College football offenses want to be versatile, multiple and dynamic in 2015. They want quarterbacks who can run and pass, running backs who can carry the ball and catch it, receivers who can take a jet sweep handoff and also burn the defense deep on a fly route, tight ends who can block and burn a defender in space.
The more you can do for the team, the more chances you have to be on the field, and the more chances you get to have the ball in your hands.
Which brings us to the H-back, and the Syracuse offense. Note: Don't call it the Express back.
The traditional H-back refers to a tight end who will often go in motion, and is somewhere between a tight end and a wide receiver. Think Aaron Hernandez, without the murders (hopefully).
In case you haven’t noticed, Brisly Estime and Erv Philips wouldn’t often be confused with a tight end, so it’s fair to say Syracuse has been using the more literal term – hybrid back – to indicate the player is a mix of any two positions, not just tight end and wide receiver, as is often used.
So what exactly does the H-back do in the Syracuse offense? And how will this affect Philips, who was seemingly on his way to becoming a feature running back in the system before the change to H-back. Does this give a guy like him more opportunities to touch the ball, as The Daily Orange’s Paul Schwedelson writes? What role will he actually have?
While it’s difficult to assume what Tim Lester plans for the H-back this year in his first full season as offensive coordinator, we can take a look at what some of the previous H-backs accomplished in Shafer’s first two years at the helm.
Brisly Estime (2013-14) – 38 receptions, 397 yards, 2 receiving TDs; 5 carries, 3 yards, 0 rushing TDs
Estime is now listed on the depth chart as a wide receiver, which seems appropriate considering his first two years in the H-back role lacked much evidence of anything hybrid. With 38 of his 43 touches (88.4%) and 397 of his 400 total yards (99.3%) coming through the air, he has essentially been a pure wide receiver his whole career. Also, remember at least one or two of those five "rushes" were probably awful screen passes from last season that counted as rushes because the ball was thrown backwards.
Ashton Broyld (2013-14) – 67 receptions, 626 yards, 2 carries, 2 yards, 0 rushing TDs
Broyld actually ran the ball 36 times, for 171 yards as a freshman running back in 2012, before the H-back existed in the SU offense. That’s also when he recorded his only career touchdown, on the ground. Since moving to the H-back role, Broyld, like Estime, has been anything but a hybrid player. A whopping 67 of his 69 touches have come in the air the last two seasons (97.1%) and 626 of his 628 yards (99.7%) as well. The only argument for Broyld as a hybrid is that he is more of the traditional h-back tight end, but I don’t remember seeing him used in blocking schemes very often.
Sean Avant (2014) – 3 receptions, 21 yards, 0 receiving TDs, 0 carries, 0 yards, 0 rushing TDs
At 5-10, 201, Avant isn’t a blocking h-back, that’s for sure. In seven career games, he’s lined up exclusively at WR and caught passes, mostly from the slot, despite being listed on the depth chart as an H-back.
Ben Lewis (2015) – New to H-back role
Lewis was listed as a wide receiver the last two years, and his numbers supported that, with 25 receptions for 282 yards and 1 TD. While he’s no threat to carry the football, he is likely the closest thing to a true H-back, with his size (6-2, 212) and ability to line up as a tight end in motion.
So what does this all mean for Phillips? He was already more versatile than any of those players last year, racking up 45 carries for 194 yards on the ground and hauling in 15 passes for 57 yards in the air. But if history tells us anything about the H-back position, he is on track to strictly become a pass catcher, and most likely from the slot.
Again, Lester’s offense can deviate from this formula significantly, but until we see something different on the field, Syracuse fans should take the H-back position with a giant grain of salt potatoes, and not expect too much versatility from this bunch.