Utah running back Zack Moss, now weighing 220 pounds, says he's feeling faster and more explosive than ever. Ute coach Kyle Whittingham says Moss is composed of “nothing but blood, bones and muscle.”
So why wouldn't Utah's coaching staff just tell quarterback Tyler Huntley to turn and hand the football to his Florida high school teammate?
The answer is rooted in football mathematics and physics. These days, you can't block every defensive player.
That's why the zone read is a staple of nearly every offensive scheme, including Utah's. If observers wonder why the Utes ever would have Huntley carry the ball instead of Moss, Armand Shyne or another back, coaches say involving Huntley as a runner is necessary to succeed against an aggressive defense, with tacklers outnumbering blockers.
So the Utes' dilemma is how to make Moss as productive as possible and keep Huntley healthy, while trying to move the ball against defenses designed to stop the run. The coaching strategy involves ensuring that Huntley makes the proper read in handing the ball to Moss or pulling it back and running himself, as some people believe he did too much last season.
Whittingham is not one of them. “He only had a handful of decisions that were incorrect — when to give, when not to give,” Whittingham said. “The decisions on the hits he took were the big deal to me. Tyler Huntley’s going to be part of our run game; that’s a fact. We’re not going to stop running him, because he’s so valuable in that regard.”
It's also true that Moss' career-high, 196-yard rushing night came in November vs. Colorado, when Huntley was sidelined due to injury in one of three starts he missed as a sophomore. Moss' 26 carries against the Buffaloes more than doubled the number of runs by backup quarterback Troy Williams.
HOW IT WORKS
Zone read • The opposing defensive end is left unblocked. If he moves inside, the quarterback should keep the ball and run outside. If the end stays in position, the the quarterback should hand the ball to the running back. Either way, the end theoretically is taken out of the play.
Run-pass option (RPO) • The offense identifies a defender, usually a linebacker, with responsibilities for running and passing plays. If the defender moves toward the line of scrimmage, the quarterback should keep the ball and throw beyond him. If he stays in position, the quarterback should hand off the ball to the running back.
The numbers are somewhat deceiving, due to sacks and scrambles on passing plays, but in the last four games they played together in 2017, Huntley averaged 22 carries to Moss' 18.3 runs. Moss finished his sophomore season with 1,173 rushing yards. He believes he’s capable of much more. As he said after the Utes' first preseason practice, “Just get me through August, and we’ll see.”
Huntley likes having his ball in his hands; he’s a competitive player and a dynamic runner. Those traits make him important in Utah’s offense. Huntley wouldn’t cheat his close friend and prep classmate out of carries, just for his own sake. Yet he acknowledged “some situations” last year when he should have handed off the ball, promising to do a better job with more experience in offensive coordinator Troy Taylor’s scheme: “I just can’t wait to get on to the second year, and we’re going to see the difference.”
“Very rarely did [Huntley] flat-out keep the ball,” Taylor said. “He’s trying to read it. Now, sometimes it happens fast … but he’s pretty good at his decisions and his reads.”
And there’s no sense giving the ball to Moss just to meet quotas, if the defense is stacked to stop him and the unblocked end is always charging toward him.
“The real key behind the zone read is equating the numbers, and forcing the defense to have one more threat to worry about,” Whittingham said.
College football lore suggests the zone read was invented accidentally, when former Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez was coaching at tiny Glenville State in West Virginia in the early 1990s. A quarterback missed a handoff, so he ran around the spot vacated by the crashing defensive end. Pete Hoener, now an NFL assistant coach, is credited with developing the system at Iowa State in the late '90s as a way to deal with superior athletes at other schools in the Big 12.
And now, just about everybody's doing it, because defenses are so committed to loading up inside against the run, while trusting their cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage. The latest evolution is the run-pass option (RPO). The quarterback reads a linebacker's movement and chooses to hand off the ball or pass it over the defender's head, if he's coming toward the line of scrimmage.
Taylor said he studied everything the Utes tried offensively in 2017 — during the season, so he could make adjustments. The Utes did show improvement in November. “I just want to be dynamic,” he said. “If we want to be one of the better offenses in the country, we’ve got to be able to throw the ball, we’ve got to be able to do RPO, zone read, power read, all those things.”
In other words, the Utes can’t just give the ball to Moss or Shyne and try to block everybody, while Huntley watches it happen. Not that Taylor is averse to that strategy. “Hey, if it’s working every time, I’ll give it to him 40 times,” he said, smiling. “And Tyler would gladly do it.”