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USFL: Modern League, Old School Style, Fullbacks Return

The Fullback position is slowly going the way of the dinosaur. However the USFL, a league with deep ties to the early 80’s style of play, have incorporated the fullback role back into their run heavy offenses.

The USFL is a modern league with an old school feel to it. Without necessarily setting out to do so, the USFL has paid homage to the original league with it’s style of play. There has been a premium on playing mistake free football. With run games, and defenses the name of the game for the more dominant teams in the league.

With this old-school feel, came the return of a position the NFL has all but abandoned. The Fullback. That’s right ladies and gentlemen, the fullback position is back. If you watched football in the 80’s, 90’s, or even early 2000’s the fullback was still a very prominent position in the NFL. Men like Mike Alstott, Jon Ritchie, Lorenzo Neal, Tony Richardson, Larry Centers, I could go on for days. However as time went on and we saw more and more passing, we seemed to see the true fullback die off.

That is not the case in the USFL, that offers this throwback version of football. The critics will say it’s due to the lack of proper training camp that forced these teams to incorporate run heavy schemes, and turn to game managers at quarterback out of the gate in hopes of finding early success.

Adapt and Overcome

As mentioned before, due to these run heavy approaches out of camp, we saw most teams decide to draft or sign a fullback before the regular season. This has led to a resurgence of sorts for a position that has long since been abandoned by the NFL.

With Birmingham, and Pittsburgh employing true fullbacks, but many other teams choosing to use tight ends in the role we have seen mixed results in the run game itself. So far it’s safe to say after Sunday, Bobby Holly of Birmingham has found the most success so far.

Bobby Holly

Ironically Bobby Holly’s first carry this season went for 52 yards and a touchdown. On a beautifully executed fake punt for the Birmingham Stallions. The Michigan Panthers, nearly gave the undefeated Stallions all they could handle in week 7.

Bobby Holly so far this season has proven his worth as a blocker. In back-to-back games we have seen Bo Scarbrough top 100 yards thanks in part to the lead blocking of Bobby Holly. He has helped Cj Marable, Bo Scarbrough, and combine for 750 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground.

Holly was an undrafted NFL free agent coming out of college. He signed with the Los Angeles Chargers, and was assigned 41. That number was made famous by none other than the aforementioned Lorenzo Neal. Neal was one of the best to ever play fullback.

Bobby Holly Breaks 52 Yard run on fake punt.

Mikey Daniel

Pittsburgh didn’t draft a fullback despite Kirby Wilson’s background as a running backs coach at the NFL level. Instead they signed former Carolina Panther Mikey Daniel shortly before the season. He has since developed a role with the team, and stuck into the regular season.

The 6’0 235 lb former college running back from South Dakota State has seen use as a runner and receiver. Having grown up in Brookings, South Dakota it become something of a dream to play for South Dakota State.

Daniel managed over 1,800 yards and 30 touchdowns in his four seasons as a Jack Rabbit. He was more of a running back than a fullback in college, but this has been reflected in the role he has received with Pittsburgh.

Due to his background Kirby Wilson has used him as a short yardage runner at times despite having Garrett Groshek, and Madre London two guys who weigh 220 pounds or more. Daniel has made the most of his opportunities when they have come. So far he has six carries for 18 rushing yards, and eight receptions on eleven targets through six games.

These numbers place him fourth on the team in rushing behind Groshek, London, and QB Vad Lee. He is fifth on the team in terms of reception yards, and fourth in terms of receptions. The more important stat to note? Percentage wise, Daniel has been the Maulers’ most reliable receiver with a 72.7% completion rate when he is targeted.

The Maulers have also incorporated heavy sets with multiple extra offensive linemen on the field as well. They truly are a “Power I” offense focused on lining up in traditional sets to force their will on opposing defenses in the run game.

Extra Tight Ends Fill the Fullback Role

Granted the other teams do not carry a true fullback, they have substituted extra tight ends, or a bigger tailback in for this role.

In Michigan the Panthers do not employ a true fullback, however they have a quite versatile tight end room. They also run 21 personnel in some variation or another on a large percentage of their plays. If you look at their stats as a team you see that they have incorporated five different tight ends.

Joey Magnifico was injured early in the year, but played in two games. He received two targets, catching 1 for -3 yards.

Connor Davis has been the fourth tight end. He has appeared in five games, and even logged a start. Showing how much the Panthers truly use the tight end position. He has been targeted twice, catching both of them for 19 yards.

Now an interesting thing to note. In terms of reception yards you have three different men show up in the top six receivers that are listed as tight ends.

Ryan O’Malley has played in two games with one start. He was six times caught four passes for 64 yards.

Marcus Baugh has been considered the starter with six starts in six appearances. However he has been targeted fifteen times catching eight of them for 67 yards.

La’Michael Pettway is an interesting player for the Panthers. At 6’2 219 pounds, he isn’t your stereotypical tight end. While he didn’t log any carries in college playing primarily wide receiver, he played quarterback at times in high school and ran the ball 74 times for 710 yards and six touchdowns. He has played in all seven games for the Panthers with four starts so far. He has collected 21 targets with 14 receptions and 177 yards total, 52 of which came after the catch, and 1 touchdown. This is a guy you can line up anywhere on offense and feel comfortable with.

These five guys are the only reason the Panthers do not need a fullback. Pettway and others can serve this role, depending on the down and distance.

New Jersey Generals

In New Jersey with the Generals, you again find four tight ends. The Generals are a run heavy team with many different runners contributing in that aspect of their offense. However, if not for their tight ends, and the ways they use them, they may not have found the success they have in the last six victories that helped them clinch a playoff berth. You won’t catch any of these guys running the ball but there are a couple guys that make sense in the fullback role.

Woody Brandom is more of an inline tight end, and has been the first off the bench for the Generals. He is 6’5 260 lbs, and not really the type of guy most teams would line up as the lead blocker. He is capable of it, but they prefer to have him come off the bench as a traditional Y tight end. He is noted for his blocking, but has shown his worth as a receiver as well with 9 receptions for 117 yards.

The number two tight end, and first player to get the nod in the fullback role is likely Braedon Bowman. He is built more like a fullback than he is a tight end. At 6’4 235 pounds, he is a natural fit behind the line of scrimmage as a lead blocker. He has logged two starts in five games, with 9 receptions for 84 yards, and 1 touchdown.

Wes Saxton Jr. is their third tight end, and he has also been credited with five appearances and two starts. He has been targeted three times with two receptions for 10 yards, 13 yards after the catch. Tipping you off that he is lining up in the backfield as well. At 6’4 240 pounds he is another perfect candidate to be called upon as a lead blocker.

Their fourth tight end hasn’t gotten in a game yet. Mason Sikes is yet another 6’4 240 pound tight end. Sikes is a rookie coming out of college in 2021 from the University of Western Illinois. Their team name is The Fighting Leathernecks. With a team like that you better come to lay out opposing linebackers in the run game. Sikes was in college for six seasons total. He never carried the ball in college but was used often as a blocker, a role I expect him to continue when he gets on the field.

Houston Gamblers use “The Hybrid” All Over

For the Houston Gamblers they typically use just two tight ends. Those two guys being Julian “The Hybrid” Allen, and Brandon Barnes.

Allen is 6’3 248 pounds and capable of being moved around in the USFL. Hailing from Southern Miss, he is extremely versatile, and likely given the opportunity could run the ball. However, in his entire career, as far back as I could find stats he has never logged a carry.

Brandon Barnes is 100% a tight end. At 6’4 255 pounds he also has never logged a carry. Barnes is another former XFL tight end that knows his way around Spring Football. While Allen has been used to move around the formation at times, Barnes has been the mainstay at tight end. Both men have played in all seven games with Barnes logging six starts, and Allen logging three showing that they are used in unison quite often.

The third tight end on the roster is a man who looks like he would be right at home playing fullback. That is Josh Pederson. Pederson is the son of former Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson. His father being a former QB, and current coach, Pederson understands versatility is key to his success. At 6’5 235 pounds, he moves pretty well for his size. Pederson bounced around the NFL in 2021 the one year his father wasn’t coaching, and has since signed with the USFL hoping he could find an opportunity. Having been signed just ten days ago so far he hasn’t gotten that chance.

Todd Haley’s Pro Style Offense

In Tampa Bay with a pro style offense, Todd Haley doesn’t incorporate a fullback often. When he does, that man is number two tight end, De’Quan Hampton. At 6’4 225 lbs, Hampton seems better suited to play fullback, than as a true in-line tight end. The former wide receiver hasn’t carried the ball in the college or professional leagues he has played in so far.

This former Los Angeles Wildcat, Tampa Bay Buccaneer, and New Orleans Saint definitely has the required skillset, and body type for the position. Also the Bandits do like to use him and Cheyenne O’Grady in conjunction with one another. With O’Grady starting five of seven games, and Hampton has played in six games starting three.

Two out of Eight Teams Rely on the Spread

There are two teams that choose to not use a fullback or extra tight end as a lead blocker. The New Orleans Breakers, and Philadelphia Stars both carry just two tight ends, and zero fullbacks. They prefer to spread out the opposing defenses and run the ball out of the spread formation.

This is exactly why Philadelphia’s top three runners rank 9th, 19th, and 21st in rushing yards for the league. New Orleans has two men that have found success despite the lack of a lead blocker. That’s Jordan Ellis, currently second in rushing yards, and Anthony Jones who has seemingly taken over the backfield in recent weeks.

As you can see the teams in the USFL, have approached this league with an old school mentality. They prefer to run the ball, and protect their quarterbacks. Many fans and coaches have pointed to the short training camp as a reason for this but I tend to disagree with that being the entire reason.

Final Word on Fullbacks

The fact is, at this point you can find solid running backs, and plug them in an offense fairly quickly and find results. Look at Birmingham’s Bo Scarbrough, or New Orelans’ Anthony Jones for proof of this. With that being said, fullbacks, and lead blockers playing tight end aren’t as easy to find in the modern game. More and more offenses are no longer using a fullback, and those that aren’t more often than not at the college level, turn to the spread offense to make running lanes.

This has led to the imminent death of the fullback position at some point. For now though, the USFL is bringing it back. Which in my mind fits what the USFL represents in a relaunched league. Tying to the roots of football, and emphasizing the run games was a smart play by these coaches, and the league itself. Will we see this philosophy continue in 2023?

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