ASU will face University of Washington, a team known of its use of the quarterback sneak.
Todd Graham recently was asked about the simplest play in football, the quarterback sneak, may it (almost) rest in peace.
“We haven’t run a quarterback sneak?” the Arizona State coach asked.
This isn’t a huge deal. For the most part, the Sun Devils – who host No. 4 Washington on Saturday – have fared well in short-yardage situations. Just one measure: On third downs with less than three yards to go, the Sun Devils have secured a first down on 14 of 20 opportunities.
At the same time, they have botched two shortyardage chances. On Sept. 23 against Oregon, ASU
faced 4th-and-1 near midfield. Instead of running a sneak, the Sun Devils put senior running back Demario Richard in their “Sparky” formation. Taking a direct snap five yards off the ball, Richard rushed forward, but ran into receiver Kyle Williams, who was in motion from the left. The running back was stuffed and ASU lost possession.
The second unfolded Sept. 30 against Stanford. On 3rd down with less than a yard to go, junior quarterback Manny Wilkins took the snap in the shotgun. He faked a handoff to Richard and looked right but no one was there. Wilkins then tried to make something of the broken play but was stopped short.
Obviously, running the sneak depends on several factors. Time. Score. Yard line. But as more teams go to shotgun formations (ASU operates almost exclusively out of it), the quarterback sneak has become endangered in many programs, left on the back pages of the digital playbook.
“Nobody does it anymore,” said receivers coach Rob Likens, who has called plays throughout his career. “Here’s the thing: If you go with a team that does shotgun, the last thing you want to do is put a guy in a situation (where) he hasn’t done a lot of it and it’s at the most important time of the game.”
Likens gives an example: Back during his days as an assistant coach at Louisiana Tech, the coaching staff called for a quarterback sneak. As the Bulldogs lined up, Idaho -- that day’s opponent -called time. That gave Louisiana Tech’s quarterback a chance to take a few snaps under center on the sideline.
He fumbled the first.
“I was like, ‘Thank goodness we had a chance to work on it,”’ Likens said.
Not every team has ditched the sneak. Washington, for example, runs it regularly, Graham said, but some are rusty. On Sept. 29 at Washington State, USC ran it for the first time this season, but the Trojans did so in an unusual circumstance. After Ronald Jones II was tackled near the first-down marker, the Trojans hustled and quickly snapped the ball to quarterback Sam Darnold, lined up under center. Darnold rushed forward for the first down.
Only problem: USC hadn’t realized it had secured a first down on the previous play, so the sneak basically made it 2nd-and-9.
“One of the trends you see nowadays, teams will go tempo and hand the ball off,” offensive coordinator Billy Napier said. “Watching NFL games, they’re headed that direction.”
The closest ASU has come to a sneak came against San Diego State in Week 2. Facing 1st-and-goal from the 1, the Sun Devils huddled (a rarity) and then quickly lined up with Wilkins under center. At the snap, Wilkins handed off to senior running back Kalen Ballage, who was stuffed for no gain.
On the next play, Ballage scored from the “Sparky” formation, which has become the Sun Devils’ short-yardage play of choice. Richard, Ballage and senior receiver N’Keal Harry all have had success finding holes off direct shotgun snaps.
But Napier acknowledges that the time will come when ASU will have to line up under center, for a sneak or something else. He said the Sun Devils have it in their playbook. They have worked on it. They’ll be ready.
“I tell you what drives me crazy,” Graham said. “When it’s fourth-and-afoot and (teams) get in the shotgun. That drives me crazy. Fourth-and-a foot, (the sneak is) what you ought to run. That’s what I think.”
Something to keep in mind.