The art of the QB sneak

USC quarterback Matt Barkley and his center, Khaled Holmes, show off a favorite move. Patrik Giardino for ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in the Aug. 22, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

THERE WILL BE NO quick snap, no theatrics to draw the defense offside. At the line, there will be violence.

It's third and one at Ohio State's 6-yard line, and the University of Southern California trails 15-10. Just 74 ticks remain in the game, each team's second of 2009. USC's quarterback, true freshman Matt Barkley, has orchestrated a masterful drive from deep in his own territory. As Barkley bends to receive the snap, the Buckeyes and everyone else in Ohio Stadium -- a record crowd of 106,033 that still stands -- should know what's coming. Earlier in this possession, and two other times during the game, Barkley had put his head down and converted short-yardage situations, so he expects to see Ohio State crowding to stuff any push.

It's so simple and obvious that even Pop Warner didn't feel the need to diagram and practice it.

-- College football historian Tom Benjey

But Barkley doesn't count 10 men in the box. Instead, he sees the ends line up outside his tackles and the middle linebacker set five yards off the ball. Barkley smiles. The play he's about to run isn't in his playbook, and he's barely practiced it. But he knows it will work. Before the Buckeyes can shift, the ball slaps into Barkley's palms.

When a drive or a game comes down to a matter of inches, college football offenses bank on a single play: the quarterback sneak. It extends drives. It shifts momentum. It's the surest thing in college football this side of an extra point. In total, QBs kept the ball 854 times on third- or fourth-and-short plays last season, and 81 percent of the time they either gained a first down or scored a touchdown. It would seem, then, that such a pivotal play would consume large amounts of practice time and that it would occupy a place on any quarterback's wrist-band play card. Yet surprisingly, most players and coaches say it doesn't even exist in their playbook.

"It's so simple and obvious that even Pop Warner didn't feel the need to diagram and practice it," says college football historian Tom Benjey, referring to the Hall of Fame coach who won four national championships with Pittsburgh and Stanford from 1915 to 1926. Actually, Warner probably didn't diagram the play because it wouldn't have made any sense to him. Offensive formations looked much different back in Warner's time. On snaps, for instance, the QB lined up a yard behind his center, who delivered the ball to him with a toss. Not until Warner retired, in 1938, did the modern hand-to-hand snap become prominent, which made it easier for QBs to surprise defenses by taking hikes and quickly pushing forward behind the blocking of his center. Today, every offense has a version of the sneak, whether it's a pro-style passing attack like Barkley's at USC that cozies up to the line with two tight ends, a spread team like Denard Robinson's at Michigan that stretch defenses with three wideouts or a triple-option threat like Navy, Air Force and Georgia Tech that prefer a quarterback keeper with a fullback leading the way.

As Trojans and Buckeyes collide violently in front of him, Barkley pulls the ball tightly to his belly and takes a half step back from the line, imperceptibly pausing to look for his cue. He sees the slightest forward movement as his center squares his shoulders and puts his hands on the tackle opposite him. The best course is a direct one, and Barkley pushes ahead, driving forward to the 2-yard line. First down. One play later, as the Buckeyes stack the goal line looking for another sneak, tailback Stafon Johnson strolls untouched into the right corner of the end zone. Trojans win, 18-15.

Ask any college QB and he'll tell you about his greatest success on fourth-and-short as well as his most bitter failure. But nowhere is the quarterback sneak more ingrained in a school's tradition than at USC, where Matt Leinart is remembered not only for the "Bush Push," the infamous sneak that tipped USC over Notre Dame in 2005, but also for his failed attempt in that season's BCS title game against Texas. So who better to begin our conversation about college football's unwritten standard than the men of Troy.

I like the responsibility that comes with the sneak. When our line surges forward, it's exciting.

If we needed to gain only a yard a play in order to win, it wouldn't be too hard to win. The play is one of the few advantages we have on offense.

The problem with the sneak is everyone in the stadium knows you're going to run it: the defense, the other coaches, even the people in the stands.

You can tell when most offenses are going to do a sneak. I watch body language -- the center's, the guard's and the quarterback's. If it's third or fourth and short and somebody leans forward, you know it's coming.

If their center moves forward at all, the quarterback will, too. I'm trying to stop the center from moving forward, which gives the outside linebackers time to come up and help me.

The quarterback is the key guy. QBs who make things happen on their own are great at this play. You want a guy with the right mentality -- a guy who is going to slither and slide and push, someone with a knack for finding a seam. A guy like Tim Tebow.

I just called "Kill!" in the huddle and everyone knew what we had to do.

As a lineman, it's an exciting play to defend. You need a good jump off the ball. Then you launch your pads into your offensive linemen to stop his forward momentum, get your hands on him and run your feet to knock him back. Pad level is key. It's a game of leverage and the lower man wins.

There are so many ways the QB can catch you off guard. He can run to the line and do a silent count by tapping his center. Then he'll snap the ball and go. Or he can change up the snap count and try to draw you offsides. The offense has an advantage because they know when the snap is coming and we have to react to it.

We're still 100 percent when I call it at the line. You have to be patient, take a pause after the snap and see where the holes open up.

You can only push or pull for so long before he falls forward for a yard.

If you don't get it, you feel like an idiot when you watch film. You failed to get one yard.

When we stop a sneak, especially at the goal line, that's like our defensive unit scoring a touchdown. It's our glory moment.

The one I remember most? Fourth-and-one against Ole Miss, in 2008. I wasn't able to convert. We lost 31-30. The failure to gain that one yard was the only blemish on that national championship season.

Players always remember the plays where they could have done better. As a coach, I like to think of the great things my players have done. Fourth-and-one at Tennessee. Tim was a true freshman and he got the first down on a sneak. Two plays later, Chris Leak threw a touchdown pass to win the game. We won the national championship that season.

Honestly, this play doesn't have a lot to do with the quarterback. You can put anyone out there to receive the hike and run forward.

That's not true at all.

It's not just a meathead play. There is an art to it. You have to know what the defense is going to do before the ball is snapped, know certain guys will slant a certain way when we're in an empty set or that a team doesn't load the box in the red zone.

Triple-option teams run it best: Georgia Tech, Navy, Air Force. They have mobile quarterbacks, linemen who are used to getting low and cut blocking and plays designed so it's not always a true QB sneak. Those teams are able to convert at a high percentage.

We don't run the sneak as much as Navy and Georgia Tech, whose QBs are more like running backs. We don't want our QB up there that much. He's following a 245-pound center who's usually giving up 50 pounds; he's not going to survive. But sometimes he has to be a big boy and run. We run a true sneak probably five times a season.

I'm not very mobile. I'm not a running quarterback, but I like running this play. And it adds rushing touchdowns to my stats.

We run a true sneak probably five times a season. If we need less than a yard, we'll call it.

I think I had six rushing touchdowns my senior year at USC and three were QB sneaks from the 1-yard line. I stole a lot of TDs.

A typical call for us is pretty complex. Even a short pass will sound like this: "Gun, Empty Right 10 Ricks, 65 Saw Y Stick, R Option." The sneak is just "Deuce Right, QB sneak." The formation and QB sneak. Not much more to say than that.

It's very interesting at the bottom of that pile.

It's ruthless down there. No one can see. Guys are trying to strip the ball, putting their fingers in your face mask. I'm usually in an awkward position just trying to hold onto the ball and wondering if I got in. After a few seconds of the ref peeling everyone apart, it's a good feeling to hear the crowd. Unless it's an away game; then you don't want to hear cheering.

The quarterback is trying to get the ball and lunge forward, and that's not a natural movement for a QB. It can throw off his rhythm with his center. I see fumbled snaps on this play all the time; the ball hits the ground or pops up in the air. That's when our guys need to knock them back and be on the ball.

I'm switching to center this season from guard, so we'll be practicing the snap a lot. Matt and I have been playing together forever -- I've known him since sixth grade -- and I'm finally snapping it to him.

Since offenses don't practice it a lot, I coach my players to watch the QB-center exchange.

We didn't practice is very often. Maybe once a week.

We don't call it in practice. Maybe in a scrimmage, when no one can touch me, but not in practice.

Teams don't practice this play enough. They don't think about it enough. That's a mistake. It's as important a play as you have, and if you are going to use it as an important part of your offense, you need to practice it. Actually, I'm writing that down right now: Remember to practice the QB sneak this fall.

Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.