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Positionless Revolution on Display in National Championship

By Jim Johnson
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As the LSU-Clemson National Championship showed, positionless football played by hybrid athletes is the wave of the future.

It’s old hat now, but not that long ago positionless basketball was all the rage in the world of hoops. (College football is over now, so it’s okay to start watching basketball again, by the way)

Currently standard operating procedure, the idea of simply playing one’s best five guys was an ostensibly obvious strategy born out of necessity.

Much like in football, ideas in that sport flow upstream. Not every high school coach is blessed with a perfect balance of personnel that fits into the traditional idea of a point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, center. So, they adapted, innovated, and, eventually, found success.

And, of course, success is always followed shortly thereafter by impersonators. Win over enough copycats at that level and there will start to be some at the next, and so on and so forth until the highest level finally catches up.

Of course, the highest level is always the last to learn, not necessarily because of stubborness (though probably to some degree), but to avoid getting caught up in the trend du jour masquerading as innovation.

Plus, at the highest levels, where coaches often do have the luxury of, if they so choose, fitting their personnel into those so well-defined archetypes, there has to be a reason to innovate. In the case of the NBA, the age of the unicorn was the reason.

What’s the point of having a traditional center when there’s a 6’10 guy with the skillset of a wing?

That’s where the conversation turns to football. The growing wave of positionless football was initially born out of sheer innovation, and spurned forth by necessity, which itself was born out of that very innovation.

As usual with these things, it started on offense, the proactive side of the football, which led defenses to subsequently react -- and most specifically with the evolution of the tight end position.

Once upon a time, tight ends were glorified extra offensive tackles, typically used as blockers and occasionally as a safety valve in the passing game. Now, the most productive tight ends are, in almost every sense, just big slot receivers, but the best, most useful tight ends actually play about three different positions.

In most of the game’s most effective modern, RPO-based offenses, the most popular personnel grouping is 11 personnel. However, best case scenario, that tight end can line up in the slot, in the backfield as an H-back/full back, turning it into 20 personnel, and in a more traditional in-line role.

This is all about exploiting matchups in the passing game without sacrificing that extra blocker in the run game, which, in turn, further sets up the air attack.

In a unique wrinkle, Clemson took advantage of the matchup problems it creates, hitting tight end Braden Galloway twice for 60 yards in the National Championship. This is unique because those were Galloway’s first two catches of the season, and Clemson is one of the few elite modern offenses that doesn’t much utilize the position in the passing game (their leading receiver among TE’s ranked 12th among their pass catchers in yardage entering the game).

On the flipside, LSU was closer to the other end of the spectrum as far as tight end usage, especially in the CFP, where Thaddeus Moss went for 99 yards and a score on four grabs against Oklahoma, followed by a five catch, 36 yard, two touchdown performance against Clemson.

The other obvious position that is trending away from the idea of positions is running back. This is a pretty straightforward development, with backs catching more balls out of the backfield as the passing game continues to take precedence in the typical offensive philosophy. This, too, was on full display in the title game, with both Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Travis Etienne finishing their respective season with over 400 receiving yards, and both catching five passes in the game itself.

Yet, LSU took it a step further most of the season. For as proficient a ball carrier as he was, Edwards-Helaire caught over 50 passes and it was not uncommon to see him shift out to the perimeter. This, again, is about creating favorable matchups. For example, when Edwards-Helaire shifts to the boundary, now, rather than being covered by a linebacker out of the backfield, which is a manageable matchup for Clemson, either a corner will need to slide out on him, a safety will pick him up, or that linebacker will be forced to leave the middle of the field.

Regardless of the defense’s decision, the offense has created an advantage. In one such case in the red zone, tonight, Joe Burrow called his number with the middle of the field cleared out. On another red zone try, it left Moss flexed out one-on-one and resulted in another touchdown.

Obviously, there are some positions in football that just aren’t really going to change. For instance, though inside receivers/tight ends’ roles have evolved, the primary responsibilities of a boundary receiver have not, nor will they probably ever. Same thing with offensive linemen. The way in which they’re asked to block may change, and some teams may favor smaller, more agile guys with better stamina than the traditional big maulers, but at the end of the day it’s always going to be five guys trying to win the line of scrimmage.

And, at the end of the day, a quarterback’s job is the same as it has always been: to put his offense in the best possible position to succeed. Granted, that means different things to different guys in different offenses, but the general idea holds true. That said, it’s becoming increasingly evident that, not as much in the NFL but certainly in college, making teams defend 11-on-11 should be a prerequisite. Both Trevor Lawrence and Burrow had double digit rushing attempts in New Orleans.

So, in a tale as old as time, when these offenses buy into the innovation, effectively implement it, and make it their own, the onus falls on defenses to counteract it. It goes without saying, the best way to counteract those versatile offensive chess pieces is with some chess pieces of your own. That, though, is easier said than done, and takes the right players in the hands of the right coach.

Like a couple of Bobby Fishers, both Brent Venables and Dave Aranda are experts when it comes to deploying those superior athletes when they have them.

Venables was an early pioneer in this respect. As Oklahoma’s co-defensive coordinator in 2000, he was tasked with slowing down Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke and his Florida State offense in the National Championship. He famously slid star safety Roy Williams up as a nickelback, rather than matching up a linebacker with a slot receiver. For scoreless quarters later from Weinke and co, the Sooners won 13-2 and the rest is history.

Fast forward roughly two decades and Venables stumbles upon the perfect specimen to perfect the “slot linebacker” position, Isaiah Simmons. Although, in reality, “slot linebacker” doesn’t even do his versatility justice.

According to Pro Football Focus, entering the contest, Simmons had played 256 snaps at slot corner, 239 at linebacker, 130 at deep safety, 106 as an edge rusher, and even a handful as a boundary corner in 2019. And he was elite at every single one of them, which is what separates him from the pack and makes him the perfect modern defender.

That’s the thing about innovation. The pioneers themselves don’t have to be great,  they just have to be good enough to make it attractive. At Clemson, for example, Dorian O’Daniel walked in 2017 so Isaiah Simmons could run these past few years.

Arando has been at this for some time, too. As a matter of fact, he probably found his perfect chess piece even before Venables did, back when Jamal Adams was roaming the Bayou. Adams’ legacy has since been picked up by Thorpe Award winner Grant Delpit, as well as JaCoby Stevens, who despite some occasional coverage lapses when he gets into tough one-on-one’s, has quietly put together an impressive campaign with multi-faceted production.

Football will never be truly positionless. That’s silly. However, the best teams right now are the ones that continue to push the boundaries, to find out just how positionless it can get. From the Clyde Edwards-Helaires and Thaddeus Mosses of the world to the Grant Delpits and Isaiah Simmons, it takes one-of-a-kind players to pull these hybrid positions off. It’s really hard to find direct comps for any of the above, and especially the latter two, but their unique talent is what spurs forth the innovation.

LSU’s National Championship victory over Clemson put on full display the evolution of the game. These players are rare right now, but they set the table for it to become the new normal.

Just like all the 6’11 guys in the NBA right now that shoot threes because they saw Dirk Nowitzki do it when they were kids, the next Isaiah Simmons and Grant Delpit are out there. Where they once would have been stuffed into a box, now they are free to explore their full potential.

Versatility is the new specialization, and these guys aren’t just jacks-of-all-masters of none. These guys are masters of all.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP