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Walking off Bryant Denny Stadium on October 1, 2005, Urban Meyer knew he had a problem. A coach who has always preached the value of speed knew his Florida team was lacking. No athlete on the roster was able to round out his scheme against the rigors of the Southeastern Conference. These shortcomings cast his eyes on a recruit that would change his system and legacy forever.
Meyer’s RPO History
Urban Meyer’s offenses have always featured run/pass option (RPO) elements. He frequently used a wide receiver on a jet motion to create an outside pitchman, the H-Back in Meyer’s terminology. Longtime NFL fans unfamiliar with Meyer’s vocabulary may be prone to think of a hybrid tight end like Chris Cooley as an H-Back. Trust me; there is a maddening differentiation in terminology.
The use of a speedy wide receiver or running back in this role allowed Meyer’s offenses to run a traditional triple option look against defenses lined up to defend the spread. The spread option was born with lethal results. In 2004, Meyer’s Utah team finished third in the nation at 45.3 points per game en route to an undefeated season. Meyer’s team utilized wide receivers Steve Savoy and Paris Warren to account for 16% of the rushing yardage, but the SEC would require unique talent.
Enter 2006 number one wide receiver recruit, Percy Harvin.
Harvin’s impact started slow, 855 yards as a true freshman on the eventual National Champion Gators. The next season was something else entirely. In 2007, Harvin racked up 1,622 yards in 12 games. Florida’s offense also improved from 29.7 to 42.5 points scored per game. Harvin’s final year in Gainesville coincided with Meyer’s final Florida championship. His role took 20% of Florida’s offensive opportunities. Meyer would never again conjure the magic to make it through the SEC gauntlet while Harvin was NFL bound.
The Minnesota Vikings tried to duplicate Harvin’s Florida magic and nearly got there in 2011. Harvin totaled 1,312 total yards, but the volume took its toll for a player generously listed at 200 lbs. Injuries prevented Harvin from ever reaching his true NFL potential. Meyer would chart a different course. One that led him to Ohio State.
Heading back to his roots, Meyer would see immediate success mainly on the legs of Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde. Miller’s athleticism, in particular, made the H-Back role more of a luxury than the valued role it was in Florida. A career-altering injury to Miller’s shoulder would change that.
Miller’s replacement, JT Barrett, was basically a fullback compared to Miller’s ability to attack the edge. This led to a return to RPO and a valuable H-Back role, yet again. Multiple recruiting cycles found Meyer in a position to overhaul his offense and opened the door for a string of successful H-Back’s during Meyer’s tenure. Miller did well in the role after his switch to wide receiver. Followed by Jalin Marshall, Parris Campbell, and most notably Curtis Samuel.
Samuel’s 1,636 total yards over 13 games on 21% of opportunities in 2016 allows the mind to wander. Before 2020, Samuel’s college usage bore little resemblance to his NFL game. Early in his Panthers career, his primary role was as a vertical threat, posting depth of target averages of 11.9 and 14.6 in 2018 and 2019, respectively. In 2020, that plummeted to 7.3 in a Joe Brady scheme that featured hybrid college elements refined during Brady’s time with LSU. The result was Samuel’s best fantasy season, 1051 total yards and five touchdowns. This placed him 24th among wide receivers, but he would have been 10th among running backs.
The Next Level
After two years broadcasting with Fox Sports, Meyer finds himself 75 miles northwest of Gainesville. Handed complete control of the Jaguars, he wasted no time bringing in his guys. Tim Tebow, Carlos Hyde, and Phillip Dorsett. Dorsett is a graduate of St. Thomas Aquinas, a school Meyer has recruited extensively through his career and whose notable alumni feature the Bosa brothers.
Given his age and uncertainty around his health, Meyer is clearly following his old coaching tenets. Many assumed Laviska Shenault would serve the primary H-Back role after the addition of Marvin Jones in free agency. He certainly has the skill set to excel in the role. There were concerns about a mounting injury history and questions on Shenault’s availability, but it appeared there was a clear hierarchy. However, Meyer had different ideas about his first draft and possession of pick 25.
Travis Etienne had work to do on his game. After beginning his career with 17 receptions in 28 games, he and coach Dabo Swinney reshaped his role in the offense. The result was a scheme heavy on options, screens, and designed passes to Etienne. Etienne responded by accumulating 28% of the opportunities in his 2019 junior season and ending his senior career with a 30% share of the total looks. Star quarterback Trevor Lawrence is worthy of all of his praise, but the reality is Etienne’s 3,548 total yards were the engine behind the Clemson offense for much of the past two seasons.
Meyer has already stated Etienne’s role in the offense will fall right into the H-Back. In a post-draft press conference, he said, “Etienne is a running back, but he is best defined as a slash.” In his first minicamp, headlines raced after he practiced with the WR group. Etienne still has work to put in with his receiving skills, but he has displayed the ability to improve. Meyer using a first-round pick on Etienne, with Shenault on the roster, solidifies his importance on the role.
Concerns exist around Etienne’s pass game usage and what it will mean for fantasy. Given a crowded wide receiver room and Etienne’s circumstances around receiving development, it is logical. In Meyer’s scheme, much of the targets given to the H-Back do not ask a great deal of the receiver, resulting in off jet pop passes or schemed touches. However, Harvin and Samuel averaged 5.36 and 5.69 targets per game, while top fantasy staple Alvin Kamara saw 5.53 targets per game on his way to finishing as the top fantasy running back in 2020.
To be clear, Etienne is not at Kamara’s skill level. But points are points, and they can accumulate quickly for a running back with a prominent target role in the passing game. Nyheim Hines and J.D. McKissic finished in the Top 17 for running backs in PPR scoring last year, with 33% and 42% of their fantasy output coming simply off receptions. These players, along with what we saw from Curtis Samuel in 2020, represent Etienne’s floor. Footballguys.com’s rankings account for uncertainty with Etienne, as he currently lands at RB26. Even if he misses slightly, you still end up with a usable running back in fantasy.
Etienne stands at the top of the list of undervalued players who can swing a fantasy league. The role he steps into is ripe for fantasy production, primarily low-risk passing plays that can quickly accumulate. The kicker? He is likely already his rookie quarterback’s primary safety outlet since they are familiar with each other from their days at Clemson. With Etienne being drafted around several veterans with lower ceilings, take the chance on his league-winning upside.