Waldman chops up the misnomer that RB is mostly intuitive while analyzing a clip of Arkansas’ Alex Collins
Most people consider running back a physical and intuitive position. Few consider the conceptual acumen the position requires to achieve a high level of success. They stick to the narrative that vision, footwork, and balance are some magical-intuitive thing in the same way that the general public likes to say that great musicians just “play what they feel.”
For any great artist to reach the point where he or she can convey emotion with clarity, depth, complexity, and ease requires a boatload of technique and experience to transcend the ordinary. Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy have done this, but there will still be people who think that it comes down to magical-intuitive play. Yes, that part of running the football exists and is important, but if it were the only thing, C.J. Spiller would be mentioned in the same sentence as Charles and McCoy.
Chad Spann and I have discussed this often over the years. Spann, currently with the Roughriders of the CFL, will have a successful career as a RB coach if he wants it. I’m looking forward to him fleshing out the ideas he has about training athletes to play the position–conceptual skills about running back that he says even the top players he worked with during his stints with NFL teams didn’t learn about until much later in their careers–if at all.
“They don’t teach the why,” says Spann, who is the odds-on favorite to become the Roughriders’ lead back in 2016. “They usually stick to the physical aspect of the game: speed, strength, footwork, agility, routes, change of direction. No one is teaching what a zone blocking scheme is and how to read it and how it differs from man blocking and how to read that. I never had a coach teach me that stuff. They didn’t have time during the season. After the season they’re gone recruiting. Luckily I had the desire to learn more and I had a graduate assistant who could teach it to me.”
To those who only consider NFL stardom professional success, Spann’s statement may not mean much to them. If you’re having these thoughts as the read, it’s understandable, but a limited viewpoint.
Consider the numbers: Spann is part of the one percent–if that many–amateur players who actually get paid to play. And someone representative of that one percent is saying that it’s commonplace that most college backs don’t get taught “the whys,” then you begin to understand why there’s an overwhelming sentiment that running back is mostly intuitive–despite the fact this statement is the result of an entrenched cycle of ignorance.
It’s this conceptual development that often separates consistent starters or productive, long-term backups from promising athletes flashing potential, but unable to maintain a foothold despite staying healthy, having a productive college career, and being the kind of athlete that fans–and fanboys like NFL owners who think they’re also general managers–drool over.
I can’t tell you for sure that Arkansas RB Alex Collins possesses an advanced level of conceptual skill, but from what I see of his tape, his eyes and feet are often aligned in purpose. It’s a good sign that Collins understands his job.
This I-formation run is a gap play where the right guard pulls left to seal the inside and the fullback seals the outside defender. Although the hope for most gap plays is to create creases fast enough that a runner can hit the hole with force and without hesitation, the development of this play requires more patience from Collins.
Watch Collins’ steps change from longer strides to short, choppy ones as he approaches the line. He’s waiting for these two blocks to happen, but Collins doesn’t want to come to a complete stop or it will be more difficult to accelerate. The runner also wants to keep his body square to the line so he can have multiple options to change direction. Most of all, Collins wants to press the inside to set up the defenders about to get sealed inside-outside so he can hit the intended hole.
Collins’ stride variation draws the outside linebacker to the pulling guard and this is the key to the hole opening. The initial footwork allows Collins to get within inches of the linemen without making contact and make a clean, unfettered cut-back through the crease and an untouched gain of four yards.
Setting up the run this well has an added benefit of Collins earning a one-on-one with the safety without working through contact before reaching the defensive back. Collins has an easy time cutting inside to elude the defender and then splits two more defenders six-yards down field.
Every well-balanced decision and advantage he has to elude one defender, split two more, and push for extra yards after contact on this play is the downstream result of Collins’ early effort to cut his stride length, because he’s able to encounter each phase of the run with a balanced, square alignment of his pads downhill.
I have more to watch of Collins but if his performance in this game–and I bet it will be–is consistent with other efforts, this fundamentally sound runner does a lot with his eyes and feet to maximize his power, balance, second effort, agility, and decision-making.
When it comes to playing on Sundays, it could put Collins steps ahead of many runners who might be faster, stronger, and earn more acclaim on Saturdays.
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