What Is Vertical Set Blocking and Why Cal's Sonny Dykes Thinks It Will Work

Lisa Horne@LisaHornePac-12 and Big 12 Lead WriterJuly 18, 2013

SEATTLE - SEPTEMBER 10:  Offensive lineman Aaron Merz #65 of the University of California Golden Bears waits for the snap during the game against the University of Washington Huskies on September 10, 2005 at Husky Stadium in Seattle Washington. The Golden Bears won 56-17. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Head coach Sonny Dykes will be testing Cal football fans' patience when he debuts his new offensive sets this fall. One of the biggest changes will the insertion of vertical set blocking.

To understand this system, understand the man who is implementing it. 

Dykes is part of the Hal Mumme coaching tree. He worked for Mumme as an assistant coach at Kentucky in 1997 and 1999. Dykes also worked under head coach Mike Leach at Texas Tech in 2000-2006. Leach's Air Raid offense was practiced and preached at Texas Tech and Dykes took that knowledge to Louisiana Tech.

In Dykes' three years as their head coach, the Bulldogs went 22-15. Louisiana Tech had the top-ranked offense in the nation in 2012 averaging 577.9 yards per game. After dismissing longtime coach Jeff Tedford in 2012, Cal hired Dykes to usher in a new era of Golden Bear football. 

Dykes' vertical set blocking packages, also referred to as vertical set pass protection, is being utilized more often in spread formations.

Brophy Football explains the technical aspects of vertical set blocking techniques here

In layman's terms, the linemen set up a yard behind the center and establish a new line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped. When the ball is snapped, they retreat deep in the backfield in choreographed steps and drop anchor to pass or run block. In the video below, Louisiana Tech shows vertical set pass protection sets against Texas A&M.

The premise for this blocking technique is simple. When a defensive linemen pushes off from his set position, he is upright as he moves toward the offensive linemen or ball carrier. An upright defender making contact against an offensive lineman who is down low in his stance can be at a disadvantage.

The offensive lineman has a lower center of gravity, his shoulders are squared to absorb impact and he has anchored his position against a defender who has lost some leverage. 

Another benefit is that while the lineman backpedals to his new position, he has a better view of how the defense is reacting. Reading blitzes, stunts and twists should be easier. The defensive linemen also have to travel further to make contact because of how deep the offensive linemen are.

Will this blocking scheme work in the Pac-12? That depends on the play called.

Most of the league's interior defensive linemen are built leaner than the traditional defensive linemen. They are fast and have excellent agility. Lining up against a vertical set block should be a dream for a defensive end with decent speed. If he can get a beat on the inside, the quarterback will get flushed out of the pocket. The video below shows aggressive defense against vertical set pass protection.

Traditionalists will wonder if it is a bad idea to invite defenders into your own backfield.

On screen plays that is exactly what an offense is doing. It can be effective. It can also end up with a fat guy touchdown from the defense.

A defensive end is champing at the bit when he sees a lot of space between a guard and tackle. When the two backpedal to set up and drop anchor, he's looking to split the two and go after the ball carrier. There is no resistance for the first few yards of his bull rush. If the linemen stop him, it works. If they don't, he's going to make a tackle for a loss of yardage.

Teams like Oregon should be able to overcome vertical pass blocking. The Ducks' defense is full of speedy athletic players who can twist and stunt to get at the ball carrier. Stanford should also adjust well to this scheme. The Cardinal linebackers will be able to fill the gaps and stop the run. Last year Stanford defeated Oregon 17-14 (OT) by defending against the Ducks' zone read option. 

For VSPP to work, all of the offensive linemen have to be on the same vertical plane, according to Brophy Football.  If one or two are not in the same plane as the other linemen, the pass blocking will fail. For an offense facing a team with a prolific pass rusher, this can be problematic since the lineman pass blocking him may lose position and create an uneven plane. 

In Cal's spring game, Dykes introduced his new scheme and it was met with mixed reactions. The vertical pass protection set worked fairly well in pass plays. On run plays, not so well. A short video of Cal's spring game highlights great execution of VSPP. There are also some lowlights.

This system may work at Cal. But most football fans feel that great defense, not offense, wins championships. Since Dykes runs the Bear Raid (the nickname of Cal's Air Raid offense) the focus appears to be on the offense.

Last year under Dykes, Louisiana Tech finished last in total defense among all 124 FBS teams. It finished first in total offense. The numbers tell the story. Offense is a priority for Dykes. 

Cal will have a fun offense to watch this year. But there should be some concern over whether or not the linemen have quick enough feet to backpedal fluidly. Tedford didn't recruit players for this type of blocking so there will be some growing pains. There should also be concern over the emphasis on the offense.

Oregon had a great offense last year. It appeared unbeatable. But when it played against Stanford, the league's best defensive team, it lost.  

If Dykes can improve the league's 10th-ranked defense, then this offense shouldn't be a point of contention for fans. It will be a fun team to watch. If the Bears' defense doesn't improve, then Dykes may take heat for focusing too much on the offense.

It's a big risk. 

Especially for a school that has watched its rival Stanford turnabout a fledgling program and play in three consecutive BCS bowls. 

Cal has risked a lot. The school dismissed Coach Tedford in 2012 to bring in Dykes. Tedford lobbied for Cal's stadium renovation and new athletic facility. He was instrumental in laying down the foundation for building up a program. It took him 11 years but the patience wore out after a 3-9 season last year. 

This year, Bear fans' patience may be tested again. 


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