Today's Quiz: What is the "Middle Field Control Position" in College Football?

The tight end hasn't gone the way of the disappearing fullback in modern college offenses; it can be even more valuable

By WENDELL BARNHOUSE, TMG Special Contributor

During 150 years of college football, the 22 positions have evolved. Some of the names for those positions – mostly on offense – have disappeared.

Old timers will remember wing backs, slot backs, flankers and split ends. Fullbacks are a disappearing breed. According to The Athletic, the recruiting database for 247Sports lists just two fullbacks – both two stars – in the class of 2020.

Tight end remains a position for most offenses but how it functions in no-huddle spread schemes is new age. In fact, FOX college football analyst Joel Klatt believes there’s a reason to rename it.

“I would call it the Middle Field Control position,” he said.

Not exactly roll-off-your-tongue terminology. But Klatt’s explanation makes football sense.

“Really good offenses need an element of the passing game to control the middle of the field,” he said. “If you don’t the secondary can concentrate on covering outside the numbers, the safeties can come down to stop the run game. The middle of the field is like a bubble. The more you can expand it, you stretch the defense.”

Offensive styles in 2019 don’t fit in boxes nor can be defined by simple terms. Air raid, run and shoot, spread are common descriptions but most philosophies use a smorgasbord of plays. Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher’s offense is referred to as a “pro style with spread tendencies.” He wants a punishing running game combined with fast receivers slicing through secondaries.

Some tight ends are basically an extra offensive lineman. Other tight ends are over-sized wide receivers. The perfect tight end in the modern era is a hybrid.

“A lot of tight ends these days, the fun thing to do is to split out and catch footballs,” said A&M tight end coach Joe Jon Finley, who played tight end at Oklahoma. “Here, we need our tight ends to help block SEC defensive ends, get to the second level and block a linebacker or split out and create a mismatch on a linebacker as well.”

While current offensive philosophies emphasize no huddles, dual-threat quarterbacks, run-pass option plays and utilizing sideline-to-sideline formations with four or five receivers, many playbooks rely on the tight end.

“Really good offenses need an element of the passing game to control the middle of the field,” he said. “If you don’t the secondary can concentrate on covering outside the numbers, the safeties can come down to stop the run game. The middle of the field is like a bubble. The more you can expand it, you stretch the defense.”

There are a variety of ways to expand the bubble. The New England Patriots, even without Ron Gronkowski, utilize slot receiver Julian Edelman in the middle of the field. Texas Tech – which this season will add a tight end – had explosive offenses under Kliff Kingsbury using wide receivers lined up in the slot.

“It’s also about the match ups,” Klatt said. “A slot receiver can be too hard for a safety to cover. A great tight end is a tough cover for a linebacker.”

A tight end – or the Middle Field Control player – not only enhances the passing game, it can help the running game. Offenses that like to spread the field with receivers can struggle to run the ball. The chess game involves the defense trying to commit enough of its defenders to cover receivers while also plugging any holes for running backs. The tight end can be the queen.

“What a tight end who can block at even close to what offensive linemen can, it creates another run gap the defense has to defend,” Klatt said. “A defense has to build from the inside out. If you’re not gap sound, you can’t stop the run. A quality tight end forces a defense to account for that guy as both a blocker and a receiver.”

Klatt’s MFC definition is an apt description considering that there are varieties to how teams use what would normally be termed a tight end. While the typical position is lining up close to an offensive tackle, some tight ends are H-backs, serving as a combination tight end/full back. Oklahoma State has created a name for its H-back – Cowboy Back.

Having a player who can line up either as a blocker (close to an offensive tackle), a fullback (who can be a lead blocker for a running back or go in motion as a receiver) or a flex tight end that splits a few yards away from the end of the line allows offenses that like to play up tempo to line up in different formations without substituting.

“The concepts are usually the same, it’s just how you go about trying to control the middle of the field,” Klatt said.

In Fisher’s first season in College Station, All-American tight end Jace Sternberger caught 48 passes for 832 yards and 10 touchdowns, the best numbers ever for that position in school history.

Sternberger’s numbers last season reflect a massive change in offensive philosophy. In his last six seasons at Florida State, Fisher’s tight ends averaged 30 catches per season. During that same time frame (and five seasons under Kevin Sumlin) Texas A&M tight ends had a total of 32 receptions.

Fisher’s 2013 national championship team at Florida State featured Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston, but tight end Nick O’Leary was the team’s fourth-best receiver and second in touchdown receptions.

The recent news that A&M freshman tight end Baylor Cupp will likely miss the season with a broken ankle is significant for the Aggies’ offense. Cupp was regarded as a rookie who could come close to duplicating Sternberger’s numbers. While the Aggies have plenty of offensive play makers and depth at tight end, that position’s production is crucial in making the entire offense work.

Texas A&M is not alone. Last season, Texas’ offensive benefited from a healthy Andrew Beck, a first team All-Big 12 selection. His ability to block in the running game while also being a reliable receiver (28 catches, 281 yards) helped the Longhorns finish 10-4.

“That position is extremely important,” Texas coach Tom Herman said. “We define our offense as a pro spread. We're going to run NFL concepts in the run game, in the passing game and in our protections. The only difference is we're going to do it from the shotgun. We're not one of those fun and gun, chuck and duck, whatever you want to call it, four wide receivers, throw it every snap and run a draw here and there. We want to be a power running team, and we're slowly building that. Having a dominant tight end certainly helps.”

Beck was injured and missed Herman’s first season in Austin. The offense struggled in 2017 as freshman Cade Brewer filled in for Beck. Brewer has bulked up from 220 pounds as a rookie to 250 pounds. An excellent receiver, Brewer could bring an added dimension to the UT offense.

“I think a lot of the times teams discredit the tight end coming across the middle,” Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger said. “Now that may be true if you don’t have a tight end you can rely on, but last year we certainly did and we hurt people with it, and I think this year Cade is a terrific fill in for the passing game. I mean if you’re going to leave him open, he’s going to catch everything in his area.”

In a modern college offense, finding tight ends who check all the boxes is a challenge.

“They’re hard to find,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. “Great tight ends and great defensive linemen are hard to find are the two hardest positions to find great players. There aren’t that many guys who combine being athletic with that body type.”

Plus, according to Klatt, tight ends must master the entire play book.

“I would argue that the tight end is the only guy on the football team, other than the quarterback, who needs to know the entire offensive system,” he said. “A tight end has to know pass protection, all the run blocking, the passing routes … because of that, it’s an important position.”

Riley’s reputation as an offensive mastermind is evident in the Sooners’ offensive statistics. The last three seasons, Oklahoma has finished first, first and second in FBS total offense and first, third and third in scoring offense. OU tight ends have totaled 150 receptions for 2,462 yards (16.4 yards per catch) and 32 touchdowns the last three seasons.

“The target size for quarterbacks and the match ups you create in the run game or in the throw game, you can create some match up nightmares,” said Riley, who began adding tight end concepts to his offense when he was at East Carolina. “You can be in the same personnel group and line up in so many different ways.

“I’ve never coached defense but if I did, I wouldn’t want to go up against a team with good tight ends.”