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Is it Time for Iowa to Retire the Fullback Position?

With Monte Pottebaum off to the NFL and a wealth of tight end talent, Iowa may benefit from running less 21 personnel and more two tight-end sets in 2023.

Iowa Spring Football Game Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Iowa football under Kirk Ferentz is nothing if not respectful of the history and traditions of both the program and the sport of college football at large. Ferentz is the dean of coaching at the FBS level, values continuity over change in both his coaching staff and his style of play (for better or worse), and frequently answers questions from the press by drawing parallels to Iowa teams from 40 years ago. While the world of college football has changed dramatically over the past 25 years, one would be hard-pressed to pick out many major differences between the way Ferentz’s early Iowa teams played in comparison to his more recent squads.

Maybe the biggest schematic indication of Iowa’s old-school approach to football under Ferentz is the continued use of the fullback. The fullback position has always played an important role in Iowa’s offense. Gordon Locke was a two-time All-American at fullback under Howard Jones and led the Hawkeyes to a 19-2 record as a starter, Dick Crayne spent nearly 70 years as Iowa’s highest-drafted player in the NFL until Robert Gallery dethroned him (Crayne was selected 4th overall in 1936), and Bill Reichardt was tapped by the Chicago Tribune as the best player in the Big Ten in 1951. Under Hayden Fry, fullbacks like Norm Granger and Lew Montgomery were valuable weapons as blockers, ball-carriers, and receivers and were staples of Iowa’s offensive sets. While fullbacks have not gotten as many touches under Ferentz with the exception of Jeremy Allen, Aaron Mickens, and fullback-to-tailback convert Mark Weisman, they continue to play an important role as a lead blocker in Iowa’s ground game.

However, the fullback has become an oddity in college football in recent decades. Only 20 FBS teams carried fullbacks on their rosters in 2022, and most use them only situationally in goal line or short-yardage scenarios. Aside from the service academies who frequently deploy fullbacks as ball-carriers in their triple option looks, Iowa likely spent as much time in 21 personnel with one running back and one fullback as any team in college football last year. Some of Iowa’s fascination with the fullback in 2022 can be attributed to the presence of Monte Pottebaum, a three-year starter at the position and veteran leader whose blocking prowess helped him earn the trust of coaches and admiration of Hawkeye fans. Iowa’s lack of available wide receivers also contributed to the Hawkeyes’ reliance on 21 personnel. Given Iowa’s struggles to put even two scholarship receivers on the field at once during the early portions of the season, one can understand why the coaches opted to give more snaps to a proven commodity like Pottebaum in hopes of jumpstarting the struggling Hawkeye run game.

Looking ahead to 2023, however, it is worth asking whether Iowa is poised to phase out the fullback position from its offense. Pottebaum has moved on to the NFL after receiving 1/5 of the carries in 2022 that he received in 2021 (three compared to 15), and the Hawkeyes currently have only two fullbacks listed on their roster compared to five from last year. Sophomore Eli Miller, who appeared to be the heir apparent after filling in for Pottebaum last season, is expected to miss this season due to injury, while sophomore walk-on Denin Lemouris has yet to see any game action. Iowa’s starting fullback in 2023 will likely be Hayden Large, a transfer tight end from Dordt College who joined the team as a preferred walk-on in January and has not played running back since high school. Ferentz has indicated that the Hawkeyes will continue to use 21 personnel next year, but it seems possible that Iowa may deploy that combination less than it has in years past or use Large more as an H-back (where he would occasionally line up at Dordt) than a traditional fullback in the I-formation.

Whether or not Large proves to be a capable fullback, Iowa might be best served by further scaling back the role of that position in its offensive scheme. Iowa’s fullbacks primarily serve as lead blockers in the running game, which gives the Hawkeyes another body capable of taking out a defender at the second level to create extra running room for the ball-carrier. However, Iowa can gain a similar blocking advantage by lining up in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends), while also taking advantage of the greater degree of flexibility that comes with having two dynamic tight ends on the field at once. Erick All and Luke Lachey may be the best tight end duo in the conference, and both players are skilled blockers, receivers, and route runners who can be deployed at multiple positions on the field. Iowa tends to run the ball more often than it passes when in its 21 personnel sets, and when it does pass out of these formations it rarely throws to the fullback (Pottebaum had ten catches for 85 yards in his three years as a starter). Playing All and Lachey at tight end instead of playing a fullback, however, would give Iowa a value-add in the running game (it’s no coincidence that some of Kaleb Johnson’s biggest runs last year came in two-tight end sets)

while also forcing defenses to account for two of the team’s best pass catchers and disincentivizing them from selling out to stop the run. Iowa also found some success running out of one-back sets last year, particularly with Kaleb Johnson receiving hand-offs out of the shotgun. While Iowa’s 21 personnel sets typically cause the defense to key in on the run, giving the ball to the back out of a spread formation can result in less congestion in the box and more open running lanes for the ball-carrier.

The fullback position can and should continue to play a role in Iowa’s offense going forward, particularly in goal line situations. Hayden Large may even prove himself to be a major asset at fullback this year given that he possesses a tight end’s skillset and should bring more of a receiving threat to that position than Iowa has had in recent years. However, if the Hawkeyes are forced to choose between playing 12 or 21 personnel, they would be better served by maximizing the number of snaps both All and Lachey get in 2023, even if that means less playing time for Iowa’s fullbacks. Don’t expect the fullback position to become completely extinct in Iowa City, but if ever there was a year when the Hawkeyes could move away from their 21 personnel sets without sacrificing their old-school, physical mentality on offense, 2023 may be it.