Run­ning on Empty?

As NFL, college shift to­ward spread of­fense, high school RB’s role evolv­ing

The Phoenix - - SPORTS - By Nate Heck en berger nate­heck­en­berger@gmail.com @nheck­en­berger on Twit­ter

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,” Down­ing town 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.”

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 Perkiomen Val­ley and Spring-Ford 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. Look no fur­ther than Stephen Sturm, who set sev­eral records as quar­ter­back at Perkiomen Val­ley last sea­son.

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.

“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.”

SAM STE­WART — DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

Potts­grove run­ning back Rah­sul Fai­son hauls in a 37-yard touch­down pass last sea­son during a game against Pottstown. Fai­son lit it up in his first year with the Fal­cons, fin­ish­ing with 2,207to­tal yards and 27touch­downs.

SAM STE­WART — DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

Spring-Ford’s Sel­wyn Simp­son cel­e­brates after his touch­down during last sea­son’s game against Wil­son.

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