Michigan Football: Coach’s Corner — The Great Running Back — What Makes the Mean Machine?
Not everyone can be a great running back, that is past obvious. Indeed, there are minimum prerequisites for a player to meet before any meaningful discussion. Some running backs rely on speed, some are more power oriented, and some are combinations of many needed attributes. There are intangibles, like vision, that may be present in the make up of the athlete but are nearly impossible to coach.
Jim Brown’s position coaches would have to be looked up via an information search. Everyone in his era knew Jim Brown, but only dedicated and knowledgeable Brown’s fans knew whom his position coach(es) was/were during his career. Jim Brown did not really need a running back coach. Sit an average citizen in a press box with the title of running back coach and Brown would still run like Jim Brown. He was the package: speed, strength, vision, timing at the hole, and uncanny balance that set the mean machine standard.
There are only occasional glory backs like Brown, Payton, Sanders, Dickerson, and Peterson. Other mortals need extensive practice, technique, and experience to contribute, assuming sufficient basic physical traits. Before continuing the discussion, the obvious and perfunctory statement about offensive line quality will be presented. Indeed, the better the line play the better the results of a running back. There are only a few running backs that can overcome a mediocre line and produce outstanding results.
First off, a running back is usually one of the best athletes on the team. As stated, there must be a minimum of size and speed to run the ball. The running back position can be glamorous as backs gain yards and score points. But, running backs take hits with every carry.
There are things that running backs and coaches can do to improve performance, many are obvious. Running backs need plenty of film time to study the offensive blocking schemes to gain an idea of timing and how to hit the hole correctly. This must be transferred to the field through drills and scrimmage time.
A running back can look at a personal strength and seek to improve that trait. The bruiser can hit the weight room and the sprinter can work on how to hit the edge perfectly to take advantage of their best strength.
The ability to pass block against a break away defender or a blitzer is about attitude and dedication as much as ability. Some backs are much better at blocking and this skill is not always related to size or overall ability. In most high-level programs, it is a stated expectation that failure to block in the passing game results in watching a good part of the game from the sideline area.
Agility is a human physical trait that can be improved through a series of long practiced drills. The great running back likely starts with better agility and no one else passes them, even with specific drills intended to improve everyone’s agility. Agility helps a running back make that wow move in space that may result in extra yardage.
Just as the great back can run and block; somehow the great back is also excellent at catching the ball. Some backs work well running screens, but more recently backs are running deep wheel routes or hunting seems deep. If the blocking holds up, the deep route from a running back is difficult to defend.
Another coaching attribute that good coaching and player dedication can improve is holding on to the football, that is, do not fumble. Young backs are picked on; veteran backs are picked on by defenders who attempt almost every play to dislodge the football from a back’s possession. Laying the ball on the carpet with frequency is a recipe to travel downward on the depth chart. Coaches work hard with young backs that will almost always show a higher incidence of fumbling in practice and games. If a young player fumbles often in practice, this will certainly happen in games as well.
There are traits that are problematic or near impossible for coaches and players to control. Of these vision is perhaps most critical. Some backs just have superior vision and field perception. As a result, this fortunate back can almost predict where the blocker and defender will be ahead of time and a good reaction yields big gains. The back with great vision is better at the cutback, which is a big part of running behind zone blocking or running the stretch play. Constantly it is said, “too bad that guy does not have good vision.” Backs seem to either have good field vision or do not. If a back does not have good vision and the associated decision making processes, then that back better be a great and powerful north/south brute.
Stamina can be somewhat controlled by conditioning and practice. But only a few backs can absorb the punishment of four quarters and thirty carries. Coaches can only find out how good a back is regarding game stamina by playing a one-horse strategy and determining if the back has what it takes to run hard at game’s end after a day of constant hits and high energy expenditure.
Having a superman quality running back that is a mean machine is a great luxury for any team. A back like this is the lynchpin of a team’s offensive preparation, and conversely becomes the center of the opposing defense’s preparation. If a defense needs extra guys in the box to stop the great back, then the play action passing game has a chance to produce big plays.
Everyone loves having and watching a mean machine.
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Written by GBMWolverine Staff
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