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AFM Magazine

Running Wild

by: Richard Scott
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For all of football’s passing progress over the past decade, the running game remains a fundamental cornerstone of winning football. Whether you’re punching the ball across the line in short-yardage situations or controlling the clock, every team must be able to get the ball into the hands of a capable runner who can read and follow effective blocks downfield, breaking tackles and making defenders miss. Even shuffle and screen passes acknowledge this basic truth. What’s the difference between an effective running team and a team that struggles to get the job done on the ground? Seven coaches from successful rushing teams shared their input with American Football Monthly.


Make a commitment to running the ball in whatever manner fits your experience, knowledge, personnel, schedule and recruiting base, but don’t be so stubborn that you miss an opportunity to improve by adding a wrinkle, a formation or a whole new package.

“We’re going to be an option team and try to outnumber you at the point of attack,” says Dave Harper, associate head coach and offensive coordinator at Division III Ferrum. “But we’re not your typical vanilla option team. We’ll go power football in a heartbeat; block down, kick out, double-isolation out of the wishbone. We’ll
get unbalanced, too, and try to get the other team unbalanced. “Whatever your philosophy is, whether you run or throw, you’ve got to make the defense think. You’ve got to let him know you can block him four different ways, so he’ll spend more time thinking than reacting.”

Just like in the passing game, the idea is to take what the defense gives you and attack it. If the defense is keyed on stopping one particular area, be ready with another weapon. “No matter what formation you’re lining up in, and we’re lining up in every formation known to man from the I-formation to the spread, we’re still going to find a way to run some kind option so we don’t have to find a way to block all of them,” Wade Lang says, offensive coordinator at Division I-AA Wofford. “Regardless of whether you run the football or throw the football, people are going to find a way to defend it so you have to find a different way to do things. If a team is stopping your running game, they’ve got to be giving you something else. We like to run something off our basic play that takes advantage of that.”

Take your run-pass ratio seriously, both in your post-game evaluation and grading process, your pre-game planning and preparation and your in-game play calling.
Dave Whilding, offensive coordinator at Dayton, has earned a reputation for developing effective quarterbacks in 29 years with the Flyers, but the Flyers know how to run the ball. They also know how much they run it and why. “We’ve had some good quarterbacks but those guys could all run, too,” Whilding says. “We’re an I-formation team and we’re going to run the ball. We’re going to run the toss sweep and the isolation and power off tackle. We run the freeze option and speed option.

“A lot of people talk about 50-50 and we’re probably closer to that than we’ve ever been. But if we go 60-40 run to pass, that’s what we want to do. That’s the way we play and we know that. That doesn’t mean that works for everyone but it’s worked for us and that’s what we hang our hat on.”

The running game won’t improve without attention to the fundamentals that make lay the foundation for the running game. Before you emphasize the actual plays, make blocking, footwork, handwork, handoffs, pitches, timing and spacing a matter of daily dedication. “We’re an option team so we do a lot of the option reads on a daily basis, with the reads of the quarterback and the timing of the pitches,” says John Blankenship, offensive coordinator at Division II Northwood. “We spend a good 10 minutes on that alone every day, just trying to simulate every day what we have to do in game situations.”

That’s everyone, not just the players directly involved in the play. That means backside linemen, the receivers and the backs. “Everyone blocks – everyone’s going to go through a collision drill, from getting face to face, putting your cage on, moving your feet and cut blocking,” Harper says. “Somewhere in the first two or three individual drills of the day they’ll be coming off the ball, moving their feet and putting face on someone. “We all cut block. Our big guys who don’t like to cut block and don’t like to throw their bodies on the ground, but we’ve got to get them to cut block. Our skill players don’t always like to get their face on somebody, but they
all have to do it. If you look around our field, everybody’s doing the same blocks. The fundamental and the angle of that block might be different, but they’re blocking.”
For all the emphasis on the big boys up front, a good running team needs blocking help from its running backs, whether they’re fullbacks, tailbacks, slot backs or H-backs. “We work hard with our backs and they know it’s important for them to block, not just carry the ball,” Whilding says. “We’re going to line up in the I a lot and our fullbacks have to be able to block. He has to be able to get inside out on the end-of-line and get him kicked out. We can’t have a stalemate – we’ve got to have some movement from that spot. “We always teach blocking angles, and it’s almost always insideout. We can’t run straight at him because that guy is bigger and
stronger than our fullback. The fullback has to aim at the butt of the tackle and turn out on the end-of-line so we can get a seam to run through. Our running backs coach is always harping on that, whether it’s live or with dummies.”

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How many times have you seen the lead blockers do their job on a play, only to see someone come unblocked from the backside and destroy the play? Or how about a back needing one more block to break loose for a big gain, only to look at the film and see no one hustled downfield to help? Often that is a product of a player who doesn’t understand how important his role is in the big picture of a running play. He may be lazy, tired or apathetic, or he may only know his immediate
job and nothing beyond that simple task. That can be particularly true for backside linemen and receivers who think a play in the opposite direction is a chance
to take a play off. “We try to teach a lot as a group just so the linemen can have a perspective on where the ball is going to be, what the total objective is, rather than just teaching them to block this one guy or this specific area,” Blankenship says. “It’s good for them to see the whole picture.

“The key is working as a unit, not just one or two guys doing it all. You have to have the people getting downfield to block releasing on the backside or a jabkick on the backside or whatever they’re supposed to be doing to keep trail people out of the play. They have to see the whole picture to know that.” That’s one reason why Northwood doesn’t just meet in individual position meetings. Blankenship believes the entire offense needs to meet together, watch film and see how everything is supposed to work together.

“They have to get credit in front of the whole offense when they do something right but they also need to be corrected within the whole offense so they know how they fit into the whole picture,” Blankenship says.

We try to be physical with the ball in our hand, Harper says. Inour blocking drills our running backs have balls in their hands. When we cut block, they’re going to have a ball in their hands. When they load block, they’re going to have a ball in their hands. That teaches ball security, too.

The Ferrum staff finds that drill works both ways. “The running back runs over two or three people or makes people miss with the ball in his hand,” Harper says, “but now he learns he can also become that same physical player without the ball in his hand.” Mike Sewak, former head coach of six time NCAA I-AA champion
Georgia Southern, has backs work hard on being physical with the football. Because tacklers often attempt to tackle a ballcarrier from inside out, a sideline drill with dummies lined parallel to the sideline teaches the back to cut back and get physical with the tacklers’ inside shoulder. The drill also helps backs use their off-arm as
a weapon.

“Tacklers like to come in and explode into the ballcarrier, but we try to get the backs to explode into the tackler and drive through him when he hits you and keep your legs driving through,” Sewak says. “Our drill uses three bags along the sideline and just like when the tacklers try to drive you out of bounds you have to explode back into the bag, into the bag, into the bag, up and through.”

Most high school backs take the pitch, sweep outside and outrun everyone to the corner. That’s not going to happen in college, so backs must learn how to read holes and be patient. Just watch the better NFL backs, particularly Priest Holmes, and the ability to read the hole and be patient with the developing blocks
is a big key to enduring success in the running game. “We spend a lot of talk working on getting our backs to follow their blocks,” Whilding says. “First, where’s the hole supposed to be? Then we talk about running to the butt of the blocker who’s in front of you. They have to be able to read that block and cut off the butt of that
blocker. We talk about that over and over. The good players will have enough patience to read it and run where the block is set.”

Northwood runs an option drill in which it uses two footballs. If the quarterback makes the read and keeps the ball, he carries through with the pitch. But, if the quarterback gives the ball to the fullback this drill still gives him an opportunity to carry out the pitch and keep everyone in the backfield busy, active and productive on each play. “You have an extra quarterback standing there,” Blankenship says. “As the quarterbacks carry out the play and do the pitch, they’ll come back and get the ball from the pitchback, bring it back and stand there with a ball in hand so if he’s needed, the next quarterback has a ball to take to continue with his own pitch drill down the field.

“As soon as that group is done the next group is in and we get a lot of reps in a 10-minute period. It gives us a lot of coaching reinforcement opportunities without any wasted time. They also push real hard during the drill and keep up a good pace. After 10 minutes they’re ready for a water break.”

An effective back must know how to finish the play. That’s why Nicholls State uses a drag drill in which the defender grabs the ballcarrier from behind by the hips or belt and the ballcarrier has to drag the defender 20 yards downfield. “We’re working on getting touchdowns and first downs, working on the forward lean, the knee drive and the off-elbow drive,” H. T. Kinney says, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Nicholls State. “We’re working on coming through the end of the pile.”

Ball security should be a daily lesson. “It’s the most important drill we do everyday,” Kinney says. “It’s all skill positions for five minutes and it’s an intense drill. We partner up and do a strip drill and a punch drill. If we’re in pads we go through the gauntlet with two lines of players, one each side, and have the ballcarrier run through and have everyone try to knock the ball loose.”

Navy runs its ball security drills with full pads and full contact. Because many fumbles occur when a back cuts, Navy runs a gauntlet drill using pads with a real defensive player trailing from behind, trying to punch the ball loose as soon as the back cuts. “Backs have a tendency when they plant to loosen up their arm and they use their arm to change direction,”says Navy assistant coach Jeff Monken. “So, we work on that.” It isn’t enough to practice simply holding onto the ball. Stressing body lean is another way to protect the ball.

“You want to get the back to get his pad level down and protect all four points,” Sewak says. “You can protect all five points with some body lean. A lot of what we do in our drills has to do with coming off the ball low and hard with your shoulders leading your knees and your knees leading your toes, giving you an explosive lean when the tackler tries to hit you.”
Backs have long been taught to carry the ball at the side, with the ball tucked between the hand elbow and armpit, but more NFL teams are teaching backs to carry the ball anchored against the chest.

“It makes it a lot harder to punch the ball out from behind,” Sewak says. “We’re trying to get your whole body wrapped around the ball, not just your arm.”

Improving the running game also requires recruiting the right players for that system, and not just in the backfield. In the backfield, an improved running game may necessitate signing more running backs for the sake of depth and competition, but “it starts in the offensive line,” Whilding says. “We’re not throwing the ball 50-60 times a game so we can’t get that big, tall, heavy offensive lineman, that 300- 310-pound guy who’s going to stand hip to hip, foot to foot with his teammates and protect the quarterback and doesn’t have to fire out or run downfield. “We can’t recruit that kid. We have to have the 6-foot, 6-1 kid who can block down, step around. Our guards have to be able to pull. They have to get out on the toss sweep or freeze option and led the way.”

It’s a blessing to have that big, strong tailback who can tote the load 30 times a game, but what if he gets hurt?
“We’re going to recruit the 5-8, 5-9 halfback who might be quick and tougher than nails but he doesn’t fit into everybody’s system,” Kinney says. “Then we rotate a lot of players. If we have a running back play more than 40 plays in a football game, that’s a lot. We think that keeps people healthy, not only in the games but towards the end of the season, too. We don’t hold our breath when the next guy has to go in.”

It’s difficult to be exceptional at anything if you don’t make a genuine commitment of time, energy, effort and resources to it and then remain committed to it. One of the true signs of a coach in trouble is who one gives up too easily and starts “grab bagging” at quick fixes and gimmicks.
“We’re absolutely committed to running the football,” Monken says. “We’re going to try to run the ball every play if we can get away with it and we’re going to be good at it. We may do it differently than most people do it with our triple option and inside veer, but we still believe you have to be committed to the run game to be successful.”

Under coach Paul Johnson, Georgia Southern and Navy stayed the course over the long haul and produced results. “We spend a great deal of our practice time on the running game,” Monken says. “We don’t have lengthy pass and blitz pickup periods. We just don’t have time for it. We do what we do. If we’re going to be good at it we’ve got to emphasize our run game.”


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