Last year, I created a roundtable discussion featuring Senior Bowl wide receivers. This year, I shared similar questions about technique and concepts to North squad running backs David Cobb, Jeremy Langford, and Ameer Abdullah.
Their answers reveal that there is a lot more to successful running back play than meets the eye and many notions about the position are overstated cliches that lack accuracy. In some cases, they may be reasons why even professional talent analysts in and outside the league can miss so wildly on a player’s potential (not including character issues).
The first half of the roundtable will be featured in my Futures column at Football Outsiders. What’s available here is technically the second half of the interview.
Matt Waldman:Continuing on the idea that many fans have of running back as an instinctive position, but good football players understand the structure of the game and they know how to operate outside of it. Good running is also about having a repertoire of moves and ideas that you can pull out of your back pocket and know how to use it at the appropriate time. Making defenders miss requires these skills. What are you trying to do to set up a defender and make him miss? You’re not literally thinking as you’re doing it or else your game slows down…
Jeremy Langford: Yes…
MW: What are things you notice when you review the film in hindsight and see how you broke down a guy?
JL: For me it’s the safeties and how they approach different tackles. Do they come in full speed or do they approach me and break down? Or do they try to sweep my legs out? I see whether they are attacking me hard or they’re standing back to allow me the first move.
MW: What about penetration at the line of scrimmage? You have play where there’s a run blitz that a teammate fails to catch and you’re just taking the exchange from the backfield with a 300-pound defender as close you as I am.
JL: The idea is not to make a bad play worse, that’s what my always says about these situations. The first thing you have to think is to secure the handoff. Then it’s get to the line of scrimmage and after that it’s see if you can create something more, but it all begins with securing that hand off and not making a bad play worse.
MW: David, Chad Spann and I watched film together last week of Ameer, and he told me that you two trained together this summer. Part of that included studying tape together. Tell us about that process.
DC: I was lucky to have him around this summer. He came in and helped me out a lot with a lot of small things that you otherwise might not think about: Your first step, you mindset on a play, using your off-arm for a stiff-arm, and making sure you have a good base under you. These things helped me tremendously. You go to practice and use these things and learn that you like having a stiff-arm and you keep it in your arsenal. We also watched film and saw things that I didn’t do.
MW: Chad mentioned that when you watched games together he asked you to write down what you could have done to prevent leaving yards on the field and what you could have down to get more.
DC: It was one of those things where we watched the play and noted it like “I got 10 yards.” Then we’d rewind it and he’d show me how if I pressed, used the stiff-arm, and stayed on track I’d maximize that play. The goal is to maximize every play and it was the biggest thing I got from that exercise. It’s about using all of your tools. For me it was using my off-hands, using my spin, or using my size to run over a guy.
MW: When does learning something like that click for you? Parents tell young children water is hot, they often don’t learn it until they’re burned. When did things start clicking for you in practice.
DC: It applies to anyone who has a coach or someone telling you how to do something, but it won’t ever click until you try it. I’ve heard a lot of “okay, coach.” But when you try it and it works you keep doing it and that repetition helps it become second nature.
MW: How much do you learn from colleagues as opposed to coaches. I often hear from former NFL players and guys like Chad who says he learned a lot from teammate Ricky Crider at NIU..
DC: Players see things from a different angle from a coach who may be worried about 10 other guys on the offense where as a strength coach might watch it and wonder why a runner didn’t so something completely different. Everyone has an eye and everyone has a different perspective of how they view something like running the football. Having coaches that see different things and our relationship is good enough that they tell me made me a better runner.
MW: Jeremy, what are things you learned from LeVeon that you added to your game?
JL: I really watched his patience. It helped me become more patient. When I first got there he was like you move too fast. He was our team when he was there. He did a great job.
MW: Jeremy, what was your bread and butter play at Michigan State? Tell us about it.
JL: It would be power, a gap concept. Offensive linemen love running it. The guard pulls to the play side and targets the playside linebacker and I follow whatever he does. That play works a lot for us. The design it to leave me with a safety one-on-one and my job is to make him miss.
MW: David, what was yours?
DC: It would be our zone play from under center. It’s one of those single back sets. The linemen are double-teaming and we have 4-5 guys up there responsible for someone. They’re often double-teaming and leaking further up the defensive backfield. If you can get the the ball to the line, read it, and the lineman gets upfield you can hit just hit it.
MW: One of the things I also notice about your tape is your skill as a receiver in the screen game. You’re very good and slipping through to the flat or getting free for the middle screen. What are some of the things that you do to be successful on these plays. What are you taking note about the defender or doing to manipulate him?
DC: It’s all about patience and having a little bit of sneakiness about yourself. You have to be able to get lost in the shuffle and still stay balanced, find the open to space, and pop into that open area. You try to stay low and make eye contact and creep up to him without getting too close that he grabs you. It’s like playing tag: you get up to them, tag them, and spin off them to avoid them tagging you back.
MW: Pass protection. What would you tell younger backs entering the college game what they have to learn about getting good at it?
DC: The fastest way on the field is to know how to do it. Don’t go for the head. Stay low and try to get them inside-out with your angle.Get your hands on them first and you’ve won.
MW: Defenders often say they hate tackling players with your style, David. Do you notice body language from opponents in the fourth quarter and you know that they don’t want to tackle you any more?
DC: You definitely have guys who will bring it all game long, but you also have guys who will drop the helmet, drop to a knee, or drop the shoulder a little earlier. You definitely can tell that. You feed off that.
MW: In baseball, hitters say they feel the reverberation of a perfectly hit ball throughout their body. Defenders in football say something similar when they have a clean hit. Does a ballcarrier ever experience that feeling running through a defender as someone delivers punishment?
JL: Yes, it feels that way. The momentum builds inside of you and you feel like you are in control of the game and he doesn’t know what you’re going to do next.
DC: Definitely. When you see them come up to you and you lower the pads on them and their hands fly up in the air and they fall backwards to the ground, it’s an unexplainable feeling. There’s a difference in feeling when you hit them and they hang on and when you hit them and they fall free of you.
MW: Who are guys you’ve modeled your game after and who are guys you just love watching, but they’re a different style of back?
JL: I like watching Jamaal Charles, Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy, and LeVeon. I feel like they are threats in all types of ways.
MW: Who are guys that you liked watching and either model your game after or realize you have similarities in style despite not trying to play like them?
DC: Growing up with was Adrian Peterson and Eddie George. When I got into college I was told I had similarities to LeVeon Bell and how he moved and his vision. I like him and Foster.
MW: An ultimate compliment that a coach can give a player is that guy is a football player; not a running back, a wide receiver, or a defensive end, but a complete football player. Versatile, smart on the field, and skilled at playing inside and outside the structure of a play. This is how I’ve characterized your game, Ameer. what do you want people to see about your game that they might not realize?
Ameer Abdullah: That there are a lot of dynamics to my game. I feel I can be a punt returner, a kick returner, I can rush a punt–I’ve done that a little bit at Nebraska, I can catch the ball out of the backfield, I can pass protect, and I can run the football. I feel like the combination of those things I do well and it’s not just one particular thing.
MW: Jeremy and David, same question to you about this week.
JL: That I can catch the ball out of the backfield well. I can run routes well. I can protect the quarterback well and I can do anything asked of me. I want to be considered an all-around back, which I’m working hard to be.
DC: That I’m the best back here. That I can catch, I’m a three-down back, powerful, and smart–I can pick up the game fast.
For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, download the 2014 Rookie Scouting Portfolio – available now. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2014 RSPs 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.
Get the early bird discount by pre-ordering the 2015 RSP now through February 10!