“Every guy that holds the ball carries our dreams,” running backs coach Robert Gillespie told InsideTennessee.
Basically, losing the football amounts to losing the dream. That’s why Gillespie obsessively instills ball security into his troops. The strategy seems to be working. Tennessee running backs fumbled just seven times (losing four) in 326 carries last season. Through two games and 76 carries this fall Vol backs have not put the ball on the ground once.
“If you can’t protect the football, then you won’t play,” said Gillespie, who played running back for the Florida Gators from 1998 through 2001. “We won’t be able to see all of the athletic ability you have if you keep putting the ball on the ground.”
Senior running back Marlin Lane understands his position coach’s hard-line stance on fumbling.
“We touch the ball more than anybody on the field besides the quarterback, so us running backs have to protect the ball,” Lane said. “If you make less turnovers you can win the game. In this league if you don’t protect the ball you can’t run the ball. That’s what we strive on.”
“I’ve been fortunate to be around some guys that did a really good job of taking care of the football,” he said. “Obviously, that’s my biggest concern on every run play: I’m critiquing how they’re carrying the ball.
“Last year we weren’t perfect – the ball was on the ground a few times – so I want to improve that. For the most part, though, I thought we did a good job protecting the ball at critical moments in the game. I don’t think we ever put the ball on the ground at a time where it made a complete swing of the game.”
All running backs coaches stress ball security but Gillespie goes well beyond the norm. He incessantly reminds his troops to “Chin the ball,” so it is protected by the chin, the chest, the hand and the forearm. With so little of the ball exposed, stripping it is virtually impossible.
“We all do a great job of yelling ‘Chin!’ The guys hear it constantly,” the Vol aide said. “We talk about it constantly. The more they talk about it, the more they understand how important it is.”
In addition, virtually every practice drill Gillespie conducts features a coach, an intern or a defensive player trying to dislodge the football by belting it with a blocking pad, punching it with his fist or clawing at it with his fingers. When bodies are scarce Gillespie attaches 10-foot-long rubber bands to the arms of his runners to replicate the tug of a trailing defender.
“One thing I do a lot of is the bands – just dragging the bands,” Gillespie said. “It simulates a defender pulling at the ball. In this league defensive coaches do a really good job of teaching stripping the ball from the back, so I think the band drills give the guys that tugging sensation on the ball. We try to do that at least two or three times per week.”
Lane, who fumbled just once in 101 carries last season, finds the drill very helpful.
“We work on blind pursuit,” he said. “When you don’t see that guy behind you, you want to keep that ball chinned and protected in case you break a long run and somebody comes from backside pursuit and tries to knock it out.”
For a running backs coach, Gillespie spends surprisingly little time giving instruction on how to run the football. He says there’s a simple reason for that.
“If you’re here at Tennessee you obviously can run the football and have great agility,” the Vol aide said. “Those are things you naturally have, so the first thing you have to stress to these guys is that it’s important that you protect the quarterback and the football.”
Gillespie says his near-obsessive emphasis on ball security in practice is simply an attempt to make a big impression in a small window of time.
“It’s very limited — the amount of individual periods that we have — so I try to make sure that every day I’m going to do an aspect of ball security and also an aspect of pass protection,” he said. “I stress that a lot. If you ask (heralded freshman) Jalen Hurd the biggest thing he’s learned I think he’ll say pass protection and ball security.”
Sure enough, Hurd admits being impacted by Gillespie’s emphasis on ball security. Asked what has helped him most, the rookie replied: “Just staying extra to get extra form work. And in practice just hearing him repeatedly saying ‘Chin the ball’ every day.”
Given what a stickler he is for ball security, Gillespie must be haunted by a game-changing fumble from his past. If that’s the case, though, he won’t admit it.
“I can’t recall one certain play,” he said, “but every Saturday there’s that one fumble that changes the whole complexion of the game.”
That’s true. And Robert Gillespie is determined it won’t be one of his troops making it.
Jalen Hurd video interview