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Back in the day, the Heisman Trophy was usually awarded to the nation’s best running back. That player was a feature back that would play in a compact formation where on any given play that running back had as many as eight men in the box to get him the ball and usually dotted the I or be an end cap of one of the bones in the Wishbone and make a play. Back then thirty touches a game wouldn’t be any surprise as offense revolved around them.

During the 1990’s, the sport was going through an offensive revolution with the spread offense. The spread was primarily used in passing first offenses, examples are Joe Tiller at Purdue, Hal Mumme and his Air Raid at Kentucky, Randy Walker at Northwestern, and Chris Ault's Pistol at Nevada, but Bill Snyder at Kansas State wanted to take what these innovators were doing for the passing game but change for the running game.

In the 1990s, offenses using variants of the triple option was still extremely popular, but with the spread offenses becoming more and more accepted to use amongst coaches and with aerial attacks like the Fun N’ Gun in Florida with Steve Spurrier, Snyder was looking for an offense different from his contemporaries.

At the time, Kansas State had a quarterback named Michael Bishop, who would be an All-American and win the Davey O’Brien Award. Bishop was ahead of his time playing with the style Snyder employed. He was dynamic from the quarterback position and with his 6’1” 220 lb frame, he had the ability to run inside as well.

What Snyder did was employ the read option, and the key with that option was Bishop was dynamic enough to make the proper read on the key defender and allow his running backs like Eric Hickson, Marlon Charles, and Mike Lawrence attack the edges or work the inside when the defense stretched thin.

One Snyder’s best duos in this offense was quarterback Ell Roberson and running back Darren Sproles. Sproles 5’6” 190 lb frame isn’t exactly physically dominating, but it was his ability to complement Roberson and work either inside or outside that allowed Kansas State to be extremely successful. With Kansas State winning 11 or more games in six out of seven seasons from 1997-2003, coaches began to copy Snyder’s tactics, notably Urban Meyer, and the read component in the spread has changed the way the game is played and how the running back position is played. 


Explaining The Zone Read

The read has several key components that need to work seamlessly for optimal results.

Schematic of the Zone Read

Schematic of the Zone Read

Identifying The Key Defender To Read

The main purpose of the spread offense is to spread the defense out with the added pressure of space for the defenses. When you incorporate the Read component, you are usually attacking space, the Read is going to be a player the offense isn’t going to block, the quarterback is going to “read” them.

What is meant by reading the defender is the quarterback will read the key defender, depending on the read, the quarterback will either pass if that is part of the triple option in the scheme, take it himself and make the move, or with the running back, the running back will attack the edge but with the key defender being unblocked the running back has to have the acceleration or strength or a combination of both to get past the unblocked defender. 

Covering The Linebackers

With the key defender that is being read going unblocked, it is important for the tackle or pulling guard in this situation to block the linebacker whose assignment is above the defender that is unblocked.

If the blocker successfully gets to the proper linebacker and successfully executes his assignment, compound that the quarterback making the right read and either the quarterback or running back successfully gets past the unblocked key defender, you are already looking for 6 or 7 yards gains at minimum with only safeties left to get from.

Numbers 

The key part for an effective ground attack in the spread offense is the rushing attack has the ability to run both inside and outside. Going inside running the ball, you need to still be able to equate numbers.

If the quarterback makes the read and determines to go inside, or in this case the running back goes inside, you need to equate somewhere blockers for defenders. This is where the four other offensive lineman seal up the other defenders in the front six or seven (depending if your team uses a 3-3-5 or 4-2-5 alignments). The running back still contends with an unblocked defender, so speed to get away, but also power to work the inside.


How Has This Changed The Position

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When you look at Derrick Henry’s 2015 Heisman season, it is now more of an anomaly instead of back in the day of an every down feature back that would rack up 300-350 carries a season.

With the tempo of offenses being faster than the past, coaches prefer to have a stable of running backs to use in a rotation to keep them fresh. When you look at the box scores, you are noticing fewer and fewer teams have running backs who have 20 or more carries in a game, but you notice more teams have two or three running backs get 10 to 15 carries a game.

With fewer and fewer touches, a running back might not play consecutive series, or if they are a rhythm runner, they might not get the bandwidth to get into a rhythm. When you look at how few teams run offenses with no spread or read principles, like the Pitt Panthers is an example, this is an anomaly in college football today.

The Pro Style offense that Frank Cignetti Jr. coordinates for Pat Narduzzi at Pitt or Rich Scangarello for Mark Stoops at Kentucky, you don’t see anymore and you look at their running backs like Israel Abanikanda or Chris Rodriguez Jr., they play differently and very much a throwback to the past, than an Oklahoma who has a stable of backs and you get a dose of Eric Gray, Marcus Major, and Jovantae Barnes


© Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

© Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

The makeup of the running back physically hasn’t changed during this time.

Our research team examined the physical makeup of 160 elite running back prospects from the Class of 2004 to the Class of 2024, and our team found out physically there isn’t much difference. 

The average height is 5’11 and weight is 200 lbs, the heights and weights over 20 Classes and the 160 different running backs didn’t deviate much from the averages. There was less than 1 pound an 1/4" difference in averages from players across any sample of years chosen, demonstrating that the physical attributes (from at least a height and weight standpoint) have not changed.

Hence, coaches around the country are looking for specific skill sets and abilities for their running backs. From analyzing data, elite speed is where a lot of coaches begin. With the spread and not as many bodies blocking, the speed to hit the edge and churn it upfield is key.

Strength is another valuable asset, with running backs not having the same protections as quarterbacks, the speed they are getting hit is faster, the shock of getting hit you need the strength component to hold onto the ball, you need to possess the strength to be effective running inside, especially in the spread.

Got to be able to block in all situations, have to be able to read blitzes, and know when to pick up blitz or become a receiver on the play. While this skill isn’t much different to yesteryear, the emphasis is much higher instead of having a fullback or tight end to help, now, running backs are expected to block edge rushers and blitzing linebackers one-on-one and win consistently.

Elite running backs have a deep route tree they can run. One of the things pro scouts marveled over with Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey was their ability to run various routes and be sharp at this. Running backs have to be able to run a wheel route, hit the flats, curls, but their ability to run routes like receivers are highly coveted.

Lastly running backs in rotations they are in have to be patient, the urge to get the home run will always be there, but if you are only getting 10-12 touches a game, you have to make most of your opportunities. Do you go for the home run which could boon and try to hit paydirt, or do you avoid any bust and get the 4 or 5-yard gain?


Conclusion

I don’t see this trend going away any time soon. I think this will be the go-to strategy for the majority of the country. The quarterback has been for a generation in college football absolutely the most important position and 18 of the previous 22 Heisman Trophy recipients have been quarterbacks.

Running backs will always be valuable, but how they are used is changing and how committees are now used with even more equal distribution is a development to keep on watching.

Schematically, there is nothing I see for now on the horizon that is going to take away from the spread and read concepts.

The core skills of speed, power, and strength will always be paramount, but coaches want to know if can they block in key situations, what decision-making skills they have, and whether they can be a threat in the passing game. Maybe the thing that changed the most for running backs is the most coveted skill is now versatility, how many ways can a running back contribute to the team?