Split Back Formation & RPO Guide

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: February 12, 2024

Oklahoma Sooners and Lincoln Riley have one of the most explosive offenses in football. Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray have both emerged from the innovative split back formation system.

The split back formation is when two running backs line up on each side of the quarterback.

This split back formation gives offenses multiple attack points, including:

  • Cross in front of the quarterback for a zone read running game
  • Swing out the running backs for a check down
  • Triple option
  • Motion in either direction

The split back formation is one of the more common formations in football. In this article, we’re going to show you different ways that you can use the split back formation to your advantage and create explosive plays.

Split Back Formation

This split back formation in football is a balanced attack that features two running backs.

Split back formation

Split back formations were first popularized with Bill Walsh and the west coast offense. Coach Walsh used the split back formation for his power running game and to get out into the passing game quickly.

Each ball carrier stands next to the quarterback and can either run, pass protect, or catch footballs from the quarterback.

Our favorite variation is from the shotgun formation because it allows for a balanced attack in both the run and pass game.

In the run game, there is a player to lead block on any iso or power plays.

Teams will use the play action pass in the split back formation because it allows for a free release and teams can turn three receiver sets, into four receiver sets.

Along with running and passing the football, teams can also use their tight ends and running backs in the RPO game.

Run Plays

Any run play can be run from the split back formation. This is the best part about running the split back formation.

One of the more common plays to run using split back is iso. This means that every lineman is going to single block, or combo block (depending on the front), and the running back is going to act as a lead blocker.

split back iso play

The running back that is lead blocking needs to get the unblocked middle linebacker. The lineman that is combo blocking should try to move that defensive lineman as far as they can off the football.

Pass Plays

A good amount of the passing plays that are run from split backs are taken from the west coast offense. These plays will layer the field horizontally, giving the quarterback options at each level.

split back flood pass play

Above is the popular flood concept. It layers the field deep, intermediate, and short. It allows for the running back to stay in and block, and the other running back to get into the pass pattern.

Use the running backs into pass patterns as wide receivers.

RPO Variations

They also use the RPO effectively. If you’re unfamiliar with RPOs, we recommend reading here before continuing.

We’re going to look at three different plays Oklahoma runs out of split backs:

  1. Inside Zone RPO
  2. Backfield Motion Inside Zone Swing RPO
  3. G-Lead RPO RB Seam

The RPO (Run Pass Option) is a low-risk, high reward if the quarterback is patient and has the proper training. If you’re looking for a kick start on RPOs, we suggest reading this guide before continuing.

The RPOs run by Oklahoma are more of your non-traditional RPOs. Traditional RPOs include simple inside zone pin and pull RPOs.

Inside Zone RPO

The Oklahoma Sooners have lit the football world on fire since Lincoln Riley took over play-calling duties in Norman, and it has only continued with him moving up as their head coach.

Today, we are looking at their split backs following our segment on how Oklahoma has effectively run the ball from the spread offense.

The Sooners have incredible talent all over the field, so it should be no surprise that their coaching staff has installed formation to leverage their depth at running back.

The following few plays will show how Oklahoma leveraged its talent against Ohio State in early 2017. Baker Mayfield and the Sooners unveiled the look in the second quarter of a close game. Below is the first play

Oklahoma split back formation
  • The running backs are staggered, which helps greatly in their timing
  • The play-action only opens up the lane for the second running back to run his route
  • The key is the offensive line and QB as they fake the run so thoroughly

In the next play of the game, the Sooner uses the very same look:

Oklahoma split back formation

However, they motion their right half back pre-snap. Once the ball is snapped, they rely on a strong play-action fake to the opposite side of the field where they want the ball to go.

A swing pass to the left side of the field is wide open. Note that this is also the wide side of the field.

Motioning the back out of the backfield helps get players off their keys. The mental progression for a linebacker would be:

  1. Looking at key
  2. Seeing motion
  3. Refocusing on key
  4. Reacting to play

This can be a lot to process in the short 5 seconds it occurs.

Oklahoma can be dominant because it forces defenses to play primarily cover 1 or cover 0 to ensure no RPO gets out the gate.

Split Backs G-Lead RPO RB Seam

Later in the game, Oklahoma uses the same formation but different personnel as they use Dimitri Flowers (a Fullback/H-back type rather than a pure Running Back). See below:

Oklahoma split back formation

The change in personnel is key. Flowers, an intimidating lead blocker, slip directly to the second level of the defense on another strong play-action fake.

Pay close attention to the linebackers – all of whom froze on the fake.

This is a complex RPO, as it takes extreme patience for the quarterback to ride the running back as long as possible. Once the outside linebacker commits, it’s a simple pull and pop throw. Any penetration into the backfield could disrupt this RPO.

It’s extremely tough for the defense to cover, as the line and running back give every indication that its pass.

While this is just one game, it is clear that Oklahoma’s threat to run the ball is strong enough that defenses must respect it. The “Air Raid” offense is a high-octane offense run with the balance between run and pass.

Oklahoma uses their split back-formation to exploit the threat to run while calling plays to feature the other half back on the field.

Single Back RPO

Let’s now take a look at a single back call from a more traditional spread formation by Oklahoma:

oklahoma RPO

This call features one main read with the bottom wide receiver. The single back RPO features an H-back they use to run zone with a hot slant. While this is in the red zone, the play call is more straightforward than the split-back look provides. It also forces the defenses to make a fast decision in the red zone.

The read for the quarterback is the outside linebacker. Here are his simple rules:

  • If the linebacker crashes the line of scrimmage, throw the slant in the window he just created
  • If the linebacker sits back, take the numbers in the box.

This is a simple read for the quarterback, especially when his reads in the red area can get cloudy.

Keep Learning

Old school formations like the I formation, single wing formation, and triple option offense all have an influence on the split back formation.

You’re able to run all of their principles from those sets in the split back formation. It’s a great offense to run for youth football and creates a balanced attack.

The blockers can help the offensive line block and help the quarterback feel comfortable.

If you liked learning about the split back formation, we recommend you check out our ultimate football guide. It has everything you need to increase your football IQ.

Below are more articles to help you learn more about RPO.

Understanding The RPO

RPO In Football: What It Is & How To Run It

RPO Plays From The Spread Offense

Difference Between Play Action, RPO & Read Option

Implementing a wrinkle in a scheme can give defenses more than they bargained for. Oklahoma was able to catch a well-coached defense in Ohio State off-balance with looks they weren’t prepared to handle.

Lincoln Riley and the Sooner showcase their ability to use creative play-calling to get play-makers the ball by using misdirection and split backs.

Is there another school you want us to take a deeper look at or another look you want to learn more about? Do you run a different version of split backs? How have you progressed using split backs? We’d love to hear it! Let us know in the comment section below.

About the author 

Chris Haddad

Chris Haddad is the founder of vIQtory Sports & high school coach for over 12+ years. He has been featured as an authority on Hudl, Bleacher Report and countless other football-centric platforms. Chris continues to study and provide valuable content for those looking to learn more about the game of football.

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