Running back play is difficult to quantify in a verbal medium. It is widely regarded as the easiest position to play for athletic players because it is based largely on instinct and there is freedom within the plays to create.
A running play is generally designed to create a crease at the line of scrimmage at a certain point of attack. Depending on the blocking scheme, the running back will be tasked with making what yards are available through the designed crease, or, in the case of a zone blocked or stretch play, finding a crease among several options and exploiting a developing weakness in the defense.
In some cases, a running play may be designed to gain four to six yards. A lead play, where a there is a straight handoff to a stated gap with a lead blocker leading through the gap, is designed to penetrate the line of scrimmage and provide a second level block for the back to cut off of. Beyond the designed blocks, the running back is tasked with getting the yards that are blocked and adding extra through his own abilities.
Other plays may involve a designed cut back where the action flows one way and provides a cut back lane based on over pursuit. The back side and wide receiver blocks become crucial on this play and it is designed to hit for big yardage.
Just like a hitch route in the passing game is designed for short, easy gains, and a go route is designed to get the ball deep for a big play, run plays have the same dynamics.
This is not intended to explore the full gamut, or even go very deep in to all the running game elements, you would be even more bored than you are already. Instead, I want to look at a dynamic runner and how his style of running gains additional yards and adds to the stress a team puts on defenses.
Not every running back has the vision, agility, power, and instincts to gain yardage beyond what is blocked on a certain play. Each play will reveal a certain amount of space that has been accounted for by the success or failure of the blocks. Certain backs have the skill to find the maximum amount of yardage available and additional yardage based on their skill level. A back that can achieve that type of production is a head ache for defenses and a major asset for an offense.
There were many intriguing performances in week 1 for the Big 12. Shawn Robinson and Jalean Reagor at TCU. Jesse Ertz and DJ Reed at Kansas State. Mark Andrews and Baker Mayfield at Oklahoma. Peyton Bender for Kansas. I am sure I am leaving many off of that list.
However, none was more important, and impressive to me than Justice Hill from Oklahoma State. The sophomore running back is coming off a stellar freshman season. His incorporation in to the offense as a lead back was a major boon for an already potent Oklahoma State offense.
Oklahoma State has a much ballyhooed passing game with Heisman worthy players as key components. But, they announced that a defense cannot play to slow down the passing attack while Justice Hill remains in the backfield. For those that believe Oklahoma State has an opportunity to win all of their games, Hill is the key to that goal.
Runners have different skills. We have heard many of the common descriptions, one-cut, power, wiggle, shake, quick feet, pure speed, etc… All of these connote a certain running style based on their straight line style and their ability to and way that they change direction. The suddenness of that change of direction, and the acceleration off that change, is what separates the pedestrian from the outstanding.
Hill is unique in his running style. Most runners can be categorized by one pronounced skill and tendency. That doesn’t mean they cannot wiggle a bit if they are a power back or employ the other skills, it just means that they are most effective when utilizing their preferred running style. Hill, unlike others, incorporates two significant skill sets and a third complimentary talent in his running style.
This highlight hit social media high and hard. It is an incredible run and a perfect example of the running back gaining yards beyond what is blocked. It is an example of Hill’s preferred style and highlight skill, which is the lateral cut.
Watch carefully two things which put Hill’s skills on a unique level.
First, the lateral cut. Hill’s cuts are truly lateral. All forward momentum is stopped and instant lateral yardage is gained without delay. Often, backs will cut laterally but are unable to stop their forward movement and do gain enough lateral space to separate from a tackler. Hill both stops the forward movement and gains significant lateral clearance to resume his free run.
Second, notice the acceleration out of the lateral cut. A lateral cut can be great when it allows the defender to over pursue and lose his angle, but it isn’t worth anything if the back cannot accelerate out of the cut. The inability to accelerate allows pursuit to catch up and time for the tackler to react. Not so with Hill. He accelerates back to full speed within a step and a half while regaining his downhill momentum.
It is important because the ability to gain a lateral advantage and re-accelerate allows Oklahoma State the ability to gain yards even if the point of attack is clogged. Fast acceleration to the cut point draws in support defenders who then struggle to react a one to two gap cut away from the tackling target zone. Very hard to corral and very hard to attack.
One cut ability is when a back runs in a horizontal direction then, upon seeing a crease, plants his outside foot and explodes suddenly with a burst of acceleration and power. It is an incredibly effective running style and has been the style of many an NFL All-Pro. My favorite running back of all time is Eric Dickerson who was a one cut runner with other worldly acceleration and power off his sharp downhill cuts.
This run shows an additional uniqueness to Hill’s running style. Initially, we see his primary skill to gain clearance. He uses his lateral cut to turn a stuffed dive in to an outside cut play. Then, he employs his secondary skill of a one cut ability. While assessing the pursuit at one speed, upon seeing a gap, he plants his foot on the 29 yard line and accelerates between the defenders and gains 5 yards in two steps. That is top-level one cut ability. See it, hit it, and run through it.
Not only does Hill have the ability to run plays where a lateral move can turn in to a big play, but he has the ability to run designed one cut plays and utilize the one cut skill on the same play.
Complimentary Skill – Elusiveness in Traffic
Here we see Hill stay on course on a straight run and enter traffic. These are the hard yards that every back has to get, and that backs the size of Hill struggle with the most. Yet, Hill is able to remain elusive in the midst of a high traffic zone.
This is the skill that benefited Emmitt Smith in his storied career. Emmitt did not possess long speed, but his ability to be elusive in traffic resulted in an ability to gain yards that were not blocked and preserve his body for a long career.
The play is not the best example, because Tulsa offered little resistance in this game. But, it accentuates the skill. Once Hill reaches the second level on the cut back, he has three defenders and no blockers in his path. He employs a drill run by every running back at every level. The One-Two-Three cut. It is done through ropes, with bags, and straight, tippy tap boom. Hill makes three cuts in five yards and the tackler only gets a slight hit on his leg. The elusive technique gains yards while moving the target and allows the run to be finished moving forward.
Hill is a troublemaker. He has multiple running styles that he can employ on any play. Given the prodigious talent in the passing game, he does not face eight in the box very often. Instead, he has good running numbers and space to use his skill.
Additionally, Oklahoma State’s running game can become multiple because their primary runner has the skill to be effective on plays utilizing one or all of these skills. One defense may struggle against cut plays and one cut runners while having solid ability to chase down a lateral cutter. One defense may be adept at outside contain and cut back pursuit, but struggle with straight ahead power runs. Hill can run each of these plays utilizing these skills to gain extra yards.
For a defense playing Oklahoma State, one cannot get lulled in to stopping the deep pass only to struggle to contain Hill on the draw and sweep. Likewise, you cannot get geared up to stop Hill and ignore the best deep ball combination in the country.
Oklahoma State is all about supercharged offensive football. They are supercharged in the passing game and the running game with either capable of leading the charge on any given Saturday (or Thursday or Friday). Their hopes for a playoff appearance are legitimate and the presence of Justice Hill is the primary reason why.