Last night, Fox Sports released this interview with the new head coach of the Houston Gamblers, Curtis Johnson, practically giving a sneak peek to the league’s fans. In it, Johnson discusses the hubs, coaching philosophies, offensive schemes, and more. Arguably the biggest takeaway in the article for many was Johnson’s plans to use a fullback in the Gamblers’ offense.
The use of a fullback is welcome news for the Gamblers who finished second-to-last in rushing in the league averaging only 90 yards per game. Mark Thompson showed flashes of greatness last year at running back and has the size to head a power running game at 6’2” and 235 pounds.
At Tulane, Johnson led teams with solid run games. In fact, two of his backs went on to have 700-yard seasons in the NFL, Orleans Darkwa for the New York Giants in 2017 and Rob Kelley of the Washington Commanders in 2016. Even more incredible is the fact that Johnson ran his two-back sets without a natural fullback.
Below are Johnson’s most popular two-back sets:
Johnson often used halfback Dante Butler, who stood at 5’10” and 210 pounds, as a lead blocker in their two-back sets. Johnson’s teams had a strong short passing game with two back sets as Dante Butler caught 44 passes for 315 yards as a hybrid running back/fullback for the Green Wave from 2012-2014, including 19 catches for 159 yards in his Senior season.
The Gamblers’ passing game out of the backfield left much to be desired as the team’s backs caught a combined 19 passes for 136 yards. Having a safety blanket in the short passing game will only help Kenji Bahar improve in Year Two of the USFL. Last season, Bahar’s highest passing total was 159. Bahar thrives in the short passing game as he did in the season finale against the South division runner-up Breakers, completing 16/26 passes for 100 yards in a 20-3 victory anchored by the defense. Johnson’s West Coast scheme at Tulane will allow Bahar to get out of the pocket and make high-percentage throws.
Bahar may not be the best running QB in the league, but he is effective when he gets a chance, as he ran for 87 yards on 20 carries last season and carried the ball 127 times for 897 yards, over seven yards per carry. Getting him out of the pocket will be a great way to unlock Bahar’s potential in Johnson’s offense.
Johnson’s best Tulane team, his 2013 team who went 7-6 with an appearance in the New Orleans Bowl was a team that controlled the ball and played solid defense. The run game averaged 126 yards per game as Rob Kelley and Orleans Darkwa combined for over 1300 yards. The offense gave more than enough rest for a defense that ranked 18th in the FBS in points allowed with 21.4 points per game in 2013.
The Gamblers are already similar on defense, as the team allowed 20 points per game, barely missing out on a top-4 ranking in that category. Houston’s defense saved its best for last, allowing a stingy 31 points in its last three games including 15 to the league champion, Birmingham Stallions. Establishing a power run game with one of the league’s biggest backs will allow the defense to be rested during games and continue on the high note they ended the 2022 season on.
For Gamblers fans, the “F word”, or fullback, is not a bad word at all. There is a lot to like in Johnson’s scheme as it will help the Houston defense, and its young quarterback. Perhaps more importantly, it allows the Gamblers to match its “Double Down Derby” rival, the Birmingham Stallions.