The Ultimate I Formation Offense Playbook

Table of Contents

Any coach worth their salt will be able to explain the benefits of the I-Formation Offense. One of the great plays in the history of this great sport, the whole premise of this particular tactic is to overpower the opposition’s defensive line at the line of scrimmage. 

How do you do that? Well, you overload what we call ‘the box.’ But more on that later. 

While the exact history of the formation is unclear, it has been dated as far back as 1900. Indeed, Tom Nugent (a coach at the Virginia Military Institute) is largely credited with launching the relatively modern version of the system, but that was over half a decade after it first emerged under Charles M. Hollister at the Northwestern University. 

It then made its way down to Hawaii before the legendary John Madden went to a clinic led by John McKay after his USC Trojans side won the national title in 1962, and it really hit the big time. 

So, it really has been successful over the years. 

I-Formation Offense: What happens?

What you’ll need for this is a good tailback and a fullback, along with AT LEAST one tight end. 

They will load the scrimmage line with extra blockers for your more traditional offensive players, naturally allowing them more of a chance to gain those valuable yards. Indeed, the tactic will also force your opposing team’s defense into making adjustments and bring in more bodies to the scrimmage line, opening up gaps. 

Effectively, what you’re doing is creating overloads from the get-go, forcing your opponent to make moves they don’t necessarily want to do and potentially opening up gaps from your first play. 

Clearly, the defending team may have their own plans to counter this, but there are specific circumstances to use them. 

I-Formation Plays: When to use them

So, when should you use an I-formation offense? Well, some physical and technical traits particularly lend themselves to using it. 

If your team has good hands

Given how your quarterback will be expected to throw the ball to running backs as well as your more traditional wide receivers and tight ends, it’s hugely important you assess your team’s ability to catch. 

That might sound a little obvious but, without the ability to catch from most of your players on this offensive, it’s just not going to work. 

Don’t leave it until the game to find out. Trust me; I’ve seen that before far too many times. Honestly, some of the things… 

Pack your team with runners

Basically, this is a power-running offense

To that end, you need to boast strong offensive runners capable of blocking runs as the lead blockers. If you think about it, you’re really just trying to out-number your opposing defense at the point of your attack, so your tailback must be able to read your guard block’s run and make their own mind up off of that. 

You must be balanced in attack

This is THE ideal formation for teams who can freely flick between running and passing plays. 

By relying on your power runners, you can create space for your passing plays quite naturally due to the confusion this formation causes in your opposition’s defensive ranks. 

The non-negotiables

Without a GOOD STANDARD of tailbacks and fullbacks, do not attempt to use this formation. 

I-Formation Plays: When NOT to use them

Well then, that brings along quite nicely to when you SHOULDN’T use this particular tactic. 

As effective as it can be, there are some reasons why the I-formation would pretty much be rendered useless. 

If you don’t trust your fullback

Considering your fullback is likely to be the most important pawn in the chess strategy that is an I-formation, you have to be able to trust their power running abilities, as well as their catching prowess. 

Indeed, they will need both AND act as the lead blocker on pretty much every play, so you have to have complete and utter trust in them.  

Downfield Throwers

If you’re a team who like to throw from deep, really consider giving the I-formation a miss. 

Indeed, the tactic just doesn’t work if you’re keen on long passes a lot of the tie due to how congested your offense will be at the line of scrimmage. 

So, what is the point in an I-formation offense?

Basically, you’re trying to create overloads and get your powerful runners into a position from which they can hurt your opposition right from the line of scrimmage.

It’s one of the most basic plays you can make and is generally facilitated when your quarterback is lined up directly behind your center, who in turn is following a fullback and a running back starting behind them. 

Why is it called an I-formation? Well, because the players will literally form a line that looks like the letter I. Creative, right? But, in the hawkeye tactical view I know many of you budding coaches use, it really is a helpful way of measuring just how effective you’ve been in your planning. 

If it doesn’t look as straight as an arrow, it just won’t work. 

I Formation Plays in Youth Football

Because of its relative simplicity, the I-formation is perfect for youth football. 

Indeed, at least two plays per practice session can easily be incorporated into your training schedule, making it THE go-to for coaches at that particular level. 

Considering a lot of youth teams won’t exactly be blessed with much in the way of powerful runners because of just how little we are as kids, this is an ideal way to ensure the few who can are adequately protected. 

What players do you need for an I-formation?

Ah, there’s nothing quite like a casting list, is there? 

Let’s get to it. 

What you’ll need:

Center – Your center will start over the ball in the normal position. 

Guards: Both of these will start either side of the center in what is generally their normal position. 

Offensive Tackles – On the outside of the guards, you’ll have your offensive tackles. These really are important as they will largely be leading the charge from the snap. 

Tight End – Branching out even further, your tight end will line up close to the sideline of the scrimmage. 

Wide Receiver – They will start in a similar position to the tight end, on the same side of your center as the aforementioned tight end. 

Quarterback – As ever, the quarterback will be front and center in order to take the snap. They really do love attention, don’t they? 

Fullback – They will line up directly behind the quarterback to act as their protection and avoid a sacking. 

Tailback – A hugely important figure in the system, they should start around five yards behind the quarterback and have the fullback to their left. 

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I Formation Pass Plays

One of the most helpful facets of this particular formation is because the run naturally sets itself up for a pass. Because of the running threat, you can easily make a play-action pass and, due to the opposing defense being forced to drop back, the space will be created to take advantage of with a slick passing action. 

You’re creating space here. Use it wisely. Any coach with half a brain will be able to tell you that!

Another benefit of the tactic is because the flexibility of the approach will stop defenses from focusing on any one target. Not only is space being created, so is confusion, so it’ll be up to your players to take advantage of it. 

As they say, the eye of the storm is generally the calmest place on earth. If you can get your players into that frame of mind and capable of stringing incisive passes together, this over-one-hundred-years-old formation can really throw even the meanest defenses out of shape. 

The whole point of it is that your fullback is here to create an overload and provide a willing receiver, as well as to block the defense and cover for the quarterback. If you can remember the fullback’s importance and plan accordingly, you’ll have an extra body in order to push you up the field. 

Variations of the I-formation

Obviously, this play has been knocking around for years, so coaches have been putting their own spit on it. 

Here’s a list of some of the variations you can work on. 


The Big I

The key difference here that a tight end will be either side of your offensive line (in place of your wide receiver) and, in conjunction with the blocking your fullback is doing, makes sure you have two additional blockers. 


The Power I

Here you’ll have a wide receiver alongside either a running back or a fullback set up in the back field in order to increase your running plays. 


The Jumbo

The Granddaddy of them all. 

Much like the ‘Big I’ we talked about earlier, this is effectively a more intense version. 

In the Jumbo, you add a second tight end and a tackle to the line, taking out the wide receivers in an attempt to concentrate your resources centrally. 

Tip: Use this when you’re only trying to make minimal yards. 


The Three-wide I

No, it’s not a villain from a children’s cartoon book. 

Similar to the Power I we talked about earlier, the three-wide I only differs in that you replace your tight end with another wide receiver, which is the best way of maintaining I formation passing plays. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Who created the I formation in football?

Tom Nugent of the Virginia Military Institute is generally considered to have brought it to the relatively modern game. However, there are recordings of something similar even fifty years before he first made it popular in the 1950s. 

What is an illegal formation in American football?

Basically, anything that involves having fewer than SEVEN players on the line of scrimmage. Indeed, a total of at least seven must always line up from the start. 

What is the hardest position to play in American football?

Obviously, quarterbacks largely take all the glory in the kind of sport, considering just how famous many of the elite ones are.

Still, the cornerback is generally the hardest position I’ve seen during my long coaching career.

Not only do you have to possess the physical attributes of any top athlete, but you also have to boast the mental fortitude to keep going in tight areas.

What is the most dangerous position in American football?

It’s got to be the left tackle.

Considering the ridiculous speed many of them run at, the risk of injury when they’re met with some of the most imposing pass blockers in the world is absolutely huge.

Given their bravery, you don’t begrudge them those huge salaries!

Final Thoughts and Conclusion

Simple but, my oh my, oh so effective. 

It’s a great formation to use, particularly in youth football, and can easily be adapted to play to your team’s strengths, depending on how many of your tight end and wide receivers you trust. 

A play that has been used throughout the decades, the I formation is worth bringing into your playbook as soon as humanly possible! Remember, the point is to create overloads in the center of the field, freeing up space to either run into or conduct a slick passing play further out wide in order to inflict maximum damage on to your opponent. 

You have to trust your fullback and have full confidence in their abilities to not only run (which is glaringly obvious, of course) but potentially to catch too, so they must be worth the change in approach if you’re going to adopt this particular tactic. 

Overall, though, it’s a really simple thing to introduce and definitely worth exploring even further. 

Brad Smith
Brad Smith
Brad Smith has been coaching high school Football for 6 years in Florida. He and his wife have 3 beautiful children who he hopes will become the first Jaguars to win a Superbowl. Other than Football, Brad loves American litterature, parenting, gardening, and home remodeling.