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As NFL, college football shift toward spread, the high school running back is evolving

This is the first in a five-part series on the changing role of running backs in high school football.

There was a time, not long ago, where offenses would line up in an I-formation and try to slam a running back through the line 25-30 times a game.

The high school game has changed, evolving with the college and pro games, as offenses span the width of the field, created seams and alternatives rarely imagined a decade or two ago.

Lining up with two backs in the backfield and a quarterback under center is almost a novelty these days, forcing defensive coordinators to scramble back to their archives on how to defend it.

The way of the running back is slowly deteriorating in the NFL and to a lesser extent, in the college game. The high school game has always relied on running games more due to the lack of depth and consistent talent at the quarterback position.

But as the age of the spread offense and hybrid skill players takes over, will the running back remain an alpha dog in the high school game? It depends on who you ask.

“Studs still get the ball 25 times a game, I don’t think that’s ever changed,” Downingtown West coach Mike Milano said. “The spread gets kids the ball in space and gets the defense spread out more, and offenses are running faster than ever. Teams will get 95 plays a game as opposed to 45 back in the day.”

Downingtown East running back Brassir Stocker practices his moves at the school as part of August football camp. (PETE BANNAN – DIGITAL FIRST MEDIA)

Milano is accurate with the philosophy of getting your best kid the ball as many times as possible. What has changed more than ever is the means as to which these athletes are getting the ball.

More and more running backs are getting involved in the pass game. If teams don’t have size up front, or their runners aren’t the downhill type, backs are going wherever they can find space to get their touches.

“For us, running the ball is critical like in any offense,” Great Valley coach Dan Ellis said. “The difference for ours, compared to a wing-T, for example, is if you look at the rushing yards, our backs might have less, but their total yards might be more.”

With so many different philosophies and schemes, what each coach looks for in a running back differs. You have those like Downingtown East’s Mike Matta who doesn’t always use his best athlete, instead looking for a tough, physical downhill runner to fit his style.

Spread teams like Great Valley and Bishop Shanahan have employed more versatile backs, rarely accumulating huge numbers in one specific area, but creating havoc from multiple spots on the field.

Size and speed have always won in football, it’s now just coming in different forms.

“It’s definitely gotten more athletic,” Avon Grove coach Harry O’Neill said of the typical high school offense. “They’re getting away from the big backs you used to see in college and pro football. The fullback in high school is at best, 50/50. Every week there’s a lot more one-back formations and shifts and motions with the backs. The field is played sideline to sideline.”

A quick look at the PIAA career passing totals on Wikipedia shows not a single name in the top 12 who played before 2002.

Teams like those of Central Bucks West, which ran teams over with massive lines and huge fullbacks in the 90s, are few and far between. Quarterbacks are slowly but surely taking over the reins as the premier difference makers in high school.

Part of that stems from the 7-on-7 wave that dominates offseasons. Quarterback camps and gurus are a dime a dozen, and while that doesn’t always work for your local high school, elite prep schools have the ability to find top signal callers.

For the locals, you can count on one hand the amount of transcendent quarterbacks who have come through in the 2000s. It’s the toughest position to fill at a high level, forcing running backs to stay relevant.

“I think at the high school level the run will always be there,” West Chester Rustin coach Mike St. Clair said. “When you can’t recruit, you have what you have, and sometimes you have better runners than throwers.”

The running game will always be a vital part of football, at any level. What running backs are asked to do may be evolving a bit, but talent and skill sets are always the determining factor. Over the next few days we’ll take a closer look at teams around the area and how they feature their backs, but in a day of run-pass options and empty backfields, the running back isn’t going away soon.

“Barring any rule changes, absolutely, football is still football,” West Chester Henderson coach Steve Mitten said. “Football, for all the changes that have occurred, is still very much the same game.”

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