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Return of the fullback: Part III

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Missouri State v Kansas State Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

I first noticed the return of the fullback in this column way back in 2013. I further commented on the growth of the position, proverbially and literally, in 2014 as teams were putting big blockers on the field at the position to help smash spread out defenses.

The spread offense was popularized with the rise of the singleback offense, which basically replaced the fullback with a slot receiver. However, teams learned that finding dual-threat tight ends was pretty difficult and then they further learned that having a blocker off the ball could have value in a spread concept even though the team could no longer run “four-verticals” with only three WRs on the line.

First off in terms of the two-back run game, being able to insert a lead blocker at the point of attack has certain advantages that you don’t get when you have three WRs and a TE on the field. Perhaps more importantly though, the “smashmouth spread” is based around the tremendous advantage that you can get from forcing a defense to account for two potential ball carriers each working behind a lead block.

This play right here is the underpinning of the modern spread offense. If that boxed sam linebacker (or nickel, as the case may be) comes inside to help stop the run the QB flips it out to a slot receiver working behind a lead block from the outside WR.

If the sam stays in the box, the offense takes advantage of their numbers up front and the RB runs either behind the lead block of the fullback or the double teams allowed by the FB’s insertion at the point of attack.

The defense wants to get extra numbers to the ball but it’s difficult because the ball could go to either ends of the field and come behind a lead block. Stopping a runner behind a lead block generally takes an extra man.

Full-bore, RPO spread offenses will base their run game off passing concepts attached to runs. The goal is to be able to punish a defense in space for the areas it vacates in coverage in pursuit of stopping the run and nothing creates a clearer picture for the QB of where the vacancies will be then having a lead blocker involved who will trigger the defenders to attack the line of scrimmage.

The growing prevalence of this style of spread offense means that the lead blocker in the backfield is increasingly important to every squad.

Teams that prefer to use the QB run as their main constraint option over having him throw the ball out wide also put great value on the fullback. The same principle is at play, when the defense sees a lead blocker insert himself at the point of attack and create a new gap, they’re triggered to run to that part of the field. But if the ball could also be going elsewhere, they are split apart and team pursuit suffers.

Specialists with value-add

Some of the players out there today who are de-facto fullbacks are listed and aligned as H-backs or “tight ends.”

For instance, here’s Tennessee “tight end” Ethan Wolf aligned where he is aligned on the vast majority of their snaps, at H-back.

On that play he ended up doing exactly what he does on the better part of Tennessee’s snaps, he became a lead blocker on their counter run play, packaged with a bubble screen if Virginia Tech didn’t honor the threat of the receiver.

Wolf also caught 21 balls for 239 yards and a pair of TDs, but his primary role in the offense is as a blocker who makes their inside zone and gap schemes threatening when paired with outside pass options. On many of their snaps, he’s a de-facto fullback.

Another common place to line up a de-facto fullback in the spread is in a split-back alignment.

Now the FB is lined up like another offset RB next to the QB except that, for the most part at least, he’s just going to use the depth to build up steam and be a lead blocker:

The H-back alignment is perhaps a little more common, as is the TE/H-back de-facto FB, because they’re often big enough to use the couple of steps to knock back a DE on a kick out or trap block.

Ethan Wolf is 6-6, 245 while the K-State FB shown above (Winston Dimel) is more traditionally sized (6-1, 235).

You’ll see a few differing alignments for this role in a shotgun offense but most are variations on these two basic positions. Either way, the player’s job is to be a lead insert in the run game.

Like Wolf, Dimel has other roles in the Kansas State offense. He caught six balls but he was also their wildcat trigger man or short yardage option for much of the year, leading to him scoring 12 touchdowns on 30 carries.

For most spread fullbacks, they’re on the field because they can block. Wolf and Dimel bring value add as a receiver and runner respectively, but if they weren’t great blockers there’d be little point in using them for those roles rather than a WR or a RB that’s a superior athlete.

An example of a fullback who was more of a specialist with very little value-add was Oklahoma State “Cowboy back” Zac Veatch. Veatch is a 6-3, 265 pound senior they loved to line up in their backfield as a fullback to clear up the RPO picture for QB Mason Rudolph and help him determine whether to distribute the ball to WRs James Washington and Jalen McCleskey or RB Justice Hill.

Veatch only caught nine passes this year, he was pretty purely a specialist who’s value on the field in the spread was created by the heavy usage of RPOs within the Oklahoma State offense.

Back when offenses were either passing the ball or running it, a one-dimensional player like this would tip their hand to the defense and call down the fire of aggressive safety run fits. Now with RPOs as the foundation of an offense, there’s little reason not to embrace a hammering specialist who may be largely useless as a receiver because his limitations don’t put the same caps on what the offense can run.

So long as Veatch was good in run blocking, in pass protection, or perhaps running into the flat as a check down, he was a major asset to the Cowboys without bringing additional value-add.

The effect of the RPO has basically been to bring “division of labor” principles into play on offense and allow specialists who lack versatility to shine. The fullback now has the same sort of role to an offense as a punter or a kicker only on more of an every down basis.

How do you find these specialists?

The problem that now emerges as a result of the increased role for the specialist fullback is determining how to allocate scholarships to get these guys on the roster. Chandler Cox notwithstanding, prospective fullbacks are typically not highly rated or sought after in recruiting.

Whatever coaches tell the media, many of them do care deeply about recruiting rankings in part because they have become a metric for how their jobs are evaluated. Minnesota just now listed poor recruiting rankings as a justification for firing head coach Tracy Claeys. Additionally, other recruits care and want to be a part of the top rated classes as perception becomes reality. But beyond that, every FB you bring to campus is a guy who could end up getting hurt due to the physical nature of the job and who likely doesn’t fit anywhere else on the field if he doesn’t pan out.

Coaches would rather use scholarships for versatile athletes with multiple possible fits that will raise the ranking of the class and the perception of the program. That leaves a couple of options for filling this increasingly essential role within the program.

Option 1: Teach the position to a hard-nosed back-up

It’s very common for teams to have a LB or DE on campus who simply isn’t athletic or good enough to break through to the top of the depth chart or see the field. His scholarship is already a sunken cost to the program, unless he can become a specialist and play FB.

Texas got really solid H-back play the last two years from Caleb Bluiett, a DE that was struggling to win his way to the top of the depth chart due to a knee injury and tough competition for the job. They moved him to H-back and gained an excellent blocker for run concepts like counter and split zone that helped propel RB D’Onta Foreman to over 2k yards last year.

The catch here is that you have to have extra players you can afford to move from their current positions who are tough and selfless enough to embrace a role where they get little glory and engage in violent collisions all day long. That mindset can at times be a rare skill.

Option 2: The preferred walk-on

An additional tactic here for finding players that could fit this role was demonstrated recently by Mike Gundy at a press conference.

The reasoning here is genius. There are tons of kids that are excellent HS lineman and quick enough to move across the formation and trap DEs or find LBs in space, they just aren’t big enough to block from a position along the line at the collegiate level. Perhaps they’re in the 5-11 to 6-1 range and 230-270 pounds. Guys like that are often players that already love the game, hence their great success at the HS level, who are used to playing a thankless position, and who would be excited for the chance to play big time, college football.

Well the return of the fullback creates a nice opportunity for such players, particularly to teams like Oklahoma State that are happy to hand out preferred walk-on positions on the team or for teams that might even be willing to offer a scholarship.

I’m guessing we’ll see options two increase in prominence over the next year or two as teams realize that filling this crucial role requires some creativity and effort. The lesson as always is that there’s always a role in football for a gritty player that loves to hit people.