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Secrets of the Split T, part 2: The play sequence and other technical details

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Last week I began a series that I hope is as enjoyable to read as it is to put together. Don Faurot wrote a book called Football: Secrets of the "Split T" Formation, and I decided to talk through it chapter by chapter here. It is a fascinating book, both because of the level of detail Faurot shares about what was still a reasonably unfamiliar formation and because it was written in 1950, closer to early-1900s rules changes that saved the game than to the present tense. As I said in Part 1, this book illustrates just how much football changes, and how much it never changes. It's lovely.

A quick disclaimer: I'm using pretty significant excerpts from the book, far more than I normally would feel okay doing. But since this book is out of print and reasonably hard to obtain -- it's available used on Amazon, but you're going to pay a pretty hefty fee for it -- it is difficult to further Faurot's legacy and expose people to his writing if we don't use pretty heavy excerpts. I can tell you that if you get a chance to procure a copy at a reasonable cost, you should absolutely do so. As much as I'm excerpting, I'm not even scratching the surface with this 350-page tome. And while I'm including a diagram here and there, there are plenty more that I'm not.

That said, on with Chapter 2, simply entitled "Secrets of the Split T." It opens with a bit of a history lesson.

There have been definite milestones in the development of football as we know it today, and each marker has streamlined the game and made it more enjoyable for the spectator. Changes usually came about for one of two reasons: they were the natural after-effects of rules changes, or they were sponsored by coaches who perceived certain advantages in a new system.

Perhaps the most revolutionary change in the gridiron sport occurred in 1913 when Gus Dorais and Knute Rockne teamed up at Notre Dame to exploit the forward pass so successfully. In this instance, Irish Coach Jess Harper, who improvised the Notre Dame shift later perfected by Knute Rockne, took advantage of a liberalized forward pass rule to exploit the pass as a new offensive weapon.

To set the table for his own innovations, Faurot walks through a brief history of offensive innovations, from Notre Dame to Minnesota's Bernie Bierman to Chicago's George Halas. The Split T basically used Halas' T as a starting point, then worked in Faurot's own adjustments, ones that, if you recall from Part 1, were installed to offset the loss of star quarterback Paul Christman.

All of the modern systems have had some motivating ideas, some special secrets to make them effective. This chapter is devoted to a discussion of the mechanics of the "Split T" whose basic secrets are as follows:

1. Split of line.
2. Path of quarterback.
3. Center and quarterback exchange.
4. Sequence of plays.
5. Backfield stance.
6. Ball handling.
7. Learning assignments.
8. Position requirements.
9. Flexibility.

Faurot's vision was very specific, with every arm, leg, and action designed in a particular way.

SPLIT OF LINE

Splitting the line in offensive football means leaving a space between the linemen. In most formations only the ends split off and then for only a yard. Splitting the line, however, is not new. As early as 1928 the author employed this offensive maneuver when he used the single wing in his early coaching days at the Missouri State Teachers College in Kirksville, Missouri. Many other coaches have left splits in the offensive line at different points to gain blocking advantages for their offense. We split all the linemen, and try to give them a working distance to prevent their lining up in the same manner against all defenses. Our guards split twelve to eighteen inches at all times.

This made me laugh a little bit. These splits were enormous by 1950 standards, when the normal alignment of the offensive line was almost a game of Red Rover: just lock arms and try not to let anybody through. Regardless, Faurot splitting the linemen apart just a little bit changed all of the angles in the run game. As has been discussed before, this was the same idea behind Hal Mumme and Mike Leach splitting the line further apart as they were developing their Air Raid system. Granted, they had the pass in mind -- among other things, if you split the linemen far apart, the defensive end has further to go to reach the quarterback -- but the ideas were similar.

PATH OF QUARTERBACK

A "Split T" quarterback operates up and down the line parallel to the line of scrimmage. Since he should never be more than one yard back of the line, the "Split T" permits a faster-hitting handoff play than do other "T" formations.

The running pitch-out end run is executed by the quarterback from this path, thus keeping the exchange of the ball so close to the line that the defensive players do not have time to diagnose more than one of the basic plays. This increases the deceptiveness of the offense. The teaching of this system must include intensive work with the quarterbacks to keep them moving along the correct path.

Like today's option offense, the quarterback was the point guard. Actually, hold that thought. We'll come back to it.

CENTER AND QUARTERBACK EXCHANGE

In the "Split T" offense the quarterback must move laterally as fast as possible in full possession of the ball and with his body under control. The center must hold the ball as far in front of himself as he can comfortably extend it. The offensive guards and tackles move up to the ball to take their feet out of the way of the quarterback. If the center places the ball too closely under his head, the guards must move their feet back of the center's feet, thereby penning up our quarterback. [...]

The heels of [the quarterback's] hands, or the thumbs, should be held together tightly. His fingers should be relaxed and pointing straight downward. His elbows should be flexed to absorb the jar of a hard pass. His knees should be only slightly bent and he should stand flat-footed with feet even but well apart. Most of his weight should be on the balls of his feet. From this position he can move rapidly to the right or to the left.

One gets the impression that practices under Faurot weren't a lot of fun. Lots and lots and lots of snaps and resets and "No, you're bending your knees too much."

SEQUENCE OF PLAYS

The quarterback may hand off to the right halfback hitting in, a play second only to the quarterback sneak in hitting speed; he may continue on down the line of scrimmage and turn off tackle for the fast-developing play known as the quarterback keep; or he may lateral the ball on the run--called the running pitch-out. This pitch-out enables the left halfback to run around the end, using the fullback to block the end in. The running pass develops in the same manner as the pitch-out, and the ball handling is the same.

All of these basic plays are used both right and left, and all of the backs keep to a given course regardless of which one carries the ball. The manner in which the ball moves, not the path of the players, determines the play to be used. Initiating all four of these basic plays in the same manner puts tremendous pressure on the defensive tackle and the defensive end.

I love "route tree" types of graphics. They are such simple, logical ways to communicate both options and philosophy. This diagram is basically the heart of the Split T and, therefore, option football. Granted, the halfback pass certainly played more of a direct role in this offense than it does in today's Flexbones and similar option offenses, but so much of this boils down to the basic option concepts that Faurot more or less created.

BACKFIELD STANCE

We firmly believe that it is necessary to put the backs down on a three-point stance in order to avoid backfield-in-motion penalties. In this position they are more stable and need not lean in order to get a satisfactory start. [...]

The halfbacks are usually four yards and the fullback four and one-half to five yards back. There are generally two yards between the halfbacks and the fullback -- when all extend their arms, their finger tips barely touch.

Faurot compares the three-point stance to those used by track runners in the 100-yard dash. Obviously backs don't line up in this way anymore, and obviously backs could still accidentally lean one way or another and give away the intention of the play, but his reasoning behind this was sound.

BALL HANDLING

The ball handling on the "Split T" differs radically from that on the "Bears' T." The quarterback carries the ball in two hands and, while in motion, he laterals with a two-hand, underhand pass. The running pitch-out is one of the best plays in the series. In this play, the ball is thrown while the quarterback moves rapidly down the line on a path just inside the defensive end. [...]

Good faking by the quarterback and other offensive backs enhances the deceptiveness of this sequence of plays. When not receiving the ball, the halfbacks should carry on their fakes to a point five yards across the line of scrimmage. When the quarterback is running the keep play off tackle, he not only fakes to the handoff man hitting in but also makes a two-handed fake to the pitch-out man coming around.

This is certainly something still practiced today.

LEARNING ASSIGNMENTS

One of the secrets of any successful offense is simplification of the players' offensive assignments. We try to have very few offensive plays, but those must be made adaptable to all the defenses that may confront us. We classify defenses in three categories: the even defenses, the odd defenses, and the slanting and looping defenses. [...]

Granted, "slanting and looping defenses" aren't really discussed much today, at least in those terms, but coaches still base so much off of odd and even fronts. We think of everything in terms of formations -- 4-3! 3-4! 3-3-5! 4-2-5! -- but so much of what coaches do is in reaction to two things: man vs. zone and even vs. odd.

POSITION REQUIREMENTS

The quarterback should be a heady ball handler and preferably a player who has had some basketball experience. He should run well with the ball. Passing ability is desirable, but not necessary. [...]

The fullback in the "Split T" must be a good blocker. His ability to carry the ball is secondary. [...]

The halfbacks should be the fastest men in the "Split T" backfield and should be good runners in the open field. They should also be able to throw a running pass.

"Passing ability is desirable, but not necessary." "[Halfbacks should also be able to throw a running pass.] Okay, so not everything in this offense translates to the modern game (though passing is still secondary in Flexbone-style offenses).

I did love the basketball reference, though. There obviously wasn't a ton of downfield passing in this offense, and everything was based more on decision-making and short-range passing, forward or backwards. We always call quarterbacks point guards -- or, I guess more accurately, we call point guards quarterbacks -- but this offense took that similarity to a different degree.

FLEXIBILITY

The term "flexibility" is applied to a resourceful offense, one capable of adjusting quickly to any changes made in the defense while the play is under way. For example, if the defensive tackle crashes to his insid on the handoff play, the ball carrier hitting in alertly can slide to the outside for a substantial gain even though the play was called inside.

Again, this offense was designed with underdog tactics in mind. So the thought was always in flexibility and adaptation instead of the Remember the Titans style of "you might know what we're going to run, but you can't stop it."

As we sum up the so-called secrets of the "Split T," we see that though they seem to be many, they are, in reality, comparatively simple and easily taught. They do not require a long learning period. Many teams that have taken up this offense have had very successful seasons their first year. [...] In 1948 Coach John Vaught had lost Charles Conerly, his ace passer at the University of Mississippi, but used the "Split T" and won nine out of ten games that season.

I loved the John Vaught reference, if only because Vaught is one of the most underrated, successful coaches of all-time, and this was a nice reminder that the best coaches are flexible and adaptable and willing to keep an eye on innovation. Vaught didn't become an extreme success until the later part of the 1950s, when his defense went from good to impossibly good, but he saw an opportunity to make a chance and did so.