Coaches Breakdown: Scouting Running Backs

In an ongoing series, takes a look through each position, talking to college position coaches about what they look for in recruits at that spot. This installment covers the running backs.

Part I: Quarterbacks

For the running backs, I was lucky enough to speak to several running back coaches at major schools and a few guys with big time credentials as far as coaching, recruiting and playing.

What I found here was that, first, it was less complicated than the quarterbacks.

There obviously are some differences between backs of different sizes and schools will sometimes take more than one back, and depending on what they already had on the roster, schools will take different style backs in different years as well. One school for instance, told me they only had room for a power back this year, so they passed on some good backs who didn't fit their need in the given year.

That said, for the most part, they were all looking for the same things. Every coach for instance, mentioned “burst.” No coach necessarily wanted great forty times or track times, but football speed came up multiple times:

  Burst doesn’t mean 4.3 forty. I don’t need a 4.19 shuttle, but if there’s a crease or a hole, can they see it and hit it? Game speed is important and acceleration through the seam, then do they outrun people in the open field.”  
  “…burst, and when I say burst over speed, burst is what's important. There are kids out there that run 4.4, but don't have that burst to get them there. If you're big, you still have to have burst. It doesn't matter how big you are, if you don't have burst, you will not be successful at the next level. Do you have the feet to be able to make a cut and have the 10-yard burst to get to full speed? You can have top end speed, but if there’s no burst through the hole, it doesn’t matter.”  
  “Can he do it physically burst wise? Is he agile enough, can he see well enough? And then speed. Does the speed match the size? If it’s a 6-2, 220-pound kid, speed is not as important as a 5-8, 180-pound kid. At that size, his speed better be elite.”  

However, when it comes to the very first thing they look for, several coaches differed:

  “The first thing I look for is balance. And balance as I describe it is, does he break tackles? Does he go down easily or does it take a whole bunch of guys to bring you down? On high school film, if one guy can bring you down easily, what will happen at our level? A guy that takes a bunch of dudes to bring him down and is not willing to go down on first contact and stays on his feet to maximize every carry and not get ankle tackled is what I want. I don't just want a fast guy who gets tripped up – that won't last – but can you break tackles, is he tough and runs through contact.”  
  “First of all, it comes down to film before I meet them. I watch film and the first thing I look for is does he have any vision? You need to see if a guy can find the holes. If he can't find holes, he’ll never be a good college back.”  

That said, another coach says vision is important, but tough to gauge:

  “Vision is hard to see on a highlight film. You have to watch game film for that. On a highlight film, everyone has good vision.”  

When it comes to film, most coaches agree, some guys are no-brainers who are so obviously top-end guys that they can offer after watching a play or two or a few on a highlight tape. Others, it gets tougher, and when deciding between kid A or kid B or between a few kids, a few other attributes can make the difference. One that came up a lot was being able to cut.

  “One cut ability: can he put his foot in the ground and get vertical and up the field? I don't need a guy that takes a long time to make a cut. I don't need that, and I don't want that.”
  “The biggest thing is, when you watch them on film is cut ability. Can they put their foot in the ground and get up the field or does it take two or three steps to turn a corner or can they put a foot in the ground get vertical?”

Camps are a tough setting for running backs, and it can be an even tougher setting for coaches to evaluate the position. One coach said bluntly, he basically didn’t put much stock into what backs did at camps – except to see intangibles and ability to catch the ball. Several agreed you can see speed, some elusiveness and those previously mentioned attributes, but not much else.

  “You can see how good their feet are, see if they're coachable and can take direction and just getting a feel for a kid. You like to see versatility, if they can catch it and if they can play the slot position. We’ve had guys that could play receiver. What we do offensively, putting them out there in space, you can see if they’re comfortable. When you’re deciding between two kids, you may have a kid that can play receiver or if a kid has stone hands and can't catch.”  

One coach echoed those comments about receiving ability:

  “As you keep going, is there film of him catching the ball? Kids that can play in the slot and kids that catch balls on film are intriguing to me because they allow you to line up in empty and be part of a 5-wide package which allows you to be very multiple.”  

Surprisingly, only one coach mentioned ball security, but did state that it was tough to truly evaluate it and it was one of those attributes you simply had to ask people who had seen the kid play about. What is not up for debate, however, was intangibles and toughness:

  “The last thing is passion. When I watch a guy carry the football, I ask if he can carry it for our program. Does he love playing football? Does he want the ball in the 4th quarter of a tight game when it’s critical downs like 3rd and 1 and they know he’s getting the ball or 4th and goal and they know he’s getting the ball and they’re keying in on him and he still makes the play.”  
  “I look at overall competitive nature. Even in camp, if it’s 1-1 route running against a DB or LB, I can see them compete and put them in an environment where I can see what they’re like when the lights are on.”  
  “Got to be physical. If you’re not finishing runs or falling forward…. Meeting a kid person, I get sense of if kid's tough or not. I want a kid that’s not scared of competition, a kid who doesn't care who's on the roster, who doesn't even ask. There will always be five or six guys no matter what team you go to, so it doesn’t  matter who’s there.”  
  “You’ve got to be a dog. I don’t want soft running backs. There are too many things that go on in the game and in competition with teammates. By dog, I mean, not scared. They don’t care who it is, they want to destroy somebody every time they’re on the field. If a kid is soft or tentative, it turns me off.”  
“It sounds bad, but I don’t like it when kids talk about redshirting at running back. I’ve never met a running back that wants to redshirt. Who wants to redshirt as a running back?”

Can you overcomplicate the eval process? Sure.

  “I’ve seen eval sheets that have 12 different things, but can he put his foot in the ground, get vertical and can he see things? Most teams have become zone teams, so to see and react quickly and with speed. Catching the ball is a bonus and if he’s little, he better be able to. If a big guy can't, I can discount him as a big back -- a bruiser, but maybe not an every down guy.”  

Then finally, what about level of competition? There are kids at all levels putting up big stats. There are some kids, a good example being current top back Damien Harris, who don’t play great competition, but do everything they can against who they’re up against. So does that come into play?

  “Honestly my thought is, the lesser the competition, the more you have to dominate. I look at it like this: if a kid runs for 3,000 yards in D6 and there was never a kid who runs for that in that division, that kid's special. You have to dominate no matter what so if a kid's good, a kid's good in my opinion. If a kid’s dominating like no one’s ever dominated at that level, he’s probably a special player. That’s the running back position. To me, it’s all the same.”  

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