By Matt Waldman
Last year, I started a roundtable discussion with Senior Bowl wide receivers. This year, I asked similar questions about technique and concepts of North squad running backs David Cobb (Minnesota), Jeremy Langford (Michigan State), and Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska).
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, inaccurate cliches. In some cases, they may explain why even professional talent analysts in and outside the league can miss so wildly on a player's potential (not including character issues).
Matt Waldman: How has your game evolved from the time you arrived at college to this point in your career, where you're knocking on the door of the NFL?
Ameer Abdullah: 360-degree change. I can't even consider myself a running back when I first got to Nebraska because there was so much I was ignorant about. I didn't know much about schemes, I didn't know much about patience, I didn't know about vision. All of that stuff was a foreign language to me. It all developed with constant work: repetition, repetition, repetition, film study, and being out there with such great running backs at Nebraska who worked out with me and helped push me to do those things.
Jeremy Langford: My game changed a lot. When I first came to Michigan State I always wanted to hit the home run play. Everytime I touched the ball I wanted to do something big. That was my mentality coming out of high school. It's a lot different in college. You have to get the 4- and 5-yard gains and eventually I learned how it important that is over the course of my career.
MW: DeMarco Murray said he experienced a major transformation with his game between the beginning and end of his college career when we talked on media night at the Senior Bowl a few years ago.
AA: Oh really?
MW: He said when he came to OU he thought he had the speed and big play ability to bounce plays outside against anyone, but he learned that he had to become better at decision-making because he was no longer far and away the best athlete on the field. Strong decision-making within the context of a play is a vital part of making efficient and productive choices.
JL: It was mostly watching running backs ahead of me like Javon Ringer and Le'veon Bell. Michigan State keeps their film so I studied it. I saw what they did to earn those 4- and 5-yard gains that eventually help them break longer runs.
MW: This is especially true when when an offense is struggling early against a productive defense. Ameer, I watched your performance at Michigan State this year, which was a tough game for you statistically...
MW: But when I study players, I'm looking for good decisions regardless of the result. While there were plays where there'd be worthwhile discussion about a different decision, there were a lot of snaps where you didn't have anything there.
AA: It was a tough game up front and in the backfield, too. They were just beating us to the point of the attack. There are going to be those games where you just have to put your pride aside and realize that you may not get 200 yards in this game -- more like 20 carries for 69 yards -- and go home satisfied with what you did.
MW: I think games like these often highlight where people viewing the game -- and not studying the game -- can misunderstand the term "vision" as applied to carrying the football. They often think vision is purely an instinctive concept that yields big gains. They don't consider context or decision-making that helps a team even if the production isn't great, because the game is so fast and the choices that running backs make are even faster. How do you define vision, Ameer?
AA: There are a lot of things that go into vision. There is film study and knowing your your opponent. You have to learn how fast your opponent is, you have to understand angles, and it's a lot more than just being an instinctive guy. Vision also has to do with how quick you can make your decisions. Those attributes go into having good vision as a running back.
Studying film helps running backs learn the logistics of the game. Who you're supposed to read puts you ahead of the game even before the play starts. After you know you're supposed to read, you have know where you're eyes go next. These are just a few things that are really important to take into consideration.
MW: Jeremy and David, how much does down and distance factor into your decision-making process?
JL: If you want to be a mature running back that's what you have to do. You don't run the same on first-and-10 as you do on [third-and-2] and you need to keep the time running. You just have to put your head down and find the first thing you see to get the first down and keep the chains moving.
David Cobb: Sometimes I can get a little greedy on a third-and-short and try to hit a home run, but there's a big difference in how you approach a first-and-10 and a fourth-and-1. The mentality is different. First-and-10 you have more freedom to make something happen, but fourth-and-1 decisions can mean the ballgame.
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You stick it up in there and get the one yard. If I see a first-and-10 or a second-and-5 and I'll feel more freedom to make something happen. The biggest change to my game during college was learning how to be a student of the game. Nothing physical about it. It was all about understanding the blocking schemes and the defense.
MW: I notice there are different ways that runners talk about reading blocks. I've seen an Arian Foster video where he instructs aspiring running backs to read the hips and butts of his blockers. Chad Spann told me that he was taught to read the location of defender's helmets when engaged with a lineman. Do coaches teach different methods?
AA: Definitely. I've been taught numerous ways. I've been taught to look at hip points -- reading the inside or outside hip of a defender. And like you said, read the butt of the lineman when he's driving the defender and it will dictate which way he's driving the man. I've also learned to look at the leverage of the defense. A lot of guys like Leonard Williams, the [defensive end] for USC, is a really big guy. A lot of times he can bench press a guy, stick his head one way, and --
MW:He's reading the offense --
AA:Yeah, he's reading you! Those things are very important to take into consideration when trying to improve your vision.
MW:When do you use each method? What situations dictate a different method?
AA: That's why I said you have to know your opponent. Know when your opponent is going to do the same things [in a similar situation]. If you're playing a team like USC, then you'll be watching a lot of film on how to set up Leonard Williams when he's poking his head in one gap, but really is doing that to set up his choice of another gap. Maybe set him up, dip near, and go around. Play a mind game a little bit.
Or if you're playing a team like Iowa who is a really gap-based team and you get a hat-on-a-hat and you just stay inside the hip of your guard and be as patient as possible. There you'd have to know your initial read key. These [strategies] vary from team to team.
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The second half of this roundtable, including David Cobb's summer workouts and film study with Chad Spann and how hitting an opponent has something in common with hitting a baseball, is available here at the Rookie Scouting Portfolio blog.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for download now. The guide covers 164 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you're a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 -- 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 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 (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece. Take a video tour of the RSP.