After the 2004 season, my first as a head coach in a big high school program, we were faced with the challenge of pay-to-play. The coaching staff made a great effort in selling our program to athletes and parents, and we fielded the biggest roster in spite of the new pay-to-play obstacle. We also knew that in order to keep those numbers, we needed to re-evaluate how we were utilizing our players, especially in terms of playing time. We looked at the possibility of two platoon, and we wanted to move in that direction, but the program was not quite ready from both a staffing and personnel perspective.
However, we knew that we had to find a way to play more than the 16 or 17 players who saw the field on a regular basis on Friday nights. This brought about my first experience with using personnel groupings on of- fense. Since then, I have moved on to the collegiate level, and as the offensive coordinator at Baldwin Wallace University, I have many weapons from which to choose. We also are faced with challenges of finding playing time for many talented athletes. What we have been able to develop is a person- nel substitution system that has benefits both on and off the field.
The benefits are threefold: first, we are able to key in on skill sets and create personnel packages that create match-up problems for a defense. Second, we are able to prepare younger players in roles within our offense while keeping our starters in our base grouping fresh to win in the fourth quarter. Finally, we are able to keep our players highly motivated because of their involvement and desire to contribute to our offense.
In 2011, we carried up to ten personnel groupings in each game plan. In our final game, our personnel system was utilized to the fullest in that we used ten personnel groupings with 20 different skill players: nine receivers, five tight ends, four running backs, and two quarterbacks. We found a role for almost everyone at our skill positions. While we still maintain a rotation mostly of our two-deep in our base sets and groupings, we were able to utilize more players and give them significant packaged roles with our personnel grouping system. Our players listed in the first spot within a grouping are considered starters, and giving them that kind of status creates a different level of ownership and buy-in than when they were just the number four guy at their position.
The challenges of using personnel groupings are being organized, finding a way to use procedures to make the substitutions, and being creative in building packages that utilize the players’ talents. Yet they are broad enough to present multiple problems for a defense that tries to match with you or keys on a personnel tendency. These are things we considered as we built our packages and system.
Much of what we use has been developed over years of studying how teams substitute personnel. We have borrowed ideas from the professional level where substitutions and match-ups are critical to offensive success. This did require a change in how we called and grouped our personnel. Prior to using our current system, we used the two-digit system with the first indicating the number of running backs in the game, and the second indicating the number of tight ends. We had basically become a multiple 11 personnel team (one tight end, one running back) with our tight end playing from both an attached and flexed position. As we tried to incor- porate more players into our personnel groupings, we found that the two digit system no longer would work.
First, we incorporated more letters to our labeling of our skill players. Our receivers had been labeled X, Y, Z & J, our running back was S and, of course, our quarterback was Q. We found the need to further define personnel and who would be subbing at positions by adding letters and subbing a letter for a letter, and then using names to designate those pack- ages. Substitutes from our tight end position expanded to include T, V, W and F. Substitutes at receiver included R & P.
Second, each package then included a defined rule for which letter was being subbed for and by whom. We found that some of our players could handle a little more responsibility because of their skills, so the role expand- ed and allowed them to sub for multiple players. To do this, we used animal names with the letter of the sub being a key letter for the grouping. T-Rex is T subbing for X; the T is a second true tight end. Viper is V subbing for J. Later we added Vulture for him and he also subbed for the Z receiver. This player was a dynamic H-back type who we could motion around and use to block and run routes. Rabbit is R subbing for S; R is an extra receiver usually align- ing in a slot position. Fox is F for J adding a fullback type of player into the offense. Our tight ends, fullbacks, and H-backs are all considered tight ends to us in how they practice as blockers and receivers from a tight alignment. W for Z is Wolf with W being primarily a blocker at a wing position. P for Y is designated as Python; P is a receiver coming in for our tight end.
We use a wildcat quarterback with two different philosophies. The pack- age in which our philosophy is to overload and use the extra hat to block is called Tiger. In this package we usually use a grouping that is heavy on good blockers and add the wildcat QB. The package in which our philosophy is to use more speed and misdirection to separate the defense is named Cheetah. The Cheetah package will include a mix of dynamic players and blockers and the wildcat QB. It usually has some jet sweep component to it.
We also allow for multiple substitutions. If it is a multiple TE substitution, we use big animals to indicate the different packages with B as the letter indicating a multiple TE package. Bull (3 TE with Z in the game), Buffalo (3TE X in the game) and Beast (4TE).
As we progressed through the season, we found opportunities for our #2 slot receiver to be in the game at the same time as our first slot or J, and we could move our most dynamic receiver to the outside to create match-ups, so that package became Jackal for two J’s, and the X was subbed for. As you can see, we went well beyond what the two digit system allowed.
After naming our packages, we let the players come up with the hand signal that would indicate the personnel coming into the game. Their creativity allowed for some memorable signals. And while we laughed at first, the players had no trouble remembering what the signals meant.
Our base personnel uses the nickname “Stinger” which we use for our offense. As noted previously, it is 3WR, a TE, and RB.
Below is the personnel chart that we use to show our players our personnel groupings for the week. You will see that 20 different players are listed as the first in their position in a grouping. We do list back-ups also because we never want to lose a package because of an injury, but for the purpose of showing the number of starters, only one is listed on this chart.
In this package, we took our most dynamic receiver (J) and put him at Y. In our base personnel, Y is our TE and not quite as dynamic. We took our fastest player who is great in space after he catches the ball but not the best as a route runner and place him at J. Our Z rotation remained the same, and our X was second on the depth chart. X was tall and could use his body to block out a defender and get the ball, was also a great route runner, but limited as a vertical threat. Since we planned this package for third down and red zone, having someone who can attack vertical space wasn’t as important as someone who could exploit individual coverage. Our Speed Back (S) is third on the depth chart but is our best pass blocker and can align as a slot, run routes, and catch the ball well.
Creating various personnel packages are shown in Diagrams 6-12. This is essentially using personnel to create third down and red zone 4-wide pack- ages.
Diagram 7: (Python) North 6 We focused on two different concepts in this package – spacing and 4 verticals and variations of each concept. We also maintained two runs and a play action to use with this grouping. The QB gives X his route by hand signal. X and the QB would look at the leverage and depth of defenders in determining which route would be best. The QB can make his determination pre-or-post- snap on throwing to X based on how that route would fit into the rest of the concept (Diagram 7).
Diagram 8: (Python) North 6 Spacing. Our spacing package consisted of three variations that Y and Z were used to running. Because J was a two way player and spent most of his practice time on defense, we wanted to keep it simple for him while allowing us to get the ball to him in space. Our spacing concept for this package included three variations but J had the same assignment (a flat route) for all three (Diagram 8).
Our vertical package also had variations for X, Y, & Z, but again, to keep it sim- ple for J, his assignment remained the same. We included a screen off of our Z-Shallow tag (in blue) and also a delay to X (in red) which gave the concept a mesh look (Diagrams 9-11).
Diagram 9: (Python) North Spacing Z-Curl
Diagram 10: (Python) North 6 Spacing Y-Corner or Post Variation
Diagram 11: (Python) North 6
Diagram 12: (Python) North 66 Bunch. We also added a quad bunch wrinkle within this package. Nothing changed in assignments. Our protection became a 5-man protection, and we taught S his release and route from his position. His assignment was the same on the concepts we used (Diagram 12).
When I first started using personnel groupings at the high school level, we played six more skill players on offense per game than we had prior to using groupings. Through studying how teams use personnel and keying in on our players’ skills, we have been able to use 15-20 skill players in a game. As with anything, implementing a new concept into your offense needs to start with making it part of your philosophy. For each tool we have in our offense, whether it be procedures, a run or pass concept, or personnel substitution, we have a simple philosophy that defines our thought process. This is our philosophy for using our personnel groupings:
Personnel Substitution System Philosophy
1. Create match-ups.
2. Have flexibility in your ability to substitute.
3. Get more players involved in your offense.
4. Utilize your players’ abilities.
5. Be able to diagram the players into plays for scouting report and presentation purposes so roles and assignments are clearly defined.
Having a clearly stated philosophy for personnel will help in your implementation so that you fully utilize this tool, and it doesn’t become an afterthought.
Have a sideline procedure for getting personnel in the game and practice it. We change personnel in practice to keep the tempo moving and keep everyone involved and on their toes. We don’t just go through all of our plays for Stinger, then Wolf, then Cheetah. For example, we might run Stinger for two plays, Cheetah for a play, Wolf for a play, etc., getting as many players involved in the practice as we do in the game. We are primarily no-huddle, so in order to keep our fast tempo as the personnel, formation/motion and play are being signaled, our players coming into the game have a mini-huddle with our coach on the head phones to get formation and play, and they run to their spot. All potential subs step in front of the coach, then those going in run onto the field after getting the play. Players coming off do not move until the players coming in start running onto the field. In doing this, we do not give our personnel away early.
Practice Script and Game Call Sheet Considerations
Have spaces in your practice script and call sheet to designate what grouping you are using. Personnel have become part of our call now, so when we call a play, personnel are the first called. A call might sound like this: Tiger (Personnel) – East11 (Formation) – Sweep Lt (Play). Our coaches and signalers communicate that information to the players on the sideline and on the field.
Script your openers and get as many personnel and formations on the field early so that you can see how a defense is going to adjust. We script our first ten plays and use a different grouping and formation almost every play. I tell our players that for us the beginning of the game is like being in a boxing match. We are throwing our jabs and body blows so later we can throw our knock-out punches. It takes some planning and patience, but we have found that we can use the information we get in the first ten plays to confirm or adjust our game plan and attack a defense accordingly.
Do not use personnel groupings purely as a reward. We start spring ball and camp with a different person in each letter spot. They know that their job is never safe. Complacency will not be rewarded and no one is entitled to a job. Our players know that the best players will play, so if our best op- tion is to use the same player as our F, V and W, we will. Fortunately, that hasn’t been a problem. Our players work hard to excel at their role in our offense and can’t wait to see personnel groupings and their name on the chart in our first unit meeting of the week. Furthermore, being third, fourth or even fifth on the base personnel depth chart is no longer an obstacle for a player finding his way on the field on game day. As stated before, our players are considered a starter if they are listed first in a grouping. The motivation of that alone produces great morale in our meeting room and on the field.
Our personnel substitution system has been a great tool for us and is something we will continue to use and develop. Hopefully, this is an idea you can use to enhance your offense and find playing time for more of your players.
This personnel and formation system is demonstrated in my iBook 101+ Pro Style Pistol Offense Plays provides concepts that can be utilized in any offense, not just the pistol. I have received some great feedback from coaches who adapted all or some of those ideas in 2013. Get 101+ PRO STYLE PISTOL OFFENSE PLAYS for your iPad or Mac from the iBookstore.