H-backs add versatility to Pitt's spread offense

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The history of the H-back position has its roots in pro football. Former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs is credited with creating a hybrid tight end/fullback position because he wanted to find a way to contain New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who had made a habit of wreaking havoc against the Redskins in the 1980s.

H-backs continue to be used in the NFL today. Chris Cooley of the Redskins probably is the best known H-back in the league, and the Steelers use tight end Heath Miller as an H-back in many of their offensive sets.

H-backs have become more popular in the college game, and Pitt coach Todd Graham uses them in his spread offense.

Graham calls them "threebacks," and they are some of the most versatile players on the team.

"It's kind of a hybrid guy who possesses some tight-end skills as far as blocking goes, but it's also a guy who possesses receiver skills who can stretch the defense vertically, take advantage of some matchups maybe with linebackers and safeties," said assistant coach Tony Dews, who coaches the position for Panthers.

Former coach Dave Wannstedt did not use an H-back in his offense, so Graham has converted two tight ends, a receiver and a reserve quarterback to play the position this fall.

Hubie Graham, a converted tight end who played two seasons at Illinois before transferring to Pitt, is the starter. He is a former SuperPrep All-American from West Scranton High School and was one of the top tight-end recruits in 2008.

The reserves are Drew Carswell, a converted receiver from Sto-Rox; Anthony Gonzalez, a converted quarterback; and Brendan Carozzoni, a converted tight end.

"It was relatively new to all of us," Hubie Graham said. "But, after camp, we all feel confident with what we're doing. We have to do a little bit of everything. Most importantly, we have to be able to block. We're still utilized as true tight ends in some sets, and some sets we'll be in the backfield blocking as a fullback. We can stretch the field vertically.

"We're asked to do a lot of different things. We have to be versatile."

Eventually, Dews said, the staff will recruit players to play threeback who also have the ability to run the ball well enough to keep opposing defenses off-balance.

For now, Graham and the other threebacks will mostly block and catch passes.

They will be used as typical tight ends alongside tackles in some formations. They will line up as traditional fullbacks in others.

They can be put in the slot and sent in motion to block interior linemen or players on the perimeter. They also can be lined up in formations where they can attack linebackers with pass routes up the seam.

Dews notes that this hybrid player is important when it comes to keeping defenses off-balance, a key to Graham's spread offense.

Ideally, plays will be run 15-20 seconds apart. When run correctly, the offense does not allow defenses to substitute for down and distance situations. Getting the threeback matched up against base defensive personnel can be a distinct advantage for the offense.

"If it's the right guy, it allows us not to change personnel," Dews said.

"We're playing at our pace and our tempo. It's to our advantage not to substitute. We can get [H-backs] on the field with the base personnel group. We feel like it's an advantage to get them matched up on backers who aren't used to covering man-to-man. Athletically, it gives us an advantage [because] that guy can do both -- play on the line as a tight end as well as being flexed out and getting down the field."

Stretching the field is something the coaches and threebacks believe will be a nice dimension to the offense.

"On pass plays, we'll stretch the field vertically," said Carswell, who moved up the depth chart when tight end Brock DeCicco (a Thomas Jefferson graduate) decided to transfer.

"We're not always going to be on the outside. We could be coming out of the backfield stretching the field.

"It's a way to get the ball as quickly as possible to people and to make plays down the field."

Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1230.


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