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When will we see positionless football? Part II

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Many teams are embracing the value of good TEs, but when will hybridization spread to other positions?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 07 Cal at Washington Photo by Christopher Mast/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In part I of this series we looked at the concept of “totaalvoetbal” and where and how it could apply to the game of American football, particularly in the college ranks. Because the offense has the ball, they tend to drive innovations in the college game with defenses drawing up their styles based on countering whatever the offense is doing.

As I noted, it’s already coming simply in the way that the college game revolves so much around the TE position or what sort of player the offense will use after fielding three receivers and a RB. But because defenses orient their “what do we base out of to get our best 11 on the field” questions around the TE position it’s only a matter of time before things progress to offenses moving that question around to other positions or simply attacking defenses for using specialists and sub-packages at all.

College-style hybrids and pro-style hybrids

The concept of positionless football revolves around the use of hybrids that can perform multiples roles with the offense choosing while roles they perform based on the personnel the defense has on the field or the calls the defense is making.

In the college game where things revolve around the run game, typical hybrid players are guys that are good at running or blocking for runners but can also motion out and run routes in the passing game.

The Gus Malzahn school of offense utilizes H-back blockers like Chandler Cox who will sometimes motion out wide to serve as a potential receiver, a perimeter blocker, or just a trigger to make the defense reveal if they’re playing man coverage or not.

He’s a blocker first and foremost, but he can credibly do enough other things to allow the Tigers to move him around in order to clear up the picture for their QB (or the guy in the booth).

Similarly, the Urban Meyer school of offense regularly uses a position they also confusingly refer to as the “H-back” which is what they call their “Percy Harvin-type” player. A “receiver” who’s really more of a flex RB or pitch man that gets the ball in space on screens, pitches, sweeps, and occasionally runs from the backfield. They’ll also run him down the field on vertical routes but he sees the field for what he can do with the ball in his hands in space, not what he can do in terms of presenting a target in the dropback passing game.

Pro-style hybrids are guys that are excellent receivers first but who can do other things if you don’t respect their receiving talent. Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots is an obvious example, Belichick will isolate him out wide as a receiver as often as he’ll put his hand in the dirt on the line because Gronk’s ability to create matchup problems in the passing game is his primary usefulness to the Pats. Christian McCaffrey has the potential to push this same sort of deployment to the RB position via his ability to run good option routes.

Texas high school power Lake Travis regularly uses a speedy WR with the ability to run the ball from the backfield at RB so they can motion him out wide and either throw it to him deep if the defense sends a LB after him or throw it to the WR if the CB switches to the RB and leaves the WR to a LB. Although Lake Travis is a HS program that’s a pro-style tactic.

For either college-style or pro-style offenses, hybrids accomplish two exceptionally useful goals. The first is obviously creating matchups for the offense, the true dual-threat TE can run routes on big, downhill LBs and block long, rangy safeties, guaranteeing that the defense is always at a matchup disadvantage. The second is giving away the game on defense. The major way this tends to be accomplished is with H-back or RB motion.

The unbeatable game of hybrids in motion

Here’s a common example, offenses love to flex out a good receiving TE (Y on this diagram) and line up in a trips (3x1) formation that weights the strength of the offense to one side.

One of the defining characteristics of a given anti-spread defense is how they respond to a formation like this one. They have to balance three different challenges: 1) keeping their linebackers in or near enough the box to stop the run, 2) preventing quick easy throws to the flex TE or otherwise being outnumbered to the field by tricky route combos, and 3) accomplishing all of that without leaving that solo-side Z receiver isolated 1-on-1 because that’s often where the offense will place their most dangerous target.

Most defenses only have a handful of ways to defend something like this and will often rely on disguise between those different coverages to prevent the offense from knowing where they intend to weigh their strength. But now if that RB is capable of also flexing out and running routes...

Whether the defense was playing man or zone coverage, the game is up because if it’s man one of those LBs is going to have to chase the RB out wide and if it’s zone then the CB will have to bump outside and cover the RB, leaving that dangerous Z matched up on a LB.

A defense will tend to have a similarly small handful of ways to counter this kind of formation and their ability to disguise it is grievously compromised when the offense motions to this set at the line of scrimmage right before the snap.

If the team is loaded up with hybrids, the defense is in serious trouble now. If the QB is a dual-threat than the emptying the box of linebackers leaves the defense exposed to a QB run, if the Z and Y receivers are some of the better route runners on the team than it’s hard to maintain good matchups on them without giving the game away by dropping safeties down and playing obvious man coverage. Now, even if your matchups are positive, you have out-execute the best players on offense running route combinations designed to beat man coverage. And if the RB is a legit hybrid who can run good vertical routes? The defense is really in a bind now, there’s too many threats to account for at once and their ability to rely on disguise to prevent the offense from zeroing in on their weaknesses is thwarted by the offense’s use of motion.

So when does this become a primary strategy somewhere?

Most teams will employ these kinds of strategies when and where they can, examples like the one above are common enough, but very few teams have skill players with enough versatility to execute this as the foundation of their offensive strategy.

It’s more common to see teams with a single dual-threat TE or a single, upperclassmen WR who’s good enough to be moved around hunting the best matchups. The hybrid RB typically bounces between playing slot or RB and he’s normally used as a way to attack the perimeter in conjunction with a dual-threat QB rather than a way to blister coverages choices by the defense. Using hybrids in the run game is a pretty simple and straightforward path, even though most teams tend to rely on specialists, using hybrids in the dropback passing game is more difficult. Even though hybrids make a dropback passing game much simpler and more deadly, it still necessitates some very well developed route runners, a savvy and accurate QB, and an OL that can protect at at least a B level.

It appears as though the step towards a full embrace of hybridized offense is going to come from teams that can and do regularly recruit lots of tight ends. We’ve seen this sort of approach start to peak its head in recent years from the Jim Harbaugh Michigan offense with it’s multiple TE sets, the 2017 Oklahoma Sooners with their 21 personnel spread, and recently from the Washington Huskies.

One of the big challenges facing the Huskies this past year was replacing WR John Ross from their 2016 playoff team. He was the focal point of their offense that season due to his breathtaking speed (ended up running a 4.22 at the combine) and there was no one on the roster that could replace him. However, they did end up finding an abundance of quality TEs on their roster thanks to the emergence of freshman Hunter Bryant over the course of the season.

Both Bryant and senior Will Dissly were capable receivers while junior Drew Sample was a half-decent receiver and a formidable blocker, so the Huskies starting mixing in some 13 personnel (one RB, three TEs) and threw that at the Penn State Nittany Lions in the Fiesta Bowl.

The package was still pretty minimal and undeveloped for the Huskies, here they are using it to create space for WR Aaron Fuller to run a quick out while the OL and TEs are blocking on an RPO. They also mixed it in for some other play-action, RPOs, and screens.

Michigan tends to be more committed to this approach but last season they lacked both the consistency at QB and the B level protection from their young OL to execute it at a high level. Both Michigan and Washington have approached this style but they’ve only dabbled and they’ve approached it mostly from the perspective of stockpiling TEs and using as many of them as possible, although Michigan has also tended to flex out their RBs and FBs, if only for the purpose of ID’ing coverages and creating matchups for their WRs like in our example diagrammed above.

So what would it take to have an offensive system fully committed to positionless football?

Above all else, it would require a major commitment to development. Teams that feature true dual-threat TEs typically have to recruit them in large numbers and rely on their upperclassmen at the position to really execute the vision. Many teams understandably balk at building a team strategy around hybrid TEs because they are difficult to find, difficult to develop, and exceptionally valuable to the NFL which depends on them so you run the risk of investing a redshirt and two years of development for a single year of play before they jump ship for a payday.

Of course what Chris Peterson always found at Boise State and now at Washington is that a 2/3-star recruit who actually becomes effective as a blocker and decent running routes can be a boon to the entire offense if he’s not worthy of featuring as a primary target. There’s no reason more teams couldn’t build out a strategy around utilizing guys who can execute multiple roles at the college level without possessing NFL attributes.

The switch could really flip if and when a team determined to pursue this strategy will fullbacks. Finding guys to play TE who are > 6-2, 230 that can run fluidly, block on the line, and catch is challenging. Finding willing blockers with that can run better than 5.0 in the 40, learn to run routes, catch the ball if open, and come in at 6-1, 230 or better? Well, that’s another story.

You see the dirty secret of college passing games and even defensive coverage strategies is that many of the guys out there running routes or doing exactly that and little more. If you’re using motion and spread formations to create clear, identifiable matchups for your top WRs then many of the other skill players are just running distracto-routes meant to hold defenders more than anything. For instance, on the New England Patriots’ dreaded hoss y-juke play:

The QB is throwing a hitch or seam route only if the defense is blatantly disregarding them, so why couldn’t it be FBs or blocking-oriented TEs running those routes? Now imagine this coming from a big formation from a team utilizing a dual-threat QB, a hybrid RB, and a pair of bruising blockers with decent hands, that tends to line up in formations like this:

Assume F is a fullback in the Chandler Cox mold and Y is another fullback-type in the mold of a Dmitri Flowers (OU hybrid FB). Obviously those are both great players but neither are remarkably rare and while Cox was a four-star, many teams regularly find guys of this sort from the walk-on ranks.

Initially the defense is going to be worried about getting “three over two” to the side of the slot and let’s assume that Z is the sole dangerous route running athlete on this team. Since our hypothetical offense has a dual-threat QB and two blockers on the field the defense is going to be making calls focused on stopping option runs and downhill runs paired with pass-options to the Z receiver on the perimeter. But then the offense shifts...

First the QB sends the fullback out wide to the twin receiver side. Now the defense has to make a check and adjustment and their players are probably thinking primarily about the threat of a quick screen to Z or X behind that fullback’s block paired with a run and that’s probably in the playbook for our hypothetical team. But then the QB sends the RB out wide to the boundary.

How many checks and adjustments does the defense have for this? And now the offense is in position to run hoss y-juke isolating their one great WR, or any other number of route combos in which they want to get the ball to Z matched up on a safety or linebacker.

The defense can’t just let the fullbacks run down the field uncovered, they have little choice but to draw up a coverage to double the Z with a safety and LB while playing man coverage elsewhere and also risking exposure to a QB run or draw that’s either attached as an option or called as a predetermined read.

Dropback passing and option routes are hard, but when you only need to execute them at one or two WR positions and you can make things exceptionally easy and straightforward for the QB in capitalizing on the matchup then high-level, pro-style concepts can become accessible to even less talented teams. The more hybrids an offense can put on the field the easier things get for the star players who may be specialists such as the RB or one of the WRs.

After this, another big tweak could come from a team using only three or four “pure” OL and then three or four TEs that could rotate between blocking in-line and lining up as eligible receivers. Figuring out how to adjust to motion when RBs and FBs are motioning around would be hard enough on defenses before having to keep track of which OL are eligible.

The execution of positionless football will probably come when a smaller team is committed to recruiting and developing lots of solid, versatile players without worrying up having bluechip athletes at multiple spots (although they’d still need a few or else there’s no one to benefit). This will probably come at a G5 level or with an FCS team, indeed many of them such as Boise State and now even North Dakota State are already headed in this direction. Then that team would need to commit fully to an approach that uses versatility and motion to hunt out easy matchups and reads for the offense. From there it’s only a matter of time before it trickles up to the blue blood programs.