves the tight end in the read. In split zone, Cincinnati’s tight end will take care of the C-gap player, pushing the quarterback’s read to the flat defender. In this concept, Cincinnati has their tight end run an arrow route, putting the read key on the 5-technique. They are making this concept look exactly like split zone. Based on film, Cincinnati will call this when the 5-technique (C-gap player) tries to wrong arm the tight end. When the 5-technique wrong arms and aggressively plays down the line, it falls right into the read and concept, which is shown in the video. The 5-technique plays down the line and that gives the quarterback a pull read. The ball should then go to the tight end. In this case, the outside linebacker walks up and the safety rolls down over No. 2. Since the safety plays No. 2, it gives the quarterback a lot of space and he’s off to the races.
Below is another example of the same concept but with a different result. Ohio’s 5-technique squeezes and tries to wrong arm the tight end coming across. This gives the quarterback a pull read and he dumps it to his tight end for a big gain.
Another way Cincinnati will constrain their zone play is with different unbalanced sets. Cincinnati does an outstanding job of mixing in unbalanced formations with inside zone and split zone. Going unbalanced forces the defense to either be misaligned or outnumbered. In the first video, Cincinnati went into a unbalanced quads versus UCLA. They were in a quads heavy look with a tight end lined up in the wing position. This causes the defense to not only play trips, but also to defend an extra gap in the box. Cincinnati runs split zone with a quick screen RPO. You’ll see that UCLA walks up their outside linebacker on the tight end. This leaves UCLA with a corner and safety to play trips. In split zone, the quarterback is reading the flat player. The flat player (SLB) is walked up on the line of scrimmage. Cincinnati’s quarterback sees space and takes advantage of it with his legs. Throwing the quick screen RPO would also have been a great play as well.
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In this next example, Cincinnati lines up in a different unbalanced set. They align in bunch trips with a tight end to the trips side. This is another heavy quads example. The difference is Cincinnati is running inside zone instead of split zone. The quarterback’s read in this situation is the EMLOS (9-technique). With the 9-technique playing the quarterback, the ball gets handed to the back. You’ll see that Tulane plays man and is three-on-three to the quick screen RPO.
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The last concept that Cincinnati will constrain their zone play with is bash. Cincinnati runs zone bash pretty consistently. Zone bash has become more popular in college football, and the term bash means back away. The quarterback and running back flip responsibilities as well. The quarterback reads the 5-technique like he would in zone, but the back is going away from the play. He will be in a “jet” phase. If the 5-technique crashes, this gives the quarterback a keep read. If the 5-technique sits, then the ball will go to the back in jet phase. In the video, Cincinnati is in 21 personnel and runs zone bash with the tight end and fullback releasing. The 9-technique will be the quarterback’s read. The 9-technique crashes, supplying the quarterback a give read. Teams that run bash rely athletic quarterbacks that can use their legs. At Cincinnati, they’re fortunate to have a quarterback that can really do it all.
Here’s another example of the same concept out of 11 personnel.
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Photo Courtesy: Sam Greene/Cincinnati Enquirer
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