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The Curious Case of the Georgia Bulldogs' Incredible Disappearing Fullbacks

When you get right down to it, I like 50-yard field goals, rock-ribbed defensive stops for no gain, and running it between the tackles out of the I formation. Consequently, I like fullbacks, which is one of the reasons I like Mark Richt.

During Coach Richt’s tenure in the Classic City, after all, we have seen some of the finest fullbacks ever to suit up for the Georgia Bulldogs. Verron Haynes. J.T. Wall. Jeremy Thomas. Brannan Southerland. Shaun Chapas. Mention one of these damn good ‘Dawgs while standing in the presence of a handful of Georgia fans, and I can just about guarantee that one of them will rock back slightly on his heels and utter gutturally the nomenclature of the fullback in question as a show of respect, knowing nothing more needs to be said.

Just as the mark of a hot actress is the inability of the average American male to pronounce her surname without emphasizing how hot she is (e.g., Salma Hi-yak, Tia Carayr, Kristin Kreeeughk), so too is the mark of a good fullback the inability of the average fan to refer to the player other than reverently, identifying him resonantly while speaking deeply from the diaphragm. That’s how we honor fullbacks for not acting harried on short-yardage carries; we say their names, say their names. Accordingly, I feel moved to inquire, what in the world has happened to Georgia at the fullback spot?

Don’t get me wrong; I am in no way disrespecting the young men listed on the Red and Black roster as fullbacks---senior Bruce Figgins; sophomores Alexander Ogletree, Dustin Royston, and Drew Wilson; and freshmen Merritt Hall and Greg Mulkey---but I have some questions concerning the use that has been made of them as ballcarriers in 2011.

First, though, a bit of context is in order. Consider the good use Coach Richt’s clubs previously made of the fullback as a ballcarrier:

Year Player Att. Yds. TD
2001 Verron Haynes 26 132 3
2002 J.T. Wall 30 149 3
2003 Jeremy Thomas 24 62 2
2004 Jeremy Thomas 7 11 0
2005 Brannan Southerland 18 25 3
2006 Brannan Southerland 46 120 8
2007 Brannan Southerland 17 24 5
2008 Shaun Chapas 7 25 0
2009 Shaun Chapas 7 45 1
2010 Shaun Chapas 15 44 2

Note: In 2001, Haynes started four games at fullback and four games at tailback. The above statistics reflect only Haynes’s numbers from the first six games of the 2001 season, and do not include his numbers beginning with his first start at running back in the seventh game of the season.

Under Coach Richt, the Bulldog fullbacks rarely have had high yards-per-carry averages, but their production has been significant; the few yards they have tallied have generated a disproportionate degree of first downs and touchdowns. These numbers generally have been in decline in recent years, but this is not due to a lack of talent at the position, as Shaun Chapas was a seventh-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys, for whom he started for the first time in their December 4 game against the Arizona Cardinals.

In spite of the overall downward trend, however, this has been the worst year yet for fullback production. Between them, the Bulldogs’ half-dozen fullbacks have combined for just two total carries in 2011. Through 13 games, the Classic City Canines’ fullbacks between them have five fewer rushing attempts than they have pass receptions.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Zander Ogletree, who has appeared in all 13 games yet started only one, has toted the rock twice this autumn, once each in the season’s last two games, against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and the LSU Tigers. Ogletree collected 24 yards in the process. No other Georgia fullback has taken a handoff this fall. Bruce Figgins, despite starting eight games, has seven catches for 96 yards and one score, but he has no rushing attempts, nor do the other four Bulldogs listed at the position.

In 2011, no Red and Black fullback has scored a touchdown on a running play.

In 2011, no Red and Black fullback has been credited with a carry between the hedges.

Has that ever happened before? (Bear in mind that, over the course of the last four seasons, Fred Munzenmaier had a combined 28 carries for 68 yards and four touchdowns, despite starting only four games during that span.) Unless Figgins, Ogletree, or one of their coevals finds the end zone in the Outback Bowl, 2011 will be just the second year of the Mark Richt era, and the first since 2004, in which no Georgia fullback scores a rushing touchdown.

Strictly speaking, of course, there were four games this year in which there was no starting fullback for Georgia, as the ‘Dawgs opened in three-wide receiver sets against the Boise St. Broncos, the Mississippi St. Bulldogs, and the Florida Gators, and in a two-tight end set against the aforementioned Louisiana State Bayou Bengals. Even so, though, that seems like a serious underutilization of a position the Athenians employed to such good effect during the decade preceding this season.

Consider, for instance, the frequency with which fullbacks previously got the ball on third- or fourth-and-short, a maneuver which resulted in a first down agreeably often. Indeed, both fullback carries this season were in that situation: Ogletree ran the ball on third and two in the third quarter of the Georgia Tech game and on third and one in the second quarter of the SEC Championship Game, and he moved the chains both times. How many times did we see that happen in the first ten years of the Mark Richt era?

Perhaps the Georgia coaching staff thought it unnecessary to use the fullback in this manner, and perhaps the Georgia coach staff was right; after all, the Bulldogs’ third- and fourth-down conversion percentages both increased between 2010 and 2011. Last year, the Red and Black moved the chains 40.5 per cent of the time on third down (66 of 163) and 53.3 per cent of the time on fourth down (8 of 15). This year, the Classic City Canines picked up the requisite yardage on 43.5 per cent of their third-down plays (87 of 200) and on 57.9 per cent of their fourth-down attempts (11 of 19). (Please note that the ‘Dawgs went for it on fourth down more frequently in 2011 than in 2010; maybe Coach Richt is attentive to constructive criticisms.)

While the conversion percentages were up, though, Georgia only barely finished in the top half of the league in rushing offense this autumn, despite fielding SEC freshman of the year Isaiah Crowell. The Bulldogs’ 172.7 yards per game on the ground were good enough only for fifth-best in the SEC, and, had the Red and Black managed just 5.2 fewer rushing yards per contest, they’d have finished eighth in the conference in that category. A few fullback carries might have improved those figures.

Such speculation aside, however, the trend remains clear. Barring an unthinkable breakout game by Zander Ogletree against the Michigan St. Spartans, 2011 will be the fifth straight season in which no Georgia fullback accrues more than 17 carries or more than 45 yards. Unless Ogletree gets the campaign’s third carry and nets at least six feet of forward progress in Tampa, this will be the third autumn in the last five years in which the leading ground-gainer among Bulldog fullbacks amasses no more than 25 rushing yards. Likewise, this appears destined to be the fourth straight autumn in which the Red and Black’s top fullback finishes with no more than five touchdowns, and it seems likely to be the third straight in which the team’s leading blocking back ends up with no more than one rushing score to his credit.

What, then, are we to conclude? Is the fullback simply an anachronism who has no place in the revamped up-tempo Bulldog offense of 2011? Does the play-calling simply reflect the personnel present in the Classic City in the current day, given the talents of Aaron Murray and the multitude of pass-catching weapons (including Bruce Figgins) at Mike Bobo’s disposal? Is the need to use the fullback as a blocker rather than a ballcarrier reflective of the thinness of the offensive line and the inexperience of the tailback rotation, or is a potentially worthwhile element of the arsenal going unused? Let me know below.

Go ‘Dawgs!