Iowa Football: How the "Y" Back Is a Step Forward for the Hawkeyes' Offense

David Fidler Correspondent IApril 1, 2013

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 01:  C.J. Fiedorowicz #86 of the Iowa Hawkeyes runs after a catch as Victor Jacques #40 of the Northern Illinois Huskies moves in for the tackle at Soldier Field on September 1, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Iowa defeated Northern Illinois 18-17.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

At the Iowa Hawkeyes' spring practice kickoff, head coach Kirk Ferentz unveiled the first depth chart of the season, the biggest surprise of which was the absence of a fullback and the inclusion of a "Y" back.

The question is what exactly is a "Y" back, and what does it mean for the Hawks and their offense?

The "Y" back finds its origins in former San Diego Chargers' coach Don Coryell's offense, better known as Air Coryell, which Bleacher Report featured columnist Alen Dumonjic detailed in a recent article.

However, the more Ferentz- and offensive coordinator (OC) Greg Davis-related origins go back to former Washington Redskins' head coach and Coryell disciple, Joe Gibbs.

As Danny Knitzer detailed on Redskins' site, Gibbs came to prominence at a time when the I-formation dominated both pro and college football. The I-formation utilized a fullback, but unlike the pre-1980s fullback, this fullback mostly served as a blocker.

Gibbs' great innovation was to ask why the offense should have an eligible ball carrier do nothing but block. Knitzer further notes:

What Joe Gibbs did was substitute that blocking fullback and put in a third wide receiver, a play maker. And when that third receiver lined up wide, the defense had to respect that and take a defender out of the box to line up on the wide receiver. Not only did this help the passing game but the more spread out formation stretched the defense horizontally and the passing threat stretched them vertically. The formation decreases the defense in the box by 18% which opens up a lot of natural space for the running back.

The block-first fullback has generally served as Kirk Ferentz's 11th offensive starter throughout much of his tenure. Consider Tom Busch, a three-year starter at fullback for the Hawks between 2005-2007. Busch had only 44 touches during his entire career.

Brett Morse was the three-year starter at fullback between 2008-2010, and he only had 20 touches.

The most recent starter—Brad Rogers, who retired due to health issues—missed a number of games due to injury, but he touched the ball only seven times during his two abbreviated years as starting fullback (he also received a number of touches in 2010 as a tailback).

It appears that Ferentz, perhaps prodded by Davis, has realized the sense of utilizing an extra offensive weapon. 

Davis described his "Y" and "B" backs to Marc Morehouse of the Cedar Rapids Gazette. He referred to the "B" back as "the ‘move’ guy. He has to be able to be a back, tight end and wide receiver."***

In other words, the "B" back, which can also be called a second tight end or an H-back, gives the offense versatility that the fullback rarely provides. The B or H back is also relevant in the run game, as detailed.

If one looks at Joe Gibbs' 1986, 1992 or 1993 playbooks, one will notice most of the plays are single-back formations with the first tight end marked "Y" and the second tight end marked "H." Iowa will likely have a similar—though scaled down—playbook with similar terminology and, like Gibbs, unpredictability with its tight ends.

Historically, as detailed, Iowa under Ferentz had the habit of telegraphing its plays based on its personnel.

A run was likely if the Hawks were in an I-formation. If the Hawks brought out a third receiver, then it was going to be a pass. And if the fullback was on the field, then there was little threat of him touching the football. Consequently, the defense didn't have to account for the fullback as a scoring threat.

This predictability allowed opposing teams to stack the box, blitz and drop into a pass prevent accordingly with minimal risk that they were going to get burned.

However, putting two tight ends and one running back on the field is less predictable than the other formations in that it offers any number of variations regarding how those tight ends will be used. Either of the tight ends could begin on the line, in the slot, in the backfield or even out wide, and he would be able to motion elsewhere on the field.

Furthermore, two tight ends fits in seamlessly with what Ferentz has always done. In fact, two tight ends are not a new feature in Iowa's offense.

For instance, in 2009, starting tight end Tony Moeaki caught 30 passes for 387 yards, while No. 2 tight end Allen Reisner added in 14 receptions for 143 yards. In 2008, Moeaki, Reisner and Brandon Myers were the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 pass-catchers on the team.

In 2006, top tight end Scott Chandler had 46 receptions for 591 yards, and Moeaki, in an injury-shortened year, chipped in 11 catches for 140 yards.

What makes the initial 2013 depth chart different is that the two-tight end package seems to be the base offense with the fullback serving as a role player rather than an every-down player.

Hopes are that the Hawks will not only field this more versatile package, but also use those versatile tight ends to create mismatches as so many of the best offenses in the country do with their tight ends.

For example, Stanford has gone 35-5 over the last three seasons, and two of its top three pass-catchers in 2012 were tight ends. In 2011, three of the top six were tight ends.

Penn State, which rejuvenated its offense in 2012 thanks to new coach Bill O'Brien's innovative offensive schemes, saw tight ends as three of its top five pass catchers last year.

Oregon has led the Pac-12 in plays over thirty yards for each of the past three years, and its top tight end—Cole Lyerla—had the highest yards-per-catch (YPC) average of the Ducks' top nine pass-catchers in 2012. In 2010 and 2011, tight end David Paulson had the top YPC of any Duck who caught more than 10 passes.

Meanwhile, one of Iowa's current co-starting Y-backs—Jake Duzey—boasted an Oregon offer out of high school. Moreover, two of Iowa's tight ends—starter C.J. Fiedorowicz and backup Ray Hamilton—were listed by Rivals as top 10 at their positions coming out of high school.

Also, Iowa's offensive line coach, Brian Ferentz, was the New England Patriots tight ends coach under then-Pats' OC Bill O'Brien.

In 2011, while Ferentz was still the Patriots tight ends coach, ESPN's Matt Williamson described New England's use of its tight ends "like no other team in the league." Generally speaking, Hawkeyes fans were excited about Ferentz getting hired as the offensive line coach, and this was much of the reason why.

Unfortunately, Brian Ferentz didn't appear to have much input in his first year on the staff.

As Iowa blog detailed regarding the no-huddle offense, ultra-conservative Kirk Ferentz is known for talking up different ideas and schemes only to go back to what he is familiar with.

Hopefully, the new depth chart and dual tight ends are a sign that Kirk Ferentz is listening to Greg Davis and Brian Ferentz. Iowa needs to implement and commit to serious changes following 2012's pathetic (and boring) offensive outing which saw the Hawks finish 113th in the country in scoring offense.

Putting in a Y, B, H or whichever letter gives the Hawks an extra threat to make a play every time the offense takes the field, and, according to Ferentz (via Morehouse), that is exactly what the 2013 Iowa Hawkeyes are trying to do.

***The Y-back is the extra tight end on the depth chart, but Davis describes the B-back as the second tight end. It's difficult to say which is which, but it is evident that the new starter is a second tight end and he will be used like an H-back.


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