To come to be you must have a vision of Being, a Dream, a Purpose, a Principle. You will become what your vision is.
Vision is a magical term. Even in the world of business, visionary leaders are seen as semi-fictional characters. For all of his petulance, coldness, and cruelty towards friends, employees, and business partners, Steve Jobs’ vision transformed Apple into a real life WonkaVille.
Football players with great vision also seem magical. Watch a highlight of Gale Sayers, Barry Sanders, or Ladainian Tomlinson in their prime and their performances frequently dance along the borders of the impossible. Great vision in football is said to be intuitive. Many scouts say it can’t be taught. I agree with much of the first statement, but not with the second.
The problem we face as football analysts, evaluators of talent, or fans is that the magical results of good vision makes it something that we let obscure our desire to define it with greater clarity. Vision is seen as an intangible when we should try to define it. We might not be wholly successful with our attempt, but having a working language to discuss it is a huge step forward.
For much of the seven years I have been studying running backs, I have defined a runner’s vision into four components:
- Decision-making: This sounds like a very general thing to use as criteria to judge a back, but the concept is that simple. If the play is designed to go up the middle on regular down and distance play, but there is a huge opening off tackle, does the runner attempt to get outside or just ram it into the pile? A good runner often spots the potential hole before the snap, but still makes the adjustment if he sees something better that is within his reach.
- Patience: Although a runner sometimes has to create openings with a physical style in short-yardage situations, a quality ball carrier is capable of waiting for his blockers to reach their assignments before he runs through the opening. The Kansas City Chiefs used to explain this concept as effectively running through the layers of the defense—something Priest Holmes was great at doing. A patient runner will hesitate in his movement to allow a player in front of him to pass or make a play, but a the same time he is decisive in his action to be hesitant. A tentative runner will hesitate, but is merely looking for an opening rather than setting up the one he sees.
- Makes good reads and effectively anticipates the defense: A quality running back should have the ability to read run blitzes at the line of scrimmage before the snap and adjust where he’s going to take the ball, or inform his quarterback of the situation so the signal caller can adjust the play. Good runners also understand defensive tendencies from film study and as the game progresses that they can use against the defense. Good reading skills help a runner make wiser decisions with when to follow the play as designed or attempt a cutback that might become available.
- Takes good angles away from defenders in the open field: A runner with good instincts and peripheral vision has the ability to alter the direction of his run just enough to prevent a defender in pursuit from catching him. The timing and direction of this decision is what makes this open field technique an effective way to make a big play even when a defensive player has exhibited enough recovery speed to get within distance of making a tackle.
These four components comprise the abilities a runner needs to anticipate and exploit the best places to run with the football. Defining vision does not deny the fact that these decisions requires a high level of intuition. A runner with great vision and strong fundamentals will exhibit a style that is akin to a great improviser in music or the spoken word—instinctive, on the edge, but in control of the moment. Sayers, Jim Brown, and Marshall Faulk all had great vision and each had a running style vastly different from the other because its how they used these four components to exploit their specific strengths and hide their shortcomings.
But I have learned over the past seven years that there are components of vision that runners can acquire once they become professionals. I’ve mentioned recently that NFL prospects have to learn to cut down their trips to the corner store if they want to help their offense become more efficient. Reggie Bush, Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, and C.J. Spiller all had initial difficulties with this lesson and it took varying amounts of time for each to incorporate more discipline into their decision-making process.
Larry Johnson had to learn greater patience as a runner and he credited Priest Holmes. And the player that taught Holmes and Jamal Lewis was running back Earnest Byner. As you can see, this is an impressive crew of running backs that didn’t just pop from their mother’s womb and instinctively had the refined vision of an NFL runner. It’s a ridiculous notion that is lazily encouraged.
One of the runners in the 2012 class with the skills to potentially make that transition from college star to NFL starter is Virginia Tech’s David Wilson. After studying two games and over 50 touches from the 2011 season, I believe Wilson is one of those players that my evaluation checklist will deliver a lower grade than the analysis seen in my evaluation profile. What I love about the RSP evaluation process is that when this happens, I generally know that I have a player with immense upside but clear deficiencies that might take time for him to address. Here’s a one-play taste of that upside in terms of agility, balance, and functional power.
Wilson fits that description as well as any back I’ve watched in a decade. His 24-carry, 82-yard performance in the Sugar Bowl versus Michigan, included runs of 11, 11, 12, and 22 yards. It also included carries he could have made better decisions to avoid outputs of zero, zero, 1, 2, 3, -3, -4, and -22 yards.
I’m going to group Wilson’s runs into four categories:
- Raw Skill in Action (this post)
- Flashes of Refined Play
- Good Plays, but Alternatives Available
This will be a four-part series on Wilson that comes from analysis of a single game from Wilson for the 2012 Rookie Scouting Portfolio available here on April 1, 2012.
Part I – Raw Skill in Action
Wilson had a gain of eight yards on a 1st and 10 run with 11:43 in the first quarter from a 12-personnel, 1×1 receiver. The RG and LT pulled to left end as Wilson took the exchange from the QB in that direction. While he was patient enough wait to cross the line of scrimmage until he worked his way outside and wait for the LT to seal the LB to the inside his actual burst down hill was out of control.
Wilson’s burst took him directly into the CB in the flat coming off a block and if he were more patient with his approach to the hole or he times is burst just a step or two later he could have avoided barreling into the CB. Although the CB lifted Wilson off his feet with a wrap to both legs, the RB’s tremendous explosiveness generated enough momentum to fall forward another 4-5 yards before hitting the ground. This play was a great example of his all-pro acceleration used at a less than optimal time. Eight yards is a strong 1st and 10 gain, but with better patience and timing, the gain could have been 2-3 times as long.
Later in the drive , Wilson gained 11 yards and a first down on 1st and 10 from the Michigan 15 with 9:55 in the first quarter from a 1×3 receiver, 10-personnel shotgun set versus a 4-3 look. He took the option pitch to right end, one-handing the pitch that was a little wide, and accelerated five yards to the line of scrimmage.
Wilson then earned five yards around the LB who dove and missed for Wilson’s legs at the 10. The RB then stiff-armed the CB in the flat and maintained his balance tight at the right sideline to get another five for the first down just before he was upended by two defenders coming for the runner high-low at the sideline. This was a reckless, powerful, agile, and balanced run. Place Wilson in situations where he has to make a series of defenders miss one-on-one in sequence and he’s as good as anyone in the nation.
On a 2nd and 1 in the first quarter, Wilson gained a yard from a 21-personnel, I-formation , weak side twin receiver set against five defenders with a hand on the ground. He tried to cut the run behind the LG-C double team but he was wrapped in the backfield by the LDT coming off that double-team. Yet Wilson was strong enough to twist free of the wrap and get his shoulders downhill, dragging a defender two yards for the first down. Although not a large gain it was a significant one – an excellent display of functional strength and power that meshes well with his prowess in the weight room.
His biggest gain of the day was 32-yard run from a 1st and 10 with 9:46 in the half from an option pitch to right end. Wilson took the pitch at the edge of right end six yards behind the line of scrimmage and accelerated inside the WR’s block at the sideline for a quick four yards. At this point he slowed his stride just enough to execute a slight feint inside to set up an outside dip on the safety over top.
This got Wilson to the first down marker as he broke the safety’s tackle to his legs. then it was time to turn on the jets. Wilson accelerated past the inside pursuit at the right sideline about 16 yards down field and dipped back to the inside for another 12 yards. His ability to corner, accelerate, and run through hits to his legs is very good.
Tomorrow: Part II – The Low-lights: Where Wilson’s game must improve to become an NFL starter.
For more analysis like this at every skill position, purchase the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Pre-order the 2012 RSP and buy past RSPs (2006-2011) here.