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Return of the fullback, part V: Why the QB is becoming a FB

The proliferation of deadly spread tactics that utilize the QB as an inside runner are having the inevitable effect of leading to QB/FB hybrids.

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Arkansas Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

While the Tim Tebow Florida Gators were undoubtedly the big breakthrough for the FB/QB hybrid, Cam Newton brought some permanence to the concept with his play at Auburn in 2010. Naturally he was actually set up to be Tebow’s eventual successor at Florida but was suspended due to off the field issues, which led to his union with Gus Malzahn and perhaps an even greater impact on the game of football.

As I noted in part IV, Auburn helped popularize the ubiquitous power-read play but they actually had a variety of different concepts for running the ball with Newton that didn’t include any reads.

They ran GT counter, the buck sweep, and straight QB power for Newton with the intention of featuring him as the only runner on the play:

This looks like the power-read play but Newton isn’t reading the kick-out defender, instead the H-back is blocking him. Auburn runs the read action to try and split the Alabama defense but their intention is to run Newton straight ahead behind the H-back and pulling guard. Of course as it happens, Alabama blitzes the play and Newton ends up bouncing it outside and picking up a block from the sweeping RB.

Since Newton’s magical 2010 season there’s been an expansion of the QB spread run game with more and more teams mixing in different plays and concepts to utilize the QB as an inside runner.

Late in the 2010 season, and then moreso in 2011 and 2012, Kansas State really captured and expanded the idea of a QB/FB hybrid by utilizing Collin Klein in a variety of old school and modern option schemes. I think the enduring memory for most fans who witnessed “Optimus” Klein run the ball 600 times over three years for 2493 yards (4.2 per carry) and 56 touchdowns is that of Klein patiently running behind double teams and FB inserts and slowly but surely churning out yardage with his long legs:

Since those days, the QB run game has continued to develop in a few different directions but with an overall purpose of moving closer and closer to mimicking the role of a fullback in old school, triple-option attacks. Indeed, it’s basically becoming a best practice for the following three reasons.

1. A FB/QB offers personnel flexibility

Dan Mullen figured out at Mississippi State that Tebow’s inside running ability was at least as important a factor in the success of their scheme as was anything else. The Bulldogs took off under Mullen’s direction once they plugged in the 6-2, 240 pound Dak Prescott at QB. Prescott led the team in carries for two consecutive seasons and also allowed them a high degree of flexibility in how they staffed the various five skill positions around him.

At RB they rolled with 5-9, 215 pound slasher Josh Robinson in 2014 and then with 5-8, 165 pound scat back Brandon Holloway in 2015. It wasn’t essential to have a main RB that could carry the ball between the tackles because Prescott already had that on lock down. They could also flood the field with four or five receiver sets and create major dilemmas for defenses trying to keep everyone covered up without conceding inside running lanes for Prescott.

Once Prescott went off to the NFL it looked like the party was over in Starkville but then Mullen elevated young Nick Fitzgerald to the starting role and made the QB run game an even greater feature of the offense.

2. The FB/QB offers a path to ball control

There are two paths to being a team that wants to control the ball with the run game. One is to be a team that uses multiple TEs and FBs on the field to guarantee that the offense can get a hat on every defender up front and guarantee positive gains.

If the offense is in 22 personnel with a FB and two TEs then they can guarantee double teams on the DL and it’s simply a question of whether the defense can get off blocks in time to stop the march from scoring points and draining clock. This is a decreasingly popular strategy because it’s hard to match an up-tempo spread team that scores quickly by running a “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense. It only works if the defense is taking advantage of the frequent breaks and forcing punts OR the offense is gashing the defense because the proliferation of the spread has resulted in a squad that allows a grinding, “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense to instead be explosive.

That’s essentially how Matt Rhule’s Temple team won the AAC in 2016 against USF. The plan was probably to play defense and control the clock but they ended up winning a shootout when USF couldn’t stop their 22 personnel package from running the ball.

The other way to control the ball is from the spread offense with a running QB. As Ohio State found with JT Barrett, even in games where they weren’t explosive it was hard to stop them from picking up third down after third down by running Barret inside from spread sets with option plays or direct QB runs.

So if you want to maintain the ability to light up the scoreboard with the advantages of the spread offense in getting athletes into space BUT you also want to be able to run the ball and play situational football you need a QB that can run the ball. On RPOs and spread-option plays the defense can choose for you where the ball will go and make execution of third and two about completing a pass against man coverage. On a QB power run like the ones above for Newton or Klein the only choice for defenses is to beat blocks at the point of attack and bring the man down.

3. The tactics for running the QB inside are improving

Direct snap QB runs were bad enough when Cam Newton, Collin Klein, or even Johnny Manziel were running them early this decade. The former two were hard to tackle if you couldn’t hit them before they built up momentum and the latter guy was hard to tackle if he had any space at all in which to dart around in.

The “Gulf Coast offense” and other spread-option attacks have upped the ante even more by adding QB pass options to those runs on RPOs. Oklahoma’s QB GT counter/RB bubble play is one of the nastier concepts football has seen recently and I’m sure we’ll see it more now that they have speedster Kyler Murray poised to replace Baker Mayfield at QB:

By switching up traditional roles of who attacks the perimeter and who attacks downhill, offenses can really muck up the reads for linebackers. This play sends them two contradictory signals, one is to get wide to stop that RB bubble play before the FB cuts off their path, the other is to get to the other end often formation before the pulling OL cut them off from making the tackle against the GT counter run.

Further in that vein are the BASH runs (back away series) that have proven devastating for unleashing athletic backs on the perimeter.

These BASH concepts are particularly likely to change the game and make FBs out of more QBs in the future. On your standard zone-read play that propelled the modern spread-option offense the QB was reading an unblocked defender and then looking to get wide and around him if he stepped inside to stop the RB. The problem that teams encountered was defenses training their athletic DEs to step inside with square shoulders and reduce the options for either the QB keeper on the perimeter or the inside zone path for the RB.

By staying in a contain position a laterally quick DE could make the QB keeper a risky proposition, leading to a handoff. But then if the back wanted to bend the inside zone run back into the cutback lane it wasn’t hard for the DE to eliminate that lane since he was unblocked.

BASH runs switch up the pathways so that the RB is receiving the ball to hit the perimeter as the “constraint” player while the QB is the inside runner. Essentially it’s the power-read mesh but applied to a wide variety of different run schemes. The footwork is much more natural and easy for both players and a DE staying home like the Iowa player above can’t reasonably stop the RB sweep with a slow play designed to stop a traditional zone-read scheme. Barkley and plenty of other RBs have shown they can run right by that guy if he doesn’t overplay the outside run, much like the jet sweep players in Matt Canada’s run game.

Meanwhile it’s totally normal for the inside runner to have an initial hesitation step or read to set up blocks before accelerating downhill, which is a natural movement from the standstill mesh point position of the QB on shotgun read plays.

Most teams use BASH runs to mix things up and protect the rest of their spread-option playbook but there’s good reason to believe that they should be more of a base concept than a constraint that teams mix in. Many of the teams that used these concepts effectively last year did so with QBs that you wouldn’t necessarily want to utilize regularly as inside runners. Milton McKenzie (5-11, 177) ran the ball about 100 times each of the last two years, often on schemes like this, Trace McSorley (6-0, 195) and Baker Mayfield (6-1, 210) each did likewise at Penn State and Oklahoma.

Next season Joe Moorhead will take this offense to Mississippi State with Nick Fitzgerald (6-5, 230) and perhaps we’ll see what might happen if the QB “dive option” on BASH runs and RPOs is fleshed out into the base of the offense.

The big point that will continue to drive evolution here is that if inside runs and gains can be achieved in the spread by players with reasonable quickness, good vision, and the toughness and knowhow to run behind blockers and pads, why not allow the QB to handle that role while athletes with superior speed focus on stressing the defense in space? If smaller QBs like McSorley can hold up running the ball 100 times a year in the Big 10 what might be possible for experienced inside runners like 230 pound Nick Fitzgerald or 230 pound Texas QB Sam Ehlinger?

In an era where more and more high school QBs are getting high level skill development at earlier ages, we’re seeing an increasing variety of physical types getting in on the signal-caller action. Including guys that probably would have been featured fullbacks in another age.