Chicken or Egg: RB Stefphon Jefferson or Nevada Scheme?

The chicken or egg argument in football is between the individual and the team. One example is junior RB Stepfon Jefferson or Nevada's offensive scheme (artwork by Banksy, photo by Jan Slangen).
The chicken or egg argument in football is between the individual and the team. One example is junior RB Stefphon Jefferson or Nevada’s offensive scheme (Artwork by Banksy. Photo by Jan Slangen).

Nevada running back Stefphon Jefferson declared for the NFL Draft this week. Looking at the numbers, it’s hard to blame him. Although he only had 73 carries as a freshman and sophomore, his junior year blew away all expectations:

  •  375 carries and 397 total touches
  • 5.0 yards-per-carry average
  • 1883 yards rushing
  • 2053 yards from scrimmage
  • 25 total touchdowns

Jefferson only had one game in this year with fewer than 20 carries and seven of those contests were 30-carry workloads. Listed at 5-11, 210 pounds, the junior runner has the build to add another 5-10 pounds, which would make him a prospect with suitable dimensions to become a potential lead back or feature runner if going strictly by these numbers.

It’s also worth noting that Jefferson is a patient runner.  He does a good job of pressing a hole and cutting back to the open lane. I’m impressed with how he allows his blocks to develop and hits the hole at a good angle – often doing so with a decisive burst. The problem is that behind all of these positive details is a runner who might be more of a product of this Nevada Wolfpack scheme. In the right NFL system, Jefferson has enough positives to develop into a contributor. The key phrase is “the right NFL system,” because in the wrong one, he might not make the team.

There are several issues that I’ll address in the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio, but the most glaring one is something that I first hoped were flashes of maturity rather than a deficiency in his game. Most backs I see in the college game tend to use their speed, quickness, and agility to bounce runs outside or attempt risky cutbacks. I’ve coined this tendency as Taking It to The Corner StoreThis syndrome can be fatal for a running back’s career, but it generally has a strong recovery rate. Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, and C.J. Spiller recovered nicely. The last known career casualty has been Laurence Maroney.

It’s unusual when a player has the opposite problem and doesn’t possess the cutback skills to bounce runs away from penetration or take advantage of larger cutback lanes to the opposite guard or tackle. So when I first saw Jefferson eschew a cutback lane and lower his head into the line of scrimmage to get what was available ahead, I wanted to believe he was taking a wiser course of action that I criticize many back for ignoring. Unless I see something different in the next few months, this is not the case.

Jefferson lacks the ability to make sharp, explosive, lateral cuts. Like Darren McFadden, he’s more of a run bender than a slasher. McFadden’s ability to bend runs at top speed makes him an exceptional case among NFL runners, because few straight-ahead, speed runners succeed in this era of pro football without pro-caliber, NFL lateral agility. Based on what I have seen from Jefferson, I don’t see a back with McFadden’s speed.

Here are six runs of Jefferson’s from Nevada’s bowl game against Arizona that illustrate why Chris Ault’s pistol attack complements Jefferson’s style while masking weaknesses that could limit the runner’s appeal in the NFL Draft. These runs are representative of the 30-plus attempts I saw from Jefferson against the Wildcats: carries through large holes or attempts where Jefferson could bend a run towards a secondary crease after passing through a large primary hole.

Big Holes, Big Plays

Ault’s run system isn’t purely a gap or zone scheme. For the uninitiated, a gap (or angle blocking) scheme is a ground attack where lineman pull or trap to a specific spot and the runner is suppose to run to that one area of the line and use his strength and speed to get whatever he can through the crease that the line creates. A zone scheme allows a runner to have several options to enter the line of scrimmage and the blocking tends to be slanting in a direction without the pulling of linemen.

Ault uses both methods in his offense and Jefferson’s vision is good enough that he produces well with both styles of plays. However, his style works best with gap schemes because he’s more of a straight-line runner who likes to hit the hole hard and fast. Here’s a 14-yard touchdown with 6:00 in the half that is a great angle blocking play from a 12 personnel pistol set with an unbalanced line and twin receivers on the strong side.

This is one of my favorite pistol runs. because of the alignment of the wing back.

This is one of my favorite pistol runs. because of the alignment of the wing back. Ault has designed this offense so the play can be a gap play, a zone play, a play action pass, or a straight pass. There’s a ton of versatility with this alignment and the added flavor of the receiver “ghosting” behind the runner to add the threat of the end around is just another cool wrinkle. What I love about this as a gap play is that most defenses are use to the concept of a guard pulling around center and a fullback entering the hole, but the placement and use of the wing back is just different enough to make it harder for a defender to see what’s coming at him.

Jefferson A2

Although the wing back is essentially a fullback and not far from being an offset blocker in an I formation, the angle is just wide enough that when he pulls across the formation the defender can choose the wrong gap or run right through the tunnel and mistake that light on the other side as something less painful than a 255-pound freight train. The linebacker in orange considers the gap outside the puling guard before opting for the gap to the guard’s inside shoulder. Does he see the pulling wing back? If he does, it’s still a tough angle to get good position to hit and shed that block to the ball carrier. Here’s the red zone angle of the play.

Endzone view from No. 38's perspective.
Endzone view from No. 38’s perspective.
No.38 takes one step outside to cover the gap outside left guard.
No.38 takes one step outside to cover the gap outside left guard.
No.38 is outside the pulling guard and waiting on the runner's approach, but does he really see what's lurking around the corner? Why do I feel like I'm diagramming a shark attack? I like it.
No.38 is outside the pulling guard and waiting on the runner’s approach, but does he really see what’s lurking around the corner? Why do I feel like I’m diagramming a shark attack? Worse yet, I like it.
Once the LB hops back to the inside because of his read of the RB, he's looking headlong into that 255 lb. freight train.
Once the LB hops back to the inside because of his read of the RB, he’s looking headlong into that 255 lb. freight train.
This isn't a hole, it's a large force field.
This isn’t a hole, it’s a large force field.

Jefferson hits this small canyon and goes untouched for the 14 yards to the end zone. Crazy as it sounds, this is one of the smaller craters that the Nevada line blasts in this contest.

Maturity or Agility Lacking?

Here is a 1st-and-10 with 4:22 in the half from a weak side trips, 11 personnel pistol formation. This run appears to be a zone play to left guard with a zone read for the quarterback to keep it around right end according to the position that the defensive end takes.

Jefferson B1

Jefferson takes the exchange and begins to dip the play to the inside. It’s at this point below where I think there are several ways to read and react to this play.

Jefferson B2

The elite athlete with great instincts to take risks that coaches at first find themselves on the sidelines screaming “No, no, no. . .yes, yes, YES!!!” is going to anticipate this opening with the yellow arrow before the snap or early after the play begins. He’ll also have the speed and agility to create a lane to work around the tight end and burst into the secondary for a long gain. This is a rarity even among terrific prospects because on the surface it looks like the decision of a really bad player. However the greats often break fundamental rules and get away with it due to special athleticism or anticipation.

The most common decision is the pink arrow to left end. This is where most top athletes with risk-taking, corner store tendencies will try to bounce a run once they work to left guard and don’t see a crease. This is the decision they have to curb when they reach the NFL because the percent chance they break it is much lower than the success rate in college football.

It’s the blue line that is the most sensible, conservative choice. Find the soft spot in the line, lower the pads, and bull through it. Keep the offense on schedule, don’t risk the loss of yardage, and you might possibly break through the line for a big play. In other words, let the defense make the mistake rather than you making the mistake.

Jefferson B3

This is exactly what Jefferson does. He approaches the soft spot, puts his head down, gets two yards untouched, and then bulls against the backs of his linemen for another four as they push the pile together for a total of six. It’s a mature play and the positive of this choice is that Jefferson can develop into the type of NFL back that will get what his line gives him. It makes him a potentially reliable option. A zone scheme running game will want a more creative running back in situations other than this play where the runner has more room to operate. Let’s look at a play or two that calls for more agility.

Failed Cutback

Here is a two-yard gain on a 1st-and-10 sweep to the strong side of an unbalanced line and twin strong side receivers with 0:58 in the first quarter. The guards pull to the strong side of this pistol formation run and Jefferson either bounces the run outside or, more frequently, works between the pulling guards.

 Jefferson C1

The two pulling guards opt to double team the penetration up the middle.
The two pulling guards opt to double team the penetration up the middle.

As Jefferson rounds the corner he has a couple of lanes to chose from. What I see from this play as it progresses is a back with the vision necessary to create, but he lacks the physical agility to execute what he sees happening before him. The runner spots the unblocked middle linebacker early in this play. He’s a player a runner behind two pulling guards is expected to see blocked by one of them, but due to penetration this won’t be the case. Jefferson opts to stretch the play a little more to the outside, but remains patient about his decision.

Jefferson C3

Jefferson has a few decisions: hit the hole with the middle linebacker, split the tight end and receiver’s blocks at the hash, or work outside the hash to the flat. The first open is a minimal gain at best without some creative thinking. The second option is inadvisable because the defender’s helmet is position in a place where there’s no way Jefferson will split these defenders and get  positive yards. The third option require great burst because that same defender on the tight end is in position to work through the block and tackle the runner trying to bounce it outside – and likely for a loss.

Jefferson C4

This screen shot above is a big reason why I believe Jefferson has the vision, but lacks the physical skills to execute like an elite runner. The Nevada runner opts to take another step or two outside to press the linebacker outside and based on his footwork above, cut behind his inside blocker and force that middle linebacker to overrun his angle. It’s a great idea, but it takes top-flight agility to execute. Matt Forte could do it. Jamaal Charles? No problem. LeSean McCoy could probably add a second move in succession that would increase AA battery sales that day in the Philadephia metropolitan area due to the insane amount of rewinding going on in Eagles fan households.

Unfortunately, Jefferson can’t. Where his feet are position in the shot above is where his momentum must stop and change direction with no wasted movement. If he can do it, he cuts behind the blocker to his left. If not, he skids into the oncoming defenders. The result below shows the skid in progress.

The yellow circle is where Jefferson was and where he needed to be to make this cutback.
The yellow circle is where Jefferson was and where he needed to be to make this cutback.

The outcome of the play is Jefferson getting hit head-on and knocked backwards before he can change direction. He had to gear down to make this cut back. This is where a jump cut or lateral plant and sharp change of direction makes a huge difference. There were other plays in this game where I’ve seen Jefferson break though a large hole at the line of scrimmage, see a defender making his way into the lane and the runner finding a much smaller secondary lane between two linemen and squeeze through to transform a four-yard play into an eight-yard play. Good vision, but the play didn’t require a sharp cutback.

This one did, and it’s representative of other plays where he misses a chance to execute a cut back or opt to barrel ahead and lower the pads for a minimal gain because he knows the cutback isn’t a part of his skill set. These aren’t the risky type of cutbacks, either. Jefferson has some real positives to his game, but his physical creativity doesn’t match what he sees.

As a straight-line runner with burst, decisiveness, and patience, he reminds me of the best of what I use to see from a back like Michael Bennett, the former Wisconsin star and Vikings starter. Jefferson lacks Bennett’s top-end speed, which is also why I have doubts the the Nevada back may struggle to find a place in the NFL.

Jefferson’s 2012 production makes it a good time for him to declare for the NFL Draft, because it’s unlikely he repeats those numbers as a senior. However, his lack of agility is an indicator that he may have benefited more from great team execution of a good scheme. Throw in his difficulties with pass protection and I’ll be surprised if he has smooth and immediate transition to an NFL lineup.

For more analysis of skill players like this post, download the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio available April 1. Prepayment is available now. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2013 RSP at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece.

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