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Running Back Guide for Serious Football Players (Tips and Tricks)

By Coach Martin | Football Positions

Running Back Guide for Serious Football Players (Tips and Tricks)

Running back is one of the most high-profile offensive positions on a football team.

And it’s also one of the most demanding.

Many kids dream of being a great running back in the National Football League, but very few are able to make it to that level, and even fewer last for a while once they do.

In fact, the average playing career length of running backs in the NFL is only 2.57 years, compared to the league average of 3.3 years.

While it may not seem like much of a difference at first, that's quite the monumental drop-off in career average from the league norm.

But why do running backs not last that long at the NFL level?

There are many contributing factors, but the main reason often cited for this is the fact that running backs take a beating on just about every play.

A featured running back on a team may handle the ball anywhere from 15 to 30 times per game, between the times he carries the ball and catches the ball as a receiver. And on just about every one of those plays, he will absorb a hit from a defender.

Even if the play ends in the running back going out of bounds or scoring a touchdown, it's likely a defender made contact with him.

And even if he escapes without being touched at all, he likely made plenty of sudden cuts that’d cause wear on tear on his knees, hips, ankles, and feet. 

In addition to being the target of all 11 defenders on the field when he touches the ball, a running back is also responsible for picking up rushing defenders and blocking them on certain pass plays.

These defenders are often safeties, linebackers, and defensive ends who are blitzing at high rates of speed.

As you can see, it isn't easy being a running back, but it's still a great position to play and one that can be extremely rewarding.

Most great running backs will have a set of traits and skills that set them apart from other players at other positions.

Here are some of what makes a great running back.

Football player in red uniform running across the field

6 ​Running Back Traits

1. Running Backs Have Great Vision

Just like quarterbacks, running backs have to constantly scan the field to identify opportunities and pick up responsibilities.

Unlike a quarterback, though, running backs need to do this while running in crowds.

A running back must have great vision to be able to see gaps in the defense.

Sometimes, these gaps are less than a yard wide, and they can sometimes close quickly.

That's why a running back must be able to scan the field using his peripheral vision to identify these holes to run through.

2. Running Backs Have Great Instincts

It’s next to impossible for a running back to truly see the entire field, especially as he's trying to wade his way through big bodies that are trying to attack him and trying to block for him.

That's why he must have great instincts to know where to go without actually seeing it.

This is one of those traits that can't be taught or coached, and it's a skill that a player will acquire overtime after playing the position for a while and experiencing game action.

Knowing where to go if you don't see an opening is almost as important as seeing a hole in the first place.

3. Running Backs Are Explosive

Simply recognizing the gaps isn’t enough, though.

A running back must be able to explode through the running hole once he has identified it while avoiding would-be tacklers on the way.

In order to do this, a running back must have a very strong lower body and core, must be fast, and must be able to change direction quickly.

A running back will do a lot of his movements quickly from side to side before finally running straight forward as fast as he can.

4. Running Backs Are Elusive

Even the most powerful running backs need to be able to avoid hits and tackles.

In fact, avoiding tackles is a running back's primary job once he touches the ball.

In order to make defenders miss, great running backs will employ a number of different moves, including a stutter step, hurdle, stiff arm, spin move, or juke.

All of these moves require a combination of quickness, speed, power​, and agility.

Most great running backs will develop their go-to moves over time as they figure out how they can be most successful at remaining upright.

5. Running Backs Are Durable

A running back can only be a good contributor to his team if he’s on the field.

If he's consistently missing plays or games because he's hurt, then it'll be hard for him to become great.

While running backs will do everything they can to avoid getting hit, it's next to impossible to go an entire game at the position without getting hit.

A running back must be able to absorb those hits and keep getting back up -- over and over again.

6. Running Backs Have a Will to Succeed

Great running backs are multi-talented.

They need to be a combination of a good runner with the ball, a good pass catcher, and a good blocker.

All of these take great vision and great skill. But overall, they have a will to succeed.

Football player in yellow uniform running with the football while opposing player wearing a green uniform tries to chase him

Roles and Responsibilities

A running back has a wide range of roles and responsibilities. Here are a few of them:

1. Run with the Ball

A running back's primary responsibility is to take a hand-off or pitch from the quarterback and run up field with it.

His goal is to try to score a touchdown every time he runs.

While scoring on every play isn't likely, of course, he should try to gain as many yards as he can on every run.

This means avoiding tacklers for as long as possible, finding holes and cutting to different parts of the field to do so, and fighting for extra yardage after first contact.

Even one extra yard gained can make a huge difference for an offense trying to march downfield.

2. Catch the Ball

On certain passing plays, a running back will run routes as if he's a wide receiver.

These routes will be slightly different than the ones wide receivers run, as they'll be designed for players who’ll line up in the backfield most of the time at the start of a play.

Therefore, a running back needs to learn how to run these passing routes effectively to avoid defenders and get open before they even have the ball in their hands.

This also means a running back must use his vision to find openings in the defense and must have great hands to catch passes from the quarterback at times.

3. Serve as a Decoy

A running back won't touch the ball on every offensive play, but on some, he'll serve as a decoy.

Play-action passes involve the quarterback faking a hand-off or a pitch to the running back, and then either running the ball himself, handing it off to another runner, or attempting a pass.

In order for these misdirection plays to be successful, a running back must do a good job of "selling" the play to the defense.

He can't be lazy and go through the motions just because he knows he won't be carrying or catching the ball on that particular play.

He must run and act on these plays exactly as he does when he knows he's going to carry the ball.

That's the only way he'll be successful at tricking the defense into thinking the play is a run, only to find out it's a pass.

4. Block

Even though blocking isn't a primary responsibility of a running back, it’s one of the most important jobs he’ll be asked to do.

On certain passing plays where it looks like the defense will blitz, a play might call for the running back to stay in and help block.

On these plays, the running back will have a primary blocking responsibility or at least an area of the field that he's responsible for watching.

He must be able to identify any defenders that break free from offensive linemen and pick them up with a solid block.

A good block from a running back is often the difference between a disastrous play (like a sack or turnover) and a good one (like a completed pass).

Silhouette of a running back running across a brightly-lit stadium at night

4 Tips for a Running Back

Here are some tips for players who want to be a good running back:

1. Get Strong

You might think that the first thing a running back should do is work on their speed, but speed is a tough thing to teach and acquire.

A lot of times, you either have it or you don't.

One thing you can do if you want to be a good running back, though, is to get strong.

You can do this by working out and building muscle in your upper body, lower body, and core.

This will help you shed tacklers and build durability to absorb all that contact.

2. Build Endurance

Running back is a very demanding position.

It requires a player to be very active every time he's on the field, and it's a position that’ll wear you out consistently.

To prepare for this, you need to build endurance.

The way to do this is by running, jogging, and even walking a lot.

This will build up your body's tolerance for movement and keep you from getting too winded in games.

3. Learn the Proper Stance

A key for running backs as they burst through holes in the line, find openings on the field as a receiver, and pick up defenders on blocks is to stay low to the ground.

The lower they're able to get and stay throughout a player, the more likely that they’ll be successful.

In order to stay low, a running back must learn the proper stance.

If he doesn't start the playoff right, in the proper two-point stance, then he'll have a hard time getting low.

4. Learn How to Take a Handoff

Taking a handoff is one of the basic things a running back must do.

But it's not a natural skill, especially when done at a high rate of speed during a game.

There’s a certain method to taking a handoff successfully and it's something that takes some practice.

Start by learning how to place your arms across the body, parallel to each other.

Then, have someone place the ball in between your arms and transition it from that position into a carry position in one of your arms.

Once you can get that motion down while standing still, then you can learn how to do it while approaching the quarterback straight on and from an angle -- and then at real game speed.

Conclusion

Running back is one of the most glorified positions on a football team, but it’s also one of the toughest to learn -- and master.

That's why there are so few great running backs who’ve stood the test of time.

To be a running back, you have to have a multi-faceted skillset and some traits that are simply innate and hard to learn.

But starting young and working hard can result in you becoming a great running back, too.

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