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What To Expect from UCF’s Offense Under Gus Malzahn, Part I: The Running Game

Breaking down how UCF’s offensive looks will change under their new head coach

Gus Malzahn Terry Mohajir Marc Daniels UCF Press Conference
Gus Malzahn
Image Courtesy: UCF Athletics

Josh Heupel had the UCF Knights putting up record numbers when it came to volume stats (yards, points, plays). We all know the four-vertical Air Raid system far too well by now. While it had UCF’s offense putting up crazy numbers, it also had moments much less desirable.

With Heupel heading to Tennessee, UCF will be under new direction once again. With the amount of offensive success the Knights have had in the past handful of years under Scott Frost and then Heupel, they have created an identity of being an explosive offense despite Frost and Heupel having very different schemes.

Gus Malzahn has been given the task of keeping UCF on the upward trajectory they have been on as a program under Frost and Heupel.

The former Auburn coach has always been an innovator on the offensive side of the ball and has been extremely successful. For example, he was running RPO’s for walk-in touchdowns at Arkansas State in 2012:

So what should we expect UCF’s offense to look like under Malzahn?

From a broad perspective, the Knights will look way more like they did under Scott Frost than they did under Josh Heupel — maybe not completely similar in terms of blocking schemes and passing concepts, but from a broad perspective in terms of formations, splits, pre-snap motion, the QB’s involvement with his feet/making plays on his own, etc.

This is the first of a two-part series where we will break down Malzahn’s offensive scheme, starting with the running game.

So let’s jump into it:


The Running Game

In my opinion, the run scheme is what makes Gus’ offense click. For the most part, it is a Power/Zone scheme, which means you’ll see a lot of inside zones, powers, counters and sweeps, obviously all with many different variations.

If you look at Auburn’s early down rush percentage since 2014, it looks like this:

  • 2014: 67% (12th highest in FBS)
  • 2015: 70.4% (10th highest)
  • 2016: 69.6% (10th highest)
  • 2017: 62.8% (29th highest)
  • 2018: 51.9% (40th lowest - UCF was actually at 61.1% in 2018)
  • 2019: 58% (84th lowest)
  • 2020: 52.2% (52nd lowest)

Over the first three years, with Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson at QB, the high percentage doesn’t exactly jump out because they were more dual threat QB’s than pocket passers like Sean White and Jarrett Stidham were, but Gus will always keep his QB involved as a run threat. If you go and watch any of Bo Nix you’ll see just that.

But overall, you see how Malzahn is of a run-first mind, but has slowly shifted to being pretty close to 50/50 in two of the last three seasons.

In 2020, Auburn was 50th in the country with 0.003 EPA/Rush. In 2019, they averaged -0.036 EPA/Rush, in 2018 they were at -0.098 EPA/Rush (96th in the country), and in 2017 they were at -0.004 EPA/Rush. Clearly that’s not eye opening at all, but wasn’t exactly horrible either, outside of ‘18.

However, I wouldn’t look too much into his Auburn numbers as a do-or-die proposition on whether you think he’ll be successful.

Why do I think he’ll have success running the ball at UCF? The ability to get guys in space. He’s going to have a talent edge (or he should, at least) like both Frost and Heupel had in just about every game.

For example: A fake jet sweep with a toss to the running back to the field side. It’s two-on-two to the outside with your RB in space:

Power

So much of Malzahn’s run game is based off of power. He does so many different things with it and that makes it very hard for a defense to defend because you just don’t know what’s coming based off the five linemen.

Again, here’s A-State using a jet motion to fake the sweep and running a power read to the two-TE side. The jet motion forces the safety to rotate down and the corner to rotate, and he’s not even close to the play side by the snap.

Here’s another power read from Gus’ Auburn days. This time it’s a toss power read with the QB reading the edge rusher. He bites, so it’s an easy toss to the boundary. If he takes the RB, then it’s QB power:

Here’s a fake jet sweep, fake single-back power, end around for a walk-in TD against UCF in the 2018 Peach Bowl. There’s so much going on — so much for a defense to pay attention to:

Inside Zone/Split Zone

There is nothing exactly different about zone read, so we won’t go crazy here, but it is another huge part of the run game.

Here’s an inside zone read with split flow from the H-back. But the H-back bluffs at the edge defender to let the QB, Bo Nix, get outside of him, while still being able to push up to the safety.

Again, the QB is involved so much in Malzahn’s run game because there are reads in just about everything. While Nix is a pretty solid athlete, you don’t need to be a true dual-threat QB to make big plays like this, and we’ve seen Dillon Gabriel have his fair share of big runs.

We see pretty much same blocking scheme here. They just add in the jet motion to cause a little confusion pre-snap, and open up more space to the field. The RB gets the ball here, but it’s pretty much the same result as when Nix kept it:

Counter

UCF ran a lot of counter under Heupel, so it isn’t exactly nothing new, especially with Malzahn being very similar to Heupel in terms of H-back use. But this play was worth showing in my opinion.

It’s a simple GT counter - maybe an RPO just based off the WR’s - and Nix looks more like he’s reading whether to pull and throw rather than pull and run.

But the genius of this is Gus using an unbalanced line to get the boundary corner involved in the run fit, and you can see how well that worked as the corner basically runs right into the tackle:

Sweeps

As I said earlier, Malzahn was a big innovator of the spread offense. I showed him running RPO’s at Arkansas State in 2012. It’s not like he created all-new blocking schemes and concepts — it was more of just figuring out a new way to run them.

One of the main things he took from the Wing-T was the Buck Sweep. You can go on YouTube and find a video of him explaining just the Buck Sweep for about five minutes.

They’ll run reverses off this concept as well:

Just about every play I’ve included has had jet motion, so yes, they did actually run jet sweeps. Here’s a nice shift pre-snap to cause a little added confusion to boot:

Creativity

Gus has some creativity up his sleeve outside of just the so-called “common” run schemes. Here’s a little Statue of Liberty play while using a sugar huddle and a very unique formation.

I really like this reverse. They send the playside slot WR in an orbit motion like he’s going to run a speed option with Nix, and then run a reverse with the fieldside slot WR:

Auburn’s running game hasn’t been great the last couple of years. Let’s be real: If it was, Gus Malzahn wouldn’t be the coach of UCF right now. But there’s so much more that goes into success than just being a great play designer.

In my opinion, Gus’ scheme and play designing fits extremely well the type of athletes UCF currently has and who they’ll be able to recruit, getting back to an East/West runing game compared to the more straight North/South feel from Heupel.

Malzahn doesn’t shy away from North/South power runs, as you’ve seen, but there seems to be a threat of an East/West run on almost every play.

All EPA and rush rate numbers from cfb-graphs.com

Tomorrow: A look at the passing game in Gus Malzahn’s offense