Great defenses pride themselves on stopping the run.
Offenses know this, which is why trick plays like the flea flicker are so effective.
A well-timed flea flicker play call can turn the defense's aggression against them and create a huge play.
In this article we'll talk about the flea flicker, how it works, and show some examples of the different ways to run it.
What is a Flea Flicker Play?
The flea flicker is a trick play designed to look like a run, where the ball is given back to the quarterback after he hands it off, and he can throw it downfield for a big play.
If executed perfectly, the opposing defense, including the secondary, will have to stay honest and attack the run. This means they will be looking to come up and play the run, trying to fill their gap responsibilities at the line of scrimmage, in an attempt to try and tackle the ball carrier for no gain.
See the diagram for an example of what a flea flicker looks like.
In this diagram, when the football gets tossed back to the quarterback the defense will be out of position and set up to defend a run. When the quarterback gets the football back in his hands, the dynamic of the play shifts back to a pass play, and he will start to scan the field for an open receiver.
If any of the defensive backs or safeties have reacted to what they believed was a run play, there's a good chance there'll be a wide receiver open downfield. This play is designed to test the discipline of those defenders, making it extremely difficult to defend.
As the play is designed to look like a run, the wide receivers and tight ends will come off the line of scrimmage as blockers. When the running back tosses the football back to the quarterback, those receivers and tight ends suddenly take off into a sprint, running routes as pass catchers.
Who Invented the Flea Flicker?
The flea flicker is credited to Illinois coach Bob Zuppke, who brought the play to life in a college football game against Penn in 1925. Zuppke called the play on a fake field goal attempt.
Zuppke later wrote in a letter in 1951 that he had originally called the play in 1910 while serving as the head coach at Oak Park High School.
(Unfortunately no video has survived of either play)
Why is it called a Flea Flicker Play?
The inventor of the play, Coach Bob Zuppke, described the play as 'the quick flicking action of a dog getting rid of fleas'.
The defense represents the fleas, and by running the trick play, they shake off the fleas to give the offense a better opportunity to complete a play downfield.
Can you get penalized for intentional grounding on a flea flicker?
Yes. Only the person who receives the snap AND who does not relinquish possession at any point during the play can intentionally throw the ball away. This rule applies whether or not the passer on a flea flicker is inside or outside of the tackle box.
Some believe that because the football has already changed hands twice by the time the quarterback gets it back, that intentional grounding should be impossible on a flea flicker play.
However, that is not the case.
It is not a question of being outside or inside the "tackle box", instead it's about the multiple changes of possession during the play. Since the quarterback has already relinquished possession earlier in the play before getting it back, he is required to throw the ball toward an eligible receiver.
Example of a Flea Flicker
The Michigan Wolverines called a flea flicker against TCU in the 2022 College Football Playoff. Down 21-9 early in the second half, the Wolverines needed a spark, and the flea flicker provided it for them.
Watch the video below to see the play:
You'll see quarterback J.J. McCarthy takes the snap and hands it off to his running back, who quickly tosses it back to him. In this instance, the play happens extremely fast, and the defense doesn't fully commit to the run because of how quickly it unfolds.
However, the play call was enough to have the secondary second-guessing themselves. As a result, the defensive backs were on their heels for a slight moment when QB McCarthy threw the ball deep as WR Ronnie Bell took off.
The WR does a great job of running a lazy route, which is a sign of a run play to the defensive backs. He runs to a spot very casually, and then as the quarterback gets the ball back, he moves into a sprint. As the WR takes off, the safety covering him was not ready for it, and the result of the play is a touchdown. This just shows how effective the flea flicker can be even if only one defensive player has a slight lapse in concentration.
Reverse Flea Flicker
In this case, the play is a combination of the flea flicker and the reverse play. It starts as a reverse play, with quarterback Baker Mayfield handing the ball off to the right-hand side. The defense flows to the near side of the field as they recognize the run. The running back then tosses the football to a receiver heading in the opposite direction, which is another trick play called to confuse the defense and create an opening on the reverse side.
Watch the video below to see the whole thing:
However, in this instance, the reverse player takes the football and tosses it back to Baker Mayfield at quarterback. While all this is going on, the eventual receiver Dimitri Flowers goes under the radar because of all the action behind the line of scrimmage. The receiver ends up in acres of wide-open space and QB Baker Mayfield is able to find him with ease for the Sooners opening touchdown of the game.
Throughout the play, the receiver just looks like he's getting out to block for the runner. However, he is most definitely a designed receiving option on this play from the get-go. He follows the traffic to the near side, but instead of blocking he gets downfield to attack the defense's soft spot and picks up a wide-open pass.
This is a beautiful play design and one that is near impossible for the defense to cover. With everything the defensive players are trying to read in the backfield, with multiple changes of direction and a lot of motion, nobody picks up on the receiver's route.
Fake Flea Flicker
This is a play you don't see all that often, but another cleverly designed play. The fake flea flicker run here by the offense is ultimately just a run up the middle.
Watch the video below to see the whole thing:
The running back takes the handoff and then motions to toss the football back to his quarterback as you would on a flea flicker trick play. As he turns to do so, his oncoming tacklers run right past him because they think the ball is going back to the quarterback.
When that doesn't happen, the runner simply turns back around and takes off downfield having cleared space for himself with the fake toss back to the QB.
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