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How Oklahoma Football Uses Split Backs & RPO

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 spread system.

We define the term “split backs” as two running backs alongside the quarterback, roughly about a yard away. Oklahoma also has their running backs roughly about a yard behind the quarterback as well.

This alignment gives the Sooner’s flexibility to do multiple things:

  • Cross in front of the quarterback for a zone read
  • Swing out for a check down
  • Move behind the quarterback for a triple option
  • Motion in either direction

If the running back was next to the quarterback (like in traditional spread systems), he could only do 2/4 options above effectively.

Oklahoma RPO Variations

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

We’re going to look at 3 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 RPO’s, we suggest reading this guide first before continuing.

The RPO’s run by Oklahoma is more of your non-traditional RPO’s. Traditional RPO’s 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.

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

The Sooners have incredible talent all over the field, so it should come as 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

  • 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 use the very same look:

oklahoma RPO

However, the 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 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.

the football handbook

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 RPO

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 an extremely tough cover for the defense, 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 is featuring one main read in 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 anything 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.


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.

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