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What’s next for the RB position in the spread era?

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The inevitable “pass to set up the run” paradigm of the spread offense and the hybridization of skill talent has a lot of ramifications for the RB position in the coming years.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Ohio State vs Wisconsin Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

I noted the other week that the era of the bell cow RB is just about over because of inevitable evolutions that have stemmed from the mainstream adoption of the spread offense. Here’s been the flow of tactical adaptation across the college game:

Step 1: Offenses started to spread defenses out in order to create more space to run the ball.

Step 2: Offenses started adding QB keep options (zone-read and subsequent read plays) from the shotgun to allow them to not only run on a spread out defense but to threaten them with two different points of attack at the same time and increase the horizontal stress.

Step 3: Offenses started adding QB throw options (RPOs) from the shotgun to their running plays, creating two or three potential points of attack and even more greatly increasing the amount of space.

Step 4: Offenses started adding vertical QB throw options and POP passes.

Once we reached steps three and four, the upshot of this is that an RPO spread team can often expect to be facing either man coverage or pattern-matching/zone defenses utilizing cover downs on their receivers, including the inside WRs. A cover down means that a player like a nickel will read his pass key (the slot) first, even on a running play. He’ll aim to take away the quick pass option from the QB before joining the pursuit of the RB. The defense has basically acknowledged the tacit assertion by the offense that you have to stop the pass first before worrying about the run.

Vertical RPOs are still feasible but they can be difficult because you’re trying to beat man coverage within the window of time afforded by run blocking. But, if you already have an offensive system that requires defenses to play man coverage or match receivers, you don't really need RPOs anymore. You can take the deep shot behind real pass protection with check downs and reads. Combine that with the increasing skill level of QBs and WRs coming up from the HS ranks and...

Step 5: Offenses began to gear their attacks around punishing man/match coverage with hybrids and matchup problems.

We are very early into Step 5 at the college level. Alabama fully embraced step 4 in 2018 after elevating Tua Tagovailoa to the starting role and got beat by a team that has already taken step 5. The issue here though is that teams are starting to see that throwing the ball around is more than a constraint on the run game. It can be the primary emphasis of an offense.

Step 5 and an ensuing embrace of the spread passing offense is going to mean that teams won’t have as much need to feature a really strong ballcarrier as a regular part of the offense. If your offensive strategy is primarily geared around creating matchups and throwing the ball around then you’re going to want your best athletes focusing on exactly that, not taking hand-offs in the event that a defense floods the passing lanes with coverage defenders.

At any rate, dime and DB-heavy defense is proving a good way to limit the effectiveness of the run game anyways so there’s not a point in sight in which the emphasis flips back to the run game save for situationally like short-yardage or the red zone.

So here are two positional types that we may start to see as teams move away only only from the feature back offense but the feature back model at the RB position.

The fullback

By fullback I mean a big dive runner who is also solid as a blocker. For instance, Clemson spent a lot of the title game with Adam Choice on the field at RB over Travis Etienne. Why? Because Choice is older, stouter (5-9/220), and more well versed and experienced in their pass protection sets. That proved crucial in giving Trevor Lawrence time to deliver some of the crushing strikes against the Bama D:

Choice was very solid in the Clemson run game but also thickly built and experienced in pass protection, so he was often more valuable to their game-winning effort than the explosive Travis Etienne because his skill set complimented the passing game that was putting the winning points on the board.

Art Briles’ Baylor and some of the subsequent “veer and shoot” offenses were sort of trending in this direction. The ultra wide receiver splits of that offense and the lethal deep choice routes and perimeter throws forced defenses to play the pass first, leading to lighter boxes and generous space off tackle for backs to hit with square shoulders. Sturdier guys like Terence Ganaway (6-0/240, 1457 yards and 21 TDs for Baylor in 2011), D’Onta Foreman (6-1/245, 2028 yards and 15 TDs for Texas in 2016), and Devin Singletary (5-9/200, 1918 yards and 32 TDs for FAU in 2017) ran wild in that scheme. They even put their RBs in charge of setting protections rather than the QB.

As teams get lighter and faster to combat spread concepts, it stands to reason that the kind of RB you want to utilize to make them pay for it is going to be a big power back that can run through arm tackles from safeties. Especially if that same guy can be a plus pass protector that stuffs lethal inside pressures from DTs and stunting LBs.

The RB/WR hybrid

This is already a position that exists in the college game but there’s a chance that it could change considerably in the coming years. In the past this was a designation that often mean a RB-type athlete who was lethal with the ball in his hands but wasn’t big and powerful enough to hold up to running the ball between the tackles so he was best utilized in space.

The “Percy Harvin-type” designation was often applied in this direction. At 5-11/184 Harvin wasn’t the right fit for Florida’s power run game and they had Tim Tebow (and some RBs) for that anyways. Harvin posted the following stats as a sophomore and junior as a key mandible in the Gator chomp:

Percy Harvin at Florida

Year Rushing production Receiving production
Year Rushing production Receiving production
Sophomore (2007) 83-764 yards, 9.2 ypc, 6 TDs 59-858 yards, 4 TDs
Junior (2008) 70-660 yards, 9.4 ypc, 10 TDs 40-644 yards, 7 TDs

Harvin would come into the box at times to be the feature back in Florida’s run game but it was limited, the Gators essentially treated it like the QB run game. Something to mix in to great effect but not something they could lean on as the meat and potatoes of the offense because of Harvin’s lack of size. Even with this limited work load he was often limited with injuries and wasn’t even active for Florida’s SEC title victory over Alabama in 2008.

The Gators also threw the ball to Harvin to great effect, generally around 3-4 times a game vs the 6-8 carries they liked to feed him. Now imagine a team with multiple hybrids seeing that sort of distribution based on the matchups against a given opponent.

When you watch the high school game these days, teams tend to play their best athletes at whichever of QB or RB is the most dangerous athlete, save for at the increasing number of schools which are now executing high level passing attacks. It’s been an easy trick for a long time for smaller schools (TCU) to find high level athletes by recruiting QBs and RBs from smaller HS programs and converting them into DBs, LBs, etc. The top skill athletes in a given year in recruiting often double as QBs or RBs for their teams.

If the run game is simple enough then it becomes easier to teach athletes of a broad variety to be successful in the run game, particularly if the run game is set up by the passing game. The Oklahoma rushing attack in 2018 was absolutely lethal but also relatively simple and mostly set up by the passing attack. The Sooners tended to run inside zone, GT counter, and a tackle-pull power play as the main thrust of their run game and they often used it with QB reads against defenses that were playing with lighter boxes out of a need to cover all of their weapons in the passing game.

Over the last two seasons, the Sooners were unlucky enough to have injuries at RB that required them to give four different backs 100 carries or more (including Kyler Murray) without a single one of them getting to 200 carries. All of those backs did tremendous damage with three rushing for 1k yards and the other one (Trey Sermon) rushing for 744 yards at 6.2 ypc with five TDs in 2017 and 947 yards at 5.8 ypc with 13 TDs in 2018.

They were all talented and all running behind a fantastic OL, but the biggest key was that the Sooner offense was designed to create stress on defenses at all levels and then the run game was well designed to punish defenses for overplaying other stresses.

We could eventually see a day when a team has multiple players on the field that have the capability of joining the backfield and running one of a few simple, base schemes. Particularly on teams that have a QB/FB hybrid behind center. A team that can motion multiple WRs around the formation and bring them into the backfield is a nightmare for defenses trying to play by man coverage or matchup rules.

What is a defense to do when multiple guys of the five main skill players and QB could execute a downhill run on the right matchup? Not much, except rethink the paradigm, because where that would really cause havoc on defenses is when they try to scheme and matchup to deny the run against a team of hybrids that can beat a good matchup over the top. Hypothetically, let’s say a team likes to use hybrid personnel that includes two guys labelled here as “H” that are superb athletes that also know how to carry the ball from the RB position.

It becomes very easy for them to create major matchup problems for the defense with simple motions:

From this motion the offense could have a few auto-check calls. If the defense had their LB chase the H out wide, they run the H on a go route and make that weak side LB (W) prove he can flip his hips and run with him.

If the defense instead maintained their structure rather than the matchups and treated the X as the new slot with the CB bumping out to take the hybrid, then the offense could auto-check to a perhaps even more lethal slot fade:

One way or the other, the defense can be overstressed by the vertical route matchups to the extent that they’re either playing DBs at linebacker or else staying in a two-high coverage. In either event, the offense can then turn back to the traditional path of working a simplified run game against a lighter box. Or worse, just continue to fling the ball around but with precision calls designed to bust the coverages they can dictate with the matchup problems they’re causing.

The name of the game now is using the pass to set up the run and as more offenses adapt that style and defenses adjust to that paradigm, these are the sorts of ramifications it will have for the RB position. It’ll become a role rather than a specialization with multiple players often filling that role for a team, including part-time hybrids.