Hokepoints: Fifty Shades of Shea

Submitted by Seth on August 20th, 2013 at 11:18 AM


In this week's podcast Brian alluded again to his spectrum of blocky-hitty to catchy-outie or whatever. Most of this has been touched on before but I thought I might delve a little further into the Fullback/U-back/Tight end descriptors and what Borges means to do with his shiny new knife set.

The positions

The coaches call them fullback (Kerridge and Houma), U-back (Shallman and Hill) and Y-Tight End (Funchess, Williams, Butt and Paskorz). By now you ought to be familiar with all of them but just in case:

  • Fullback: lines up in the backfield in a position to receive a handoff; may be split, offset, or inline. Kerridge is your pure blocker type; he'll wander out to be a pass option out of the backfield but I've yet to see him run a route more than a few yards from the L.O.S. Houma is supposed to be more of a combo blocker-runner; his quick burst of acceleration and compact body force defenses to respect the threat of a quick dive from him.
  • U-back: lines up in the backfield but nearer to the edge of the line, usually outside the tackle opposite the Y-tight end. May also line up as an end (on the line) if the receiver to his side is not on it. This position really encompasses anybody between pure fullback and pure tight end. Wyatt Shallman is the more fullbackian as he's more of a running threat than a pass-catching option, though his size makes him a strong edge blocker. Khalid Hill is an interesting guy for the U since he's supposed to be an accomplished pass catcher and route runner, yet can still lay fullback-like blocks.
  • Y-Tight End: lines up on the line (and thus can't move before snap) next to the tackle. A guy whose skills lean receiver may "FLEX" out, which is a fancy way of saying he's playing possession slot receiver. A.J. Williams and to a lesser extent Jordan Paskorz represent the "more like another offensive tackle who may go out and catch something sometimes" end of the Y spectrum, while Funchess and Butt are both on the "more like another receiver who may block something sometimes" extreme. Getting production from this spot this year hinges on getting somebody to get adequate at the part he's not great at, the most likely candidate being Funchess's blocking.

[Jump for discussion and guys and whatnots]

In his time at Michigan Shea also
made fabulous julienne fries.

The idea

Not everyone can be Aaron Shea. Aaron arrived in the 1995 class at a offensive line-like 6'5"/260. He took a redshirt, got down to 235 as a redshirt freshman, and was up to 251 again his senior year in 1999. Michigan played him all over the spectrum, from I-form fullback down to line tight end (though Tuman was usually the Y in that period). He'd be the lone back on those passing downs where Brady would sit in the pocket, then sit a little longer, then either remain sitting until a receiver opened up downfield, or find an open Shea leaking out into the pattern.

By the end of his career Shea was a masterful route runner, which he combined with his athleticism and soft hands to defeat linebackers who tried to cover him. It had to be LBs because he presented a major size problem to defensive backs. He was a lockdown pass blocker, able to stonewall a nose tackle as well as any guard, maintain edge control for as long as it takes to set up a double-reverse or Transcontinental; and a devastating run blocker, able to demolish up to three potential tacklers in a single play.* He was a fair fullbackian ballcarrier who maxed out at six carries in a game, averaging more like 1 or 2.

All of those bolded skills, to which I'd add speed and leaping are what you look for in a FB/TE. That's an awful lot of tools. At most positions standing out in just one or two of these nine can make you successful. However a TE or FB needs at least two in abundance to justify being in there instead of another back or receiver, else the defense will just key to that guy's strength.

Let's see if I can provide an example. In the play below Michigan is running a high-low or "smash" concept—an old fashioned cover-2 beater because it puts receivers to both the top and bottom of the corner's zone—to both sides:

With a U-back:smash1ubackSame thing with a slot receiver:

smash2slotOne difference between the play with the U-back and the one with the slot receiver is the defensive personnel. Note that the defense deployed a typical 4-3 under against the Ace 2TE look whereas they'll often put in a nickel when they see the offense trot out three receivers. Obviously you'd rather pass into fewer defensive backs. In the examples above the free safety covering the middle zone will mean the other DBs can worry less about the deep middle and will thus be more likely to narrow the gap between their zones and those of the cornerbacks.

However in order to get that matchup the U-back needs to be a competent enough blocker to convince the defense he's not an extra receiver. And he needs to actually be a threatening pass option. That means his route running must be good enough to hold the linebacker to the inside, his cut and speed need to be good enough to create separation from that linebacker after holding him inside, and he needs the hands and athleticism to turn around and get that pass with a defensive back coming up on him.

Bonus: Usually he's big enough that the charging cornerback just goes "clang!" This play was a staple of Shea's era. Sometimes you would see him put a helpful block on the defensive end before going into that route.

As you progress up toward the fullback end of the spectrum the more you trade receiver attributes for what he can add to the running game.


The pattern has changed; it's no longer a smash on the left side. Rather the fullback is there to scream "we're running power!" (especially if he pre-snaps to the strong side). If he's a devastating run blocker and you've been establishing a running game like this the defense will start overreacting and now you've got lots of extra space for those receivers. If you haven't established that fear of a running game, however, you can make up for it by having that fullback also be a run threat or a receiving threat out of the backfield. Remember Brian Thompson? Never a particularly great blocker, but he was adequate enough at that to justify getting his receiving skills on the field. B.J. Askew was an adequate enough blocker to justify getting his running skills on the field.

The blocking for a fullback is different than that for a tight end; he's more like a guard or center versus the tackle-type blocking you'll expect from your Y. A fullback is often a lead blocker; in pass pro he often collects whatever broke through or assists the one-on-one linemen. A tight end's blocking is a lot more arms-oriented and point-of-attack (especially if he's the Y): driving his guy downfield, finding and latching onto a linebacker downfield, or just maintaining an edge block.

The future:

Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien is a master of these multi-tool tight ends, and under their current sanctions he's making them the centerpiece of his offense. Michigan isn't going to get that extreme, if for no other reason than we're still allowed to recruit lots of wide receivers, and we've got really good ones on the roster and on the way. But here's a little example of something you will probably see Michigan one day:


Threats: convincing play-action as Michigan lines up heavy and sends the FB and RB into the hole they've been running at all day (these guys can run patterns too). The U-back and X receiver are running a smash to the weak side cornerback, who is all alone versus these two guys because the safety and linebacker on his side are lined up to react to the run. Meanwhile you've got a really tall, really leapy Y tight end looking for holes in a zone ostensibly covered by the same middle linebacker who's dealing with the RB and FB; those other defenders are going to have to abandon their own zones on the fly in order to deal with him.

And oh yeah those RBs once they're done being run bait can become passing targets or extra blockers:smash4UFYback

When he's done screwing with the MIKE's keys, that fullback can now scoot into the flat and be the under in another smash. This was just one passing concept; Borges can have his entire West Coast passing game available out of a set that just screams power running. You run into an Aaron Shea once in a lifetime; what Michigan has done is recruit a bunch of multi-tools so as to threaten all the things from a variety of formations.


*I would show the video of that again but the creeps did their thing to it. I guess send another letter to [email protected]?

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Space Coyote

August 20th, 2013 at 11:51 AM ^

It might also be helpful to take the play you drew up with the FB and show how play action can be used to get the FB in the flat, and therefore you have the same play from 3 different formations, potentially threatening the defenses in various ways in the run game: Ace 2TE, Stretch to Y-TE; Ace Slot, HB Draw; Off-set I, Counter Iso. Even with you're 22 personnel you can slip the FB out to the left side and still run a high/low effectively on both sides and show play action off power.

Defenses have to look for different keys and protect against different offensive strengths, so you've complicated things for the defense, but kept things very simple for the offense.

Also note that the U-back tends to be a little more athletic and a bit better pass catcher. Your Y-TE will often stay in for pass protection, whereas you U-back is typically going to take advantage of the fact that it's difficult to hold him up at the LOS when he releases in pass routes. You can get away with being leaning at U-back to help keep up speed in the pass game. Funchess will play a lot of snaps at U-back when there is another TE in the game for this reason.

Ron Utah

August 20th, 2013 at 1:13 PM ^

Funchess is going to be used at U-back an awful lot this season.  Being able to motion Funchess not only helps get him into better positions, but also forces the defense to tip their hand on how they are going to cover him.

Funchess is most definitely NOT a typical Y-TE, and we'll actually even see him motion into and out of the backfield, IMO.

The U-back can also motion into the slot, a spot where Funchess can do some real damage.

I expect that Funchess is standing up (not an in-line TE in a 3-point stance) on about 2/3 of his snaps this fall.  He may start in a 3-pt stance a bit more often, but more often than not we should expect to see him standing-up by the time the ball is snapped.


August 20th, 2013 at 11:47 AM ^

Loved me some Shea back when he was at UM.  Hopefully this is a nice position for a guy like Shallman, who seems like a good enough mix of size and catching ability.


August 20th, 2013 at 11:49 AM ^

When Michigan strictly had non-athletic pocket passers, it seems an eon ago now, the fullback and tight end were actual weapons of destruction for splitting defenses and exploiting the goal line. There are many ways to attack the edge without an unaccountable speed option --though that's always appreciated.

This explanation of how it was with Aaron Shea, a highly versatile and dependable guy who was constantly moved around, as the article notes, made the development of that position at Michigan more than highly productive but dangerous. And today, you can clearly see how NFL teams regularly use certain personnel and their varous strengths in those power positions to their advantage in the same way. Brady,  Brees and Ryan immediately come to mind in making that position and fullback killer defense attack points, making hardly noticeable receiver types dynamic playmakers. 


August 20th, 2013 at 11:57 AM ^

Awesome article.

I understand the matchup advantages that Borges is trying to develop. However, I don't really know enough about our opponents schemes and personnel.

Who will these work best against? I'm guessing smurfy DBs and LBs without good coverage skills. Northwestern?

Which teams are equipped to deal with this? I'm guessing OSU because they probably have bigger, faster dudes, but I think they're breaking in a new nickelback, and I'm not sure if he's a Courtney Avery type or a Dymonte Thomas type. Looks like the first chart with the smash routes doesn't really do anything to occupy the inside LBs. Should I worry about that MSU double A-gap blitz killing the concept?

Monocle Smile

August 20th, 2013 at 12:05 PM ^

Crappy corner play from them kept us in last year's game and pretty much won it for us. That should be an even bigger advantage for us this year given the physical abilities of the younger receivers.

I think part of the trick is to have formations that don't invite the nickel defense and then send out enough receiving targets such that they don't have enough defensive backs to cover your doodz. Then when they adjust by throwing the nickel or dime against these same formations, audible to a run and beat their brains in.


August 20th, 2013 at 12:43 PM ^

As I see it, Borges's "Swiss Army Knife" goal is to be a matchup issue for absolutely anyone. I think the best analogy actually comes from basketball - they talk about how great teams can beat you in multiple ways. The key is to have an answer for whatever the defense does. Think of LeBron - put a quick defender on him and he will post up and use his size. Guard him with a Big and Lebron is too quick, etc.

For Borges, having these options should work against any defense. If Michigan is pounding a team and the D brings on a heavy package he can split the TE out wide and line them up in space. If they're not running the ball well, he can come out with a multiple receiver set and go more horizontal. If the offensive personnel is Gallon, Funchess, Butt, Houma, Fitz, the D is probably going to go base or heavy. That's a package with 1 WR.

The D will be expecting a run, and Borges can run with 2TEs and a FB. However, Borges can split Funchess and Butt out wide and use Houma as a U and run whatever passing plays he wants, and good luck to the LBs who have to match up with Funchess and Butt.


August 20th, 2013 at 12:57 PM ^

I mean, I'm high on this offense too, but that is just an unrealistic viewpoint (i.e. will work against anyone). The modern spread-to-run offense with zone blocking is supposed to "work against anyone" if you read the homer blogposts describing the reads, but then defenses went to scrape exchanges which helped to negate the read. I'm curious about a defensive counter to the concepts described above.

Also interested in personnel. The article above generalizes players based on positions and generally accepted qualities about the position (e.g. LB bigger, but not as good at covering as a DB). Our opponents' defenses have lots of options for personnel and formations; some players can probably deal with everything we'd throw at them. Think Jake Ryan blowing up option plays by being everywhere at once.

Monocle Smile

August 20th, 2013 at 1:05 PM ^

So you gameplan around those players. Go after the weak parts instead. The best defenses aren't those with no weaknesses; they're the ones good at covering them up. Sometimes it's hard to expose the flaws, but this is one strategy. If nothing else, these plays at least give you an idea of which intended matchups are indeed advantages.


August 20th, 2013 at 1:30 PM ^


If you scroll down to the 3-3-5 section, you'll see my initial impression of a defense designed to beat some of these presumed Borges concepts. You've got lots of coverage and speed, and decent size (this being Alabama). I'm sure there are soft spots in the zones where you might be able to shoehorn some of these routes.

Do you think any of our scheduled opponents have some or all of the pieces, scheme, and defensive coaching ability to run something like that? Maybe MSU? Although they tend to leave their corners on islands, exposing them to smash routes.

Obviously, we dont have to worry about Bama until the BCS title game XD

Monocle Smile

August 20th, 2013 at 3:06 PM ^

If the strategy to beat these concepts is to have all of your defensive players be big, fast, and good at football, then no shit.

MSU is really it, although you're right about island corners. They also like to blitz up the middle like whoa, so Dileo/Funchess better be running drag or stick routes underneath all day or Borges' testes will be on the chop block.


August 20th, 2013 at 5:37 PM ^

Well you could switch up coverages.

Really it's meant to work against everybody. Once you get down to the last two diagrams you're looking at a power offense that can just do really mean things to any defense. They all run about the same coverages. Iowa will sit in a Cov2 all day; MSU and OSU use a ton of quarters. Let's imagine the below as a base offense:

Imagine the offensive line grows into a huge and very strong manblocking unit as their profiles suggested. We've got Green at tailback, Shallman, at fullback, a filled out Funchess and Butt at Y, Hill at U. That's a pretty decent group of guys who can make most defenses need to play unsound against the pass or else get pounded with ISOs all day.

Stopping the passing plays out of this formation come down to neutralizing the run as a threat. Late downs and long distances make the threat of a 5-yard run one you're happy to give up.

A team that could stop this offense isn't so hard to imagine; look at Ohio State last year. Here's our scenario: the guard and center are doubling Johnathan Hankins and he's still not budging, however we're winning the 1-on-1 battle between the right tackle. So Fickell has instructed his defense to align like they're hell-bent on stopping the run, however they're still in a Cov2.

Notice the strongside is just overloaded with guys. The guy getting high-lowed is the SAM except OSU has their "Star" linebacker in there and he's as much a safety as a cornerback so he's capable of covering the zone getting smashed.OSU can get away with bringing down their CB and SS because they are Bradley Roby and C.J. Barnett, respectively, and those guys have a ton of speed. Plus they're not very worried about the run since Michigan would have to be fools to run into that. Just in case however the MIKE and WILL have pretty easy routes to cover. Meanwhile that WILL is Ryan Shazier, and he has more than enough athleticism to stay with any U-back.


August 20th, 2013 at 12:18 PM ^

So am I wrong to expect Williams and Funchess on the field at the same time even though they're both listed at Y?

Borges very frequently uses 2-TE sets.  Last year, there was lots of Kwaitkowski-Funchess and the year before lots of Koger-Watson.  This year, I figured more of the same with Williams-Funchess.

Without being familiar with all the terminology, my understanding was that one TE was more of a blocker (Kwiatkowski/Watson) and the other more of a receiver (Koger/Funchess).  Though obviously both TEs need to do both, I figured Williams would be the blocker, Funchess the receiver, with Paskorz backing up Williams and Butt backing up Funchess.

I don't know how to fit these assumptions if these guys are all at Y.


August 20th, 2013 at 11:34 PM ^

So I figured what post to be my first than one where I can show off one of my favorite pictures. I have no idea how to post picture but my profile picture is me and Shea. He was at a bar in chicago with his family for the Northwestern vs Michigan game two years ago(Michigans epic comeback). My buddy went right up to him(an OSU fan) and introduced us and he couldnt of been a nicer and cooler guy. He talked for a good half hour and watched the game and had a drink with us while his kids played around. I asked if I could take a picture and show off the ring, little did I know he would take off the ring for me to hold and I felt like a kid at Christmas. Still one of my favorite memories ever.