“If I had to take a hit from anybody, it wouldn’t be Spencer Ware. He’s a guy who’s going to put everything into it and fight for that extra yard.”
- Josh Dworaczyk, LSU Tackle
I was a Spencer Ware fan the moment I watched him out-play his teammate Stevan Ridley as a freshman against Texas A&M in the 2010-2011 Cotton Bowl. Ridley had 105 yards and a touchdown to Ware’s 102. The future Patriot’s starter needed 24 touches. Ware did it with 10.
Ware isn’t a breakaway threat; he’s a hot-running, helmet-crunching, break-your-back, ball-carrying warrior. He’s rugged, smart, and technically sound in most aspects of the game. If Seattle didn’t have a Robert Turbin, Ware is the back I’d want backing up Marshawn Lynch. If Mike Shanahan wants a lean, mean, running back depth chart, he can dispense with most of the backs behind Alfred Morris and opt for Ware.
If I were Jerry Jones – oh man, if I were Jerry Jones . . . I could fill three long columns that might cause half my readers to suffocate from laughter if wrote about what I’d do if I were the Joan Rivers of NFL owners. Mr. Jones, Commissioner Goodell on Line 1, your plastic surgeon on Line 2, and Dez Bryant’s nanny on Line 3.
It might be easy for any of these teams to make drafting Ware a reality. Les Miles has his running back flavor of the month – all due respect to a talented Jeremy Hill – which is a reason that if I were Ware, I too would have left LSU before my senior year. Combine that dynamic with the depth of this running back class and Ware might not be drafted in April.
I can think of dozens of plays to show – several flashier than the three I have here. However, I couldn’t think of many better opponents than - according to Football Outsiders metrics - South Carolina’s 12th-ranked run defense. Here is one play that reveals aspects of Ware’s game that makes him an NFL-ready runner – regardless of when or if he’s drafted.
Running Back Effectiveness: Pad level > Speed
Speed is breath-taking and it scares defenses witless because one play can spell a six-point end of a series. But Al Davis’ ”Speed Kills” mantra is dead, because it’s a lot like shark attacks: it scares more often than it kills. Just like the nature of sharks, we understand the nature of speed better than we used to.
Rarely in football can speed be the primary and secondary weapon of a running back. Once a player has the baseline level of speed required to compete in the NFL, there are several other factors that are far more important. Ask Arian Foster, Frank Gore, Marshawn Lynch, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Steven Jackson, Willis McGahee, Alfred Morris, and Michael Turner if breakaway speed is all-important – this list comprises eight of the top-24 runners in 2012 and three of the top-six performers.
Spencer Ware has the skill to join this list if he can make the most of his opportunities. Here’s Ware demonstrating the skill and maturity I’ talking about on a six-yard gain for the first down on a 3rd and 1 from the Gamecocks’ 21 with 9:20 in the first quarter. The play begins as a 22-personnel, I-formation run versus nine defenders in the box (above). Ware begins the play by taking the exchange behind his fullback towards left guard.
The South Carolina defender’s penetration and attack of the fullback drops the lead blocker three yards behind the line of scrimmage. From this point of the exchange, Ware has about two steps to avoid the pileup about to happen in the backfield.
Ware bounces the run inside with a quick cut through the lane up the middle of the defense, gaining two yards untouched. As big as this hole appears now, South Carolina’s defensive front is filled with the type of athletes to close a crease right-quick and in a hurry.
Ware has step over the rest of his jack-knifed fullback in the backfield as the defense begins to close the crease from three separate points. A first down is likely, due to the width of the initial opening towards the line of scrimmage. However, within two steps Ware and these three defenders should meet at the 20 and good pad level will be essential for the LSU Tiger to get the job done.
Ware gets his pads lower than the oncoming defender and at a depth that allows him to squirt under the front. The point isn’t to break a long play as much as avoid enough contact to ensure a first down. It’s surprising how many good college backs forget this point and lean too hard on their strength or speed.
Ware ducks under the second level of the defense – five defenders total – to get the first down. This is the point where I expected to play to end, but Ware is only a third of the way through. His pad level, leg drive, balance, and strength gets him through the the other side of this pile of future NFL defenders.
Ware emerges from the four-defender cave with good body lean down field and in position to gain extra yards despite three of these four defenders still holding onto him. With a 5-11, 223-pound frame, Ware keeps his legs moving and earns three extra yards, extricating himself from two of the three defenders before the defensive back hits the runner head-on at the 15.
Quick feet. Pad level. Balance. Strength. Second effort. All components of an excellent short-yardage runner against one of the best defenses in college football. My colleague Ryan Lownes mentioned on Twitter that he sees an athlete of Rudi Johnson’s ilk – not a breakaway runner, but a player capable of grinding it out as a bell cow back. I think if you combine the styles of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Marshawn Lynch, it captures a lot of the good that is in Spencer Ware’s game. Of course, name-dropping Marion Barber may suffice:
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