Monday, January 25, 2016

A glossary of modern Big 12 offensive positions

Alrighty, after cataloguing the various positions that you find in the Big 12 on defense, now it's time to talk about offensive players.

Remember, the value here is when a team has complementary parts and players that can fill roles. On defense, you'll sometimes find that a player can fill multiple roles, which has great value both for package versatility, depth, and also the defense's ability to bring disguises so the offense doesn't always know who will be where.

On offense, versatility is an even bigger factor. Many good players can fill multiple positions and, if they can't, they may have very limited value for their team. Let's begin.

Big 12 Offensive positions

The lead tackle

Every team needs at least one legit athlete on the OL that can be the key pass protector, that find and block defenders in space on screens or after releasing off the line, and that can even pull to allow the offense to run schemes like "dart" (like a power run but with the tackle pulling rather than the guard).

If a team has one truly good tackle they're usually in good shape so long as the opposite tackle isn't awful, obviously it's best to have two great ones but tall, athletic, 300+ pound dudes are hard to come by. Usually the team's best OL is the left tackle, unless they have an excellent shorter OL that is playing inside.

Examples: 2015 was a very strong season for tackle play in the Big 12 with Baylor's Spencer Drango standing out in particular. He was a great pass protector and their best lead blocker. Texas and OU are looking strongest here for 2016 with freshman Orlando Brown (redshirt) and Connor Williams (true) returning after very impressive 2015 campaigns.
Everyone's new favorite play, dart. Angle blocks, the RPO element (bubble screen if the outside backer stays in the box), and the best athlete on the OL is the lead blocker

The lead guard

If a team runs gap schemes, they need athletic guards who can find blockers on the run as well, and since most teams run zone and gap schemes it's nice to have one war daddy guard that you can always count on to run behind at key moments.

Examples: Patrick Vahe is this kind of player for Texas now, only a true freshman but already brilliant as a pulling blocker. West Virginia has had some good ones recently as well, much of the rest of the league relies more on zone blocking or the the "dart" concept drawn above.
Everyone's favorite way to unleash a mobile QB, with QB counter opposite a perimeter screen to the RB. However, the pulling guard has to be able to block that DE and ensure a lane for the QB off the double team.

The mauler

For teams that rely on zone blocking, it's not essential to have a guard or tackle who's great at executing lead or kick out blocks but instead they want a guy who can consistently control the DL without a double team, drive them off the line of scrimmage with a double team, or climb up to a LB off a combo block.

Examples: OU's Jonathan Alvarez was good in their outside zone scheme last year and is back in 2016. Texas' Kent Perkins is a massive mauler who can be counted on to create a crease where ever he is on the line. Kansas State's Dalton Risner has the potential to be an outstanding center that the Wildcats rely heavily on in 2016 and beyond.
There's only one double team on this inside zone run so the center needs to be solid at finding the LB while the RG and RT are ideally maulers who are driving the DT and DE off the line.

The obstacle

A Big 12 team is lucky if they have more than one of the above types of players who can consistently be expected to execute lead blocks or maul their opponent no matter who they are lined up against. The rest of the OL are generally just obstacles. Guys that can beat a good DL if working as a double team, that can get in the way and limit penetration, and guys that know how to put their bodies in the way of an opposing pass rush.

Examples: Every program wants every OL on their roster to be an obstacle by the time they're a redshirted upperclassman, such was the case last year for virtually everyone on Kansas State's OL (Whitehair was a lead tackle).
For a diagram just observe any of the examples above and check out the players who aren't specifically mentioned.

The fullback

The rise of the Pistol formation was a really big deal for the spread offense, not just because of the alignment of the QB and RB, but because the pistol offense was all about utilizing a FB and lead plays from the shotgun. It wasn't long before spread teams were realizing that using a fullback was a shot in the arm for the shogtun-based, spread-option offensive run games and an easy one to come by since six-foot, 220 pound guys that love violence are usually not too hard to come by.

The fullback needs to be a guy who's quick, big, smart, and tough enough to help in pass protection, catch the odd pass in the flat as a release valve, and to be a force executing lead blocks, trap blocks, and the all-important kick out block that keys the power run game.

A fullback can be an immensely valuable part of either a zone or power-based spread offense with either a dual-threat QB or a pocket guy.

Examples: Kansas State makes a lot of use out of their fullback and current starter, Winston Dimel, is the best in the league. Oklahoma's Trey Millard (2010-2013) was a phenomenal fullback who could carry the ball, execute lead and trap blocks in their zone schemes, and was a real receiving threat out of the backfield.
As opposed to "counter" where the guard kicks out the end and the FB leads, on "power" the fullback (F) has to open a lane inside the DE by driving him out of the gap. This is probably the hardest block for a fullback, if a team has someone who can consistently execute it they're in business.

The attached (true) tight end

I suspect that if they had their druthers, most spread teams would actually opt to play with a true TE if they consistently had players that could execute both the blocks and the routes the position calls for. However, most of the famous TEs you've heard of are often only average or even poor as blockers, and some of the TEs you haven't heard of are actually the better blockers. It's a demanding position and truly great ones are hard to come by and then leave early for the NFL.

In the Big 12, a true TE needs to be able to at least hold his own when blocking a DE and also to be able to threaten the seam as a receiver.

Examples: There haven't been many of late as most teams are flexing out their good receiving TEs and using their good blocking TEs as H-backs where they can execute multiple blocks. Kansas State still uses a real TE and Travis Tannahill was their last good one though Zach Trujillo was also solid. Jimmay Mundine of Kansas was pretty underrated two years ago.
The big advantage from having a TE who can block a DE without help (H) is that the rest of the OL can combo block both DTs and blow open holes in the middle of the defense. Virtually no Big 12 team has two DTs that can hold up to double teams, especially for a full game.

The H-back

The H-back is basically the same as the fullback only he aligns more as a stand-up TE who can move around from one side of the formation to the other. Some teams will use the H-back primarily as a blocker while other teams will also take advantage of them being off the line and mobile to flex them out wide to run routes. The H-back is often a TE-sized player and is ideally the best of both worlds (TE and FB) but is usually just a glorified fullback.

Examples: Oklahoma State uses Blake Jarwin a good deal in this role, Texas' Caleb Bluiett is probably the class of the league currently in terms of blocking. Iowa State would use EJ Bibbs here at times though he excelled primarily as a receiver.
The most important block for an H-back to master in a zone scheme is the trap or "slice" block of an unblocked DE on a zone run.

The flex TE

Some teams have 6'3"+, 220+ dudes that are match-up nightmares running routes in the middle of the field that aren't necessarily adept at executing a base block or combo block as an attached TE, nor the trap blocks asked of a H-back. In a spread offense, these players can often be protected from particularly challenging blocking assignments and simply asked to execute crack back blocks, perimeter blocks, lead blocks, and arc blocks so they can play on standard downs and be a big target in the middle of the field.

Examples: Iowa State's EJ Bibbs was one of the better flex TEs of recent times, Texas Tech's Jace Amaro was one of the greatest the league has ever seen. OU's Mark Andrews had a very solid 2015 and could have a breakout 2016 season as they look to replace Sterling Shepard.
There's not many better options for running dig routes in the middle of the field between a linebacker and a safety then a tall, sturdy target like a flex TE (H).

The feature back

The feature back is the guy who can stay on the field every down, is the master of the full complement of running plays in the system, and who offenses are looking to get 20-30 touches per game. This guy should be capable in pass protection as well as in running a few routes and catching the ball but the main key is that he knows how to find and help create holes in the run game. There's never a situation where an offense wouldn't say "let's get this guy the ball."

Examples: Samaje Perine of Oklahoma is the feature back of the league right now and one of the better ones we've seen in the last several years. Wendell Smallwood was approaching this and is now looking to be rewarded for his quality and versatility in the NFL. Mike Warren is a feature back who will undoubtedly be asked to shoulder the load in carrying Iowa State out of the cellar.
On a lead zone play like this, the double team has a rather poor chance of getting an OL up to that outside-backer unless the RB can threaten the B-gap to hold that outside-backer before cutting up behind the lead block. This is where a jump step and then first-step acceleration comes into play.

The utility back

There are lots of backs out there who are exceptional in one regard, but lack the total skill set to be a feature back. For instance, the guy who's great at spelling the main back but isn't a guy that can stay on the field every down, the 3rd down protection specialist, or the short-yardage power back who's too plodding to feed between the 20's.

Sometimes a young back is a utility back until he develops the skill set to become a feature back.

Examples: Devin Chafin of Baylor is a solid example of a guy who specializes in short-yardage settings because he's big and runs behind his pads. Winston Dimel of Kansas State is at times a utility back when he's not playing fullback.
Not sure why we don't see this play more often in the Big 12. It's like zone "slice" but instead of leaving a DE unblocked on the edge the offense leaves a tackle unblocked and releases interior OL to the 2nd level while the H-back or FB trap blocks the unsuspecting tackle from the side. Big 12 DL aren't used to worrying about this and the chance to get OGs and OCs on Big 12 linebackers should have more teams salivating.

The flex RB

There are different names for this position with perhaps my favorite being "a Percy Harvin-type." These guys are essentially option pitch-men in an era where offenses have more sophisticated ways to get them the ball in space than with the pitch. The relevant skill set here is of a player who is dominant with the ball already in his hands, like a running back, rather than a player who is dominant at getting open to receive the ball, like a receiver. He most frequently gets the ball through screens and sweeps but may also run some quick routes.

Examples: There are always tons of these guys in the Big 12, perhaps the next great one is KaVontae Turpin of TCU. Jakeem Grant started as a flex RB but grew in his route running and became an effective WR as well despite the fact that he was a tiny target. Turpin will probably grow as a receiver like Grant did. Joe Mixon of OU has the skill set of both a flex RB and potentially a feature back as well.
This is the Stitt sweep, where the QB just tosses the ball forward to a flex RB running past him on jet motion (H) just before the snap. In this example it's combined with outside zone blocking. It's hard for the defense to adjust to the jet motion in time to avoid getting outflanked making this a perfect way to unleash a speed demon on the perimeter.


This would be the kind of WR that opposing teams have to defend very carefully and choose whether they're going to double them to stop a deep bomb or play off coverage and hope they don't get burned after the catch. This WR needs to be dangerous after the catch if opponents play off but his main threat is from taking the top off the defense and winning 1-on-1 match-ups outside either with leaping ability, pure speed, or exceptional route running.

Examples: Josh Doctson and Corey Coleman were both guys in 2015 that offenses would try to get isolated and defenses would do all they could to avoid it. West Virginia's Kevin White was this guy in 2014. In 2016 Baylor is hoping KD Cannon, Ishmael Zamora, or some other unproven youngster becomes the guy, elsewhere around the league Texas' John Burt and OSU's James Washington are very good bets to fill this role. West Virginia's Shelton Gibson is a better passing QB away from becoming a household name...the league is always stocked with excellent WRs.
If the corner can't handle Z here, who is isolated on the backside, without the help of the strong safety ($) it really limits how the defense can address passes to the wider side of the field or get numbers in the box to stop the run game. The preferred tactic for stopping the run these days is to drop that $ down in support.

The possession WR

Not every WR is a dominant deep threat, some guys are just great route runners with fly paper hands that can be counted on to get open. A program would hope that every WR on their roster who doesn't become a deep threat or flex RB would grow enough in their route running to become at least a solid possession WR. The best possession WRs are the ones that can line up all over the field at different positions and run the full route tree so the offense can always put them in position to get open on crucial third downs. The combination of an ISO WR and a great possession WR (with a good QB with whom they have chemistry, obviously), is virtually unstoppable at the college level.

Examples: I might get roasted for this but Sterling Shepard was more of a possession WR than an ISO guy as his greatest strength was moving between the slot and outside positions and being a target for Mayfield on crucial downs. The Shipley brothers at Texas were both outstanding possession WRs, although only one of them was able to fully show his wares (Jordan) as the other (Jaxon) played with bad QBs. David Glidden of OSU was probably the next best after Shepard in 2015.
If a Big 12 offense doesn't have an ISO WR to attack the boundary and keep that strong safety deep, they can put a possession WR in the boundary slot (Y) and have him run a 7 route (deep out) to attack what is normally more of a run-support defender. In an era dominated by cover 4, the 7 route has become a major tool in offensive playbooks.

The pocket QB

The way that QBs are described and evaluated these days has got to change, because the assessments you often see tend to pidgeon-hole ever QB as either a "pro-style" or "dual-threat" QB and there are tons and tons of players that don't fit either profile.

One of the most obvious flaws is that "pro-style" QBs like Jared Goff, Bryce Petty, or that Tom Brady fellow tend to be exceptional in the spread offense while the "pro-style" West Coast offense has always thrived with a QB that can execute on the run like Colt McCoy, Steve Young, or Aaron Rodgers.

So let's find some new terms, shall we? Let's go with "pocket QB" for a QB who is at his best making reads and decisions from the pocket and stressing the defense with his arm. This guy needs to have vision, toughness, accuracy, and arm strength throwing from back there.

Examples: Mason Rudolph is the best pocket QB in the Big 12 right now and was arguably the best in 2015, other great ones have included Bryce Petty, Landry Jones, and Sam Bradford. Kansas' Ryan Willis is one to watch for the future as he flashed some potential in the midst of a "defeated" 2015 season for the Jayhawks, Jarrett Stidham might fall into this camp as well although he's pretty athletic.
The pocket QB needs to be proficient throwing routes outside the hash marks like the "curl-flat" combination. This is a concept that spread teams use to get the hi-low, curl-flat stress on a defense by having a slot run a post route to occupy the safety and then reading the space-backer (or nickel as the case may be) to see if he protects the curl window and gives up the flat route or chases the flat and gives up the curl. Either way, the QB has to make the read and throw a long pass from the pocket.

The running QB

A spread team that has a pocket QB is going to protect and set up their run game primarily with RPOs (run pass options) like the many examples above in which the QB can either hand off or throw a quick bubble screen or quick pass based on whether the defense loads the box or stays wide to stop the pass.

A running QB is going to bring advantages to the offense through what he can do with his legs. There aren't too many running QBs in the Big 12 who can't throw, but there are always several who are defined by their ability to run the traditional option (hand off or run rather than hand off or pass) or to create space and throwing opportunities outside of the pocket.

Examples: Although he's a great passer, I would tend to describe Baker Mayfield as more of a running QB than a pocket guy since he's doing most of his damage buying time, running the option, or scrambling and sometimes struggles to be patient in the pocket, probably because he's too short to see clearly from back there. I'd say the same for Pat Mahomes of Texas Tech and Jake Waters of Kansas State. Texas' Jerrod Heard is very much a running QB to the extent that he may be moved to a new position in the Gilbert's, pocket-oriented offense.
For my money this is still the best way to unleash a running QB, the zone read play with a H-back or fullback executing an arc/lead block around the edge for the QB. It can also be accompanied by lots of rollout passes where the QB can find targets on the run.

The dual-threat QB

Every single stinking QB who can run around is always described as a "dual-threat" QB, even if their ability to read a defense and beat them from the pocket is virtually non-existent, as it was for Texas' Jerrod Heard or Iowa State's Joel Lanning last season.

The term "dual-threat" should be reserved for QBs that can consistently burn you from inside or outside of the pocket.

Examples: You know who's a true dual-threat QB? Trevone Boykin, who was good from the pocket and hell on wheels when he left it. Pat Mahomes could reach this point but I'm not sure if he will unless he focuses more on football in the offseason rather than baseball. I'm curious to see if Kansas State's Jesse Ertz proves to be solid in both respects although I doubt he's ever elite at either dissecting defenses from the pocket or on the run.

Future Texas commit Sam Ehlinger is a legitimate dual-threat QB who's two greatest skills currently are throwing fades and dig routes from the pocket OR finding creases between the tackles on downhill run concepts.
This is a DC's private hell. Double slants on the boundary, Y-stick to the field, either of which could be hard to defend without having the linebackers play the run very conservatively, and then the option for the QB to pull it down and run a draw if they do so. This is how Deshaun Watson led Clemson to the final.

That's about as comprehensive a summary of the various positions you find in the Big 12 as I can get. In the coming weeks we'll start to break down the 2016 Big 12 recruiting classes and discuss how each recruit fits into his team's system and what position/role they're likely to grow into.

If you have any questions about specific players (not 2016 kids as we'll address those soon anyways), positions, or concepts fire them away in the comments.

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