The Citadel, GSU returning to triple-option offense

Running the wishbone, QB Jack Douglas (left) carried The Citadel to a SoCon title and a No. 1 ranking in Division I-AA in 1992. Now, inspired by the recent success of teams like Georgia Tech — with QB Josh Nesbitt (right) — the Bulldogs are returning

In 2006, Georgia Southern's new head coach filmed a TV commercial touting his vision of Eagles football.

"There is no option," intoned Brian VanGorder, declaring his intention to abandon the triple-option offense that had carried the Eagles to seven Southern Conference championships and two national titles under previous coaches Paul Johnson and Mike Sewak.

A year earlier, in 2005, The Citadel athletic director Les Robinson was looking for a new coach and said, "I do think it's in our best interest, from the people I've talked with, to be running some form of the wishbone or of the option."

Instead, Robinson chose ex- Lehigh coach Kevin Higgins and his spread-option passing attack.

Flash forward to 2010, and both SoCon schools have come full circle. The Citadel and Georgia Southern are returning to the triple option, joining SoCon rival Wofford and reflecting a mini-revival of the offense considered too old-fashioned for modern football.

With the addition of The Citadel and GSU, a total of eight NCAA Division I teams are running some form of the flexbone triple-option, according to the website flexboneassociation.com. That's twice as many as three years ago. Fully one-third of the nine-team SoCon will run the offense this season.

"A lot of people view it as a high school offense, a wing-T offense, a throwback, old school, old-fashioned," said new GSU coach Jeff Monken, who will bring the "flexbone" back to Statesboro this fall. "And it is. But it still works."

History lesson

Flexbone, wingbone, Dogbone, wishbone -- whatever it is called, the triple option revolves around one simple concept. From a formation with a fullback, two slotbacks and two wide receivers, the quarterback

takes the snap, reads the defense has three options -- hand the ball off, keep it or pitch it.

Texas offensive coordinator Emery Bellard is credited with inventing the wishbone in the 1960s, and from 1969 through 1990, 11 of 22 national championship teams ran the triple option.

At The Citadel, coach Charlie Taaffe's version of the wishbone, powered by QB Jack Douglas and fullback Everette Sands, carried the Bulldogs to a SoCon title and a No. 1 ranking in Division I-AA in 1992.

But as the game evolved, the triple option fell out of favor. Taaffe eventually moved away from it, even before he left The Citadel in 1996. Even Nebraska, which ran the triple option to national championships in 1994, '95 and '97, gave up on the offense when Tom Osborne retired in 1997. GSU fired Sewak after an 8-4 season in 2005 in search of a more up-to-date attack.

"Nowadays, athletic directors think that fans don't want to see the option, they want to see the ball in the air," Osborne told Sports Illustrated last year. "You have young coaches not wanting to do it, because they are afraid they can't get jobs."

At least one advocate remained, however, and Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson is the central figure in current triple-option thinking. Johnson, a 1979 Western Carolina graduate who did not play college football, came up with his form of the flexbone by adding a dash of run-and-shoot to the wishbone as an assistant at GSU in the mid-1980s.

"I started off as a defensive coach," Johnson once said. "And I always felt the hardest offense to defend was the old wishbone with two wide receivers."

His later success as head coach at Georgia Southern, Navy and now at Georgia Tech -- where Johnson has answered skeptics with records of 9-4 and 10-3 in his first two seasons -- has inspired other coaches to give the triple option another look.

"If people are imitating anybody, it's Paul Johnson," said Monken, who coached with Johnson at GSU, Navy and Georgia Tech. "We try to do things as closely as we can to the way he does. Things go in cycles, and maybe the option will come back. Paul's success at Navy and at Georgia Tech has almost qualified the offense as being capable again."

Change we need

Unlike GSU, The Citadel is changing offenses without changing head coaches.

Higgins, 24-32 in five seasons at The Citadel, plainly admits Georgia Tech, Navy and Wofford are models. He hired Tommy Laurendine from another triple-option team, Lenoir-Rhyne, to run the offense along with VMI line coach Bob Bodine, who coached the flexbone under Johnson and Sewak at GSU. Sands, who famously never was tackled for loss as a Bulldogs fullback, is on hand to tutor running backs. And Higgins even turned to rival Wofford for his new defensive coordinator, Josh Conklin.

"You sit back and look at Navy, Air Force, Georgia Tech and now Army and the success they are having in their leagues," Higgins said. "What Georgia Tech has done in the ACC and on national TV has opened so many eyes, and they are doing it against very good football teams. I just felt we needed to make this change now to give ourselves a better opportunity to be successful."

Higgins pondered switching to the triple-option after the Bulldogs went from 7-4 in 2007 to 4-8 in 2008, but wasn't going to change offenses heading into the senior year of All-America receiver Andre Roberts. But after the Bulldogs went 4-7 last year -- and after watching a 3-8 Wofford team pile up 450 yards in a 43-17 whipping of his team -- Higgins was ready for the move.

He knows the transition will be difficult. Even Johnson struggled in his first season running the flexbone at at Navy, going 2-10 in 2002. But beyond this season, Higgins likes what the triple option could mean for Citadel recruiting.

"We've spent several years trying to get tackles that are 6-5 and 290 pounds," Higgins said. "And they just don't move their feet well enough to block the defensive ends you face in this league. It's amazing how many 6-1, 260-pound guys are out there that you don't take because they are not big enough.

"In the triple option, we can recruit players who maybe are not being recruited by other programs, guys that are 6-2 and 260 with a good work ethic … And there are a lot of option quarterbacks out there who don't have a home."

Wofford's way

In the SoCon, Wofford coach Mike Ayers has stuck to his triple-option guns for two decades, using it to rack up a 60-24 mark and at least a share of two league titles from 2002-2008.

"The thing we've always believed in is that if you can shorten the game and keep the ball away from people, we afford ourselves a better chance to succeed," Ayers said.

Triple-option teams shorten the game by running the ball. Last season, Wofford ran the ball on 83.6 percent of its plays, Georgia Tech on 82.5 percent. The Citadel, on the other hand, ran the ball just 50.6 percent of the time.

"If you ever look at an end zone camera view of that offense, it's pretty darn scary," said Furman coach Bobby Lamb, who will be adding more option to his I-formation set this season. "What really scares you is you don't have a lot of possessions. Even if they are running the ball and not scoring, the clock is continuing to move and your possessions are limited. You've got to play mistake-free football against that type of offense."

The key figures in the offense, Ayers said, are the quarterback and the fullback.

"You've got to have a trigger guy," Ayers said. "If you have a good quarterback and a good fullback, you will have a chance."

That's where Georgia Southern has a head start on The Citadel. Monken has brought in transfer QB Jaybo Shaw from Georgia Tech. When Higgins switched to the triple option, he thought he'd have a third-year QB, Miguel Starks, running the show. That possibility was ended by Starks' arrest on kidnapping and burglary charges last spring, guaranteeing that The Citadel's opening-game starter on Sept. 4 against Chowan will be taking his first college snap.

Neither The Citadel's Higgins nor GSU's Monken are promising Georgia Tech-like success in their first seasons. But both are confident the triple option is the right choice in the long run.

"It's not a magic wand," Monken said. "It's not a magic offense where you say, 'We're running this offense and now we're going to rush for all these yards and score all these points.' You've still got to execute it better than the other team can execute their defense."