Clear Eyes, Fullbacks, Can’t Lose

fullbacksThe fullback position is probably about as glamorous as the stand holding up your computer monitor. Or maybe the hinge connecting your laptop together, if you’re using one of those instead. And if you’ve got some stupid laptop that has a detachable screen, screw you—you’re proving my point.

Forget that when the general public thinks of iconic football positions, they probably start off at quarterback and slowly move their way down past kicker before listing a fullback. Hell, some places don’t even bother to differentiate them from running backs. Many modern offenses have moved away from having a fullback in their system. Some find it unnecessary or a “dinosaur” of the football world.

Well, I’m here to tell you that football history would probably tell you otherwise. Georgia Tech is still a thing and they’re running some wonky triple option hobo plays out of the flexbone “older than your dad’s dad’s dad” formation. Surely a position like fullback wouldn’t be phased out so easily.

Funny anecdote: former UCLA running back, Derrick Coleman, was recruited by Pete Carroll to play fullback at USC. Coleman opted to go to UCLA because he wanted to play running back. Years later, Coleman eventually found his way to Seattle where Carroll was now head coach. Carroll made Coleman switch to fullback.

Eat your vegetables. Look both ways before crossing the street. Play fullback.

You know what team might not be playing a fullback in the near future? Duh, USC.

The two fullbacks on the roster are redshirt senior Soma Vainuku and senior Jahleel Pinner. Barring some weird circumstances, they will both be gone after the 2015 football season. The strange part is that Steve Sarkisian has not signed a single fullback during his tenure as head coach. He has seemingly not recruited any either.

Evidence that he is trying to phase out the position doesn’t end there. He has been reducing the number of plays utilizing a fullback in favor of split back, pistol, or even empty formations. Furthermore, he lines up his “fullbacks” in running back or even receiver positions.

He has used fewer power runs with a fullback leading block. However, most of these plays worked well when he ran them. Perhaps that is because the offensive personnel is still greatly leaning towards a “pro-style” offense rather than a hurry-up, no huddle spread out of the pistol. If Sarkisian chooses to continue moving the offense in that direction, it’ll only take a recruiting cycle or two more to change the offense’s identity.

But I argue that he should not go that route. I’m even generous enough to explain my reasoning beyond ESPN user comments of “SARK IZ DUMB!1!!1ONE.”

With so many teams using more and more spread out formations, there is value in using less common tactics and plays. A team’s defensive staff only has a limited amount of time to install a defense and prepare for a particular opponent. For example, if eight of the Pac-12 teams are using an air raid offense, a defensive coordinator would probably drill in defensive plays designed to stop that. If USC decided to become the 9th team to install an air raid offense all of a sudden, that would only help opposing defenses to be less spread thin on preparation.

Ever wonder how some random team running a weird offense can upset some big teams? A large contributing factor is that the higher ranked team couldn’t spend as much time preparing for such a niche problem. They were probably hoping the talent differential would overcome any preparation deficiencies. Meanwhile, the lower ranked team was probably looking at it like the freaking Super Bowl and studying the crap out of their opponent.

USC is usually the team that everyone is gunning for, which is more reason not to play such a common offense. Don’t make defensive coordinators’ jobs easier. Most other teams aren’t even capable of running plays that utilize a fullback well. Teams with spread formations sought to take advantage of good athletes on the outside while having traditionally smaller and less capable blockers. They had to find a schematic advantage when they couldn’t recruit the same kind of huge linemen and players that college football blue bloods like Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, USC, etc. could (yeah, yeah, I know some of them have started switch to spread offenses).

Since USC can get these kinds of guys, they should play to their strengths and against everybody else’s. Using a fullback on more plays doesn’t mean that their offense would be devoid of versatility. The potential for trick plays and offensive wrinkles is still there. Instead of just running down the middle with the running back on 3rd and short or trying a QB sneak, throw a fullback dive in your arsenal. A fullback doesn’t just have to be a blocker on passing plays either. If they recruit a good athlete to the position, they can have him make key catches as well. The Trojan offense was bailed out many times on third down by surprise plays like former fullback, Stanley Havili catching out of the backfield.

Here’s another funny anecdote: who helped recruit Havili? None other than Sarkisian. Maybe I’m just being overly dramatic and Sark has plans. Plans like converting one of the twenty tight ends that he picked up during the offseason to fullback. It worked well when Kiffin converted Rhett Ellison to fullback preceding the 2011 season. Either way, the demise of the position is greatly exaggerated.

CommBro Breaker

Apparently none of the kids these days eat their vegetables or look both ways before crossing. And none of them play fullback. Maybe Sark just sees the writing on the wall—or lack of writing on his Facebook wall from fullback prospects. Just poke around a recruiting website to see how dismally few fullback recruits are around.