TROY – The RPO (run-pass option) game has become prevalent in college football as dual-threat quarterbacks are given more responsibilities not only getting their team in the right play, but out of the wrong one.
Troy may rely on the RPO more than most because of the confidence it has in senior quarterback Kaleb Barker to do just that.
Trojan head coach Chip Lindsey, an experienced play-caller, credits Barker for making the RPO game go.
“I get the question all the time about us running and throwing,” Lindsey said, referring to the team’s balance on offense. “I can’t tell you when he’s going to run it and when he’s going to throw it. It all depends on what they do defensively.
“There are a lot of things in our pass game or run game that he can get out of and into certain things. Therefore, I might call a play and it might end up being something else. … You’ve got to have a quarterback that studies and has an idea what to look for and spends a lot of time doing it and a guy that can make quick decisions.”
Lindsey said the RPO game, like any other fact of offense, is “you’re just trying to find creative ways to move the ball.”
Often, the key to that is through simple mathematics. Barker must count the number of defenders “in the box” – or the area between the edges of the offensive line extending about five yards from the line of scrimmage.
He has to know what his offensive formation is – one-back, two-back or empty backfield – because that factors into the number of defenders he’s looking for. If Troy has favorable numbers in the box, the Trojans likely will run the football. If they are outnumbered in the box, look for Barker to pass.
“He has to know who the movement key is and who the key defenders are,” Lindsey said. “It doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of film study.”
The head coach said Barker certainly puts in the time. He’s watching opposing defenses, as well as the results of the offense. He’s his own worst critic.
“I think the great thing about Kaleb is that when we watch film, he’s very hard on himself,” Lindsey said. “He’ll be the first to admit when he didn’t make the right decision, which is good.”
In fact, Barker’s first look at last week’s Akron game came when he watched it during the plane ride home on Lindsey’s iPad.
“He’s driven. He wants to be a really good player. He wants to see what he did,” the coach said. “He’s the first to say, ‘Hey, I don’t know what I was thinking, that was stupid’ or whatever. …
“You want a guy that’s hard on himself, but you’ve got to have a guy that can move on to the next play, too. I think he does a nice job of that. He doesn’t dwell on it, let it affect the next play.”
For all that Troy’s offense puts on its quarterback, the level of trust between the coaching staff and Barker is remarkable. Remember, the quarterback was able to do individual drills in spring practice as he rehabbed his surgically repaired knee, but Barker did not participate in the team drills.
“It’s different because he really didn’t get a chance to practice any of the run-pass option stuff in the spring or even the run-checks because he didn’t participate in any team action,” Lindsey said. “He did get the chance to watch it on film, but actually getting out there is completely different. …
“You’ve got to remember he played five games last year and he’s played three now. He hasn’t played a full season. I think he’s continuing to grow. I like his progress.”
In three games, Troy has scored 120 points (40 ppg). Barker has completed 74 of 109 passes with nine touchdowns and one interception.
The communication with the rest of the offense has to be there. Lindsay said Troy’s depth problem at running back really doesn’t dictate the play call on RPOs.
“It’s purely based on the number count, and also sometimes the type of pressure you might be getting,” he said. “There’s always tips like, we’re getting field blitz or boundary blitz or whatever we’re getting, and (against) that look we want to do this. It’s on him sometimes to get us in those plays. He does a nice job of that.”
Offensive coordinator Ryan Pugh said the offensive line’s role in RPOs is simply executing.
“We can’t control up front what coverage they’re going to play every time,” Pugh said. “Whether we’re throwing the ball or whether we’re handing it off, we’re under the assumption we’re running the football.”
Things get tougher this week against Arkansas State, which has perhaps the strongest defensive front in the Sun Belt.
“It’s going to be a challenge each week getting the different defenses we’re going to play,” Lindsey said. “He’s a guy that I think our team believes in and a guy that I think continues to improve.
“We need to continue to give him different looks and reps. Hopefully, the more comfortable he gets the better he’ll play. But I’m very pleased with his progress so far.”