Before Dave Neal calls a football game, he scribbles a depth chart on his gigantic flip card.
Team A’s offense and Team B’s defense is one side of the 2-foot long card, and Team B’s offense and Team’s A defense is on the other. There are three blank lines for names of each of the 22 positions: a starter, a backup and a third-string reserve.
The ESPN broadcaster jots down notes in a different-color ink next to the names — nuggets he might mention if that player comes up during the broadcast.
“Atlanta native,” one note might read.
“Started as a walk-on,” another might say.
With each passing year, Neal’s card has undergone changes — as has college football’s offense. There are more receiver spots on his card than ever before, and there are fewer tight ends.
There are almost never any names in the position he has marked as “FB.”
“There’s a blank spot at fullback,” Neal said this week with a chuckle, “except when you do the Arkansas-LSU game. Better have a lot of blank lines.”
LSU and Arkansas are two old-school offenses led by old-fashioned coaches, stuck in an evolving sport and surrounded by change, too stubborn and proud to go the status quo.
LSU and Arkansas arrive to the party with bouffant hairdos, high-top sneakers and denim jeans. They stroll in with their short shorts and their neon puffy vests.
They are vintage and proud of it, sneering at those around them and their new, fancy clothes, their pass-happy, spread-crazy offenses and their wild formations and presnap movement.
This is LSU and Arkansas. This is Les Miles and Bret Bielema. This is “The Hat” and “Bert.”
“They’re old school, hard-nosed and hard headed,” said Neal, who has broadcast SEC games for nearly 20 years.
Miles and Bielema meet Saturday night in Tiger Stadium, the third clash between two coaches who share more similarities than their use of fullbacks.
Each is a former Big Ten lineman, a corn-fed, big-bodied guy born and raised in the Midwest. Each is quirky in his own way, both somewhat of a national media darling. Among SEC coaches’ interviews, Neal said both make his top three.
Miles stumbles over subject-verb agreement, scales skyscrapers and forms awkward faces and confusing phrases. Bielema jabs at opponents, wears flip flops and tweets recipes as he’s cooking with his wife — whom he met in a Las Vegas casino, by the way.
They’ve each got catchy nicknames, too: “The Hat” and “Bert.”
“I do like that he likes to have fun,” Bielema said this week of Miles. “I do know that. We both enjoy that, and I think that makes life a little easier.”
Both coaches said they’re not close, but that doesn’t mean one of them, Bielema, doesn’t admire the other from a distance. Bielema called it “a compliment” to be mentioned as being similar to Miles.
“I do know this: They play a style of offense that I like,” said Bielema who, at 45, is 17 years younger than Miles. “There are some similarities there. Their defense has been exceptional.
“He probably takes a lot more risk than me. In the kicking game, it’s been fun to watch him through the years to have a successful hat trick that he pulls out. That’s been fun,” he said. “I really enjoy him. We’re not close by any nature. When we go to SEC meetings and stuff, it’s fun to be around him and hear him talk and listen to his philosophies that have been very, very good over the years.”
Media and fans aren’t the only ones who see the similarities between the pair. Players see it, too.
“They can relate to their players the same way,” said LSU receiver Malachi Dupre, recruited by Arkansas out of New Orleans.
“Both are very intense, love their teams, offensive guys that love running the football,” said LSU defensive tackle Christian LaCouture, recruited by Bielema while the coach was at Wisconsin.
Running the football and how they choose to do it — that’s what binds the coaches more than their silly off-the-field antics.
They’re a dying breed. They use relics of football’s past — multiple tight ends, fullbacks and I-formations — to run plays like the “toss dive” or the “Power O.”
Since Bielema joined the SEC in 2013, LSU and Arkansas both have been in the top 11 among the 65 “Power Five” schools in formations using multiple tight ends and multiple running backs.
The Hogs and Tigers combine to have 12 fullbacks on their rosters. The other 12 SEC teams combine for 19.
Everybody around them has changed. They’ve stayed, mostly, the same.
“I don’t think they will change,” said Jackie Sherrill, a former fullback whose teams thrived for years using the I-formation offense. “That’s their philosophy. That’s the way they’ve been successful.”
It might take a few bad years to change their minds. It’s happened before in the SEC: a coach rids of his lifelong football philosophy when wins begin to dip.
Late in Tommy Tuberville’s tenure at Auburn, his I-based offenses began to sour on a restless fan base and despondent administration. The losses began to mount, and Tuberville hired spread guru Tony Franklin as offensive coordinator.
Tuberville fired him halfway through Franklin’s first season as coordinator in 2008. Weeks later, Tuberville resigned, ending a 10-year run with the school.
It doesn’t always have to be old school to new school. Steve Spurrier, in many ways, turned back the clock during the latter half of his 11-year stint at South Carolina.
He scrapped his Fun ’n Gun offense used at Florida, switching to a more run-heavy, pounding attack that produced three straight 11-win seasons before a dropoff led to his exit this season.
South Carolina has three fullbacks on its roster. And that’s on the high end among SEC schools.
The fullback is a dying position, but it’s a key spot in offenses run by Miles and Bielema. Arkansas has four fullbacks on its roster, and LSU has eight, the most of any team in the league.
Finding fullbacks on the recruiting trail isn’t easy. College football’s minor leagues — high schools — have mostly moved to the fullback-less spread offenses.
How much so? The recruiting site 247Sports lists just 11 fullbacks worth rating in the 2016 class. How many receivers did the site rank? More than 400.
“It’s been a dying breed for a while, but it’s even more so because so many high school teams are running the spread offense,” said Sonny Shipp, a recruiting reporter and analyst for 247Sports covering LSU.
“In LSU and Arkansas’ system,” Shipp said, “they can find an undersized defensive tackle with athleticism and can mold him into a fullback.”
LSU did that with J.C. Copeland, the Tigers’ starting fullback from 2011 to ’13. The school signed him as a defensive tackle. Connor Neighbors, LSU’s starting fullback last season, walked on as a linebacker. J.D. Moore and Bry’Kiethon Mouton, the Tigers’ starting fullbacks this year, played tight end in high school.
In fact, the last player LSU signed as a fullback who played the position in high school may be Brandon Worle in 2010, Shipp said. David Ducre, ranked by 247Sports as the nation’s top-ranked fullback in last year’s class, played tailback in high school.
What high school fullbacks there are “end up being linebackers or tight end/hybrids,” said Sherrill, now an analyst for Fox Sports.
Many in LSU’s fan base have grown stale of Miles’ ground-and-pound offense. They want the Tigers to throw it more. They want to see the four-receiver spread, long bombs out of the shotgun and a fast-tempo, hurry-up style so synonymous with the game these days.
Neal is just fine with LSU and Arkansas, with “The Hat” and “Bert,” with their colorful retro pants, bellbottom jeans and polyester shirts.
“It’s big boy football,” he said. “When that works, I enjoy it more than this spread, throw it all over the park. It’s a shame we’re getting away from that. It’s fun to watch. When you watch LSU play and see the fullback lead, that’s almost as good as the guy running the ball.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter: @DellengerAdv.
LSU and Arkansas have 12 fullbacks on their rosters combined. The 12 other teams in the league have a combined 19 fullbacks on their rosters.
South Carolina: 3
Texas A&M: 1
Ole Miss: 0
Mississippi State: 0
LSU and Arkansas are two of the most run-heavy, old-school offenses in the nation.
Ranking among “Power Five” teams in multi-tight end formations used the past three seasons:
- LSU: 11th
- Arkansas: 6th
Ranking among “Power Five” teams in multi-running back formations used the past three seasons:
- LSU: 3rd
- Arkansas: 11th
Ranking among all FBS teams in rushing attempts per game the past three seasons:
- LSU: 28th (42.26 attempts)
- Arkansas: 42nd (39.46)
Rankings among all FBS teams in passing attempts per game:
- LSU: 116th (23.3 attempts)
- Arkansas: 104th (28.53 attempts)
* median rankings used for each of the past three seasons (2013-15)
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.