'Keep pounding, keep pounding, keep pounding': An introduction to Crookston's veer offense
Scott Butt remembers what someone once told him about the veer: "you gotta be excited about a three-yard play."
That might as well be the foundational statement for the offense that the Crookston football team is in its first season running.
Last year, the Pirates ran a run-based spread offense, utilizing zone runs, fly sweeps and looking to get to the edge of the field. They were in the shotgun 90 percent of the time, Butt estimates.
But going into this season, the Crookston coach realized that kind of attack would be harder to pull off. The returning Pirates up front were talented and experienced, but not big enough to manhandle opposing linemen.
So Butt settled on the veer, an option-based offense commonly used at the high school level and somewhat so in college, but almost invisible in professional football. The veer would compensate for the Pirates' size by allowing offensive linemen to use angles to block, instead of meeting opponents head-on. In addition, Butt thought its ground-based style would be more effective on the muddy fields that are common in northwest Minnesota in the late fall.
Butt calls the veer "simple" in its design — but that doesn't make it easy to master. And while Crookston has had some success with it through two games, the Pirates feel there's so much more they can do.
The most prominent example of the veer, at least in principle, comes at the college level with Army, Air Force and Navy. All three service academies have run various forms of the offense for decades, as recruiting constraints and weight limits make it tough for them to bring in the type of players needed to effectively run a more traditional offense.
The academies don't all run the same exact system, and Crookston's system isn't identical to any of theirs either. Nevertheless, the foundation rests with the "option" — i.e., the quarterback deciding where the play is going by reading the defense.
What makes the veer effective for a team like the Pirates is that it doesn't require every defensive player to be blocked. When the quarterback takes the snap, he turns towards one running back — the "dive" back — and extends the ball into his chest without fully giving it away. Before he decides whether to commit to the handoff, he focuses on the first defensive player that isn't being blocked, often a defensive tackle.
If the tackle goes for the quarterback, or if a hole opens up along the line of scrimmage, the quarterback can give it to the running back — his first option. If the tackle goes after the back, though, the quarterback can then pull back the handoff and keep it himself — his second option.
If the quarterback decides to keep it himself, he'll then try to get outside, which is where the common name for the offense — the triple option — comes in. When the quarterback gets to the edge, he once again reads the defense. If they're coming for him, he has the option to lateral the ball to his "pitch" back, who's running parallel to him. But if the pitch back is accounted for, the quarterback can keep it himself and surge upfield.
The Pirates' offense generally doesn't get this far. Usually, they'll limit it to the first two options — especially when running "outside" veer, where the pitch back comes from the outside and has to run farther to get into position. But anyone who has seen Army, Air Force or Navy play will know exactly what's going on.
"You basically are making a decision on every single play," said senior quarterback Easton Tangquist.
While the quarterback's decision is the focal point of the veer, the offensive linemen's roles also come down to a pre-snap decision, determined by how the defensive linemen and linebackers are lined up. They pick out a man to block, and once the ball is snapped, they attack him by blocking "down" — blocking from an angle, forcing him away from the play.
"Just fire off the ball and make sure you're getting the guy you're supposed to get," said senior lineman Greg Gonzalez.
Added Butt: "They don't have to think a lot, they just have to react. When you're not as big up front, it's gonna come down to reacting more than anything. If you know where you're going every play because you've done it every play, all season long, it's just muscle memory, and it gets you there quicker."
When the veer is working, it leaves a signature footprint: consistent short to medium-length gains, lengthy, clock-draining drives and tired defenses.
Crookston's gotten the ball first in both its games this season. In its season-opening 14-10 win over Roseau, the Pirates marched 53 yards in 16 plays for an Ethan Boll touchdown, taking nearly 11 minutes off the clock. Only three of those 16 plays were passes. None gained more than eight yards.
The Pirates' first drive in their 24-6 loss at West Central Area on Oct. 9 didn't end with a touchdown, but it looked similar for stretches. They controlled the ball for seven minutes, ran 12 plays (11 runs) and gained 37 yards, backing up the Knights' offense and eventually leading to a special-teams touchdown.
In the moment, those drives appeared simple and methodical, almost robotic in their consistency and efficiency. But that belies the truth about the veer: simple doesn't mean easy.
The decisions that make up the backbone of the offense have to be made at split-second speed. Even for a senior quarterback in Tangquist and a veteran line bolstered by four returning starters, that's a challenge.
While Boll, a sophomore running back, feels confident in his responsibilities — "hit the hole as hard as I can" — and in going to Tangquist and other upperclassmen for help, mistakes do occasionally happen.
"Probably the biggest thing is ... I just have trouble clamping too hard, so (Tangquist) won't be able to pull it," he said.
When Boll does get the ball, he's had his share of success, with 145 yards on 35 carries for a solid 4.1 average. But of those 35 rushes, just three have gone for more than 10 yards. Boll's longest gain on the ground is 15 yards, and the Pirates' biggest play this season — run or pass — went for 19.
The key is being fine with that.
"The guys up front are blocking and doing whatever they can do and they're doing a great job," Boll said. "It's been kind of difficult for me, but three yards a crack in four plays, that's a first down."
And there are other benefits: notably, the longer drives on offense mean more time for the defense to rest, as opposed to quick, big-play drives that can put a tired defense right back on the field.
"What you're doing is you're setting it up to keep pounding and keep pounding and keep pounding," Butt said. "... This is about eating clock and really shortening games and giving yourself a chance to stop the other team's offense."
That doesn't mean Crookston isn't hoping to break bigger plays. While the veer is, inherently, the opposite of a big-play offense, the Pirates are averaging just 152.5 yards and 10 points per game this season. Little chunks by themselves can only go so far.
To find the big plays in the sea of increments, there are a few places Crookston can look. Passing off of play-action, taking advantage of the defense overplaying the run, is a little-used but key element of the veer that can open up the field. Defensive breakdowns — missed tackles, missed reads, missed alignments — can produce huge gains as well.
Some of it, to junior lineman Brooks Butt, also comes down to the Pirates perfecting the basics.
"We gotta work on holding our blocks," Butt said. "Looking back on film, you shake your head, because it's like, dang, you hold that block for one more second, it could have gone the distance. Just little stuff like that."
It also comes down heavily to time. The Pirates only began working on the veer during Tuesday and Thursday workouts during the summer, and during a shortened season, haven't gotten quite as many practice chances with it.
Crookston had a bye week last week, which gave Butt a chance to implement a couple new looks. And on Friday, the coach said he thought his offense was ahead of where they were even earlier that week. That kind of growth in understanding comes with every new offense — and while the veer may be unique in plenty of regards, it at least shares that characteristic.
"The more I've done it, the easier it's getting," Tangquist said. "By the day, I swear, it's crazy, but it gets easier and easier."
And therein lies perhaps the perfect analogy for the veer. It's tough sledding to begin, three yards and a cloud of dust again and again. But all the while, with each 3-yard play, the defense tires; softens up a bit more. Eventually, it gets caught a little slow, a little late, and the offense takes advantage.
That's where the excitement happens.
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