Study football players long enough and it becomes clear that we all make assumptions about what they can and cannot do. We base these conclusions on what we think we know about a player’s size, speed, and strength. The truth is that we often underestimate the importance of technique, awareness, and fit with a specific scheme and surrounding talent.
Finding evidence that challenges these assumptions can lead to discovering players who are exceptions to the rule, underrated, or under the radar. This series will be devoted to a single play of a player that illustrates an aspect of his game that is not usually attributed as a strength or weakness.
When I find these plays, I make a note to search for additional plays like them. The goal is to validate or dispel the natural assumptions we all have about prospects. Sometimes I’m unable to do either, but these flashes from a player can help me see how much potential for improvement in a specific area exists. This is equally important, because few players enter the league finished products.
Miami Dolphins running back Lamar Miller is a good example of a player that the general public didn’t think of as a good receiver, but I saw him flash these skills down the road at the University of Miami. Apparently, the Dolphins coaching staff saw the same thing. I have to believe there were other scouts and Internet talent guys who saw it, but according to my colleague Sigmund Bloom I was the only one he saw mention this aspect of Miller’s game.
The Oregon runner’s 321-yard, 5-touchdown performance against USC earlier this month put him on the national radar. Barner is listed as a 5-11, 192-pound running back and it is assumed that he will not be able to add another 10-20 pounds to become a feature back or lead back in a pro-style running game. I may not be at the point where I can win a “guess the height and weight” contest at the local fair, but Barner doesn’t look as big as me and I’m roughly those dimensions.
Another assumption is that Barner can’t break tackles. I’ll readily admit that when I first saw Barner and the Oregon offense, I assumed the same. However, the reason I look at defined criteria is to focus on what a player illustrates and not what I might believe before I see him. The defined process helps me maintain an open mind.
Here’s a third-and-1 play from the California 5 with 2:07 in the first quarter where Barner has forced me to at least keep an open mind about his ability to break tackles. Until I see enough evidence to validate or dispel the notion this two-yard gain did enough delay judgment for me.
A wind-back play is a misdirection run where the offensive line slants in one direction to get the defensive flowing to the opposite side of the eventual path of the runner. The key is the halfback helping to sell the misdirection by pressing to the linemen’s slant and then cutting back to follow the fullback crossing the formation to the backside to open a crease inside his block.
Barner slants with the offensive line as he takes the exchange from the quarterback as the fullback begins his wind back to the backside of the formation. The Ducks hope they can get the linebacker and safety to flow inside just enough for the running back to earn a clean hole for positive yards. Thus far, the safety is staring into the backfield and doesn’t seem poised to follow the tight end to the flat. The linebacker has taken a step inside, but he hasn’t bitten hard on the initial flow of the line. Oregon has run this play at least twice during this quarter and Cal’s defense seems to be catching on .
As Barner begins his bend to the backside it’s not the linebacker and safety that he has to worry about. The edge defender gets good penetration and meets the fullback at the line of scrimmage and spins off the lead blocker’s hit at the same time the front side linebacker gets easy access to the backfield through a lane inside left tackle. We know that Barner has the footwork and speed to avoid tackles, but in a tight area of a short-yardage play can he combine those skills with the pad level and strength to break tackles?
Earlier in this game, I watched Barner get knocked backwards on a wind-back play because as he hit the small backside crease he tried to beat the linebacker through the hole by turning his pads outside rather than lowering his pads through the defender. Barner wasn’t fast enough to beat this defender’s angle – no back would have been – and the linebacker hit Barner under the runner’s pads. The defender forced Barner backwards for a three-yard gain that was as questionable as his height and weight.
On this wind-back play, Barner flashes the technique that he’ll need to show more often if he wants to succeed between the tackles in the NFL. What you don’t see between the last still photo and the next one below is that he squares his pads and hips down hill. This puts him in position to attack the defense or, at least in the case of a smaller runner, minimize his surface area for defenders to hit and increase his chances to squirt through contact.
Barner’s pad level is good enough that when he encounters the safety head-on, his body is in a balanced position to handle the contact. If you look close enough at the still photo below (yes, I know it looks more like a poor attempt at a Leroy Neiman, but I do all this myself), the safety doesn’t have a square hit on Barner. The contact is to the runner’s right side, which gives Barner a shot to bounce off the hit to the inside. If Barner’s pads weren’t square he would have been hit at an angle to the chest that likely knocks the runner sideways.
The hit from the safety knocks Barner sideways, but not the away from the line of scrimmage. The pad level and down-hill angle are the difference between the outcome of the run I described earlier, and this play where Barner earns the first down. Barner isn’t going to be a tackle-breaking stud in the NFL, but the right technique and understanding of angles can give a player of his size slippery power.
Barner maintains his balance and gets his pads down hill in the next frame. His initial angle helps him take the hit and work past the line of scrimmage. Barner has already won because even if No.40 wraps him from behind, there’s little chance the Oregon runner doesn’t fall forward for the first down.
Let’s make it official . . .
It’s not so much Barner’s strength as it is his footwork, pad level, and pad orientation that helps him bounce off two hits at the line of scrimmage, keep his legs moving, and fall forward for the first down on what could have easily been a no-gainer. Barner will need to demonstrate this skill enough to earn consideration as a back capable of a lead role and not just a change of pace in a committee.
He’ll also need to demonstrate that after a physical run he isn’t forced to the sideline. This hand injury forced Barner to the locker room for a couple of series. It could have happened to any runner. It also can generate perceptions that limit a player’s opportunity for a bigger role until he proves this was not a frequent issue.
For more analysis of skill players entering the NFL, download the 2012 Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 RSP at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. The 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio will be available for download here on April 1, 2013.