What does the ideal modern running back look like?
Is efficiency the goal or division of labor?
Back in the Wishbone days of option offense there eventually came a point where teams began to value something different in their featured fullbacks.
The design of the Wishbone was to hit defenses hard up the gut with the fullback dive and then mix in the quarterback/pitch man option outside. Early Texas Wishbone fullback stars included Steve Worster (6-foot-0, 210 pounds) and Roosevelt Leaks (5-foot-11, 210 pounds). Those guys epitomized “three yards and a cloud of dust” although both did better than three yards because they were elite fullbacks for the era.
Eventually Barry Switzer stole the offense for use at Oklahoma and while there, discovered a potential tweak to the scheme to give him an advantage over Darrel K Royal and the Longhorns. Well it wasn’t so much a tweak to the scheme really as a recruiting advantage, the Sooners took more black players earlier than the Longhorns and consequently had more running backs in their backfield with track speed and athleticism. As a result, sometimes they had speed at fullback too. In Switzer’s own words in “The Die-Hard Fan's Guide to Sooner Football,” by Jim Fletcher answering why his Wishbone offenses looked different and whether he emphasized something different at fullback,
Because I recruited the black athletes. Texas didn’t and so all my guys at all positions were faster. Worster wasn’t as fast as Kenny King. Kenny was 4.4 and Worster probably couldn’t run 4.7. But no, it was because of the athletes I recruited. I recruited speed and quickness and the best. I recruited halfbacks. I played my fullback…all my backs were fast. And no one played the Wishbone in those days; oh a few ran it because it was in vogue, but the backs I recruited were all I-formation tailbacks. The Billy Sims, the Kenny Kings, the Elvis Peacocks, Marcus Duprees, Mike Gaddis, Spencer Tillman — all those guys were prima donna running backs in high school and came to play the Wishbone. I’d put one of them that wasn’t going to play tailback at fullback, because I wanted a runner there.
Every once in a while you recruited one that you knew was pure fullback. The Lydell Carrs, the 220-225 pounders that were ideal, that could run 4.5. They could take the punishment at fullback. Kenny was a true halfback, he was a two hundred-pounder, but he was a lightening fullback. Stanley Wilson was a great Wishbone fullback. Yeah, I just recruited great speed and quickness and put a bunch of good runners out there.
For the record, Longhorn Roosevelt Leaks was black and later in the 70s Texas recruited a young black man named Earl Campbell and put him at fullback in the Wishbone before eventually abandoning the scheme to feature him in the I-formation. After the 1970 title team they weren’t all-white across the board. However there’s no question the Sooners moved quicker on integration than the Longhorns and benefited as a result.
I also suspect some of these Switzer 40 times are hand-times, just add .2 seconds to every number and it’ll all look more plausible.
Anyways, the effect was pronounced. The odds a Sooner running back handling the ball on a given snap had some speed to break through and bust a long run was much higher when everyone on the field was an athlete.
In the “three yards and a cloud of dust” era, this made all the sense in the world. If you’re moving the football by running it on the ground, the most efficient way to do so is to run it with people who give you a chance of getting more than three yards before kicking up the dust. Not a yard or two more like Worster or Leaks, either.
But we aren’t in that era of offense any longer, so what’s the ideal running back look like?