Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Aced Out | by Michael

The title of "Strongest Man" on the Irish football squad has been relinquished-- fullback Asaph Schwapp has decided to forego a fifth year and enter the NFL draft. No official announcement has been made, but #44 is conspicuously absent from the official spring roster.

The original "rocked up unit," Schwapp may likely be remembered best for his physique and bench press records (530 pounds last summer) rather than his play. However, his career at Notre Dame -- and more specifically, how he was used -- sparks great debate and interest about the role of the fullback in a Weis offense.

As a true freshman in 2005, Schwapp entered the fray immediately. Although Rashon Powers-Neal was the returning fullback on the roster, Schwapp supplanted him in several personnel groupings. (At the same time, though, Powers-Neal was still utilized as the "big back" in other groupings.) In 2005, Schwapp carried the ball 17 times for 47 yards in normal game action (plus a handful of other carries in mop-up against BYU). The majority (12) of those carries occurred in short yardage situations, and Schwapp converted eight of those for first downs. However, all four failures came in the loss to Michigan State, as he was stuffed three times and also fumbled away a critical fourth and goal.

For the rest of the year, though, Schwapp was unstoppable; he converted his last seven attempts, including two against the vaunted Buckeye defense in the Fiesta Bowl. Weis also tried to incorporate Schwapp into the passing game, but without much success. Schwapp was thrown eight balls, but only three were completed for 27 yards. Of course, one cannot talk about passes to Schwapp without mentioning the incomplete pass from Brady Quinn on 3rd & 8 from the USC 17-yard line. Schwapp was wide open in the flat but the ball sailed over his head. Did he slow down too much? Was Quinn not accustomed yet to throwing that pass to Schwapp? Did Powers-Neal's suspension prevent the Irish from having a more natural receiver in the pattern? Regardless of who should be assigned fault, the image of Schwapp all alone in the flat has been etched into the collective consciousness of Irish fans. Not only did the Irish, who were up by three points, fail to score a touchdown on the drive, but they also missed the subsequent field goal. Scoring on that drive would have probably iced the win.

For the first game and a half of 2006, it seemed that Weis intended to utilize Schwapp in the same manner as the previous season. Prior to a season-ending injury against Penn State, Schwapp had four carries for 15 yards and converted both of his short yardage situations. One ball was thrown in his direction, and he dropped it. There were also some missed blocks against the athletic Georgia Tech defense that garnered the critical eye of fans. Then he was injured, and the fullback all but disappeared as a ball carrier for the rest of the year. (Ashley McConnell, Schwapp's nominal replacement, had 3 rushes and 2 catches the rest of the way.)

Schwapp returned in 2007, but it seemed as though he was still recovering from his injury, both physically and mentally. He ran the ball 12 times behind the young and inexperienced Irish offensive line, and managed only 14 yards. Worse yet, he fumbled twice, against Air Force and Stanford. It also appeared as though Weis was no longer relying on Schwapp as a reliable short yardage runner but rather as a rare changeup against unsuspecting defenses. A surprising number of carries came on first and ten, which is also why the fumbles were that much more frustrating to fans. Ironically, that usage is exactly what fans have criticized Weis for in 2008; many believe that more fullback dives and counters should have been called to keep defenses from keying on the halfbacks. As a lead blocker, the mistakes tolerated by fans as "he's a freshman" in 2005 began to generate heavy criticism. Too many times, Schwapp was spotted in replays running past the defenders he was supposed to block.

Schwapp's blocking greatly improved in 2008 and should even be labeled a strength. He opened a number of holes, especially in short yardage situations. Consider this: the Irish faced 3rd or 4th and short eight times in 2008 with Regular (2 backs, 1 TE) personnel, and they converted seven times. The only time that the defense stuffed them was against Hawaii. On the flip side, nine times the Irish used Two Tites (2 TE, 2 backs), and only four times were they successful. However, Schwapp's block was successful in each of those plays -- the breakdowns occurred elsewhere.

The days of carrying the ball, however, were long gone. Schwapp was given one carry all year long, a fullback draw of all things, against Boston College. He was thrown the ball just twice, play action both times, and not surprisingly, he was open both times, for 13 yards. By the end of the season, the fullback had devolved into a one-dimensional player whom defenses could essentially ignore. Three touches in twelve games. Three out of 850+ offensive plays. Here are the three times Schwapp touched the ball.

It's understandable that the coaches preferred giving the ball in short yardage to Aldridge or Hughes, but the "highlight" reel raises the question: why not force defenses to account for all of the skill position players on the field? Why not give the fullback a carry or two per game to keep the defense honest; why not throw him the occasional pass in the flat to prevent linebackers from drifting toward the tight end and other receivers?

plays by the fullback
passes to (comp or inc)
The last time the Irish put a fullback on the field that deserved such attention from defenses was Powers-Neal in 2005. As the rumors about Schwapp's departure grew, a nostalgia for Powers-Neal has also been on various message boards, and it was also noted by Lou Somogyi a few weeks ago, although one item needs to be clarified. Of Powers-Neal's 31 carries that year, only three were from the fullback position. The others came as a big back in other personnel groupings, including Two Tites, Goal Line, and Detroit (2 TEs, 1 back). In fact, Schwapp had more carries as a fullback than Powers-Neal in the games prior to Powers-Neal's suspension. Nonethless, Powers-Neal caught most of his passes as a fullback, and defenses had to account for him. When he was on the field, there was always the threat of a screen pass, and his routes to the flat commanded attention-- they stretched underneath defenders.

So what's in store for the fullback now that Schwapp has graduated? As the coaching staff prepares for spring practice, these are the likely options available to them.

Develop Steve Paskorz.
This is the most obvious move. Paskorz played during mop-up duty last year, but it's important to note that he was used much differently as a fullback than Schwapp was. Whereas Schwapp was used primarily as a lead blocker with man blocking, Paskorz never led the halfback through the hole. Instead, he would block the backside defensive end on inside zone runs (6 carries, 28 yards), or he would block a playside defensive end on a counter (8 carries, 24 yards). There were three other miscellaneous runs, but the inside zone and counter were the bread and butter runs when Paskorz was in the game. As far as a ballcarrier, his background as a high school halfback probably gives him an edge over Schwapp, and he is supposedly a much better pass receiver. For what it's worth, only one other fullback, junior walk-on Mike Narvaez, is listed on the current roster.

Use less Regular personnel.
One of the solutions that exists - and should be considered - is that the Irish could simply use Regular (traditional halfback and fullback) less of the time. In 2005, it was a staple, used by Charlie 20% of the time. In 2006, when Schwapp's injury moved Ashley McConnell into the line-up, it fell to 12%. Last year, it was called more than ever before: 22% of the time. Given the talent assembled at receiver and tight end, and the relative inexperience at fullback, Weis could easily choose to use two backs less often.

Let Robert Hughes play some fullback.
The key word here is some. Robert Hughes is too valuable as a halfback to move permanently to fullback. However, the Irish playbook is full of opportunities to take advantage of a two-halfback backfield where the bigger back is lined up as a fullback.

Although Regular was used primarily to run the football in 2008 (64% rushing), the Irish passed more often in 2005 (54% passing) and 2006 (52% passing). We believe that the combination of Armando Allen and Hughes in the backfield would cause defensive coordinators some late night tossing and turning. Consider the possibilties of a Hughes/Allen backfield:
  • Double screen. Jimmy Clausen fakes the screen to Allen, then spins and fires a screen to a wide open Hughes on the other side of the field.

  • FB counter and dive. Give the ball to Hughes quickly up the gut or against the grain of the defense as Allen runs wide.

  • Play action pass in the flats. Both are solid at blitz pick-up, and underneath defenders would have a tough choice: continue drifting with the downfield receiver or recover to defend the flats against check down passes.

  • Motion Allen out of the backfield. Then run the ball with Hughes or find the open receiver, keeping in mind that Allen covered by a linebacker or safety is a favorable match-up.

  • Run the ball with Allen but ask Hughes to block defensive ends, not lead through a hole to find a linebacker. With his size, he can get in the way of backside defensive ends without a problem, whereas finding a linebacker or safety can be a little trickier.
Such a backfield would force defenses to defend every inch of the field. It's also how the Irish operated at times in 2005 with Powers-Neal. (Although one key difference: Powers-Neal was used as a lead blocker and did not block defensive ends as we're suggesting for Hughes.) Not only was he used as a fullback, but he was also the starting halfback in two of the multiple-TE personnel groupings. Hughes would be able to do the same. And there's still no reason why the Irish couldn't run a more traditional backfield with Paskorz and a halfback while running the same plays (and hopefully some isolation plays with a lead blocker).

As far as Schwapp's future, only two fullbacks were drafted last year in Owen Schmidt (5th round, Seattle) and Peyton Hillis (7th round, Denver), and so it's unlikely that the finance major (with an interest in investment banking) will be picked before the 6th or 7th round, if at all. After all, the fullback position has been relegated to not much more than an afterthought in today's NFL. As Baltimore Ravens fullback Lorenzo Neal noted:
"I look at the fullback position as sort of like the onion," he says. "I mean, say you have a nice bowl of fruits and vegetables. People are going to look at the strawberries. And the cherries. And the blueberries.

"It all looks so inviting. So does the watermelon. And the cantaloupe. People even look at the broccoli."

Neal pauses for effect before continuing.

"But they never want the onion," he says. "Nope, never want the onion."

Until they do.

"I'll tell you what, when you want that good hamburger, you call on that onion," Neal says. "When you want that good soup, you put that ol' onion in there for flavor you wouldn't get anywhere else. So when you're on the field, and you want a good lead dog, and you want to send an attitude, you bring in that ol' onion, and that's the fullback."

Unfortunately, over the last three years Weis has peeled off the layers of his fullback until there was nothing left but a one-dimensional blocker. To his credit, Schwapp accepted the lesser role, never complained, and improved his blocking dramatically in 2008.

Here's to hoping he finds a home in the NFL...