Here at Football Study Hall we've tried to keep you, the reader, abreast of some of the major trends in college football. One of those trends has been the continued evolution by spread teams at smaller schools to mimic classic football tactics without having the big, elusive, two-way TE who can stretch the seam and drill a DE on alternate downs.
Teams have accomplished that by getting "B-backs" who can are versatile and competent in multiple roles and using up-tempo tactics to set them up, utilizing vertical receiving threats in the slot in lieu of the rangy TE, and bringing back the fullback to run through spread-out defenses.
Ultimately the game of football is best suited to those who are large and powerful. Although the game is constantly evolving to feature skill and speed, there will always be a place on the field for those who are excellent at exercising brute force.
In particular, a deep threat slot receiver like Baylor's KD Cannon or a flex TE like Ole Miss' Evan Engram leave a void for an offense that wants to utilize lead runs or get extra pass protection as their smaller frames and wider splits prevent them from offering that second threat that a tight end would bring.
Hence the rise of the fullback. However, teams are now taking things a step further with a player we might just have to call the "mega-back." Multiple spread teams are fielding players that are essentially a 6th offensive linemen to act as a mobile blocking surface.
In the past, spread teams would be horrified to sacrifice an extra athlete on the field in order to bring in a big heavy to enforce their will in the run game but now many are finding that the added benefits actually lead to more explosive plays thanks to wicked POP/play-action and better pass protection.
Profile of the enforcer
There are several examples of "mega-backs" who are emerging around the country. The most obvious is Baylor's Tre'Von Armstead, a 6'6" 265 pound brute who was recruited to play offensive tackle and has found himself being utilized as a mobile bludgeon in the Baylor attack.
Since Baylor's preferred style of attack is to mix vertical option routes with max protection with lead run/POP play options, Armstead is exceptionally useful for making QB Bryce Petty very difficult to reach with the pass rush and for drawing in defenders who don't want to be late to meet his blocks.
Auburn, who reached the title game in large part due to the efforts of super-human fullback Jay Prosch, have elevated the 6'4" 258 pound Brandon Fulse to take on the dirty job of executing a variety of blocks in the Auburn attack.
Ole Miss was able to find some running room against Alabama by employing "QB" turned TE Jeremy Liggins as an H-back to lead the way on QB power runs. Liggins is a 6'3", 296 pound offensive guard who's been relabeled as an athlete and unleashed to bring needed punch to a finesse attack.
TCU has the 6'4" 288 pound Cliff Murphy serving in this role, the examples go on and on. You needn't find undersized OL to do this job but some teams have decided that if the position is going to be played by a thankless bludgeon who does dirty work to set up smaller athletes they might as well use undersized OL who were already born for that role.
Setting the table
There are a large number of ways in which a "mega-back" or other blocking specialist playing fullback or H-back can serve an offense and set-up the smaller athletes to wreck shop.
First there's "God's play," the power run, which works best when featuring a bruising blocker in the backfield to both lead the way for the running back as well as to free up the tight end or slot receiver to run a route or stalk block a smaller defender. For instance, run from a spread set:
Part of the miracle of the POP play is the way in which it allows for the division of labor in football. The receivers are free to take on typical receiving duties like running routes, looking for space, or blocking defensive backs while the fullback does the dirty work of clearing out a defensive end for the running back. The offense's ability to "spread" out and isolate the opponent is not diminished.
Then there is the world of zone blocking, which is richly blessed when the running back shares the backfield with a blocking specialist. When you have a "mega-back" in particular there exists the possibility for attacking any and every gap in the front.
LSU demonstrates a lot of this with their "stretch and hammer" run game that will use stretch zone blocking and then insert the "hammer" or lead blocker into a gap for the RB to follow. Then there's "Zarc," the zone read game with a lead blocker for the QB on the outside, or "zone slice" which uses the fullback to block the previously unblocked DE rather than arcing around him.
You can insert that lead blocker anywhere along the line of scrimmage in zone concepts, some teams even like to use "wham" blocking to deal with aggressive or troublesome tackles and get their center a free release to hit a linebacker rather than wrestling a big nose guard.
It's called a wham block because that nose tackle, who's used to doing battle with a double team, has what he thinks is a chance to run free into the backfield and then "wham!" the h-back or fullback blindsides him or cuts his legs out from under while the RB runs past him behind the two OL who are now free to blow up linebackers.
WIth a lead blocker a zone team can run outside zone with the fullback leading the way to the edge, lead zone to any interior gap, inside zone with a sealed-open cutback lane, or zone read with a lead blocker for a QB if he's a runner worth featuring. You could also flex him out and add some real nastiness to your WR screens.
So now that player is accomplishing multiple purposes, he's providing tremendous variety in the run game and he's doing it in a way that frees up everyone else on the field to be a finesse athlete rather than a bruiser.
If you're a defense confronted with this kind of run game what else can you do but scheme ways to get extra defenders to the ball so that this mobile gap creator doesn't blow a hole in the dam?
Now you have the possibility for play-action and play-option passes that are designed to destroy teams who aggressively fit extra players against the run. Good luck with that, defenders.
Finally there's pass protection. How are you going to get to a QB who's throwing deep option routes behind this kind of pass protection?
The offensive line can use slide protection to all zone block towards whichever defender for the offense is most dangerous. Meanwhile, your "mega-back" is picking up any player that comes off the opposite edge and the RB is also free to either pick up any defender that gets through or release out into a route.
Teams confronted with this protection scheme from Baylor have decided that they're better off dropping eight defenders into coverage to take away the windows to the option routes rather than hurling their pass-rushers into this wall over and over again until they are exhausted.
As KSU and Glenn Gronkowski can tell you, the blocking specialist is a good friend to the spread attack.
Football: the game of diversity
While football is getting destroyed in the media and by studies that decry the effects of the violence, the petulance of pampered stars, and the exploitative nature of the business side of things, it is worth noting the positives of this game.
One is that is a champion of diversity. The variety of tasks that need to be done on a football field mean that a large variety of athletes can find that their skills carry value that can bring them educational and financial opportunities in life.
Of course football is indeed a violent sport, and that means that amongst those that can find a home are the big bruisers that excel at bullying and pushing people around. These players will always have valuable roles on the field, even if it's largely unrecognized.