2 fullbacks, 2 very different jobs heading into Rose Bowl
LOS ANGELES (AP) Oklahoma’s Dimitri Flowers and Georgia’s Christian Payne have the same title but very different job descriptions.
Both are listed as fullbacks. For Flowers, that’s really a misnomer. Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley thinks of Flowers as an H-back, as in hybrid. The senior lines up everywhere – receiver, tight end, tailback – allowing the Sooners’ offense to quickly morph from one look to another.
Payne, meanwhile, is the quintessential fullback for Georgia. The senior lines up in front of a tailback and blocks – and that’s pretty much it.
”I’m not used like a lot of fullbacks in the country, and that just goes to attribute to coach (Lincoln) Riley and how smart he is on the offensive side of the ball,” Flowers said. ”It’s kind of crazy to see that we play the same position, but do almost two totally different things.”
No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 3 Georgia meet for the first time Monday at the Rose Bowl in a College Football Playoff semifinal that features two ways of playing offense. The Sooners’ spread highlights the modern move toward position-less football, with players who can be mixed and matched to provide a variety of options for Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield. The Bulldogs take a more traditional approach to offense, while still keeping opponents guessing. Nowhere is the difference between the two styles more apparent than the No. 1 fullbacks on each team’s depth chart.
Flowers was a three-star recruit out of San Antonio, Texas, who did a little bit of everything in high school, including play quarterback. Finding a player with the physical skills to handle what the Sooners expect from him is not as challenging as finding one capable of handling all there is to learn.
”Really, really, tough,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said Saturday at Rose Bowl media day. ”Most guys, just learning to play one position well is difficult. For (Flowers), you’re talking about playing three of four different positions and being able to do them at a high level.”
Flowers said he has lined up in as many as eight different spots during a single game.
”Besides quarterback, he’s got to know as much as anybody,” co-offensive coordinator Cale Gundy said.
Flowers has only 36 touches this season (13 carries and 23 catches), but he has scored eight touchdowns (four rushing and four receiving). As a runner, the 247-pounder mostly handles short yardage, averaging 2.0 yards per carry. As a receiver, he is a big-play threat at 17.9 yards a catch.
Flowers’ versatility allows the Sooners to operate up-tempo because they don’t need to change personnel as often. Tight end Mark Andrews provides similar benefits. The All-American is split out wide or lined up in the slot far more than he is in tight, next to an offensive tackle. He’ll occasionally line up in the backfield. Running back Rodney Anderson is also a major part of Oklahoma’s passing game, with 16 catches for 283 yards and five touchdowns.
”They can be in one personnel grouping and be in a two-back pro set, and then next play they can be in a three-receiver set, and the next they can be a four-wide receiver set. Then they can be in empty, with the same personnel on the field,” Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. ”It puts a lot of pressure on your defense.”
The pressure Georgia puts on a defense with Payne is all about brute force. The hometown hero from Athens, Georgia, came to the Bulldogs as a walk-on linebacker under former coach Mark Richt, who also used prototypical fullbacks. During Payne’s freshman year, coaches found themselves a short on healthy fullbacks in practice and grabbed Payne away from the defense.
”I was like, shoot, that’s my way to get on the field,” Payne said.
Still, the opportunities are limited. Traditional offenses aren’t so traditional anymore. Georgia uses multiple wide-receiver looks and multiple tight ends, and at times has star tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel on the field at the same time. When the 242-pound Payne is out there, it is to pave the way for running backs or protect the quarterback. Payne has 11 rushes for 47 yards and 12 catches (none this season) for 119 yards and one touchdown in his career.
”I know playing fullback is not a very glorified position,” Payne said. ”I really, really enjoy seeing Chubb and Sony and Bryan Herrien and Elijah Holyfield … scoring touchdowns. If I’m on the field and they score a touchdown, it makes me feel like I did my job.”
Georgia will use Michel and star freshman runner D’Andre Swift as a slot receiver on occasion, but for the most part a defense knows who will be lining up where.
”I wouldn’t classify us as some new cutting edge of football,” offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said.
Maybe not, but there is nothing simple about preparing for the Bulldogs.
”They probably have more formations than we do,” Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. ”How they manipulate the game with their personnel is unique. How they move their players, why they move them, what they’re trying to get to. Their plays don’t change a lot. Just their looks.”
As for Flowers, one of the most versatile players in the country, he doesn’t shy away from that old-school label.
”Oh, I’d for sure call myself a fullback,” he said. ”Definitely.”
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