This is another installment of our Football 101 series heading into the start of the fall high school football practice. Find all the stories, as they appear, along with our Football 101 video series with coaches from Huntley, Marian Central and Johnsburg here.
Not many football players know what it feels like to have a different role or responsibility every time they step on to the field.
Area running backs don’t just know; they’re prepared for it too.
Between pass protecting, blocking, actually running the ball and occasionally working as a receiver, the running back position may be the most complex component to any offense.
“I think about all we have to do out there, but I kind of like it though,” Crystal Lake Central senior running back Ryan Williams said.
When asking some of the local running back coaches what the most important responsibility is for a running back you likely won’t get the answer you’re expecting.
“The most important job for a running back is to block for one another,” Prairie Ridge running back coach Joe Terhaar said.
“It’s probably the most difficult for them as well. Some of the people they block will be bigger than them, and it’s not easy. It could be a long afternoon or night if they can’t do their job.”
Prairie Ridge is one of a few local teams that run the option. In the option, depending on how the defense is set up, a running back may block on more plays than actually run the ball.
In an offense like the spread at Huntley, the running back may not be blocking as much as pass protecting. Most area teams rely heavily on the run, but in some instances backs will have to be ready to handle any rush at their quarterback.
“I tell them all the time that if they can’t protect, then they can’t play,” Huntley running back coach Ricky Crider said. “In our offense, we like to pass it a bit more than normal, and they have to know their responsibilities.”
Running backs can sometimes also find their hands on a ball through the receiving game as well. Defenses are sometimes not prepared for a speedy runner out of the backfield, and it could account for some major difference-making plays, something Jacobs’ senior Josh Walker particularly likes doing.
“You can’t just go out there and run, you have to be able to catch as well,” Walker said. “When they are passing to me, I feel like I can go wherever I want and when I go up against a linebacker I feel like that’s basically a mismatch every time.”
Despite their host of responsibilities, the running backs main job will always be running the ball. So what exactly makes a good running back?
The strength and will of a back is pretty crucial. The defenders are going to be physical with a ball carrier, if they are physical right back they may break tackles or carry defenders a few extra yards.
Some underrated skills when it comes to backs are football smarts and vision. Running backs have to know when the right time to make a move is, where to make the move and how to make the move or a play could go nowhere.
It's hard to tell if a back has good vision until you actually see them play at game speed. When they do, they will be great at putting themselves in the right spots when it seemed at first there was nothing there.
Depending on the style of runner, speed and athleticism could be big part of it. Finesse and being fast is not always something that can be taught.
“Being able to move with speed and power is obviously important, they have to be able to make plays with the ball, that’s why they’re out there,” Richmond-Burton running backs coach Brett Zick said.
Based on the offense, there will be different terms used to describe the running backs. Halfbacks and wingbacks are typically the speedier of the bunch and will see the ball more often. While fullbacks are normally bigger, so they will be used as blockers on most occasions.
With all the roles a running back has and all the hits they take over the course of a game, the physical toll can be brutal. The backs will of course always be the last to complain about the position they love to play.
“You just have to have the heart and mindset to do it,” Harvard senior running back Christian Kramer said.
“Oh and lots of ice baths help too.”