YOU CAN CALL ME JACK ... OR BUCK ... OR LEO ... OR STAR ... BUT MY COACH LIKES TO CALL ME SUPER BACK
This is an article from the Sept. 23, 2013 issue
DEPENDING ON HIS defense, he may be called Leo, Buck or Jack. He may have a Star playing behind him. He may look across the line of scrimmage and call his own defensive audible because of a player who is referred to by one letter—F or H. Or, if he's playing a certain Big Ten school, he may have to match wits and muscle with a Superback.
Welcome to the world of the football hybrid, the player who doesn't fit any of the standard positions that developed after the game transitioned from the age of two-way ironmen to the age of specialization. Hybrids have been around since linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Charles Haley started chasing NFL quarterbacks in the 1980s, but schematic changes in the college game have forced an explosion of chameleons on both sides of the ball. Now if a team doesn't have at least one amorphous, broadly defined position, it's behind the curve. And the cooler the name, the better.
Drake Dunsmore originated college football's first comic-book-inspired position. At Northwestern from 2007 through '11, the 6'3" 235-pounder played as a closed (mostly blocking) tight end, a flexed (mostly receiving) tight end and as a fullback. Coach Pat Fitzgerald didn't think H- or F-back—the usual designations for a player who did what Dunsmore did—fully described a position that could help the offense in so many ways. Fitzgerald came up with a new name. "We were looking for a guy who could do multiple things. He wasn't a tight end. He wasn't a running back. Who could do everything? Superman. So he's a Superback."
Wildcats sophomore Dan Vitale has expanded the role. After playing linebacker and tailback for Chicago's Wheaton-Warrenville South High, the 6'2", 225-pound Vitale proved himself an able blocker and receiver as a freshman. In his first game this season, Vitale led the Wildcats in receiving with five catches for 101 yards in Northwestern's 44--30 win at Cal. And because Vitale was the featured back in his high school offense, Fitzgerald has no qualms about lining him up at tailback and handing him the ball. Vitale has yet to carry this season, but Fitzgerald wants opposing defensive coordinators to know that option remains open—just to give them one more thing to worry about.
All those roles make Vitale a busy man at practice. While most players remain with their position groups the entire time, Vitale takes a tour of the offense. "I work with the O-linemen," he says. "I run routes with the receivers. Then I time up with the quarterbacks and running backs." That versatility comes in handy on Saturdays. When defenders diagnose an offense—particularly a fast-moving one such as Northwestern's—the first critical piece of information they need is the personnel grouping. Are there four receivers, a back and no tight end? Are there two backs, two receivers and a tight end? Are the receivers lining up five wide? This intel allows defenses to make their presnap adjustments and helps players in the secondary determine their coverage responsibilities. So what happens if Vitale opens as a closed tight end in a three-point stance next to a tackle and then splits wide? A safety and a linebacker must recognize that their responsibilities have changed within a second of the snap. What if Vitale is lined up as the fourth receiver and then shifts to fullback? With only a split second before the Wildcats come charging at them, the defense must recognize that what was likely to be a pass is now more likely to be a downhill run. Or will it be play-action?
THE ONLY WAY for a defense to counter this versatility is to develop hybrids as well. In the secondary, a relatively new position has developed out of necessity. The proliferation of up-tempo spread offenses has forced defensive coordinators to seek out human Swiss Army knives who can play three positions (cornerback, safety and outside linebacker). At Georgia, coordinator Todd Grantham calls this position the Star. "Some people call it a Nickel/Sam," Grantham says. "The Star just means he's the strongside adjuster. He's going to adjust to the third receiver." The Bulldogs' Star is Josh Harvey-Clemons, a 6'5", 212-pound sophomore whom recruiting services simply listed as "Athlete" because his combination of size and speed made him a fit at so many positions.
Oklahoma and Texas have a position similar to the Star called a nickelback. To play it well, the defender must cover like a corner, support the run like a safety and occasionally blitz like a linebacker. Former Texas nickel Kenny Vaccaro did all three well enough to earn a spot in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft. This season, Sooners junior Julian Wilson has assumed the role in Oklahoma's vastly improved defense.
Closer to the line of scrimmage, a linebacker who can cover a slot receiver or tight end on one play, and then rush the passer on the next, allows for flexibility in this accelerated age. It also forces offenses to slow down before the snap and spot the hybrid—who may attack the quarterback from one of several spots on the field. Leo (Illinois), Jack (Alabama and Clemson), Buck (UCLA and Florida) and Viper (Ohio State) are all different terms to describe an outside linebacker--defensive end combo.
A hybrid doesn't always have a fancy name. Georgia called Jarvis Jones an outside linebacker, but he still led the nation with 24½ tackles for loss in 2012. This season, sophomore Jordan Jenkins stepped into Jones's old position and has two tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries in the Bulldogs' first two games. Two Saturdays ago, Jenkins also forced an early pitch by South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw that allowed the Bulldogs to make a critical goal line stop in their win. Players like Jenkins allow defensive coordinators to disguise their fronts and their coverage schemes. With a hybrid roaming the field, a 4--3 can turn into a 3--4 with a simple backpedal off the line of scrimmage.
Consider this three-and-out series turned in last Saturday in Lincoln, Neb., by college football's ultimate hybrid. UCLA senior linebacker Anthony Barr had 11 tackles (including 1½ for loss) and three forced fumbles in the Bruins' 41--21 win at Nebraska, but none of those came on this third quarter series. "First play, he sets the edge on a run," says defensive coordinator Lou Spanos of how Barr kept a four-yard Ameer Abdullah run inside the tackle box. "Next play, he's covering a receiver," which resulted in an incomplete pass. "Next play, now we've got him rushing," Spanos continues. On that play, Nebraska left tackle Jeremiah Sirles tried to block Barr with an assist from Abdullah. "They were fanning to me almost every time," Barr says. "Every time I was coming off the edge, the tackle would kick out and the guard would kick out and they would turn the protection to me. That's fine, because there are plenty of opportunities for other guys. If you focus on me, [my teammates are] going to get one-on-one matchups, and they're going to win those." With two players devoted to Barr, UCLA defensive end Keenan Graham sacked quarterback Taylor Martinez for a loss of nine yards. Nebraska had to punt, and UCLA took the lead on the ensuing possession and never gave it back.
BARR IS THE ultimate hybrid because for the first two years of his career, UCLA used him on offense in a role similar to Northwestern's deployment of Vitale. Former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel called Barr's position F-back, but the 6'4", 245-pound Barr never quite fit on offense. When Jim Mora replaced Neuheisel, Barr had already resolved to switch to defense. Barr had no idea the new staff, too, had determined a position switch was in the team's best interests. What happened when Barr suggested the move to Mora in a meeting shortly after the new coach arrived in 2012? "He smiled," Barr says. Then came the next question. What would Barr do on defense? "I envisioned linebacker," Barr says, "but I really didn't know what that meant."
It meant a little of everything. Barr plays outside linebacker on standard downs and Buck defensive end on obvious passing downs. In his first season on defense, he led the Pac-12 in sacks (13½) and finished second in tackles for loss (21½). "He's multifaceted," Spanos says. "He can play the run. He can rush the passer. He can cover. That's what makes him so special."
A player like Barr is equivalent to a stat-sheet stuffer in basketball. He has stuffed the stat sheet in ways no other player has, and he may wind up setting the standard for future hybrid players. In his time at UCLA, Barr has caught a touchdown pass, rushed for a touchdown, hurried the quarterback, sacked the quarterback, forced fumbles, broken up passes, blocked a kick and scored on a safety. Is there anything college football's ultimate hybrid can't do? "I can't throw the ball very well," he says. "Everything but that."
For more from Andy Staples, and to read up on the best games, biggest rivalries and potential upsets in Stewart Mandel's weekly College Football Pickoff column, go to SI.com/cfb