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Running for Sparty: Michigan State Running Back Essentials, Fundamentals and Abilities

by: David Warner
Co-Offensive Coordinator and Running Backs Coach, Michigan State University
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I have been fortunate to be a part of the successes and championships at Michigan State and truly believe that they are a result of a tremendous team effort of our coaches and administrators.

We have been blessed with talent at the running back position over our years here but we also believe that we do a good job of developing these young men. This article outlines what we believe it takes to play RB at a high level – the essentials. These are what the individual, to some degree, brings with him to the game. Additionally, the musts, fundamentals, and abilities are what we attempt to develop each day at practice.


Desire – the willingness to work to be the best. You alone make the decision of how much effort you put into each play and each day.

Discipline – do what has to be done, when it has to be done, as well as it can be done, and doing it that way all the time.

Toughness – there is no substitute for toughness – physical and mental. It is not something that is spoken – it is demonstrated through how you carry yourself as a player and how you play the game.

Talent – you will be counted on each play to perform one of the following at a high level of execution.

    •  Carrying the ball
        - Vision and instinctive
             - Burst, acceleration, and speed
            - Make unblocked defender miss
            - Run through tackles with power
    •  Receiving the ball
    •  Blocking – run or pass
     •  Faking


•  Know your aiming point
•  Know your read key
•  Understand the intent of the play – the big picture.

•  Take proper first step
•  Eyes on the read key
•  Be decisive as a ball carrier
Ball security
    Five points of pressure
         - Split index and middle finger with point of ball
         - Hand pressure
         - Forearm pressure
        - Inside bicep pressure
         - Chest pressure
        - Wrist above elbow at all times – “High & tight”.


LOS / Pre-snap routine

•  Align at the exact spot for play call. Be aware of depth and width needed to effectively execute your assignment. Do not give away play by alignment.
•  Make initial scan of the defense and continue to gather information by keeping head “on a swivel”. Do not give away play or direction with your eyes.

Stance – 2-point

•  Feet are positioned shoulder width apart allowing movement in either direction forward, at any angle, or laterally in either direction.
•  Knees are slightly bent and comfortable.
•  Hands are placed above/on top of thigh pads with fingers on the outside and inside pointing down.
•  Body weight is distributed evenly on both feet with slightly more pressure on the balls of the feet.
•  Shoulders must be held high slowing good vision of the defense.
Stance – 3 point

•  Feet are positioned shoulder width apart allowing movement in either direction without stepping underneath yourself.
•  Dominant hand should be down with fingers on the ground – little to no weight placed on fingers.
•  Head must be up with eyes looking through the offensive linemen to see the defensive front and linebacker alignment.


•  Lead step – initial step with playside foot directly at aiming point. Toe should “lead” toward aiming point as well.
•  Slide step – lateral step with playside foot keeping shoulders square to the line of scrimmage.

Receiving the hand off

•  Footwork must be consistent relative to the play being run. Exchange point must always be the same allowing you to keep eyes on the read. Trust the QB to get the ball to you.
•  Inside elbow up with forearm parallel to the ground at the top of numbers. The outside arm should be at the belt buckle with the palm up and elbow slightly away from body to provide a “backstop” for the ball.
•  Allow the QB to place the ball in your pocket.  Do not grab for it.
•  Cover over the ball as you feel it by bringing the upper hand down to cover the outside portion of the ball.  The lower shelf hand maintains the security of the ball as you lock the ball in the proper arm.
•  Stay on course until ball is properly exchanged.

Ball security

•  Do not swing the ball while carrying it.
•  Wrist must remain above the elbow at all times.
•  Carry ball in outside arm or away from defenders.
•  Protect ball with “off” hand when preparing for hit.
•  Switching the ball to opposite arm during the play is not

Carrying the football

•  Vision – ability to see the hole/block/defender and adjust to what you see.
•  Elusive – ability to stick your foot in the ground and redirect quickly – change of direction. The ability to jump cut. The ability to make an unblocked defender miss.
•  Explosive – ability to accelerate and run through defenders.  The ability and speed to burst and run away from defenders.
•  Power – the ability to run through.  The physical attitude of delivering punishment to defenders and gaining extra yardage.

Receiving the football

•  Route running – the ability to run precise routes and get open.
•  Ball skills – the ability to attack the ball and catch it in your hands. The ability to focus and make the difficult catch or catch in a crowd.

Blocking abilities – run game

•  Attack – the ability to run through the defender without hesitation.
•  Eyes – ability to focus on aiming point with head up and neck “bulled”.
•  Leverage – ability to bend your knees and get your pads under defender’s pads.
•  Explosive – ability to deliver a powerful shock to defender.
Blocking abilities – pass game

•  Attack – ability to take the block to your man.
•  Base – ability to be under control with good base and take away direct path to QB.
•  Hands – ability and timing to “swat” away defender’s hands and not allow him to grab you.
•  Punch – ability and timing to deliver effective punch (one hand or two hands) to target.
•  Finish – ability to recover and accelerate the block.
Faking abilities

•  Effort – ability to go hard until the whistle.
•  Knowledge – ability to understand that you can help make the play successful.
•  Pride – ability to do the “little things” that can make a big difference.

About the Author: Dave Warner just completed his second season as co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach and his eighth overall season on the staff of Michigan State. He previously coached quarterbacks for six years. Warner has been a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator for 25 of the 30 years he has been a college coach. He also coached at Connecticut, Wyoming, Houston, Southern Mississippi, Cincinnati, Bucknell, Kansas, and Kent State. Warner was a three-year letterwinner as a quarterback at Syracuse.



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