5 Top Run Plays for Your I-Formation Playbook

American football players at the line of scrimmage during game
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In football, the I-formation is one of the most common starting offensive lineup positions. It's especially suited for teams that like to run the ball and coaches that favor an aggressive style of offense. The I-formation is also a play that is fairly easy to learn for new players.

Offensive Plays

Although there are a number of different ways the offense can line up, most coaches rely on one of three formations:

  • The shotgun is a classic pattern for teams that favor a passing offense. In this formation, the quarterback lines up well behind the center, who long-snaps the ball. The quarterback then drops back and passes to a running back.
  • The split back can be used for both running and passing offensive plays. In this formation, the quarterback lines up under center, flanked by two running behind. 
  • The I-formation is the hallmark of a running offense. This formation gets its name from the I-shaped lineup: five offensive linemen up front, the quarterback under center, fullback behind the QB, and a tailback in the rear and a wide receiver on either end of the front line.

Starting in the 1970s, the I-formation became the go-to offensive play in college football. Head coaches Tom Osborne of Nebraska and Bobby Bowden of Florida State both became famous for their use of this play. Although not as commonly used today, Big 10 teams like Michigan and Ohio State still employ the I-formation to great effectiveness.

I-Formation Run Options

The great thing about an I-formation is that it allows coaches a number of play options to keep defenses guessing. These five running plays are all common variations on the basic I-formation lineup.

  • Isolation: Many coaches use this as their primary rushing play in their ground attack. In this play formation, the fullback "isolates" and engages the defense, creating a hole for the tailback to run.
  • Isolation pass: Players line up in the same formation as the isolation, but instead of handing off to the tailback, the QB will pass to a wide receiver.
  • Toss sweep: In this variation, the QB reverses as he drops back and hands the ball to the tailback. Unlike isolation plays, where the runner makes a beeline for the scrimmage line, the tailback will run parallel to the line as he "sweeps" wide looking for room to advance.
  • Fullback trap: A variation on the toss sweep where the fullback takes the handoff instead of blocking for the tailback.
  • Sprint draw: This formation is sometimes called the slow isolation play because the offense lines up in the same positions. But instead of opening a hole on the inside line, the fullback sweeps out to the side as the wide receiver goes long. If executed properly, the defense will be thrown off, expecting a pass, and the QB can hand off to the tailback instead for big gains.