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Georgia faces another run-pass option challenge with Tennessee

Mississippi quarterback Chad Kelly hit some big plays on run-pass options in last Saturday’s win over Georgia.
Mississippi quarterback Chad Kelly hit some big plays on run-pass options in last Saturday’s win over Georgia. AP

Davin Bellamy had two words to describe what it’s like to defend a run-pass option play, which has become a staple of a lot of spread offenses throughout college football.

"Very frustrating," he said.

He has good reason to have that take.

Throughout the majority of his football upbringing, Bellamy was taught to rely on instincts as a defender. In a passing situation, he was to beat the blocker off the line of scrimmage and get to the quarterback. In a run situation, he was to set the edge or control a gap.

But now, the run-pass option threat on offense has changed the way the game is defended. Georgia has been the victim of big plays from run-pass options in each game this season. North Carolina, Nicholls State, Missouri and Mississippi all ran run-pass option plays, in which the quarterback had the choice to go with a run or pass after the ball was snapped.

Tennessee is another spread offensive team with run-pass option plays. Georgia, which was gashed for 510 total yards against Mississippi, will try to get a better grasp on run-pass option plays Saturday.

"It kind of takes away your tenacity," Bellamy said. "You kind of got to play your keys and not just get off the ball and do what you want to do. You just gotta make sure you’re in the right position for everybody."

Bellamy offered up an example. In the past, a defender could tell whether a zone-read option run or a play-action pass was coming. Now, it could look like a zone-read option run but wind up being a play-action pass.

And if the defense is sucked in on the zone-read run, the ball can then travel a great distance over the top of the defense for a big play. The same can be applied in the reverse situation.

"If you get off the ball and shoot upfield, he just runs right up under you," Bellamy said. "It slows you down a little bit."

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said the run-pass option threat offenses now have has affected how he coaches the defensive side of the ball.

Certain principles that have been applied throughout his career have since been tweaked against spread teams. As the run-pass option has infiltrated college football, defenses have been forced to adapt.

"It makes you play defenses a certain way, when you have the RPO systems," Smart said. "Some people are more elaborate at it than others. It takes a good quarterback to do it, too, because you’re not protected, and he’s got to get rid of the ball really quick."

Georgia only has four sacks for the season but a lot of that can be attributed to the four spread teams it’s faced. Playing the run is the primary objective, with defenders having to be recognize in a split second whether it’s turning into a pass.

Bellamy said this type of offense has prevented the outside linebackers from pinning their ears back and rushing the quarterback in a natural manner.

"When you play a team with those RPOs, you have to engage with the blocker and play the run first," Bellamy said. "All d-linemen know, it’s harder to get a pass rush converting from run to pass than getting off the ball."

Nose tackle John Atkins chuckled when asked how difficult it is to recognize a run-pass option before the snap. It’s a staple of the game even the fourth-year junior is still becoming accustomed to.

"With me, I can’t tell. I’m down and all I see is run action," Atkins said. "You have to use your hands and strike. Once you look up, and you see the ball you have to convert quickly. You get your hands up."

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