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When will we see positionless football in the college game? Part I

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Hybrid skill players are making a rather slow but seemingly inexorable march towards taking over the sport.

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Wisconsin vs Miami Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Wall Street Journal’s Sam Walker recently wrote a fascinating new sports book called “the Captain Class” detailing the surprising edge that makes for dynasties in team sports. Not to give anything away but the gist of the book is that building a dynasty in team sports requires that the team be captained by a selfless, grinding leader. One of the early teams he profiles is the 1950’s Hungary national football team, which was a forerunner to the “total football” approach that has dominated European soccer styles since and was a key component to the 1970’s Dutch teams or the “tiki taka” Barcelona teams that dominated the 2000s and allowed Spain to dominate the turn of the decade.

The idea is simple, instead of relying on specialists at the various positions the goal is to field as many versatile, complete players as possible. This has multiple advantages, the main one of which is allowing the team to cycle through the OODA loop more quickly than their opponents and always be ready to capitalize on opportunities because everything doesn’t have to be “just so” in terms of alignments. If you’re a midfielder in position to make the play a forward makes, you make it, and you’ve been training to make it not just to excel at all of the aspects of midfield play.

With this style of soccer already established, European basketball took a similar approach and their spread pick’n’roll strategies ended up taking over the NBA in the 2000s with the league now defined by teams trying to get as many versatile wings on the floor as possible so they can switch pick’n’rolls and spread the floor on offense.

So what about America’s no. 1 team sport? Things have been moving more slowly on this front, perhaps because football’s evolutions have come virtually entirely within the US and haven’t come out of a need to adapt to make the most of players developed in a European fashion. Still, we’ve seen some similar elements creep into the game.

American football’s love of specialization

Most people use this term to refer to kids that grow up playing a single sport and focusing their development around excelling in a limited set of skills that only matter in one sport. There’s all kinds of studies and arguments on whether this actually helps kids or produces the best players, it’s very hard to suss out. A position like QB probably needs as many reps as possible so that the young man can get used to taking instant snap shots of player positions on the field and being able to make quick decisions. On the other hand QBs with a background in baseball often seem to thrive as a result of learning alternative ways to set their feet or deliver the ball. On that note, wrestlers often make good football players, but is that because wrestling taught them lessons football didn’t or because guys that are good at getting low in the trenches are often really good at wrestling as well?

But there’s another kind of specialization in football that isn’t discussed as much, which is positional alignments. Players are typically evaluated for “best fit” at different positions and everyone chosen and developed to excel in particular spots. “You’re 260 and good at playing blocks? That makes you a strong side end, go meet with Coach Williams about playing the edge. You sir, you have similar attributes but are 280? Welcome to 3-technique, let’s get you started on the art of playing double teams.”

The art of college recruiting is often just going out and finding the guys who’s abilities best align with predetermined roles and then collecting as many of them as possible. Alabama for instance, will tend to have the best strong side end and best nose tackle and beat you down simply by featuring better execution in all of the standard battles that play out between the 22 guys on the field every snap.

In some ways football almost resembles 18th century warfare when gentlemen would wear brightly colored uniforms while barking orders to their men to stand in line and shoot at each other. Everyone knows who has who and you just line up and see who’s stronger and more disciplined. That style was done in less by guerrilla tactics than improving firepower that made it untenable. Football’s evolution towards positionless play will have to come from a similar stress, teams that simply won’t allow you to put specialists on the field who can’t execute multiple tasks in different parts of the field.

TE play is the starting point

Some of the “let’s line up and take straight shots at each other” elements are fixed into the college game by rule. Every now and then you see teams get cute by moving tackles and TEs around in order to confuse defenses into allowing receiver-eligible TEs or even OL to run free down the field for easy catches. Overall though, it’s hard to see teams moving too far away from practices like always fielding five big blockers on offense at the ineligible receiver positions. It’s at the skill positions and on defense where versatility is likely to start breaking through....although you have to wonder how modern defenses would hold up against teams that rotated guys back and forth between OL positions and WR eligible spots.

The NFL is all about TE play these days. The pro-style offense is about creating matchups and a 6-4 guy running routes in the seams is almost always a good matchup unless he’s being doubled, in which case you’ve created leverage somewhere else. College offenses and personnel decisions are largely dominated by the TE as well and it’s becoming hard to win a title without a great blocker if not a pro-style flex target.

It seems likely that RB will be a future point of focus as the passing game continues to take precedence and teams look for fresh ways to create matchups that allow them to push the ball down the field. In the past offenses were all about getting as many guys on the field that could block as possible and focusing the ball into the hands of skill athletes via the run game. Defenses needed to be composed of guys that could beat blocks and tackle, nowadays offenses are looking to find the guy that can’t turn and run and trying to make him play coverage.

When UCF took down Auburn they did so without a traditional RB on the field but instead frequently utilized packages with two hybrid TEs and two RB/WRs. Modern coverages are already pretty complicated out of the need to create designs to ensure the best possible matchups for defenses with guys either covering people of comparable athleticism or otherwise always covering the same areas of the field (CBs stay outside, LBs stay inside). Yet even with the increased complexity of zone-blitzes and pattern-matching coverage a team that puts hybrids on the field and uses motion before the snap can force the defense to reveal weak spots or get into unfavorable matchups.

For instance, as we saw from UCF’s game against the normally ultra-sound and matchup-proof Auburn defense:

Or from the Texas 6A state final between the hybrid-rich Lake Travis offense against the loaded Allen roster:

In these instances the challenges of keeping up in coverage actually allowed either team to score easily with QB runs. On other occasions in those games, similar tactics created confusion that allowed for easy leverage to throw the ball. Against this style of offense you have to take away the pass first, which is complicated and confusing for defenses.

Some of these types of tactics are in effect similar to “Bash” or “back away” runs that use inside-backer’s programming against them, incidentally Scott Frost uses those a good deal as well. Basically it’s a slow move towards total football with offensive players learning to attack how defenses are designed rather than to perform as cogs in an existing system.

Because defenses have been specialized in roles with programmed rules to allow ultra-fine tuning, they are highly vulnerable to “total football” and positionless play. What was once a tool for allowing either limited or else exceptionally athletic players to find a role in which they could play fast and shine runs the risk of making defenses as outdated as old fashioned units that weren’t designed to defend the modern passing game.

In part II we’ll talk about how this evolution could occur and what might bring about the next steps.