A spread offense, as with any other, is usually defined by its personnel. Philosophically, the idea of forcing opponents to defend all 53.5 yards of horizontal space on a football field translates to getting athletic guys to run routes and spreading them out. Usually, that means wide receivers.
The proliferation of the spread means that the three receiver, or 11 personnel (one back, one tight end) looks have fast become the norm. In the NFL last year, teams used it 64 percent of the time, per Football Outsiders’ Almanac. More traditional looks with two backs (21 personnel) or two tight ends (12 personnel) — the kind Michigan fans have become accustomed to under Jim Harbaugh — were used 7.3 and 16 percent of the time, respectively.
More relevant, the last three offenses with Josh Gattis on staff have used 11 personnel 96, 94 and 61 percent of the time, per Pro Football Focus. Hiring him with the promise of a pro-spread offense seemed to imply that the 35 percent of the time Michigan spent in 11 last year would rocket upwards.
This did not account for Nick Eubanks.
Eubanks, a senior tight end, came to Michigan at 236 pounds. He checked in this year at 6-foot-5, 256 pounds, or in other words, the same height and four pounds smaller than Travis Kelce of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs.
Athletically speaking, that means Eubanks can line up next to a tackle and block. It means he can split out wide and run a route. It means he’s probably bigger than most defensive backs and faster than most linebackers, which in turn means that when defensive coordinators prepare for the Wolverines, they need to spend time figuring out how to deal with Nick Eubanks.
Football is a never-ending game of chess where if you can force an opponent to react to what you’re doing, you’re probably winning. Eubanks can force a reaction.
“I think it really clicked at the end of the summer and then training camp it started to show up,” tight ends coach Sherrone Moore said. “Cause he was starting to make play after play after play, but that was not only in the passing game, it was in the run game.”
Even without a high volume — just 10 catches in three years — Eubanks’ ability had always been obvious. In those 10 catches, he went for 218 yards. This summer, he met with Moore as much as possible and put in extra work in the run game. Last Saturday in Michigan’s opener, the fruits of that labor started to become apparent.
The Wolverines, new offense and all, spent more time in 12 personnel, with Eubanks and Sean McKeon at tight end, than in 11. On an early second quarter drive where two RPOs and a post route to Nico Collins resulted in a touchdown that seemed to personify Gattis’ speed in space philosophy, they were in 12 personnel the whole time.
In an offense where the purpose of everything is to create conflict for the defense, Eubanks just raises more questions for opposing coordinators to try and solve.
On that Collins post route, Eubanks is lined up as the H receiver, a threat to either run block or run a route — conflict exacerbated by Michigan having run RPOs on the two previous plays. Eubanks runs a wheel route, taking two defenders including a safety with him and helping create a 1-on-1 for Collins.
Later in the game, this time as the lone tight end on the field, Eubanks lined up as the H receiver again on second-and-2. At any prior point in his career, that would have been a smoke signal telling the defense it’s going to be a pass. Instead, the Wolverines ran a split-zone read with Patterson keeping the ball as Eubanks arced around the formation as a lead blocker.
McKeon said Monday that part of the reason Michigan used so much 12 personnel was specific to the matchup against Middle Tennessee. “But I think Nick as the H tight end, he’s so versatile, he can line up as a receiver or come in and block,” McKeon said. “So really got to defend everything out of that personnel with us.”
The Wolverines aren’t about to take it out of their rotation, and the percentages are unlikely to dictate a more traditional spread.
As long as they have Eubanks, they don’t need to.
“We can get in any formation we have in the offense in that personnel and do whatever we want,” Moore said. “We can use him as a fullback, we can use Sean as a fullback. We can use them both split out wide, as receivers. We can use them on the line.
“So it’s just going to create problems for defenses.”