clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The run game renaissance and the return of the fullback

New, 40 comments

How the evolution of spread-option tactics has led to the re-emergence of a species of football player thought to be extinct.

Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

" don't want my offense. You want my fullback, and he's got two more years with me."

Darrell K. Royal to Michigan St. coach Duffy Daugherty's requests for info on his wishbone offense.

The Wishbone, Wing-T and Veer offenses of yesteryear were the golden age of the fullback. The position was usually filled by a powerful runner who carried the "dive" element of a triple-option rushing attack and played a featured role in the way an offense attempted to move the chains.

Darrell K. Royal's Wishbone offense relied on star fullback Steve Worster as the lynchpin of the offensive grenade that was this unique triple-option attack. Priority No. 1 for opposing defenses was preventing Worster from plowing through the middle of their front. As a consequence of taking away the "dive," they were then vulnerable to long runs from the outside pitch against an outflanked defense.

Barry Switzer of Oklahoma expanded the effectiveness of this tactic by playing swifter backs in the fullback role and presenting the dive option as a home-run threat, rather than simply a chain-moving power game. In 1971, the Oklahoma offense set an NCAA record with 472.4 rushing yards per game, and the Sooners employed the offense all the way into the '90s en route to 12 Big 8 championships and three MNC's.

For most of the rest of the league, the fullback was eventually reduced to a secondary role as a lead blocker for the featured tailback in the I-formation. Texas made this switch in the late 70's due to the addition of a certain talent that they felt needed to be featured in their offense:

When the West Coast offense and precision passing game began to dominate the sport in the '80s and '90s, the fullback slowly went by the wayside as teams asked questions like "Why are we playing this dude who can't catch or run fast instead of that third lightning-quick receiver on the bench?" or "What if we just spread the defense out? Then we wouldn't need to pack blockers at the point of attack."

The trends in football strategy have typically evolved much like the use of the Wishbone or the I-formation of the past, with coaches trying to maximize the abilities of special athletes. Today, many teams are looking to take advantage of talents such as this one.

In the midst of the spread-option revolution that's currently taking place, the fullback is again finding a role as the tactics of spacing out defenders and then out-flanking them has begun to find uses for players that can function as powerful bludgeons.

The rise of the Pistol offense and re-introduction of Single Wing and other old run game concepts, paired with modern "play packaging," has led to offenses finding it useful to have a versatile hammer to play in the backfield. Such players often offer better pass protection for QB's and free up RB/WR hybrid players to motion in and out of the backfield looking for space to abuse defenders in.

There's my alma mater, Cedar Park (reigning 4A Division II state champion) utilizing a fullback to bring a varied spread run game to bear against a spaced out high school defense.

Now, the tight end is an athletic freak who has always found a role in the game of football, be it in the option, the I-formation, the single back, or the shotgun spread. Players that can offer an extra blocker in the run game on one snap, then abuse the middle of a defensive coverage with their size and height on the next. They are extremely useful for building a balanced offense that can overstress a defense.

Unfortunately for offenses, 6'4 250-pound athletes that are quick in the open field, can catch, and possess both the strength and the willingness to block similarly gifted defensive ends don't exactly grow on trees.

The necessary leverage technique, strength, and willingness to line up across from a defensive end such as one can find in the game today, is difficult enough to find. Pairing it with competence, much less skill, as a receiver is even harder. Many teams have built their offenses around such players but several more have been totally unable to find and develop these gems. Oklahoma has vacillated between having elite tight ends and being unable to find one worthy of taking the field from year to year.

The position of fullback, or halfback, is an entirely different story. Typically shorter than 6-2, slower than 4.5 in the 40, and possessing more in the way of grit and power than quicks in the open field, these players are far more readily available in the high school ranks. In the Pistol, this player lines up in the backfield and has a great deal of schematic freedom about where they'll be used as a blocker.

In the "Diamond formation," invented by Dana Holgorsen for the 2010 Oklahoma State Cowboys and quickly stolen by the Land Thieves from Norman (much like the wishbone in the past), presents a defense with a multiplicity of options to defend.

But the real key is the kind of blocks that the fullback is asked to make, as opposed to the kinds of blocks that a tight end has to use.

In this famous run from the 2012 Red River Shooting Shootout, the two fullbacks on the field for the Sooners are asked to make two different blocks.

At 1:21, you see them size up their respective assignments. Star fullback Trey Millard leads the way on this Zone Stretch run with the task of taking on 218-pound linebacker Demarco Cobbs (the kind of player built in a lab to combat spread passing game tactics) with his own 6-2, 259 pound frame. Cobbs is scarcely willing to even attempt to drive him backwards, as is necessary in order to limit running lane options for the runner. The result is a big win for the offense.

On the back side of the play, Jaydan Bird has the only slightly less simple task of cutting or going low on the defensive end with the sole assignment of preventing him from reaching the runner from behind. His ability to do this also frees up the left tackle to execute a combo block on the backside defensive tackle with the aim of reaching a second-level linebacker.

Contrast that with the task of the playside Texas tight end on another play in that debacle of a game:

He's unable to prevent the Oklahoma edge player from collapsing the play in and forcing the runner to pick his way through the interior of the OU line, which is decisively beating Texas at the point of attack. The result is a big win for the defense.

As a response to spread tactics, defenses are playing quick and powerful athletes at defensive end but playing lighter and less physical players at linebacker. Consequently, while the defensive ends can be a load for the tight end to block, it's not as difficult for a physical fullback with any meaningful size to cut block or lead block into those defensive ends. It's certainly not that difficult for a good fullback to open lanes against the smaller, anti-spread linebackers and safeties when leading through a hole.

Finally, good or versatile fullbacks can lend an offense a great deal of flexibility in how they attack a defense. Perhaps the most devastating new play in the spread-option arsenal is the QB draw packaged with a flare screen:

Setting aside for a moment their failure to properly respond to the OSU motion, the Texas defense is put in a bad spot by the simple design of this play. The offense is threatening the perimeter of the defense with a quick throw to the running back who would then look to find space to run behind two blockers (the wide receivers). The extra defender who will have to even out the numbers against that play is the strong safety, stacked behind the linebackers.

Of course, Texas' linebacker also chases the running back and leaves a glaring hole. However, had the play been a screen pass, the safety would not have been well-positioned to find a favorable angle with which to make the tackle.

Meanwhile, the Pistol alignment of the Cowboys has provided them with an additional running back in the backfield: 5'10, 236-pound bowling ball Kye Staley. The Cowboys' highly underrated fullback serves as a lead blocker on a QB draw that nets about 50 yards.

Even if the linebacker hadn't mistakenly chased the motioning running back to the flat, he would have had to fill the interior gap against Staley aggressively and effectively enough to prevent creases from opening for the QB. As it happens, Staley is able to find a new target with the linebacker helpfully running the opposite direction -- the free safety -- and moves him out of the way as well.

When that QB is a player with wheels like Johnny Manziel, the play is even more devastating. When the running back motioning out as a wide receiver is an explosive "Percy Harvin type," you have an impossible stress on the defense. The key is finding the Moose Johnston who can help deliver the coup de grace, the physical block at the point of attack, that transforms a spread/finesse attack into a power run game.

This is the unholy marriage of finesse, spacing tactics, and downhill running. These fullback/halfback players can free up an offense to feature explosive offensive weapons without losing physicality and committing the cardinal football sin of being "soft." It abuses defenses for responding to impossibly quick spread offenses with lighter and more athletic defenders. A linebacker against a pistol team with a hybrid RB/WR and good blocking fullback needs to be able to handle a lead block in the hole and a waterbug receiver in space or risk getting ripped apart.

If that fullback can also run some or catch ... look out.

It was long expected that the evolution towards the spread passing game and finesse tactics would eventually lead to a counter swing back to physical football as teams looked for ways to exploit the ways in which defenses responded. That has happened, but it's come through that old blue-collar figure in the history of football, the fullback, who allows offenses to marry the exciting possibilities of modern spread offensive tactics with good ol' fashioned smashmouth football.