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Inside the Clemson Offense: Counter Play

The counter trey is something we've described here before and the basics of this play are the same everywhere. Clemson's counter trey is run like everyone elses, but we will run 3 basic types of counter plays with a little quirk or window dressing added to confuse the defense and keep them honest.  There are a few notes from our film study that we've picked out.

  • Prefer to run to the 3-technique side.
  • Run it with QB, a WR (the 2), and both backs as possible carriers.
  • DE is unblocked and read each time, so he doesnt know if its a basic zone read, trap, or counter. The only time he isnt read is on a called handoff or QB counter (see variations below).
  • On the backside there will be a bubble screen checkdown from the inside WR, and the outside WR will crack or stalk block the first offcolor jersey from the outside-in.
  • Playside slot WRs will block the first threat to the inside they can get to and seal the middle off.

The reason you run it to the side of the 3-technique DT is easily seen below. In the counter trey play, the blockers on the playside block down. For the Center to block down on a NG is pretty easy compared to having to reach a 3-technique. Only a really quick and athletic Center can get over there before the 3-technique disrupts the backfield mesh.


Note the QB is reading the backside DE here vs. a 4-2 front

What Morris would prefer to do when it needs to be run to the side of the NG is to leave the Guard in to block the 3, and pull the Tackle and the Center out. We'd do the same thing against an EVEN front (both guards covered).

A counter is a slower developing play than most run plays, because we're waiting on two linemen to pull out and get over to block, and then the RB must read the blocks to know where to hit it. Below I'll use some old figures and new ones to explain our versions of the counter.

Blocking Rules for the Counter

In the Counter Trey, 3 guys block down (down=towards the C) on one side and 2 pull out. The 5-technique DE on the side of the 3-tech (which is going to be the weakside if they play Under front, strongside if they play Over) is left unblocked because the OT there double-teams the 3 with the guard, and then one of them releases to take out a linebacker.

Its not necessary for 2 men to pull to run a regular counter, but thats the easiest way for you to recognize it. Sometimes only the tackle will pull around and an H-back will take the job of the Guard, or vice versa as you'll see.

The backside Guard (BSG) must pull out and read the free DE's movement. If the DE is following his block-down-step-down rule and squeezing the veering playside tackle (PST), then the BSG knows he has to turn the guy to create a hole, or log block him. He aims for the DE's outside number to seal him inside, like rolling a log over.

If he can get his hat in the hole of the play (say the 5 hole, or B-gap left side) he should kick out that defensive end by attacking his near hip. This will happen if the DE jumps too deep in the backfield without following his BDSD rule, as below.


BDSD Rule: Remember whenever the DE sees the OT across from him veer to the inside (a down block), in this case to double-team the 3-tech, the DE is supposed to get a hand on him and push him, or hold him up somehow (called squeezing the down block). He doesnt have to protect the LB behind him by tying up the blocker, but this does give him a second to come around behind. Then the DEs job is to step laterally down the LOS to take the responsibility that the 3-technique once had in the B-gap. The LB is supposed to come around outside to take the DE's job in the C-gap. Thats the essense of the BDSD rule.

The pulling BST is reading the BSG's block to know where to hit as well. When the BSG gets to kick the DE, he turns up hard into the hole and hits the first thing he sees. If the DE squeezed down, and the BSG didn't create a hole, the Tackle comes around the both of them turning back to the inside (wraps through) and hits the first off-color jersey he sees.

The RB is reading the Tackle's block. If he sees him wrap around, he knows he must shuffle and follow him around the commotion. The hole will be there, he just has to wait for it. If he sees the Tackle cut upfield, then the hole is there, and he has to run hard into the hole. Patience is the key for the back in this play.

Everyone else on the LOS down blocks. The PST helps the PSG double-team the 3, and then pulls off to hit the backside LB and take away the threat to the cutback if he can. The Center takes the NG.

Many times the key to true success is being able to move that 3-technique. If an opponent has a particularly heavy and good DT there, this play becomes tough to run well. That would be the opponent you would choose to try running this play against the NG as in the first figure above. You have to be able to move one of them off the line.

The DE on the backside of the play is not blocked at all, nor is the LB behind him. In cases where they show a 4-2-5, the job of the SLB there would be a nickelback or safety who would be unblocked intentionally. If you see someone unblocked, then they are going away from him by design, or reading him in option. We'll get to that below.

The WRs to the playside block the first inside threat they can get. The slot man tries to get inside and turn out a LB or a DB. The outside WR goes upfield to keep the coverage honest and then nails the safety.

On the backside of the play there is a checkdown bubble screen, if the QB chooses to throw it to the 5WR. The outside 2-WR there will stalk the CB and block him downfield.


Counter Trey to the 4-back in a doubles formation. The 9 is a SAM LB.

 Below we show how the basic Counter Trey is blocked against different fronts.


Counter Trey from the I-formation against an Over front.


Counter T run against a 3-4, but with only 2 LBs in the box. Here I've used the TE as the following blocker. This is a Counter-T play. The PSG is doubling the NG and then peels off for a LB, but not depicted.


Similar to the play above we described, the Trey against a 4-2 box with the TE taking out the 5, this would be a called play with no read of the DE.

So what is the QB doing on the play?

The QB's job is to read the unblocked DE on the backside, just like a zone read. He never takes his eyes off the DE. This will help fake out the DE so he stands pat. If the DE follows the BST into the backfield, following his BDSD rule, with an angle on the back and a chance to get him in the backfield, the QB keeps the ball. If the DE stands pat and steps slowly, he lets the 4-back take the ball. The mesh is the back's responsibility, the QB keeps his eyes on the DE and only loosens his grip on the ball when he's made his read.

The RB takes one step laterally and turns his shoulders quickly out (a jab step), then square, and then cuts inside to read the blockers.


Counter 4 play, 4 designates that he is getting the ball. The 9 is a Sam LB but could be a SS.

If the QB keeps the ball, then he steps out and he reads the SAM LB. He has a choice to make. If the SAM (or Nickel/Safety) cuts out hard to cover the bubble screen, then the QB takes it himself right where he was standing. If the defender stands pat, he throws the bubble screen.


How the play develops on the backside if the QB keeps. Arrows are from where they were initially standing. The SLB bit on the bubble screen and the QB takes it where he was standing.

Variations that Morris runs - Wheel Counter and Counter T

Now that the blocking is explained, lets talk about some variations with motion. Morris likes to use the 3-back, or Tailback in wheel motion from a WR slot position into the backfield. A Wheel Counter play.

The 3-back is aligned off the Tackle to the leftside, and begins his wheel motion into the backfield as if he were taking an end-around play, except that at the last minute he cuts inside to take the ball from the QB just like the 4 above. He will proceed in normal motion for the end-around until he gets to the T-G gap, when he shuffles to the same depth as the 4-back.

The twist we put on it is a la Wing T, and that is the 4-back coming outside and around behind the 3 to fake pitch motion outside. That way, if the QB decides to keep the ball because the unblocked 5 charged to hit the 3-man, he can step outside and the play is an option off the unblocked LB. The QB can then read the LB to that side and decide to keep himself or pitch it out to the 4-back.



The 5 and the 2, being playside, now take the first man to their inside they can get to on a block. There is no bubble backside on Wheel Counter, we just have the option back 4. Morris instructs the 4-back to always option fake pitch when the play is designed to go away from him, when there is motion.

If the man playing the 1 in the above diagram is actually playing a 2i or 3, then we'll pull the Center instead of the BSG. Obviously, if the play needs to be run to the side of the NG, we would do the same thing.

The Counter T substitutes the pulling tackle for the 4-back as a blocker, and he's usually aligned opposite stack. He'll be in the BSG-BST gap, 1.5 yards off the ball, and will follow the BSG to wrap the LB just as the pulling tackle would above. Why would you run the T instead of the trey? Well if you have a less athletic Tackle who cannot get over there, you would rather use the faster 4-back who can hustle to get in the hole. Also, it allows you to break the tendency of running behind your FB, yet still use him as a blocker.

There also is no backside End read in a Counter-T, the Tackle blocks that End.


Note this is an older figure, but the TE is the 4, and he should be aligned in the T-G gap.

The above clip adds the wrinkle of reverse motion, but it is a counter T.


Finding some good film of the Tulsa offense running a RB counter trey was a bit difficult, but it is the same as the Auburn CT discussed here. Quite often it isnt what I refer to as the Counter Trey, which involves two pulling linemen. It is a counter T with one pulling lineman and an H-back as in the diagram above. Both Malzahn and Morris run it about the same number of times in a game.

Meyer and Malzahn both run the wheel counter play as well, but Percy Harvin made this kind of movement look easy. In the video below you'll see Florida running this, but their version doesnt use the fake pitch motion in this video.

Clemson will also run it from a 5-wide Empty set like this one:

If the 2-man is particularly quick, both Morris and Malzahn run an end-around off this motion, except that the QB charges up to block in the area the 5 was standing, and the 4-man would charge and block as well. Usually the 4 would go and cut the CB that the 2 was on, or perhaps the LB on that side.

Various quirks and alterations on the above basics from different formations can be seen here: