According to Eddie Gran, running back coach for the 2004 undefeated Auburn Tigers, three skills set elite running backs apart from others: the ability to secure the ball, pass protection skills and a great forward body lean. Read on to learn how to develop these essential skills.
By: Josh Staph
Deuce McAllister, Rudi Johnson, Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown have more in common than their position on the field or individual fame on highlight reels. Something much bigger connects these 200-plus pound athletes. Each running back has had the opportunity to learn from Coach Eddie Gran.
Gran, who has been with the Auburn University Tigers since 1999 and has produced a 1,000-yard rusher in four of his five seasons, helped each back develop and improve already-impressive running skills—McAllister at Mississippi, and Johnson, Williams and Brown at Auburn. The Auburn Tigers’ 2004 season proved the effect of Gran’s work. Not only was the team undefeated, they won the Sugar Bowl and had the SEC’s top-scoring offense. Contributing to this success were running backs Williams and Brown, both of whom were selected first-team SEC. Williams also garnered first-team All-American honors, with 1,104 yards rushing. Williams and Brown especially pique Gran’s interest because both demonstrate amazing strength in the areas his daily drills address: ball security, pass protection and a good forward body lean.
Gran obviously likes when his protégés make highlight reels, but he knows a running back’s success is more dependent on the three aforementioned skills, which don’t draw nearly as much glory. The coach’s emphasis on these skills led the players to success on the field and in the film room.
1. Ball Security
Without hesitation, Gran says ball security is the most important skill for a running back. "No question that is the No. 1 priority." It is no surprise then that Auburn running backs practice ball security drills every day. Gran’s drills focus on the ability to secure the ball when getting hit from every angle, especially in the ball carrier’s blind spots.
Side Strip Drill
"Oftentimes a running back will be in a lot of traffic and people, like a defensive lineman, come in from the side and grab. We call this a side strip." This drill prevents side strips.
The running back begins with the ball in hand and a defender to his side. The ball carrier runs 15 yards at a fairly strong pace with the ball. Simultaneously, the defender tries to strip the ball from the side. Gran encourages the defender to really "knock the heck out of the ball." Repeat the drill twice with the ball in the right hand and twice in the left.
Under/Over the Top Drill
The Auburn backs use this to prepare for a rear strip, which is when a defender approaches from behind to knock the ball from underneath or swipes at it over the top. Performed in the same manner as the side strip, but the defender instead tries to strip the ball from behind hitting the ball below or on top. Perform twice with the ball in each hand for 4 reps.
Traffic, No Traffic
The ball carrier should have a different hold on the ball for each situation. So, Gran implements Traffic, No Traffic with every drill the Tigers perform to get the running backs used to holding the ball accordingly. "When they get into traffic, they take the two fingers on the nose of the ball and bring them up to their chin so they reduce the surface area of the ball exposed and get the ball to where the defender can’t get it," he explains. "If we go over the ropes, do high knees or go over any bags, as soon as we hit that drill we are saying that they are in traffic so they learn to run with the ball up near their chin."
2. Pass Protection
Next to ball security, Gran emphasizes the importance of pass protection. "You have got to learn to protect your quarterback," he explains. To develop that skill, Gran’s backs perform pass protection drills once a week.
The Big Bertha
Big Bertha is a large blocking bag that hangs from a chain. A heavy punching bag, standard sled or blocking dummy (with a friend holding it) will work as an alternative. Begin by shuffling out of stance with low hips, like you are in the backfield coming to find a linebacker in the A-or C-gap. Once you reach the bag, punch like you are pass blocking.
*Big Bertha coaching points: "It is basically a punch drill, keeping the head back, staying at a good 45-degree body lean, not lunging and being able to pass set like an offensive lineman."
For pass protection, Gran emphasizes an inside-out relationship with the quarterback. Designate a place for the QB and maintain this inside-out relationship while performing the drill. "You never want to get beat inside," Gran explains. The Tiger backs perform 5 to 7 reps of this drill alternating the side on which they begin.
Head Position Drill
Gran says that running backs can fall into a bad habit of leaning and ducking the head while pass protecting. To prevent or break the tendency, the running backs practice sets and blocks without helmets while the defender wears one. Gran says the point is "to set and punch while you are forced to keep your head back in the right position."
Line up in stance and have a defender who is wearing a helmet stand 5 yards away. With the defender running toward you at full speed, set and punch like you are pass blocking him. Remember to keep your head back!
3. Body Lean
Describing the skills of Williams, Brown and Johnson, Gran emphasizes each player’s great forward body lean and ability to drive knees high while running.
The Blaster or Gauntlet
The Auburn running backs use a blaster, which is a tunnel-like structure with several spring-loaded pegs that snap back and hit the athlete when running through. If this equipment is unavailable, have several teammates, each holding a blocking dummy, form two rows a few yards apart. As you run through, they should swing the dummies toward you. Gran likes this drill for two reasons. "One, it feels like you are getting hit, so it works ball security. You also have to have a great body lean and be powerful in order to go through."
The drill has two variations. Begin by running through the blaster while carrying a football in one hand. Repeat this for 6 reps alternating the hand carrying the ball. Upon completion, perform the goal line or "short yardage extra effort" variation for 2 reps. "Start right in front of the blaster and go through it. As soon as you clear it, stop and come right back through so you are not getting any momentum. It is all power." Remember, focus on the forward body lean with each rep.
*Coaching point: Gran does not change the frequency or volume of these drills during the season or at spring football practices. He likes to stay with the same drills and remain consistent.