Vision, quickness and power make a potent combination at the running back position. When you add them to a zone blocking scheme, it creates a perfect storm for an offense, and a very difficult situation for a defense. Right now, the Wisconsin Badgers have this mix with freshman running back Jonathan Taylor, and their blocking schemes.
Listed as the fifth running back on the depth chart during pre-season camp, the true freshman currently leads the Big Ten in rushing yards, and his 223-yard, three-touchdown performance against Florida Atlantic this past Saturday made him only the fourth Badger in school history to rush for over 200 yards in a game. But it’s the combination of his traits at the position – which made him the star of camp and earned him the “Beast Mode” moniker – as well as the execution up front, that make it seem like his early success will be sustainable over the long haul.
On Taylor’s first touchdown run against the Owls, he displayed the vision and quickness that a running back needs in a zone blocking scheme. Facing a 2nd and 8 on their own 36-yard line, the offense lines up with Taylor (#23) as the singleback in the backfield. The Badgers have 12 offensive personnel on the field, using a two-tight end bunch look with both Troy Fumagalli (#81) and Zander Neuville (#85) to the left, along with wide receiver A.J. Taylor (#4). Quarterback Alex Hornibrook (#12) lines up under center. The Owls use a 3-4 look up front, putting five defenders on the line of scrimmage as defensive ends Leighton McCarthy (#13) and Hunter Snyder (#94) drop down:
On outside zone plays such as this, the running back has three potential reads, or options. As the running back takes the handoff he presses the line of scrimmage near the edge, but needs to remain patient at the start to let blocking develop and his reads to become clear. However, once he makes a decision, there can be no hesitation.
What are his options? First, the “bang” read. That means he can simply see the hole develop right at the edge and cut through it immediately. Second, the “bounce” read. That happens if the edge defenders cut inside, and then the running back can cut to the outside and bounce around the traffic inside. Finally, the “bend” read. This is a cutback to the back side of the play. If the defense pursues well up front and clogs the point of attack, an alley might develop to the backside. Regardless of the choice made, the running back must be decisive and explode once he makes up his mind:
Here is Taylor at the moment of decision. As you can see, the Owls have set the edge rather well and are flowing to the football, seemingly taking away both the “bang” and “bounce” reads. But there is a tiny crease developing to the backside, due in large part to the blocking from center Tyler Biadasz (#61) and right guard Beau Benzschawel (#66). The freshman RB has both the vision to see that opportunity, and the quickness to attack it:
Here’s a look from the end zone camera, where you can see Taylor make up his mind, stick his left leg in the turf at Camp Randall Stadium, and go:
Now the blocking sets up fairly well on that play, particularly for the bend read. On his second touchdown run of the afternoon, however, we can see how Taylor has the power to overcome a slippage up front. On this 1st and 10 play just inside the Florida Atlantic 30-yard line, the Badgers line up with Hornibrook under center again, but this time have 13 offensive personnel on the field. Neuville is the single tight end on the left, and Fumagali aligns on the right, with fellow TE Kyle Penniston (#49) in a wing to the outside. Taylor is alone in the backfield, and freshman WR Danny Davis III (#6) sets up to the left side of the formation:
Before the play, Davis comes in motion toward the football, and at the snap carries out a fake end-around. But that is just some window dressing for another outside zone run:
As that fake is being carried out, a problem develops on the edge for the offense. Just before the play begins, safety Jalen Young (#18) drops down from a linebacker spot toward the edge, outside of Neuville, in response to the motion:
So when the ball is snapped, Neuville takes his zone blocking step to the left, as does the rest of the offensive line. But now, the safety immediately crashes inside of the tight end. Normally the left tackle, Michael Dieter (#63), would be in position to handle such a move from Young, but with a defensive end on his outside shoulder pre-snap, Dieter already has his hands full. The safety cuts inside of the tight end, leaving Neuville grasping for air, and Taylor facing a problem in the backfield:
Taylor has the quickness and footwork to evade the initial tackle attempt in the backfield. But his problems are not eliminated just yet. Because the tight end could not get outside, more defenders are coming and Taylor is without help:
Here’s another angle of the run from Taylor, where we see his quickness in the backfield, the little move on the edge to set himself up for the rest of the run, and the power to dominate a defender as he gets to the second level:
Taylor and the Badgers are off to an impressive start, but the schedule gets a bit tougher from here. Wisconsin travels west to take on the BYU Cougars this weekend, before they begin their Big Ten schedule with games against Northwestern and Nebraska. Should they get past the Cougars, we’ll learn a lot more about both the team – and their freshman RB – as that conference slate gets underway.