What is an H-Back? How will Florida State use its H-Back?

Recently, Florida State Offensive Coordinator (and Head Coach in Waiting and ACC Offensive Coordinator of the Year) Jimbo Fisher discussed his preference for using an extra tight end instead of a fullback.   He'll get his wish this year because Florida State doesn't have a fullback on its roster, due to a pair of off-season departures as a result of laziness and unrealistic expectations.  Instead of a fullback, Fisher prefers to use multiple tight ends.  The second tight end used in the way Fisher prefers, is commonly referred to as an H-Back.  It's come to our attention that many here do not understand what an H-Back does, where he aligns, or why he is called an H-Back.  Here's an explanation.  

First, I want to clear up a misconception.

  • An H-Back is just a big running back.  FALSE.  An H-Back does not run with the ball (except in the rarest of instances).  

Now that we have that out of the way, we can stop saying that Debrale Smiley is coming to FSU to play H-Back.  He is a big running back, not an H-Back.  But if an H-Back isn't just a big running back, what is it?  

Typically, the H-back is used on teams which employ a one-back, two tight end offense, and will be largely indistinguishable to the casual fan from the tight end.  This is consistent with what Fisher's philosophy.

The tight end will line up in the traditional spots a tight end does, along the line of scrimmage. The h-back does not line up along the line, but further from the line, often in the backfield. The h-back can provide interior blocking much like a traditional fullback would, but will be sent in motion more often, and sent into pass routes more often than a fullback would.

Here's some background on the position:  

The modern two-tight end set was developed by Joe Gibbs and his Redskins staff in the early 1980s. It was created as a countermeasure against 3-4 defenses in general and Lawrence Taylor in particular. Gibbs discovered that an extra tight end on the line of scrimmage was in better position than a fullback to stop Taylor and other elite blitzers.  It also forced Taylor to align wider, thus lengthening the distance between him and the quarterback.  Gibbs soon learned to use the second tight end as an all-purpose blocker: that extra tight end (usually Don Warren, back in the day) might go in motion before the snap to unbalance the offensive line, or he might slip into the backfield as a fullback or sneak into pass patterns. The modern H-back was born.  Portions from: Tanier.  

Here's more from the impressive Denver Bronco's Blog, the Mile High Report

The term H-back basically means, "motion TE." The Skins would typically use 1 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR, and this H-back as their base offensive personnel grouping. The in-line TE would be a bigger, more blocking-focused player. The H-back would be a somewhat more maneuverable type, but still a blocking-focused guy. He would usually line up 1 step behind the line of scrimmage, either outside the in-line TE (double wing,) or outside the weakside Tackle (balanced,) depending on the particular play. He'd frequently go in motion, either taking the offense from the double wing look to a balanced look, or from a balanced look to a double wing look. The famous Redskins Counter Trey usually began from a balanced Ace set, and featured the H-back motioning to the strong side, and sealing the backside edge along with the in-line TE, with the backside Guard & Tackle pulling to the playside to lead the running play.

Offenses need the versatility that the tight ends provide, and multi-tight end sets allow them to mass as many as four eligible receivers near the line of scrimmage. Those extra tight ends give coaches plenty of options in the passing game. But as we'll see, two-tight end sets can also be very efficient when running the ball.

Two-tight end sets place seven blockers on the line of scrimmage. Most defenses operate on a base 4-3 scheme. A seven-on-four battle in the trenches puts the defense at a severe disadvantage.  The two-tight end set not only allows teams to mass blockers at the line of scrimmage, but it allows them to disguise the direction of a play.  When possible, defensive coordinators move one or more linebackers down to the line of scrimmage to create a 50 front when facing a multi-tight end formation. The seven-on-five matchup gives the defense a fighting chance against the run but it also pigeonholes them into a set look and sometimes makes it difficult to defense the pass.  On that note, expect FSU to actually throw the ball to their tight ends (err, sorry, tight end and H-Back).    

Let's look at that problem from another angle.  Here is the typical offensive line with one tight end.

| LT | LG | C | RG | RT | TE |

The "|'s" are the gaps the defense must defend.  There are 7 gaps for the defense to defend against the typical I formation.

But in an alignment with a TE and an H-Back (no fullback)...

| H-Back | LT | LG | C | RG | RT | TE |

We see there is an extra gap to defend.  This presents problems for defenses because they have to show their hand much earlier, as discussed above.

There are hundreds of ways to exploit the presence of an extra tight end. They can give the offense a numbers advantage at the line of scrimmage, force a defense to guess the direction of the play, go in motion to mass blockers at the point of attack, extend the offensive line to allow play-side tackles to pull, or loop inside to block inside on delays or draws. 

To learn more about how the H-Back is used in the pass game, check out this link.  I want to highlight a few things Tanier shows that I have seen FSU do and can see FSU using this year.


via www.footballoutsiders.com

FSU actually used this formation a good bit last year, typically using one of its fullbacks at the 2nd tight end position.  Mike said (edited by me):  

These "tight" receivers are in great position to attack the weaknesses in two-deep coverage schemes. One receiver's route options are shown in the diagram. A cornerback aligned head-up on the receiver is vulnerable to a corner route, while a cornerback with a wider split (one who may have zone responsibilities) is vulnerable to a hitch. The tight formation gives the receiver extra room to run after he makes his break on the corner route or other sideline routes.  The Patriots, Chargers, Bucs (under Gruden), and Colts all do a great job of using multiple tight end formations.

Defenses frequently use two-deep coverage schemes to combat two-tight end formations. The threat of a deep seam route forces defensive coordinators to play it safe against tight ends who can run. The threat of the seamer opens up other options for the multi-tight end offense.

Mike doesn't mention this, because it's not an FSU article, but FSU destroyed two-deep defenses last year with the run game (except a few which just ragdolled the youngest offensive line in the country).  Any alignment that allows FSU to face a two-deep defense while using Non-Spread personnel is a good thing.

I strongly encourage you to visit the link and read about the play titled "Cowboys Double Cross."  You will see something like that this year from the 'Noles.

Finally, I want to highlight one other thing from Tanier's piece:


via www.footballoutsiders.com

This is something that FSU fans could see this year.  This is a formation with 2 WR, 2 TE (1 TE & 1 H-Back), and one running back.  Teams will want to defend this with standard 4-3 personnel.  The wideouts on the left represent an excellent opportunity to run the smash concept.  This personnel is quite balanced and the defense doesn't know whether to expect run or pass.  Watch what happens, however, when FSU shifts a running back with great hands (Jermaine Thomas or Chris Thompson) out wide (see squiggly lines in diagram above).  The defense is now in quite the bind.  They really wish that they were in Nickel Personnel (extra defensive back).  Add the running dimension of Ponder, and most college defenses are not set up to defend this.  Of course, being able to put 4 and 5 guys out into the pass pattern is predicated on being able to pass protect without help from tight ends or running backs.  College football fans will remember USC abusing Virginia Tech with this play at 4:21 of this clip:

Sports Videos, News, Blogs

Who are some well known H-Backs?

Chris Cooley, of the Washington Redskins is a very good example, as is Dallas Clark of the Indianapolis Colts, and whoever the Patriots are using at the moment.

Who Will Be FSU's H-Back?

Jabarris Little, Beau Reliford, and maybe Matt Dunham.  That's not to say the first two won't also play tight end.  They are just more suited for the H-Back role than say, Caz Piurowski.  

How can I tell my friends about this?  Easy.  Just say an H-Back is a smaller tight end who blocks more based on quickness and angles than a normal in-line tight end.  He can quickly change the strength of the formation and affords the offense more versatility than a fullback.  Remember though, that the H-Back does not run with the ball.  

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