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How Matt Rhule came to grips with the RPO game as a smash-mouth coach

The irony of Matt Rhule leading a talk on RPOs wasn't lost on the man himself. For one, as a head coach since 2013, Rhule hasn't actually run an offense for almost a decade now. For another, if left to his own devices, Rhule wouldn't run a spread, RPO-based offense in the first place.

As a born-and-bred East Coast, smash-mouth guy, in a vacuum Rhule would line up each snap in 22 personnel and run the ball. It's what he did at Temple, after all. In fact, an in-house research project found he's undefeated as a head coach when his running back rushes for at least 150 yards in a game. "I figured it out, let’s run for 150 yards, we’ll win and I can get my wife a new kitchen and pay for my daughter to go to private school," Rhule joked.

But then he took the Baylor job, and all of a sudden he found himself spending a summer day in San Angelo, Texas, speaking to the state's high school coaches on running an RPO-based offense.

For Rhule, the RPO game is a means to an end -- running the ball, just in a way that makes sense in the Big 12 with a roster filled with Texas high school players who've run the spread since they were in diapers. Case in point, the Bears ran for 91 yards on 2.9 a carry in a 37-20 win over UTSA on Sept. 8 of last season, and rushed for 284 yards on 6.17 a pop in a 45-38 defeat of Vanderbilt in the Texas Bowl.

"Run pass option has been my deal with the devil," he said. "We won a couple games, but it wasn’t played the way I wanted it to be played. I want the game to look a certain way, with a certain brand. Run pass option has been a bridge for me a way to win. We want to be tough. We believe in full gear, weightlifting, the Oklahoma drill. All the people tell us to be careful about doing, I believe that’s exactly what we need to do."

To come to grips with the RPO game, Rhule needed to know why. He's a big believer in the concept. "The No. 1 question I ask is why. The difference between great coaches and average coaches is great coaches can elitely and clearly tell you why," he said. "To be a great coach, you have to answer why. If you know the why, it will guide the what and how."

That said, why Rhule embraced the RPO game was because of the following reasons:

  • To protect the run game
  • To exploit the defense (more on this later*)
  • To put defenders in conflict
  • To spread the ball around
  • To negate defensive pursuit

"Good offenses have eight to 10 guys touch the ball a game,"he said. "If you want to run for 200 yards a game and you hand the ball to your tailback as your primary means of running the ball, you better have an All-State tailback." An ideal Baylor game will see 100 rushing yards from the running back position, 50 from the quarterback and 50 from the wide receivers. The Texas Bowl win over Vanderbilt saw three Bears run for between 50 and 109 yards.

(* Despite being warned beforehand, Rhule said he flat out did not realize how hot Texas is in September and October until he experienced himself. As such, he wants opposing defenders running sideline-to-sideline as much as possible early in games. "If I can't breathe on the sidelines, imagine how those guys (on the field) feel," he said.)

Though Rhule has come to grips with the RPO game, he deploys it only situationally. "The hard part of the RPO is not the whats, it’s the when," he said. Baylor runs RPO in the following situations:

  • Base downs
  • 2nd and long
  • 3rd and 3-6
  • Red zone
  • Four-down territory

Why not on 2nd-and-short? It's simple: Rhule loves the quarterback sneak there. "We changed our season by just going QB sneak," he said. "We were 14-of-14, including two plays of over 15 yards. 2nd and 1-2 is direct run, preferably QB sneak."

On the flip side, Rhule loves the ability to pop big runs through the RPO game on 3rd-and-medium, and even if one doesn't pop, a short run on third down is still useful. On a 3rd-and-7, for instance, he'll his offensive coordinators, "4th-and-4," letting them know where the 3rd down play has to get to go for it on 4th down.

Baylor jumped from 1-11 in Rhule's 2017 debut to 7-6 last season. Don't be overwhelmed by that leap, though; Rhule wasn't.

"I believe you win games by eliminating things you do to lose games – penalties, negative plays. The next way you win is in the trenches," he said. "Run the football and stop the run. You can win games by not doing that, but you’ll never control them. There’s a difference between outscoring opponents and controlling them. We won seven games last year and didn’t control a single one. One win to seven wins, biggest turnaround in college football. No team had more improvement, but I can’t sleep at night because we didn’t control one of them."

For instance, Rhule rewound one clip in his presentation to highlight a missed block by a wide receiver that turned a possible explosive play into a standard 5-yard gain. "That's a 7-6 block right there," he said. "We'll get that fixed."

Other notes and quotes:

  • "For the head coaches in the room, I would challenge you to go back and ask your assistant coaches, ‘What’s the point of that? Why are you doing that?’ If you really want to find out how well you’re teaching, ask your players why you do a drill."
  • "Kevin Gilbride taught me great offenses are never a play late. Bad offensive staffs always talk about what they’re going to call next."
  • "The key to being great on third down is not being in third down. The game is about total first downs. If you got 22 first downs, you probably won."
  • "Field goals will never beat us. If you ever come to a Baylor game, watch our field goal block team. We have finished in the top-5 every year in blocking kicks. We go live on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. If you watch our field goal block team, they never look back to see if the ball went in. No. 1 is, the only thing that matters is us, our effort. No. 2 is, field goals will not beat us."