Running Back School with PSU’s Coach Huff: Part 1 Driving Through the Smoke

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Penn State boasts one of the top rushing attacks in the nation, both because of their creative scheme and a strong stable of running backs led by the all-world Saquon Barkley. Charles Huff is the running back coach at Penn State and he has graciously decided to give the readers of Inside the Pylon a look into the “Running Back School” program he uses to sharpen the fundamentals and mental game of his ball carriers.

The game of football is full of paradoxes. There are parts of this crazy game that ask humans to defy their own nature. Quarterbacks are told to remain calm while being under siege and offensive linemen have to move backwards, while being bull rushed by some of the best athletes in the world.

At times, running backs have to trust their training and run full speed into a wreckage. Coach Huff describes the unnatural act as, “driving through the smoke” and defines it as, “changing speeds aggressively and attacking the decision you make, running though the hazards.” He uses this metaphor to teach his running backs to be patient, decisive, and physical on zone run plays, particularly outside zone. The natural reactions for running backs is to try to juke and pitter patter their way out of holes that aren’t as clear cut as they like them. However, there are times they have to just make their initial read and go full speed into the smallest of holes. By doing this, backs could hit holes just as they open up and break arm tackles. If they hesitate, they could miss an opening or get dragged down by arm tackles. It may seem like an easy skill to learn, but most running back coaches will tell you that it’s hard to get a young back to stay disciplined, especially when they have options like those in a zone system. Coach Huff teaches this technique by building a visual metaphor with a movie clip, using on field drills, and reinforcing it by showing his players film of NFL backs performing the technique.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Video-Metaphor

Coach Huff introduces the technique in the running backs’ room by showing a clip from the movie Days of Thunder, the source of his “drive through the smoke” metaphor. The scene starts with cars colliding and a wreckage building up in the middle of the race track. Tom Cruise’s character is barreling toward it, but there’s so much smoke that he can’t see what is ahead. His crew chief is telling him through his headset that he could drive through. Cruise is afraid but ultimately has to trust him and his training. He eases off the gas for a second but punches it to accelerate full speed into the smoke in order to win the race.

Although it may seem abstract to show a movie clip, good coaches / teachers know the importance of good visual metaphors. Some players may be able to understand the technique simply by listening to a coach explain it, but others may be more visually stimulated learners and a movie clip could be what makes the idea come to life for them. Building a visual in the minds of players helps them understand an unnatural concept a little bit better. The scene coincidently depicts what zone running is like. A back has to stay on his track and get to the line of scrimmage at a controlled speed. However, once he sees the hole he must trust his eyes as well as his decision, and then proceed to cut off his outside foot, get his shoulders, knees, and toes vertical and run full speed into the hole even if it looks muddy.

Another benefit of using metaphors is that a coach could later just tell his backs to “drive through the smoke” and they’ll know exactly what he means and the reasons for it. It’s memorable, so he doesn’t have to explain it every time a back doesn’t execute:

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Drill It

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This drill is used to simulate the back’s initial read on outside zone. The back has to make his read, trust his decision and run into a dummy. Coach Huff stresses being patient and making an extra “rotation” (couple extra steps) in order to ensure that the back cuts with his outside foot after making his read. This also gives the offensive line a little more time and the good angles to make their blocks. In the clip, you could see Barkley take two extra, small steps before sticking his outside foot in the ground and getting vertical.

The shoot that they have to run under is used to make sure that the back drops his hips and roll his shoulders. Coach Huff believes that the single most important trait for a back is hip flexibility, or the ability to drop his hips and efficiently change directions and explode. He said, “a back that could sink his hips will always be in position to change directions or change the playing field aggressively and with balance.” You’ll notice Barkley naturally bends at the hips, giving him a low center of gravity. A key part of the drill is sinking the hips and then getting the shoulders, knees, and toes vertical to explode into the correct hole. When the back gets underneath the shoot he has to also roll his shoulder forward, which puts him in a position to deliver a blow.

The dummy simulates a “hazard” or defender that might cause a back to naturally hesitate when making this cut. The back must train to block out this hesitation and get used to powering through a crease to consistently maximize yardage.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Reinforce It – NFL Examples

As with many players that aspire to play in the NFL, Coach Huff’s players look up to star NFL players. He helps reinforce the idea of “driving through the smoke” by showing them film of the top backs in the NFL doing just that. It may seem like a simple thing to do, but it could provide extra motivation for backs to take learning the technique seriously and provides yet another visual for backs to see how it’s done correctly.

Here are some clips that Coach Huff shows his players:

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[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Translate

Every coach wants to see the skills he teach translate on gameday. It’s one thing for them to execute the skill in drills or in practice, but when the lights come on and the adrenaline kicks in will your players do what you taught them or revert to bad habits? Coach Huff believes “once you stick your foot in the ground you have changed everybody else’s angle on the field. Positive yards come when you could change angles and outrun angles.” You’ll see a good example of that in the following clip:

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In the second clip above, Barkley runs an outside zone variant – the pin and pull sweep  to the right of the screen. His initial read, safety Iman Marshall (#8), flows outside, which means he needs to cut upfield. One of the pulling offensive linemen could only get to Cameron Smith’s (#35) outside shoulder, leaving him partially unblocked. Instead of trying to dance in the hole and avoid Smith (the hazard), Barkley explodes through the hole and trucks the linebacker three yards down field for an eight-yard gain. If Barkley tried to avoid Smith instead of being decisive, then the play might have been stopped for a 3-4 yard gain.

Coach Huff’s running back school is about identifying and training the “unseen factors…. that an elite running back needs to be successful.” A technique like “driving through the smoke” might seem simple enough, but if it isn’t taught properly then an offense could potentially leave a lot of yardage on the field because of undisciplined running. And in a game of inches having a back that could consistently “drive through the smoke” to maximize runs could make the difference between winning and losing.

Follow Ted on Twitter via @RaidersAnalysis. Check out his site and his other work at ITP, such as how Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey seems like an omniscient back, Washington’s use of formations and on the evolution of the counter trey rush.

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