So far this year, some announcers and pundits have commented on the similarities between Steelers running back Jonathan Dwyer and Steelers legend Jerome Bettis. This has been done primarily because of their size, and the fact that both men have very good feet for their size.
Interestingly, Bettis and Dwyer were both fullbacks in college and one could make the argument that that their college position led them both to the Steelers. One can also make the argument that the series of events that led Bettis to Pittsburgh are similar to what led Dwyer here also.
First of all, what is a triple option fullback?
As anyone who has seen a Georgia Tech or Navy game the past few years knows, the triple option is a run-based offense. It is called the triple option because either the fullback, the quarterback, or the tailback can run the ball. The quarterback reads the defense and decides who should get the ball (or, he has three options on the play).
His first, and primary, read is the fullback. The fullback is always most dangerous in this offense because he can gash the defense immediately. Defenses can rally to the quarterback and the pitch, but you must eliminate the fullback.
Because of this basic football fact, most triple option fullbacks have to be big (there can be exceptions such as LaDainian Thompson from TCU). Because of what was mentioned earlier about defenses trying to stop the fullback, they are going to get hit every play; thus, the prerequisite of size.
The other thing about option fullbacks is defense have to fear them. They have to be quick. They have to be able to explode through the hole. They have to think that if the guy assigned to the fullback does not tackle him, we are in big trouble.
I am not using the word quick here to describe lateral agility. I am using it to differentiate between track speed and football speed. Football speed is how fast an athlete can get to top speed. In other words, acceleration. Option fullbacks are 3.5 yards from the line of scrimmage. The best ones are at top speed when they hit the line of scrimmage.
Bettis had this. Most admired his ability to make defenders miss in the hole, but it was his ability to accelerate into the hole (especially when he was younger) that also made him special.
Dwyer has this same trait. During the 2008 season at Georgia Tech, he had a 88 yard touchdown run against Mississippi State, a 66 yard scoring run against Florida State, an 85 yard touchdown run against North Carolina and a 58 yard TD run in a Thursday night game against Miami.
So, some of the traits that made Bettis great in college can also be seen in Dwyer's career at Georgia Tech. The question that many have about option fullbacks, however, is their vision. What happens when they are the feature tailback in an I formation?
Bettis was a first round draft pick out of Notre Dame, but as we all know, he fell out of favor with the Rams. New coach Rich Brooks wanted to move him to fullback (what was he thinking?). While Lou Holtz did not run the option like Paul Johnson does at Georgia Tech, Bettis did not make a name for himself in college by blasting linebackers. I think it is safe to assume that Brooks thought Bettis would not make an ideal NFL tailback.
Many thought the same thing about Dwyer, and they thought that before he tested positive for a banned substance at the combine. He was the 2008 ACC Player of the Year. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2009. He came out as a true junior; he was young. But, he lasted to the 6th round. Is the only reason he lasted that long because of the option offense at Georgia Tech? No. Was it a contributing factor? Yes. Was the fact that Bettis played "fullback" in college one of the reasons why Brooks wanted to move him to fullback in the NFL? Yes.
The triple option has been good to Steeler Nation.
Steeler Nation has also had some good fortune. The lack of foresight of Rich Brooks led to one of the best trades in Steelers history.
Could lightning strike again with Dwyer?
There are some signs. Paul Johnson replaced at Georgia Tech the guy that Bill Cowher recommended to Dan Rooney to replace him: Chan Gailey. He had just been fired from Georgia Tech. His replacement, Paul Johnson, got the opportunity to run his flexbone offense at Georgia Tech based upon his great record while at Navy. His signature win at Navy came right before he was hired to replace Gailey.
In 2007, Navy won a thrilling, triple-overtime game against their arch-rival. They had not beaten their rival in the previous 43 attempts. The rival they defeated that November was none other than Notre Dame.