COLUMBIA -- During some of his recruiting trips to Flowery Branch, Ga., South Carolina quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus was able to watch Connor Shaw's games. Mangus noticed that Shaw excelled at running the zone read option out of the shotgun formation. Shaw's feet and mind were quick enough to make the play work well.
When Shaw arrived in Columbia in January 2010 as the Gamecocks' newest quarterback, the option wasn't an integral part of their offense. But Shaw, then an understudy to Stephen Garcia, continued to impress Mangus with how he executed the zone read in practices.
Shaw replaced Garcia as USC's starting quarterback six games into this season. Shaw, a sophomore, was not a seasoned pocket passer like Garcia, so Mangus and USC's offensive coaches, led by head coach and play caller Steve Spurrier, began to cater to Shaw's strengths and lean more on the zone read, a departure from Spurrier's usual offensive scheme.
"I think he's kind of learned to like it," Mangus said of Spurrier. "We all like 10 wins."
Partly because of the productivity the zone read brought the Gamecocks while Shaw developed as a passer, they have a chance to win a school-record 11th game in Monday's Capital One Bowl in Orlando against Nebraska. And one of the game's most intriguing storylines is that the Cornhuskers also rely heavily on the zone read with their sophomore quarterback, Taylor Martinez.
Shaw has run 12.9 times per game, counting sacks, for an average of 53.7 yards and seven touchdowns. Martinez's numbers are similar: 14.4 rushes, 69.8 yards and nine touchdowns.
But being shifty enough to elude defenders is only part of what makes a quarterback effective at running the zone-read option from the shotgun.
Though the play looks deceptively simple, it requires a split-second recognition and decision by the quarterback. So it is amusing that the first quarterback to run the play did it by accident. During a Glenville (W.Va.) State College game in 1991, quarterback Jed Drenning botched a handoff, kept the ball and ran with it. His coach, Rich Rodriguez, asked him why he did it. Because the defensive end moved toward the inside of the formation, Drenning explained.
"It was one of those deals where we kind of fell into that," Rodriguez told The New York Times in 2007, while describing the origins of a play he installed at Glenville State shortly after Drenning "discovered" it. Rodriguez, now the coach at Arizona, later used the zone read with great success at West Virginia from 2001-07.
The play starts with the quarterback lining up in the shotgun with the running back next to him. The offensive line zone blocks in one direction, leaving a defensive end unblocked on the back side of the formation -- the opposite side of where the offensive line is blocking.
The quarterback watches the unblocked end, and this is where the option part comes in. If the end squeezes down toward the inside of the play to pursue the running back, the quarterback keeps the ball and runs. If the end stays along the line of scrimmage or slides up the field, along the outside edge of the formation, the quarterback hands off to the running back.
The zone read is everywhere now, from Shaw's old high school, to all collegiate levels, to the Denver Broncos, who are using the play because quarterback Tim Tebow ran it at Florida. USC's second-year offensive line coach, Shawn Elliott, was familiar with the zone read's blocking schemes from his previous job at Appalachian State.
"He pretty much brought it here and how to block it," Spurrier said.
Shaw describes his own familiarity with the play this way: "Natural is a good way to put it. It's hard to stop."
Though Mangus didn't recruit Shaw specifically for an option-based offense, his elusiveness appealed to the coach.
"Today, the way defenses are in general, you have to have a quarterback that has the ability to move," Mangus said. "You can't be a stationary guy back there. You're going to get hurt."
USC defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said Nebraska's zone read with Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead is a big part of their game. USC obviously knows the play well, but Ward said Martinez is "no question" the fastest quarterback the Gamecocks have faced this year.
"We see it every day from Connor, so that's helped us," he said. "Connor runs well, but I think Martinez is probably a little faster."
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