How to Best Use Oregon’s Stable of Running Backs
This post was written before the news came out today that Lache Seastrunk will be transferring from our beloved Oregon to Baylor University. We wish him well in his future pursuits.
Oregon is slowly becoming a new Tailback U in the PAC-12. There’s LaMichael James who finished third in the Heisman voting last year, broke the single season rushing record and is a season away from obliterating the school career rushing record. There’s Kenjon Barner who for the first four weeks of last season outscored half the football teams playing FBS football. Lache Seastrunk is now eligible after taking a redshirt year, a former 5 star recruit from Texas who has wheels and size. And after the first two days of practice, De’Anthony Thomas is an amazingly fast running back who is already getting reps with the ones. Oh yeah, and he was a 5 star recruit who Rivals rated higher than Reggie Bush coming out of high school. So he should turn out pretty well.
LaMichael James is the best running back in college football, and it can be proven by his rushing totals, yards per carry, and other advanced statistics. He allegedly gained 15 pounds in the offseason (hopefully not taking away from his speed and quickness), which will help him break through arm tackles and run through smaller holes. I don’t think there is a single defender in the country that could catch up to James, even if given a two or three yard head start. His one cut and go running style has been the perfect complement to Oregon’s zone blocking scheme. His running style is pretty simple, once he hits the hole he runs really really fast to the end zone. Some examples are in the spring game when he scored the only rushing touchdown of the game, or when he had the inside zone read against Stanford that sprung him for the game clinching touchdown.
The only good that may come out of LaMichael James going to the NFL next year (I’m jut going to assume this is his final year and enjoy the crap out of it and be pleasantly surprised if he decides to give it one more go) is seeing what Kenjon Barner can do as the featured back. He’ll still split carries with Lache Seastrunk and De’Anthony Thomas, but assuming one of them isn’t the second coming of Barry Sanders, Barner will get most of the carries. This year he will most likely fill a TZR position, much like he did in the National Championship game and what Josh Huff did while Kenjon Barner was recovering from a concussion. Barner runs like he’s on roller skates and is a dangerous threat as a receiver as well. In the spring game Barner got past the defensive back covering him and the safety playing over the top, and if Bryan Bennett had put some loft on the ball rather than trying to rifle it would have been a touchdown for Barner.
What Barner and James both do really well is wait patiently for the hole to open and then hit it hard. Lache Seastrunk has allegedly been trying too hard to make plays. I have not seen Lache Seastrunk play outside of the last spring game where he did do a little too many moves in the backfield. One of the reasons Ayele Ford did so well in spring ball and in the spring game was because he ran hard through the gap quickly and didn’t waste time or energy trying to break a big run. A lot of it can be attributed to being so physically superior to everyone Lache played against in high school, and he could probably often break a run to the outside after shaking a few 16-year olds. Right now he looks a lot like Reggie Bush playing in the NFL. He expects to be able to make video game plays because of his athleticism but it hasn’t quite clicked that everyone he’s playing against now is bigger, faster, and stronger and able to cut off those outside runs that take five jukes to develop. After a year playing with the big boys he should be able to break the habit and go hard in the gaps the line is making for him, otherwise, he could slip in the depth chart behind the new guy.
De’Anthony Thomas is the new guy in the Oregon backfield (I realize we can shorten his name to DAT, which is super cool in the sense that clubhouses and “reading” SI’s swimsuit edition is cool when you’re in sixth grade, but DAT is also the sound a baby makes). He played defensive back and running back in high school, and since this is Oregon and the D-block is already locked down, he goes to running back. I speculated that he may be playing a slot receiver position to help with depth and back up at a TZR position, but it appears he is talented enough to play at running back. He has amazing speed and, although he is on the small side, coming in at 5’9” 160 pounds (and that’s roster size), could see the field in some situations. We’re just two days through fall camp so it’s hard to judge at this point.
How then do you get four running backs enough carries to satisfy everyone? You really can’t, especially when Kenjon Barner and LaMichael James have solidified themselves as two of the top 4 running backs in the PAC-12 and they happen to be on the same team. In the national title game Kenjon Barner and LaMichael James were on the field at the same time a lot, and in the Oregon State game there were even plays for three running backs on the field at the same time (written about by Charles Fischer at Fishduck.com).
While all of the running backs pose a serious threat to any defense, not all of them can be present at the same time. But there are ways to get as many players on the field as possible. In the National Championship game Chip Kelly installed a similar formation to Florida, with two H-backs in front of Darron Thomas, but instead of two tight ends and a wide receiver like Florida did with Tim Tebow, there were two wide receivers wide and Kenjon as a TZR. LaMichael James and D.J. Davis served as H-backs on a few of the plays. There were also formations that featured LaMichael James offset behind Darron Thomas, with D.J. Davis in an H-back position flexed to behind the line. Kenjon Barner either was the first option to hand off to and LaMichael James was the triple option, or LaMichael James was the first option and Kenjon Barner motioned behind Darron Thomas to be the third option.
Part of the problem with having D.J. Davis play as an H-back was he’s never spent time in the backfield and blew by the guys who made the tackle. His H-back spot put him too close to the line and he got to his blocking position before the defender did, in other words, he got ahead of the play. There are three formations that Oregon could use to get three separate running backs in the backfield, have two wide receivers, and stay balanced.
The first formation that could be used is a wishbone from the pistol. The wishbone formation is given its name because it looks like a wishbone. There are many other formations that use lead blockers from the backfield with multiple options, which will be discussed later. Back to the wishbone. The wishbone most often features a fullback with two halfbacks slightly behind and to each side of the fullback while the quarterback is under center. Two changes can be made for Oregon. First, move Darron Thomas back to a pistol formation (although Oregon has been working under center since the spring). Second, Oregon could put a running back in instead of the fullback, giving Oregon three of its stud running backs in the backfield. LaMichael James could be the middle running back and run up the middle, forcing the defense to load up on the middle, allowing room for Kenjon Barner, Lache Seastrunk, and De’Anthony Thomas on the outside. The wishbone also lets the play side running back lead block. The advantage of having the lead blocker come from the backfield is that he sees what the ball carrier is going to see; he has time to see where the defense goes and how the play is developing. The biggest plus is that the wishbone is balanced and can be ran either side without giving away which side the play is headed to the defense.
A second formation is the T-formation. The T-formation allows for better “belly” plays and interior running. It relies a lot more on fakes and may not ultimately work with a quarterback in the pistol. Virtually the same plays can be run from a T-formation as a wishbone, but with more difficulty. The T-formation would be exciting to see LaMichael James line up next to David Paulson or any other tight ends, and follow the tight ends as they get a running start in to the hole. Putting Tra Carson in the backfield could really turn it in to a jumbo set at the goal line.
The last formation I had in mind was the full house formation. Some pro teams such as the Dallas Cowboys use it, and Oklahoma State used it a lot the last couple years. It’s also sometimes referred to as a shotgun T-formation, and inverted wishbone, or a diamond. The full house formation can put the quarterback in to a shotgun with two backs on either side, and one behind. This formation can allow for inside read plays from the middle back, while still allowing for a triple option with a lead block. Here’s the interesting part of a full house formation, you can still run outside zone reads since the running backs are directly adjacent to the quarterback.
These formations are hypothetical’s, as Oregon has had talented backs before and guys who could have stepped in to one of these formations, but Chip Kelly has not used them. There may be a part of the formations he doesn’t like or don’t think they fit well on an analytical level that someone outside the program doesn’t understand, but we haven’t seen them used yet. That doesn’t mean we won’t.
We do know though that Oregon is using a formation used by Florida with more wide receivers, and we know that Oregon has used an H-back. These types of formations were present in the Civil War game as well as the National Championship game, so it would be safe to assume that we could see these again in the future.
Above is a clip of the play when Urban Meyer was at Utah with a diagram and an example of a pitch to the outside. Below is a clip of the same play at Florida with pitches to the inside, with a lot more highlights.
A staple of Florida’s offense with Tim Tebow was a triple option between the H-back, the quarterback, and the running back. When the ball is snapped we see the H-back go directly behind the line of scrimmage and looks for a forward shuffle pass from Tebow. The quarterback and running back play it like a regular speed option. If the defense overplays one of the pitchmen too much then the quarterback can hit the opposite player. This would stop the defense from over pursuing to the outside, when an inside threat is still present. In fact, Oregon could use some of their formations from the National Championship game when Kenjon Barner would get the ball from motioning in as a TZR. Imagine Lache Seastrunk, Colt Lyerla (who played some running back in high school), or David Paulson at the H-back position, Darron Thomas in the shotgun, and LaMichael James to the left. Barner motions in and is the first option that Darron Thomas reads. In the National Championship game, the H-back played often by DJ Davis would go opposite Barner to get in front of a LaMichael James or Darron Thomas carry. This time, instead of trying to get a block on a player, he’s an option to receive the ball from a forward lateral. Oregon has even already shown that they will use the forward lateral. They began showing the look against Arizona State and even completed a pitch to LaMichael James in the National Championship game. At this point, it would be just combining two plays/processes together.
Above at the 4:52 mark you see Darron Thomas run in to the end zone and LaMichael James run in front of him looking for a possible pitch.
Here at 10:18 we see the same play run in the National Championship Game and the defense flows to Darron Thomas, who pitches it forward to LaMichael James for a touchdown.
Oregon is lucky enough to have four of the most talented running backs in the country. Any other team in PAC-10 (maybe except USC, the actual tailback U) would be more than happy to have any of them. Blessed with their riches in running backs, Oregon could really open up a slew of formations and plays to get the ball in to the hands of the playmakers. LaMichael James is the clear leader of the group, being one of, if not the greatest running back in Oregon history, and Kenjon Barner is also an amazing running back who happens to be behind one of the all time greats. Players like Lache Seastrunk and De’Anthony Thomas are so good you have to get them touches somehow. So why not involve up to three at a time on a play.
And just in case Chip Kelly has a hard time figuring out who should get carries, maybe he’ll run triple options and let the defense decide.