Chad Spann: Lessons Learned and Work Ahead

Chad Spann began his career as a walk-on and ended it the MAC MVP. As Spann likes to say, "Falling Forward…"

Chad Spann is a reserve running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers after stops with the Colts and Buccaneers. I have interviewed Spann multiple times since this time last year. The former NIU walk-on who began his career ninth on the depth chart and ended it as the 2010 NCAA touchdown leader is a confident but grounded player who learned early that everything he’s going to get as a football player will be earned with hard work and persistence.

It won’t be a surprise to most fans if Pittsburgh drafts a running back in the mid-to-late rounds as a hedge for Rashard Mendenhall’s recovery from a knee injury. Even so, Spann is still the only healthy running back on the roster with change of pace, third-down skills. There’s a strong likelihood that Spann’s name becomes more common on the lips of beat writers this summer.

More stories about Spann at the RSP blog:

Bottom line, I liked Spann’s game before I had a chance to speak with him. However, I have no problem admitting that I’m cheering for him to succeed a little more than I do most players I watch and/or meet.

Q: Are there any tips or techniques preached in NFL meeting rooms and practice fields that solidified or validated what you already knew?  One of the common things you’ve shared with me is that you’ve been hearing these various things since high school. The thing about this game seems to be – or anything in life – you hear about the right way to do something many times, but the folks that really achieve at the highest level are the ones that can incorporate and perfect these things in their lives/careers. Is there anything you heard that really solidified something you’ve been thinking about for a while?

A: One thing that I can tell you is – and I’ve definitely talked with you about this before – as a runner being able to press blocks and make the proper cut by reading the defense. Coach [Kirby] Wilson has put a huge emphasis on making the right cut and being able to read these blocks and press the hole.

That’s not something I ever really heard of until I got to college – being able to press the hole and make the right cut and make the offensive line right. As soon as you understand what that fully means then the game slows down for you and gets much easier. It definitely helped me coming here to Pittsburgh and hearing them say the same thing: just press these blocks and you’ll be all right.

That’s what boosted me up and gave me a chance to get on the active roster for that playoff game because it was one of the things I’ve done so well since college. I’ve known about it for a long time. It’s definitely a game changer.

You’re able to get away with running to daylight in high school because you’re a better athlete than most everyone on the field. Sometimes you can get away with it in college and make up for a lack of technique because you still might be the better athlete or have enough better athletes on your side – just not as much. But in the pros, you need that technique. It has to be your game.

You see a lot of running backs who were great in college who rushed for all kinds of yards, but they don’t know how to press the hole right and set up their blocks so they run into a lot of garbage and they never pan out and become as good as they are capable.

Other than Reggie Bush, I can’t think of a back that loved "taking trips to the corner store" more than Bills RB C.J. Spiller. Now that he’s boycotting the corner store his production is blossoming. See what I mean below. Photo by Matt Britt.

Q: I have my own euphemism for one characteristic of this behavior, which is bouncing runs outside. I call it the “the corner store.” There isn’t much that’s good for you sold at a corner store: candy, soda, alcohol, cigarettes, and lottery tickets, etc. You might find some toothpaste or deodorant there if you’re in a fix, but no one is usually going in there to get those things. Running backs that like going to the corner store tend to have issues at the next level.

A: That’s a great way to put it.

Q: You talked with me in the past about what your Steelers teammates shared about your game and the advice they gave this year. One of those things was when Will Allen told you about maintaining your drive phase longer. For my audience, can you explain what that means and why it helps a running back?

A: If you watch a sprinter run the 100 meters the drive phase is usually that first 10-15 meters of the race where they still have their heads down, they’re arms are really high, they’re knee drive his really high, and they are pushing through to get to their top speed. How that translates to football is when you make that cut and explode through the hole or you just made a catch and you’re trying to explode past that defender. That’s crucial to being able to run away from defenders, finish long runs, make big plays, and for me to run through arm tackles.

Especially with my smaller stature, I will be more susceptible to arm tackles from guys 6’6”, 280-290 pounds on the d-line and those linebackers like Ray Lewis who have been doing it for years. I’m more susceptible to getting arm tackled so I have to be able to power through them by exploding as hard as I can.

To maintain that drive phase I have to have good dorsiflexion. I have to have my knee drive up. And not necessarily have my head down, but to have my head in a good position so I can continue to power through. When I do all this I can get to my top speed much faster and hold it much longer than I would if I were just running normally.

Q: Can you explain “dorsiflexion?”

A: That would be the ankle – sprinters hear that a lot. It’s when your toes are pulled up towards your shins.

Q: My wife could probably tell me that, but I’m sure her coach would tell her that she never did that well. She jokes with me that she ran an 11.2-100 in high school in 1987 and she’d always have a cigarette before the meet. Her coach would always get on her because she was a horrible starter.

A: (Laughter)

Q: You hear players mic’d on NFL Films and ESPN.  Can you describe what it sounds like for you personally? Is it quiet when you’re on the field or do you hear everything?

A: It’s weird. I’ve had this conversation with many people before, when you’re in the huddle it’s loud and hard to hear. Sometimes I have to scoot all the way to the quarterback to make sure I hear and sometimes I have to read his lips so I know exactly what he said. As I’m lining up I’ll sometimes ask him the play again because I didn’t hear it. I’m just trying to make sure I have it right because it is SO loud.

As soon I have the ball in my hands, I can’t hear anything but what’s happening on the field. The crowd is shut out. I can’t hear the crowd at all. I can hear myself breathing. I can hear footsteps. I can hear where people are coming from. I can hear blocks being made.

Those are all the kinds of things that I hear, but as far as the crowd or my coaching yelling at me as I’m running the ball down the field – even if it’s right by him – I can’t hear a word. 

Q: It sounds a lot like directors in Hollywood do action movies when things slow down. It’s overly dramatized but I can see how an athlete could watch an action sequence and relate to the grain of truth in it.

A: Yep. Another way to describe it is tunnel vision. Some guys get tunnel vision where all they can see is the field. When I was playing in Indianapolis in the preseason I had tunnel vision for my very first carries. I could only see what was directly in front of me and I couldn’t see the whole field. It’s that way with sound, too. I can’t hear anything else. It’s all in the background and it makes no sense to me.

Is Lucas Oil Stadium suffocating? Once the fans get in there. Chad Spann explains. Photos by Nicole McCleaf

Q: Do you have a pregame ritual? Steve McNair liked to take a nap? Some folks like to listen to music. Ryan Williams likes to have spaghetti the night before. Is there anything that you like to do to get ready for a game?

A: I don’t have anything too major, but I always like to go outside early. Not while everybody else is warming up. I like to get out there first, do my own warm-up, and listen to my own music, which is usually something to calm and relax me and not something really hype. As an offensive player – especially as a running back – you don’t need to be hyped. I have a lot of decisions to make. I have a lot of reads and reactions and if I’m not relaxed when I’m doing it I’m more liable to make the wrong cut and do something wrong because I have to do something.

Q: You’re reacting to a ton of things.

A: Yeah, and you’ve got to be able to relax and be clam while you’re making all these reads. I usually listen to R&B and do my little warm-up and usually end with a trainer or equipment manager throwing me about 30 balls in various ways: running the back line of the end zone, running to the side of the end zone and making sure I get two feet in bounds, and stuff like that.

I’ll do that for 30 throws and then get inside right before the stadium fills up. Especially playing in a stadium like Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis because when that stadium fills up it sucks the air out of it and it makes it harder to breathe. I like to get that done early and go in the locker rooms and relax. I want to make sure my clothes and gear looks good, because when you look good you play good (laughter). That’s my pregame.

Q: Maybe that statement about fans sucking all the air out of the stadium is why I enjoy watching games more on TV.

A: I do too. I like getting all of the details and being able to check on stats and see the game from more than one angle watching it.

Q: You talk about the work you do each day to add muscle and increase your explosiveness. What’s your typical work out routine?

A: Every day at the gym is different. We do something different every day. Yesterday for example was more a speed workout. I didn’t touch any weights. I just came in there and did footwork and speed drills.

I went over bags several different ways for about an hour after a 30-minute warm up. Then I did some sharp-cutting cone drills.  Then I did the banded starts I talked about earlier, but I did them differently yesterday because I had someone actually throwing me the ball. I would line up in my receiver stance and run a streak. At five yards the ball should be on me so I’m fighting as hard as I can those first five yards.

Then there’s those last five yards where you catch a fade when you’re trying to separate from that defender and break on the ball. We’re also doing that as well as running what we call a “now slant.” It’s not those usual two or three steps forward where you would break. Instead you just make your break right away and get across so you can get across the field as soon as possible because you run this route usually when someone is blitzing.

We worked on that as well with the band to help me explode from that spot and then continue to power through. Those are the normal things I do with explosion and speed work. I lift four times a week and it’s either upper body or lower bodywork our what we call a dynamic work out. It’s a combination of everything, but still focused a lot on the lower body even though it takes your abs and your arm strength to do it. Lots of core.

At the end of every workout I do another 4-5 exercise circuits three times through of core.

Q: I wish they made a device for a guy like me who sits at his desk writing and studying athletes every day 60-70 hours a week that I could just plug into you guys and get 20 percent of the benefits of your work outs. I don’t think they’re going to build an app for that any time soon…

A: (Laughter)

Tomorrow: Spann talks about his initial meetings with his coaches in Pittsburgh, their emphasis on situational football, how he’s working on his craft as a receiver out of the back field, and why he agreed with me when I said Troy Polamalu is a great liar.

5 responses to “Chad Spann: Lessons Learned and Work Ahead”

  1. Thanks, I enjoyed this interview.
    Spann demonstrates intelligence and understanding of what it takes to be have a successful working life.
    I get the feeling that with more confidence and opportunity he will be able to put it all together, because the “grindwork” is in place.
    Its the same wherever we work. Eventually, attention to the basics bear fruit. Sometimes we are only one step away, and we quit for reasons that have presented themselves for thousands of years, generation after generation.
    That is why you will enjoy success, Matt Waldman.All the work will pay off in many ways, and you are lucky to be doing something that you enjoy.


  2. […] Chad Spann: Lessons and Work Ahead Share this:TwitterEmailLinkedInStumbleUponRedditFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Conversations, NFL Players and tagged Chad Spann, Football route running, Kirby Wilson, Matt Waldman, Mike Tomlin, NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers, Rookie Scouting Portfolio, RSP, Troy Polamalu by Matt Waldman. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  3. […] 12. Chad Spann earned an opportunity to join a team: Anthony Allen, Damien Berry, Javarris James, Tashard Choice, Antone Smith, Dimitri Nance, Dan Herron, Aaron Brown, Josh Vaughn, Brandon Jackson, Chris Ogbonnaya, Kahlil Bell, Lorenzo Booker, Jeremiah Johnson, Lance Dunbar, Justin Forsett, Keiland Williams, Brandon Saine, Montell Owens, Dujuan Harris, Lex Hilliard, Jordan Todman, Shaun Draughn, Chris Ivory, Steve Slaton, Da’Rell Scott, Andre Brown, Joe McKnight, Terrence Ganaway, Daryl Richardson, Lonyae Miller, and Mossis Madu. That’s just a partial list of running backs on NFL depth charts that I believe aren’t as talented as Spann. […]

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