Glenn Gronkowski is a fullback who plays for Kansas State. I entered his name in one of my two slots for "1st team running backs" on my All-Big 12 ballot. Why, you may ask?
In today's world of college football, the fullback is a marginalized figure. Teams don't go out of their way to find and recruit fullbacks for their teams but often will plug in a 3rd string linebacker, a slow but clever running back, or a walk-on who's eager for punishment. The position's skill set requires as many mental components as physical ones so it's not necessarily important to find athletes with prized traits to man the position.
Consequently, such players don't generate much recruiting buzz, and in today's world of college football coverage if you don't create buzz in recruiting you are climbing uphill to gain recognition in the game.
Additionally, the position has fallen out of favor because one-back offensive philosophies have tremendous influence in the game today, so few people will consider a fullback to be that influential a player.
Of course, fullbacks are finding increased roles for spread teams looking to run the ball with smashmouth tactics. A spread team can find a good fullback invaluable for several reasons:
1. He allows them to insert a blocker anywhere across the line of scrimmage against a spread out front.
It's hard to get defenders to the point of attack quickly if they are spaced out by the offensive formation but it's very easy to get a fullback to the point of attack.
2. He's easier to find and recruit
Whereas a tight end needs to be big and long enough to stretch the seam vertically and tangle with defensive ends, a fullback isn't running many vertical routes and he gets to build up a head of steam before he tries to block a linebacker or defensive lineman. The number of human bodies in existence who can handle the role of a fullback > than the number of human bodies who can handle the roles of a tight end.
If he can handle the ball, you can run some triple option with a fullback. You can do it without one just as easily, but I'm just sayin. You can also run triple-option with the RB as a dive player and a motioning WR as the pitch man but then have a lead blocker on the edge with the fullback. Or pitch it inside to him on shovel option. Fullbacks can fit in with spread-option tactics without a great degree of imagination. Especially if he can run routes to the flat and allow the RB to run around downfield.
4. Extra versatility
Got a running back who's dangerous as a receiver? Got a quarterback who's dangerous as a runner? Having a good blocker in at fullback to do the dirty work of making blocks in the run or pass game can free up these players to pursue their extracurricular activities.
The Big 12 has already seen a few productive fullbacks that were worth even more attention than they received (Trey Millard, Braden Wilson, and Kye Staley all come to mind). While he's the famous little brother of some well known NFL stars and thus less vulnerable to being overlooked, I'm nevertheless determined to do my part and see that Gronk is recognized for all that he offers the Kansas State offense.
What does he offer specifically?
1. Run blocking in the Wildcat offense
The Wildcat offense heavily relies on 3 very effective running plays that require lead blocking from the fullback position:
Zarc (Zone Read with an arc block leading the way for the QB)
This play is nasty because defenses are designed to meet the threat of the running back with fast filling linebackers so they don't necessarily have anyone in great position to beat the fullback's block at a point on the field that would limit the QB's running paths. Jake Waters is a solid runner but he absolutely shredded some people running this concept.
Stretch and Hammer (Lead Zone)
This is basically "Iso" with zone principles executed by the offensive line. Gronk leads the way and takes out an inside linebacker. You'll notice that you can't necessarily key the fullback to know where the ball is going in this offense, though it's not a bad idea to keep an eye on him.
Lead QB Draw
KSU ran this effectively with Sams, who could read the LBs and make the cutback run if they flowed too hard to the fullback, and then added pass reads to run it effectively with the less explosive Waters.
2. Versatility from a spread set
With Gronk in the backfield next to Waters, the Wildcats can use four-WR formations and still have some great 6-man protection options:
It's a sensible reaction to try and blitz KSU when they spread their formations out so that you can prevent them from taking deep shots to the inimitable Tyler Lockett. Well that's hard to do with Gronk back there because his 6-man protections are going to be better than if it's a small RB back there.
Then there's what he offers in the passing game:
Welcome to the nightmarish future of offensive football. You want to send your linebackers hard to the line of scrimmage to meet Gronk's blocks and close off pathways for the KSU runners? Have fun guarding this.
You can expect option plays like that to become even more common across football and in the KSU arsenal in 2014, we'll have to get to that in another post.
Glenn Gronkowski's abilities as a blocker, runner, and receiver allow KSU to unlock a lot of different parts of their playbook that are frankly pretty nasty and terrifying to consider for a defensive coordinator.
Name two Big 12 running backs that present more threats for an offense than Gronk and I'll consider bumping him down. In the meantime, better recognize...