The triple option is often seen as a boring, slow-paced rushing offense. While that description is mostly correct, if you understand what goes into the execution of the play, it is anything but boring. Currently only six FBS schools run the triple option offense: Air Force, Army, Georgia Southern, Georgia Tech, Navy, and New Mexico. The most common aspect of these schools, are the military attachment to Air Force, Army and Navy. These schools have limits on the size of their athletes because of their impending service, and because of this Air Force, Army, and Navy run an offense that can take advantage of smaller athletes. Georgia Tech took their Head Coach, Paul Johnson from Navy, where he ran the triple option offense, and Georgia Southern had to replace their coach who was just hired at Army.
The phrase triple option comes from the three choices the quarterback has on each base option play. After the snap, the quarterback holds the ball out for the fullback on a dive play. The read on this part of the play is based on the actions of the defensive tackle. If the defensive tackle runs towards the quarterback, he will give the ball to the fullback, and the option aspect of the play has finished. If the defensive tackle runs towards the fullback, the quarterback will keep the ball and move to the next read.
If the play makes it to the next step in a triple option, the quarterback will run off tackle, where his next read is on the outside most defender in the “box”. This is generally a defensive end or an outside linebacker, but can occasionally be a strong safety. This read is slower to read for the quarterback and generally easier to read, and easier to understand. If the defender runs to the outside shoulder of the quarterback in an attempt to cover the impending pitch to a running back, the quarterback will not pitch the ball, and will instead keep the ball and run forward. If the defender attacks the quarterback, he will pitch the ball to the running back, which will attempt to turn the edge and run for a gain.
When the play is run the correct way, it stresses a defense at multiple points. This is why Defensive Coordinators have such issues with this style of offense, and how Navy will frequently beat teams with more sheer talent. Todd Graham, Head Coach at Arizona State, was quoted as saying “We’re an attacking defense. We’ll always be an attacking defense (but) the big thing is discipline. Not taking care of your responsibility, that can’t happen. You got to be disciplined against this type of offense” when talking about New Mexico’s triple option offense. After the Navy game, Ohio State defensive tackle, Michael Bennett said, “You finally think you’ve gotten through and, pffttt, the ball’s gone. I don’t even know why that was working so much. … We’ll find out in film. They find something that’s working, and they keep running it till we figure it out.”
While the triple option is primarily ran out of a wishbone formations like you see above, it has been adapted by some spread offenses by offensive minds like Chip Kelly, and Rich Rodriguez. In their case, the play is run in the same fashion, except the quarterback is in the shotgun. Because of this, the initial read switches from a defensive tackle to a defensive end.