If there’s an alternate universe, I’m a running back in it. There isn’t a week that goes by that I walk along the field that held the first football game at the University of Georgia and daydream of ripping off a run like Garrison Hearst’s 96-yard touchdown versus the Jets. I just don’t act it out (although the urge is there). It’s probably why most of my analysis this month has been quarterbacks, receivers, and tight ends. I want to save the best stuff for last – the way your son or daughter might save a favorite dessert.
One of the running backs of the past 20 years whose game I had grown to admire was Warrick Dunn. He was listed at 5’8″, 187 pounds, but I bet 5’6″, 178 is closer to the truth. Even if his listed weight is correct, I like the tall tale version more – it befits a back of his size who carried the load for Alex Gibbs’ zone blocking scheme for the Falcons.
Since Dunn, there hasn’t been a back that has been as small who carried the bulk of the running game on his shoulders – even if it was just for a year or two. Maurice Jones-Drew is not small – just short. Brian Westbrook was smaller by RB standards, but 205 lbs is still quite a bit more than 187 on a finely tuned athlete. Darren Sproles is a great player, but he has never been asked to play the traditional role of a between the tackles runner in the NFL like Dunn.
It may never happen again despite the fact there are some capable backs that could handle a few seasons of a heavier workload. The Falcons Jacquizz Rodgers and Eagles Dion Lewis come to mind. So does Oregon back LaMichael James .
James is 10 pounds heavier than Dunn and an inch shorter. His style projects more along the lines of Sproles. This week I’ll show some revealing plays against Stanford this year that might offer some clues about what he can – and can’t – do in the NFL.
This is probably a good place to start, because if an RB is going to have a chance to contribute as a between the tackles runner in every situation, he has to show something as a short-yardage runner. Here is a 1st and goal from the Stanford 3 with 4:48 in the first quarter. James gained eight yards off left guard through a nice hole from this same 12-personnel, strong side twin on 3rd and 10 on the previous play. However, down, distance, and field position can change the difficulty of a play as dramatically as James can change direction.
In contrast to the preceding play that I described, the left side of the line doesn’t generate the push it did on the previous play despite the right side of the Stanford defense slow to the line.
As James approaches the hole, his strategy is to make a strong cut into the gap and accelerate through it. He presses the lane to the outside before he makes the cut.
As James cuts into the hole, the OLB coming from the back side, reaches for the back of James’ shirt and his weight makes it more difficult for James to generate acceleration through the hole – especially when he wasn’t even in what Chad Spann refers to as the drive phase of his run. This is a perfect example of why getting into that drive phase and sustaining it is so important for a smaller runner. Because James is unable to reach that drive phase without contact, the LB’s grasp slows him down and gives the DT (coming from the left side) a chance to reach him before James reaches the line of scrimmage.
In most cases, the outcome of the LB’s grasp on a runner that weighs 210-215 pounds isn’t as positive for the defense. A bigger back runs through that grasp, plows into the DT and still gets enough forward lean for positive yardage. He probably even runs past the DT and only receives a glancing shot. This is not the case for the more diminutive James. And at this point, the dynamics of the pile kick into play.
James never achieves a strong drive phase that a player 10-15 pounds heavier does when he pulls free quickly of the LB’s grasp. As a result he’s at the mercy of whichever team can generate a greater push. On this play Stanford has Oregon out-manned and James loses a yard. Even with the advantage of a high-tempo attack that seemingly catches half the Stanford defense unprepared, James can’t even get into the hole.
This one play doesn’t mean that James can’t become an effective short yardage runner in an NFL offense. He’s had successful short yardage plays many times in his career. However, you have account for the situational strengths and weaknesses of his game and as a lighter, smaller runner, James has to hit the hole quick and generate a down-hill, hard-driving approach as early as possible in a run or else he’s more at the mercy of physics than his peers.
Tomorrow: More LaMichael James.
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