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Hybrid running backs finding stardom as spread offenses take over


As a senior quarterback at the University of Virginia, Dan Ellis couldn’t help noticing what was going on at Northwestern University.

Coach Gary Walker was in the process of turning his Wildcats into an offensive powerhouse, lining up in the shotgun and putting wide receivers all over the field.

“I thought, that looks like an offense I’d like playing in,” Ellis said.

While Ellis saw snippets of spread concepts in his days at Downingtown, he went all in when he became a coach.

The same offense that made Northwestern competitive in the Big 10, and made offenses at Oregon and Ohio State nearly unstoppable, has been sweeping the high school landscape for the last decade or so.

Every year it gets more and more complexed, with run-pass options and no-huddle tempo. It has made smaller schools like Great Valley dangerous and it makes big schools with athletes everywhere like Coatesville all the more scary.

“The field is 53 1/3 wide and the spread makes you defend 53 1/3,” Ellis said. “No matter what you do, it boils down to one on ones, getting my guy against one defender, unblocked. We try to get our running back or wide receiver in space against one other guy and hopefully our guy is a better athlete.”

The spread hasn’t killed the running back position. It’s just forced it to evolve. A back in the spread may not get 25, 30 carries a game anymore, but it might get 15 carries and another 7 receptions.

Ellis has had success with the spread everywhere he’s been. It started as an offensive coordinator at Downingtown East with Pat Devlin. Richie Walls was the perfect back for that spread system, with his breakaway speed that hit the open lanes in the zone run scheme and tortured defenses in the screen game.

Three years ago, Ellis rode Nasir Adderley to a District 1-3A title. A decade ago a kid like Adderley would’ve been listed as an “athlete” without a true position. Now, with the advent of the spread, he’s a terror because he can line up anywhere on the field and create mismatches.

“You’ve started to see the last few years more complexity in high school football and it trickles down to individual positions,” Ellis said. “We ask our running back to do the same things the running backs in college football and the NFL do. … For us to have the ability to be an 11 personnel team or 10 personnel, we have to have three or four receivers, and one of those four is always going to be the kid who’s a mix of running back and wide receiver.”

The word spread brings the connotation of pass-happy, and while that is sometimes the case, the running game still plays a key part.

Teams around the area who have built their reputations on power run games have even started implemented segments. West Chester Henderson lines up in shotgun more than ever before, mostly still to run it, and Unionville has branched out as a mix of a wing-T/option and shotgun, spread team. Even Garnet Valley, an old school veer option program, has used more shotgun variations to make their challenging scheme even harder to defend.

“There’s a huge misnomer of the spread being a throwing offense,” Ellis said. “If you ask me what’s our run game, it’s the run game, but also our screen game and our short pass game. It’s all part of our running game. Quarterbacks don’t think about completing the handoff on power and we don’t think about completing passes on screens, we’re just going to complete them.”

Unionville is a testament to getting a lot out of that hybrid athlete. Outside of Richie Sampson, the Indians have never really had a dominant running back under coach Pat Clark, yet their ground games have been some of the more consistent in the area.

With a lack of star power in the backfield, Clark has combined his backs with mobile quarterbacks like Matt Carroll and Tommy Pancoast. As Unionville moves away from its option plays, lining up in spread formations has given Clark new ways and new lanes for his ballcarriers to take advantage of.

“You still have to be able to run the ball,” Clark said. “Even out of shotgun, keeping teams honest, and it becomes a counting game. Defenses have to give something up somewhere.”

Bishop Shanahan was one of the first Ches-Mont teams to run the spread under Paul Meyers, and a 1,000-yard rusher there is a rarity. The versatility and unpredictability is what makes their run game in the spread difficult to defend.

Nowadays, as teams give quarterbacks the power to decide whether to hand the ball off or throw by defensive alignment, defenses are guessing more than ever. Teams have tablets on the sidelines, looking at plays and formations in between series, an adjustments come at a breakneck rate.

“In 2003, it was just a lot of I-formation,” Henderson coach Steve Mitten said. “We knew what people were going to do and it was easier to prep against it. There’s so much more coaching going on and it’s so much more advanced with the in-game calling now.”

So what does this mean for running backs? Well, that still depends on the kid. Not many coaches are stubborn enough not to run an elite downhill back x amount of times just because of their philosophy. But if that type of player isn’t on the roster, the spread takes the pressure off one back and divvies it out to many.

The value of a back may not be weighed in rushing yards as much anymore, but playmaking and explosiveness will never go out of style, no matter where a “running back” lines up.

“It’s become much more versatile,” Clark said. “I think guys catch the ball a lot more. The goal is to get your best kid in space a lot more than before.”



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