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What Is the Triple Option Offense in Football?

The triple option offense is a complex and elusive beast that has been causing headaches for defenses for decades. This unique approach to American football relies on the quarterback reading the movements of the defense and making quick decisions about how to advance the ball based on their reactions. With three potential ball carriers at their disposal, quarterbacks using the triple option can keep opponents guessing and create openings for big gains.

But don’t let all this talk of strategy and strategy fool you – the triple option is also a whole lot of fun to watch. There is always something exciting happening on the field when the triple option is in play. Just be prepared for some sore necks from all the head-scratching as you try to figure out what the heck is going on.

Let’s see in detail what this strategy is all about.

Key Takeaways

  • The triple option offense is a style of American football that involves the quarterback reading the defense and deciding how to advance the ball based on their reactions.
  • The triple option uses three potential ball carriers to outmaneuver opponents and create openings for big gains.
  • The wishbone, veer, and I formation triple options are the three main forms of this dynamic offense.

Who Invented the Triple Option Offense? 

The triple option was invented by Emory Bellard during the summer of 1968 when he was hired to coach linebackers at the University of Texas in 1967. According to Scott Wachenheim, Coach Bellard knew that to be successful on offense, one needed to:

  • Have a blocker on a defender with a ball carrier behind.
  • Have two blockers on one defender with an options play.
  • Create one-on-one match-ups in the passing game.[1]

Bellard first started toying with the idea while coaching at Ingleside and Breckenridge High School. He didn’t have a chance to materialize the play until he moved to the University of Texas. Once there, he began testing his triple-option idea. 

Bellard realized that they had three great running backs. Therefore, he put up a basic T formation and had the players run through the option from a variety of sets. Then, the Wishbone was born. He didn’t originally call it ‘Wishbone’, instead he simply called it ‘formations right and left’. 

When the team mastered their new offensive scheme, they began winning thirty straight games and two national championships. 

How Does the Triple Option Offense Work?

The triple option depends on quarterbacks reading off the defensive players by using strategic starting formation to set up the run plays. 


The Wishbone formation places one fullback directly behind the quarterback, and two running backs behind the fullback. It resembles the shape of a wishbone or ‘Y.’ The purpose is to eliminate the need for blocking two different defensive players by doing one of the three possible moves depending on how the defender reacts. 

The three possible moves are: 

  1. Hands off the ball for standard fullback dive
  2. The quarterback keeps the ball
  3. Quarterback pitching the ball to the halfback

When the quarterback receives the snap, he can either hand off to the fullback behind for a standard fullback dive if the defender is not reacting. He could also retain and advance the ball while still having the option to pass to either one of the running backs on his sides when the defenders come toward him.

After he hands off the ball to his fullback, he could also take the ball back when he sees the linemen are coming for his fullback. If the play is run properly, it can be very hard to defend as most defensive players are accounted for by blockers. 


The Veer formation uses two halfbacks and one tight end. It is designed as a four-back attack with one player taking a dive course, one taking a pitch course, and another lead blocker on the offensive perimeter. Instead of using two running backs in the wishbone, Veer uses two half-backs. [3]

At the start of the formation, the quarterback reads off the two defensive players. For inside Veer to work, the quarterback takes two reads:

  • Identify Hand-Off Key – this is the defender outside of the B gap. It’s called Hand Off key because this read determines whether the quarterback will hand off the ball for a fullback dive or if he will retain the ball.[4]
  • Identify Pitch Key – another defender behind the one in the B gap. 

Ideally, the quarterback will set the play at the right side of the formation because it is where the tight end is located to tackle a defender. 

After the snap, the quarterback moves his right foot back and pivots his body 90 degrees to the right. He extends the ball to the sideline where the halfback is coming to grab the ball. Then if the quarterback sees the Hand Off Key is respecting the dive, he would pull the ball back from the halfback and hold the ball. 

At this phase, the quarterback sees if the pitch key is coming after him to make his next move of either advancing the ball or pitching the ball to another halfback for a run. 

Inside Veer takes the dive at the B gap and outside Veer sets the run plays far at the side.

I Formation

I Formation lines up the fullback and halfback behind the quarterback in this respective order. This option is also sometimes called I-Veer. The idea is similar except the full-back is used instead of the double halfback. 

The fullback typically takes the role of blocking a defender to set up a dive for the halfback. The triple option comes from handing off the ball to the fullback, holding and advancing, and pitching to the halfback. 

Would The Triple Option Work In The NFL?

There is a chance that the Triple Option will and will not work in the NFL. It worked well during the 70s and 80s and still continues to do so in today’s high school football. 

However, there’s a bigger chance that it won’t work when it comes to the level of college and NFL football. There are many opinions on the internet on why this has been the case, and the commonly accepted ones are that one; no coaches want their quarterbacks to get injured, and two; the linemen are moving much faster today. [5]

In the video below, we’ll see Grant Cohn and Larry Krueger discuss how the San Francisco 49ers have built the NFL’s only triple-option offense.

Which Teams Run The Triple Option?

Currently, only the Air Force, Navy, and Army as well as high school football is running the Triple Option. [6]

Final Thoughts

The triple option can be a successful strategy in college football, especially at the lower levels where there is a larger discrepancy in talent between teams. In the NFL, however, it is less commonly used because the talent level is more evenly matched and defenses are more skilled at defending against it.

That being said, the triple option can still be effective in certain situations, such as when a team has a mobile quarterback who is comfortable making quick decisions. Defenses that are well-suited to defending against the triple option typically have fast, agile linebackers who can quickly diagnose the play and make tackles in open space.

Related reading:


1. “Triple Option Means Triple Threat – American Football Monthly.” Accessed 24 Jun. 2020.
2. “Veer Explained – Coach Hugh Wyatt’s.” Accessed 26 Jun. 2020.
3. “Durkin’s Football 101: Gaps, Techniques & Alignments – CBS ….” 26 Aug. 2013, Accessed 26 Jun. 2020.
4. “The Triple Option – Can you run it like GT in the pros? : nfl.” Accessed 26 Jun. 2020.
5. “Triple option helps level playing field at service academies.” 5 Dec. 2017, Accessed 26 Jun. 2020.

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