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Return of the fullback, part IV: The FB/QB hybrid

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Evolving tactics are leading to QBs increasingly owning the role as the “dive” running fullback in spread-option offenses.

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Texas Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Inside running has long been the lifeblood of great college football teams. The main reason that the spread came into vogue was because it simplified the process of running the ball between the tackles. However, over time even some of the power-oriented spread teams have evolved to treat the run game as a constraint, looking primarily to throw the ball to the perimeter or down the field where homeruns are easier to come by.

In this regard, these teams are similar to the triple-option teams of yore that would first threaten the interior gaps with a fullback dive before moving on to the real prize of the option play to the perimeter. Much like how modern defenses are starting to adjust to take away the pass before worrying about the run, defenses back then figured out that it was better to try and endure the pounding of the FB dive over allowing the possibility of being flanked by the pitch.

Thus far this series on the “return of the fullback” has centered around the importance of the blocking FB from the old I-formation days of football. Part one centered around how teams were starting to use the position in spread formations, part two touched on the evolution of the “H-back” who was really a TE/FB hybrid, and part three explained who and why the use of the fullback-esque H-back had become mainstream across the game. There aren’t many college teams nowadays that don’t use an H-back to allow them to diversify their spread run game concepts to include two-back runs and to allow a hat on every defender in a nickel front.

But none of these evolutions in the game really capture the role played by fullbacks in the triple-option offenses of old. Steve Worster, the Texas star GIF’d above, did his share of blocking like everyone else in those days, but he also was the teams’ leading ballcarrier and the second leading rusher for the title-winning Longhorns.

For smashmouth spread teams looking to mix two-back runs with vertical passing off RPOs and play-action, the main RB serves as the “option fullback” that takes on the role of hitting the inside track in the run game. While these teams are still option-oriented with the “pitch” coming on the quick RPO toss off the threat of the RB inside run, they tend to owe at least as much of their influence to the I-formation as they do to the triple-option with the H-back “I-formation fullback” as the stronger influence.

But for modern spread-option teams that still owe a lot to the old triple-option offense, the role the “dive” fullback is coming to be owned by the most unlikely of candidates...the quarterback.

Tim Tebow

College football was captivated by the success of the Urban Meyer Florida Gators with their power-spread offense in the 2000s, particularly when it was led by the ultra-unique Tim Tebow. The obviously unique element of the Tebow Gators was the fact that their QB was a powerful ballcarrier between the tackles.

The idea of using your QB, who even in the Florida offense had a lot of responsibility in the passing game, as a battering ram was fairly unique. Urban Meyer was heavily influenced in this by Bill Snyder and the Kansas State offense, but his application of that system to the spread sets pushed things forward. It was hardly accepted before Tebow that the spread could work in the SEC, particularly a spread system that asked the QB to lower his shoulder into the line of scrimmage 15 times or more every game.

One of the main changes Tebow’s Gators brought to the classic option formula was the consolidation of the dive player and triggerman roles into one. For instance, here were the 1969 Texas Longhorns:

1969 Texas Longhorn backfield

Position Player Production
Position Player Production
Quarterback James Street: 5-11, 175 76 carries, 412 yards, 5.4 ypc, 5 TDs
Fullback Steve Worster: 6-0, 208 136 carries, 649 yards, 4.8 ypc, 9 TDs
H-back (pitch) Jim Bertelsen: 5-11, 197 104 carries, 740 yards, 7.1 ypc, 13 TDs
H-back (blocker) Ted Koy: 6-2, 212 84 carries, 441 yards, 5.3 ypc, 4 TDs

QB James Street made the decisions but for the most part he was either handing off the Worster downhill, running behind Koy off-tackle, or pitching to Bertelsen. They gave Street’s path the lead blocking escort from the biggest member of the backfield to make that the choice opponents would be least likely to choose from the option menu. Sure enough, he got the fewest carries of any of the starters in the backfield.

Here were the 2007 Florida Gators in the season in which Tim Tebow won the Heisman trophy:

2007 Florida Gators backfield

Position Player Production
Position Player Production
Quarterback Tim Tebow: 6-3, 235 210 carries, 895 yards, 4.3 ypc, 23 TDs
Running back Kestahn Moore: 5-11, 207 104 carries, 580 yards, 5.6 ypc, 6 TDs
H-back (pitch) Percy Harvin: 5-10, 187 83 carries, 764 yards, 9.2 ypc, 6 TDs
H-back (blocker) Eric Rutledge: 5-11, 253 Blocking only

Tebow was the dive player AND the triggerman, Rutledge was the blocking escort, Moore was the off-tackle guy and Harvin was the pitch-man (also had another 800 receiving yards).

What stood out about those Tebow Gator teams was how they were able to surround Tebow with a variety of different skill sets and truly unleash Harvin on the perimeter in spread sets because they didn’t HAVE to put many blockers or even use a RB at all in order to threaten the interior gaps with power running. However, the obstacle to prevent this from catching on elsewhere was the fact that at 235 pounds with 38.5” vertical, Tebow brought a skill set which wasn’t obviously replicable.

Andy Dalton and the “inverted veer”

Nowadays the “inverted veer” play is more properly referred to as “the power-read” play since it’s your basic gap scheme set-up but with the unblocked play side DE being read on an option rather than getting kicked out by a fullback or pulling guard.

TCU at the time (under Justin Fuente) were early adopters if not originators of the scheme and they’d use it to bolster their spread run game:

Dalton was a four year starter at TCU and ran the ball around 100 times per year, often on this play. Teams had a tough choice back then trying to work out whether to take away the inside run like defenses have typically done or to over play the edge to prevent RBs like Ed Wesley or Matthew Tucker from turning the corner on the sweep and consequently give up easy yardage up the middle from Dalton. What’s notable is how effective this scheme was for the Frogs despite Dalton being less athletic and smaller (though still about 220 with a 29” vertical) than Tebow.

Of course in 2010, a few years into Dalton’s run at TCU, the play was brought to national attention by the amazing success of Cam Newton at Auburn. But while that brought greater notoriety to the scheme and the concept of using a powerful, downhill runner at QB, it still brought up the same questions since at 6-5, 248 with a 35” vertical Newton was another freak athlete unlikely to be found on a regular basis.

For spread teams everywhere the question was coming up that if the goal of the offense is to hit home runs by getting the ball in space, what might teams be able to get away with in terms of using tough but less athletic QBs to serve as the inside runners?

Bill Snyder continued to work off this formula at Kansas State with big success utilizing Collin “Optimus” Klein, a 6-5, 225 pound warrior (29” vertical) who had 317 carries in 2011 and 207 more in 2012 while leading the Wildcats to a Big 12 championship. As soon as Snyder finds another starting QB that can hold up under the punishment the Wildcats will probably be primed for another shot at the league title.

Former Urban Meyer OC Dan Mullen started to load up Mississippi State with more big QBs that could run between the tackles such as Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald, which led to him earning the nod to take back over at Florida. Urban Meyer still utilizes the trick at Ohio State and the J.T. Barrett IV era (which I recently suggested was actually somewhat limited), regularly made use of Barrett’s toughness and inside running to control the ball and pound opponents. If not for Barrett’s capacity as a tough runner, the Barrett era probably wouldn’t have happened at all and he would have been replaced by a better passer.

Meanwhile, there have been further evolutions in the spread run game that are actually driving things further in this direction. In particular, further developments down the path of the “power-read” play are demonstrating that making the QB the “dive” player in the option offense might not only be an increasingly efficient tactic but even the best practice.

More on that in part V.