Wide receivers are the new running backs

Ian Boyd

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There was a time when the great teams in college football were measured and discussed by referring to their running backs. The "three-Pete" Trojans had good receivers but everyone talked about Reggie Bush and LenDale White. Most people can probably more readily recall that Adrian Peterson was a star running back for the Oklahoma Sooners in the earlier part of Bob Stoops' run than name an offensive starter from their 2000 National Championship team. If they can, it's liable to be scat back Quentin Griffith.

Even up until recent years the famous National Champions were considered to be powered by runners. Vince Young, Tim Tebow, Mark Ingram, Cam Newton, Zeke Elliott, Trent Richardson, Derrick Henry, Deshaun Watson...up until Trevor Lawrence in 2018

The path to building a National Championship team was to have a big, powerful offensive line in order to feature a bell cow running back that could dominate games.

The 2018 Clemson Tigers appeared to be that, on the surface. Their season was stabilized by a Travis Etienne season with 204 carries for 1658 yards at 8.1 ypc with 24 rushing touchdowns. Going into the playoffs, you'd assume that was the driving force of their run.

But against Notre Dame and Alabama Etienne had only 28 total carries while the Tigers won both games by blowout (30-3, 44-16). How'd they do it? By distributing the ball to a pair of stud wideouts in Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins. Ross caught 12 balls for 301 yards and three scores, Higgins chipped in another seven catches for 134 more yards and two more touchdowns. That's what killed the Irish and Tide in those playoffs, they just couldn't cover those guys.

In 2019 it was LSU following that formula to glory and the receivers were Justin Jefferson and J'Marr Chase. In 2020? We don't know yet but that Alabama vs Georgia game gave us good reason to believe the Tide may have unlocked the formula with Devonta Smith and Jaylen Wadde.

Through just four games Waddle has 25 catches for 557 yards and four touchdowns. Smith has another 38 catches for 483 yards and four more touchdowns. Running back Najee Harris is great, but there's not even any point in worrying about him when those two are dominating like this. You aren't going to beat Alabama if those two are combining for 260 yards and two touchdowns per game.

The mark of a championship team these days is generally whether or not you have two dominant wide receivers. Obviously, just as it was shallow when people would summarize an offense with the play of the running back, there's more to it than that. But the mark of an elite team is now the receiving corps and whether they have future NFL stars in at least two spots on the perimeter.

Why two?

The 4-down, RPO math problem

This is the 4-down, RPO math problem:

The 4-down RPO math problem.jpg

It's that you can't outnumber the receivers to both sides of the formation AND get a plus one in the run game if you use four down linemen. On third down in an obvious passing situation the defense could play a deep safety over both of the more dangerous receivers, but if they need to bring pressure with a fifth defender to get heat on the quarterback then things get dicey again.

They also have to have answers for spread formations designed to generate 1-on-1s for their best deep threats, often times they don't. And the smart offensive teams that have a pair of deadly wide receivers generally don't wait for third-and-long to take a shot to their stars. They set those up on early downs when you are still worried about defending the run game.

Space force gap

The teams that want to contend in the playoffs need to be recruiting and developing their teams to feature NFL talent at the space force positions of left tackle and wide receiver.

Check out the Georgia vs Alabama battle.

Bama vs Georgia O space forces.jpg

The two big differences here are the gap at quarterback, where Mac Jones was clearly more dangerous than Stetson Bennett, and then the experience level of the wide receivers. Last year Smith and Waddle were important components in a deadly Alabama passing attack while Jackson and Pickens were smaller parts in a run-centric offense with a different coordinator. Similarly, Leatherwood is a multi-year vet and Jamaree Salyer started his first game last season at right tackle against Murray State and his second in the Sugar Bowl at the same position.

Go watch some of the double moves Alabama is running at receiver and take note that it takes good protection along the line to make that possible unless you have Patrick Mahomes as your quarterback.

Georgia is really a year away. Next season they'll probably return all four of the players listed above and perhaps have J.T. Daniels at quarterback rather than Bennett. Obviously LSU has folded here after losing virtually everyone and most of the rest of the SEC isn't building their teams to win in this fashion. Florida is your next best bet, but they are having defensive issues that Texas A&M was good enough to help point out for them.

Then you have the other two national heavyweights.

tOSU and Clemson O space force.jpg

On the Clemson side they may not have the same kind of overpowering outside talent as in years past after losing Justyn Ross to injury. We'll have to see what Rodgers and Ladson can get up to over the course of the season, and then they also have tight end Braden Galloway who's a potential X-factor in the playoffs.

Ohio State is pretty super-charged if Wilson can make a leap as a second year player (likely) and Olave can continue his existing trajectory. There's also a leap to be made for quarterback Justin Fields in distributing the ball. Last year they kept things fairly simple with a punishing run game that allowed Fields to take clear, arm-intensive shots outside. If he's grown significantly as a dropback passer that's a game changer.

With the additions of Wilson and fellow Texan Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State has been building their future teams with the understanding of the new reality in college football. Clemson was at the forefront in creating this new reality in college football. Obviously Alabama has been catching up more and more every year on offense, even as their defense has struggled to keep up. Oklahoma is already designed with these same assumptions, they're just in a rebuilding year.

Flyover football is now mainstream at the major universities...except Texas.
 

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kevinbelt

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I think this can get overlooked, because Alabama, Clemson, and OSU have all had pretty outstanding running backs in recent years. Etienne, as you mentioned, Najee Harris, Josh Jacobs, and JK Dobbins for us. But at least in the case of OSU, that's incidental. We've been a pass-first team since Ryan Day took over the offense, and I think that's been true of Alabama maybe going back to Kiffin. It's the inversion of the old conventional wisdom about running to set up the pass. At least in our case, the reason Dobbins was so successful is because defenses had to commit to Parris Campbell, KJ Hill, Terry McLaurin, Johnny Dixon (often overlooked!), plus Olave and Wilson, and now six top-100 freshmen. We've had absurd levels of WR talent, and combined with a run threat at QB, that freed up Dobbins enough that he ran for 2000 yards last year. Now that he's gone, I expect us to go full Space Force this year. I'm super excited about Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

Clemson's rise to power has come on the backs of their WRs. That's probably the single best school for developing any position group in all of college football. The list of alumni they've produced is staggering.
 

Geoff Eneman

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We talked about this a little bit on Twitter, but this kind of offense is the new ball control offense of the past. In today's game the best teams can score almost at will. You aren't going to be able to keep the great offenses from scoring. You can hope to hold them to FGs when they get inside the 20 and the field shrinks, but teams aren't going to give up single digits on average when top teams play each other.

So that being said, how can the offense help the defense the most? By scoring and scoring and scoring. Getting ahead as much as possible and making the offense 1 dimensional. If you get up by 14-21, you keep being aggressive and keep scoring. Once you get ahead, your defense can really focus on attacking the QB up front and the defensive backs can start sitting on routes. If the DC has done his job, he should know what routes and plays his opponent is best at and have his DBs look for those. Then you can put the pressure on them by forcing sacks and turnovers, either fumbles on sacks or INTs when you know what's coming.

You aren't required to throw 25+ yard passes either. Most good offenses can throw short passes, whether it's screens or mesh or other high percentage throws to keep the clock moving, but not just turtle up as we have seen so much here. Keep spreading things out and forcing the issue is how you win games now. There's absolutely zero difference in winning 65-55 or 31-21. 10 points is 10 points and a win is a win.
 

Geoff Eneman

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And to continue that talk a little more, and I just mentioned it with @Gerry Hamilton in the prospects thread, but give me a ton of 5-10, 180 guys who can flat out fly over the 6-4, 200 guys who can't separate. Sure there are the unicorns out there who are big and fast, but by and large with the type of offenses that we are seeing, going with speed, speed, speed is so much more effective.

I don't mind one big guy out there because they can help block, but this staff's love affair with the "NFL type" body guys at WR just dumbfounds me. Who cares if your WRs are big or small. Just care about whether or not they can catch and can run. Then let them run mesh route after mesh route after mesh route and watch them get matched up with a big LB and see what happens.

One of our biggest issues is that we damn near have to scheme our guys open to make anything happen. They can't separate and then Sam has to make a perfect throw for them just to catch the ball then it's a quick tackle. Give me some quick guys who can get separation and then watch them break the big one. We've seen it a little bit this year when Yurcich has been allowed to actually run what is closer to his offense than TH's and we've had a ton more big plays than last year. Hell, we've probably dropped more big play possibilities this year than we made all of last season.

I know Waddle isn't the best example, but his speed on that 90 yard TD against Georgia was the reason for that score. The DB couldn't keep up with him and then fell down and then Jones just had to throw it up and let Waddle run under it and it's a quick 6.
 

travisroeder

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And to continue that talk a little more, and I just mentioned it with @Gerry Hamilton in the prospects thread, but give me a ton of 5-10, 180 guys who can flat out fly over the 6-4, 200 guys who can't separate. Sure there are the unicorns out there who are big and fast, but by and large with the type of offenses that we are seeing, going with speed, speed, speed is so much more effective.

I don't mind one big guy out there because they can help block, but this staff's love affair with the "NFL type" body guys at WR just dumbfounds me. Who cares if your WRs are big or small. Just care about whether or not they can catch and can run. Then let them run mesh route after mesh route after mesh route and watch them get matched up with a big LB and see what happens.

One of our biggest issues is that we damn near have to scheme our guys open to make anything happen. They can't separate and then Sam has to make a perfect throw for them just to catch the ball then it's a quick tackle. Give me some quick guys who can get separation and then watch them break the big one. We've seen it a little bit this year when Yurcich has been allowed to actually run what is closer to his offense than TH's and we've had a ton more big plays than last year. Hell, we've probably dropped more big play possibilities this year than we made all of last season.

I know Waddle isn't the best example, but his speed on that 90 yard TD against Georgia was the reason for that score. The DB couldn't keep up with him and then fell down and then Jones just had to throw it up and let Waddle run under it and it's a quick 6.
Very much agree. Big WRs are useful IF they're capable of playing big, otherwise they're just a bigger guy who is no better at getting open than anyone else. If a tall WR isn't very good at winning jump balls or making contested catches on comebacks and the like, then there isn't much point in him being tall.

Playing big is a trait. Tylan Wallace is probably 5-11, but he's much better at winning contested catches than just about anyone else in the league. Hell, Deandre Hopkins is only 6-1. Baylor's RJ Sneed is only 6-1 but he has 10 inch hands, so he catches everything and has good a wingspan.

The prime traits for WRs are: 1a) can they get open and 1b) can they catch the ball. A 6-3 WR who can't separate and has average hands is much worse than a 5-9 WR who is elite at getting open with good hands.
 

techhoopsguy

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The teams that want to contend in the playoffs need to be recruiting and developing their teams to feature NFL talent at the space force positions of left tackle and wide receiver.
This is a key distinction and I think you're spot on.

I have always kind of looked at WR corps in the Big 12 as a position that didn't move the needle.

What you're raising kind makes me want to think of it more now as driving/carry distance in golf.

If you're Bryson Dechambeau (or Bama), and you're doing stupid stuff like carrying it 330 yards over bunkers into the widest part of the fairway (trotting out 3 first rounders at WR), you have a huge advantage over the field. It's just math.

But if you're only "long" off the tee (or Tech trotting out three WRs that would get reps at 90% of P5 schools), maybe someone carrying it 290 and hoping for a big run out, being long doesn't pick ups up very many strokes versus the field. There's a lot of guys that can hit it as far as you. And there are lot of guys who are close enough behind you for it to not make a difference.

Tech has a really solid trio of WRs. As good as we've had in quite some time, in terms of being able to put 3 out there at once. But having a ++ WR corps at Tech doesn't create a marked advantage for us week in and week out.

I think most of these "long hitters" who aren't Rory / Bryson could hit each other's balls from the fairway, and the odds between who would win among them wouldn't change very much.

Just like I think most of the Big 12 teams could trade wide receivers with each other and the outcome of these games wouldn't be very different.

But if you want to win the CFB playoff (have a chance to win PGA events week in in and week out) it's critical for you to be able to cause these kinds of problems for elite defenses (i.e., it's critical for you to be Bryson or Rory off the tee).
 

Geoff Eneman

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Very much agree. Big WRs are useful IF they're capable of playing big, otherwise they're just a bigger guy who is no better at getting open than anyone else. If a tall WR isn't very good at winning jump balls or making contested catches on comebacks and the like, then there isn't much point in him being tall.

Playing big is a trait. Tylan Wallace is probably 5-11, but he's much better at winning contested catches than just about anyone else in the league. Hell, Deandre Hopkins is only 6-1. Baylor's RJ Sneed is only 6-1 but he has 10 inch hands, so he catches everything and has good a wingspan.

The prime traits for WRs are: 1a) can they get open and 1b) can they catch the ball. A 6-3 WR who can't separate and has average hands is much worse than a 5-9 WR who is elite at getting open with good hands.
sure seems pretty simple. Wonder why the guys being paid millions or damn near can’t figure it out.
 

Ian Boyd

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This is a key distinction and I think you're spot on.

I have always kind of looked at WR corps in the Big 12 as a position that didn't move the needle.

What you're raising kind makes me want to think of it more now as driving/carry distance in golf.

If you're Bryson Dechambeau (or Bama), and you're doing stupid stuff like carrying it 330 yards over bunkers into the widest part of the fairway (trotting out 3 first rounders at WR), you have a huge advantage over the field. It's just math.

But if you're only "long" off the tee (or Tech trotting out three WRs that would get reps at 90% of P5 schools), maybe someone carrying it 290 and hoping for a big run out, being long doesn't pick ups up very many strokes versus the field. There's a lot of guys that can hit it as far as you. And there are lot of guys who are close enough behind you for it to not make a difference.

Tech has a really solid trio of WRs. As good as we've had in quite some time, in terms of being able to put 3 out there at once. But having a ++ WR corps at Tech doesn't create a marked advantage for us week in and week out.

I think most of these "long hitters" who aren't Rory / Bryson could hit each other's balls from the fairway, and the odds between who would win among them wouldn't change very much.

Just like I think most of the Big 12 teams could trade wide receivers with each other and the outcome of these games wouldn't be very different.

But if you want to win the CFB playoff (have a chance to win PGA events week in in and week out) it's critical for you to be able to cause these kinds of problems for elite defenses (i.e., it's critical for you to be Bryson or Rory off the tee).
Way too much golf in there but I think I follow.

Its insanely valuable to have a lot of good WRs but you won’t win the B12 if that’s all you have going for you. Most of the other teams also have that advantage.
 
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techhoopsguy

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Way too much golf in there but I think I follow.

Its insanely valuable to have a lot of good WRs but you won’t win the B12 if that’s all you have going for you. Most of the other teams also have that advantage.
I’m having trouble coherently expressing this because you’re causing me to rethink something I have believed for a while and often say to tech fans (having good skill guys doesn’t matter for tech, because we’re simply a team trying to make a bowl game). So I’m sorta thinking out loud still...

Unless you can create the problems you’re highlighting above, the difference between tech having a couple borderline Nfl wide receivers and having a couple former walkons like lyle Leong or Trey haverty is negligible. Our relative strength within the conference won’t change much at all if you rearranged our receiving corps over the years.

That’s not really the case at any other position for us besides RB. Even just marginal talent increases at other positions would make a tangible difference for us. At WR, a marginal talent increase does little for us because we’re already pretty good there, and we’re not able to leverage any increase in WR talent beyond our current capabilities.

What you’re describing is something totally different.. the Bryson Dechambeau in the US Open situation, where Bama / Clemson can field absurd WR talent on the field at once AND have the operational capacity to leverage that talent for maximum effect. For these teams, and unlike tech, WR is a position that can increase their relative strength as a CFB playoff contender big time. So much so that another team with playoff contender talent is in big trouble if they run in to someone similar with that many dudes at WR.
 
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Ian Boyd

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I’m having trouble coherently expressing this because you’re causing me to rethink something I have believed for a while and often say to tech fans (having good skill guys doesn’t matter for tech, because we’re simply a team trying to make a bowl game). So I’m sorta thinking out loud still...

Unless you can create the problems you’re highlighting above, the difference between tech having a couple borderline Nfl wide receivers and having a couple former walkons like lyle Leong or Trey haverty is negligible. Our relative strength within the conference won’t change much at all if you rearranged our receiving corps over the years.

That’s not really the case at any other position for us besides RB. Even just marginal talent increases at other positions would make a tangible difference for us. At WR, a marginal talent increase does little for us because we’re already pretty good there, and we’re not able to leverage any increase in WR talent beyond our current capabilities.

What you’re describing is something totally different.. the Bryson Dechambeau in the US Open situation, where Bama / Clemson can field absurd WR talent on the field at once AND have the operational capacity to leverage that talent for maximum effect. For these teams, and unlike tech, WR is a position that can increase their relative strength as a CFB playoff contender big time. So much so that another team with playoff contender talent is in big trouble if they run in to someone similar with that many dudes at WR.
How much have you read on my space force theory of talent evaluation?
 
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Ian Boyd

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I have not... sort of stumbled on this site within the last few months.
Lots of links I could send. Here's two big ones:



The gist is this. Matchups in space disproportionally impact football game outcomes and disproportionately require elite athleticism. The four positions where you just can't hold up without some high level athleticism and skill are:

Left tackle
Wide receiver
Edge-rusher
Cornerback
 
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rodofdisaster

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Lots of links I could send. Here's two big ones:



The gist is this. Matchups in space disproportionally impact football game outcomes and disproportionately require elite athleticism. The four positions where you just can't hold up without some high level athleticism and skill are:

Left tackle
Wide receiver
Edge-rusher
Cornerback
QB too. The style and ability may vary but marginal QBs will be an albatross, would they not?
 
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Ian Boyd

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QB too. The style and biliary May vary but marginal QBs will be an albatross, would they not?
No, because with a savvy distributor at QB you’re fine if you have elite athletes in the space force. You don’t need an NFL talent there although it doesn’t hurt.