Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Four Horses Running Downhill | by Michael

After landing Julius Jones as a recruit in February '99, it seemed like Notre Dame would never sign another phenom at tailback. Lorenzo Booker. Maurice Clarett. Kelly Baraka. Lydell Ross. Thomas Clayton. Alvin Pearman. Cadillac Williams. Reggie Bush. Each one of these running backs considered joining the Fighting Irish, and each one of them ended up somewhere else. Heartbreak after heartbreak followed, until Darius Walker entered the picture, with his dazzling highlight reels and an impressive offer sheet listing some 60+ schools. Although both Rivals and Scout had ranked Walker as a 3-star (mainly because of inferior competition in high school and questionable top-end speed) Irish fans embraced Walker from day one and looked to him to rejuvenate the Irish rushing attack.

Recruiting services lust after size and speed -- sometimes to the exclusion of other football skills. While some of those aforementioned backs excelled, others struggled, and a few even disappeared. What Walker may have lacked in foot speed and frame, he made up for with exceptional vision and reliability. Get him the ball in space, and he'd stop and go, cut and spin, and twist and turn his way upfield. His understated, calculating style was never more apparent than in his debut against Michigan in 2004. Toting the ball 31 times for 115 yards and running a toss sweep seemingly two out of every three plays, Walker was still an unknown quantity at the dawn of his career. Admitted Michigan cornerback Marlin Jackson in the post-game wrap-up: "I didn't even know who that was running the ball."

Three years later, Irish opponents may find themselves echoing Jackson's words, albeit for an entirely different reason. Throughout Walker's tenure, experts regarded the Irish running game as a primarily finesse attack, predicated on draws, misdirection, and outside runs. But Walker has moved on, and Notre Dame enters the 2007 season carrying five multi-talented tailbacks: Travis Thomas, Junior Jabbie, James Aldridge, Armando Allen, and Robert Hughes. This diversity of sizes, skills, and styles should improve the Irish ground attack in '07, making it more unpredictable and more effective.

The Runs. Here's a list of the types of runs that the Irish employ. Click on the link (where available) for a short video clip of the Irish running this play in practice.

  • Jab - a counter play involving misdirection.
  • Draw - sets up like a pass, ends in a handoff.
  • Toss - underhanded pitch to the halfback. A terrific explanation on how the NFL uses 2-TE sets for a lot of their toss plays can be found here.
  • Outside Zone - the QB pivots at a 45 degree angle and hands off to the RB as deep as possible, with outside zone blocking. (If you need a refresher course, here's a solid explanation of inside/outside zone from a special guest lecturer.) The "stretch" play, a staple of the Indianapolis Colts, is one type of an outside zone run.
  • Inside Run - inside run with zone blocking or an isolation play with a lead blocker.
  • Wham - a type of inside zone run where an offensive lineman allows one defender to penetrate so that he can get to a linebacker, and a FB or TE, usually in motion, punishes the free defensive lineman.
  • Fullback Run - handoff to the fullback.
  • QB Sneak
  • Other - everything else, including reverses, triple option, swing passes behind the line, direct snaps to the halfback, fumbled hand-offs, etc.
We can also classify these plays as either "Power" or "Finesse" runs. Generally speaking, Power involves running directly at the defense, while Finesse involves some kind of misdirection, fake, hesitation, or emphasis on speed. Inside Runs, Whams, Tosses, FB Runs, and QB Sneaks would qualify as "Power" runs. Jabs and Draws would be "Finesse" runs. Outside Zone falls into a gray area, and its Power potential is somewhat dependent on the blockers involved and the style of the running back. Walker was very patient in waiting for a hole or a cutback lane -- some might say too patient. But a different running back might burst through the first hint of daylight, with no interest in waiting around for a cutback lane.

Here's what the Irish ran in 2005 and 2006, with color coding for Power and Finesse. The "delta" table looks at the changes from '05 to '06.

From the tables above, it's quite clear that what little power running game the Irish possessed in '05 dried up last year. Finesse runs like jabs and draws, as well as outside zone plays designed to stretch the defense dominated the playcalling, while power plays like inside runs, whams, and FB dives ended up in the orphanage.

Sneaky. The absence of a smashmouth mentality is also evident in the increase of QB sneaks. If the Irish faced a difficult short yardage situation, Weis lacked faith that his '06 offensive line could overpower an opponent. Instead of a HB or FB power run, he often opted for a sneak. And in the rare case where a sneak wasn't called, Weis would get creative. Two of the more memorable fourth down, short yardage plays last year were the play action pass to John Carlson against Michigan State, and a fake swing pass/draw with Walker against Penn State.

That same draw resulted in a Walker fumble on first and goal from the 3-yard line against USC. A fumble can occur on any play; the point here, again, is not having a reliable power run to go to when you need it most. Another example: on third and one in the same game, rather than attack the middle of the SC defense like he did in the '05 game, Weis called for an option. When Quinn pitched too early, Walker was bottled up for a two yard loss.

Close to the Vest. Having the capability to run with both power and finesse also allows an offense to become less predictable in playcalling tendencies. Take this example from the '06 game against North Carolina. It's first down and ten from the Tarheels' 12-yard line. Notre Dame lines up in the formation seen in the first panel to the right. If the defense recalls the scouting report, they'll know that the Irish have a 55%-45% run-pass ratio in this commonly used formation. Furthermore, they'll know that the Irish predominantly (about 70% of the time) utilized toss plays.

Sure enough, the Irish ran the toss, and unfortunately, the Tarheels had done their homework. They're aligned in a 4-3 under front, where four of the seven defenders are on the strongside of the offense's formation. And although Ryan Harris rode the linebacker out of the play, the defensive end beat Carlson to stop Walker in the backfield. UNC was well-prepared for the toss, and stuffed the Irish for a two-yard loss.

This example perfectly illustrates how an inability to run inside limited Charlie's playcalling options. The line couldn't open holes inside, so the Irish went to their bread and butter play from an I-formation, and the Tarheels were ready for it.

To get away from this kind of predictability, having a new stable of backs with a variety of skills isn't enough: the offense still needs the "big uglies" up front to bust open the holes. Simply alternating Walker last year with a power back probably wouldn't have yielded a better running game. Last year, the interior line play left a lot to be desired and played a major role in not only the decreased production, but also the tendency to call more outside and finesse-style runs.

It Was What It Was. Could we have done anything differently in '06? Probably not. We were mostly stuck with the starters we had at running back and offensive line, with very few battle-ready players behind them. What were the other options? Play some of the younger OL along the interior? Keep your starting Will LB at tailback? Spread the ball between your other two backs? Of those two, one was coming off a serious knee injury, and the other has since moved to cornerback (that's a good clue that he probably wasn't as suited to RB in the first place). The Irish did what they could with the running game in '06, and unfortunately, it was lacking.

Get the Motor Runnin'. Through player turnover, a heavy dose of strength and conditioning, and continued coaching and development, last year's limitations have given way to hopeful expectations for '07. The offensive line is already much bigger than last year's, not only according to roster weight comparisons, but also according to Maura Weis, who sized them up after a recent cook-out. Bigger bodies means a bigger push for the front five, which means opening bigger holes for backs to run through. Furthermore, having five running backs you can trust means you can spread the carries around and keep everyone fresh. And let's not forget the potential of a guy like Demetrius Jones, who would bring a running dimension to the quarterback position not seen since Tony Rice.

Net result? Charlie should feel more comfortable calling those power running plays he shied away from in '06. The offense should become more unpredictable, and as the rushing offense diversifies and improves, play action fakes will start to genuinely draw in the safeties and freeze linebackers. A stronger running game will mean a more open field for the passing game.

On a final note, it's worth mentioning that the most heavily used run in the Irish playbook the last two years -- the draw -- was a no-show during the recent open practice. Was this a smokescreen, or a confirmation that Notre Dame's offense won't be centered around this finesse running play?

Perhaps that question was already answered by running backs coach Mike Haywood at last April's coaching clinic. According to a coach who attended Haywood's session, the Irish running back coach kicked things off by saying the finesse identity of the Irish was a thing of the past. His eyes lit up as he described the new focus: "Last year, we were a draw and screen team. No more. This year, you're gonna see four horses running downhill."