A running back can be the foundation of an offense in football as they can be capable playmakers both running the ball and catching it out of the backfield. Using the right running back drills can develop that ability and take their performance to the next level.
A good all-around running back is able to stay on the field for all 3 downs. They can run the football inside and outside, move around and make plays as a receiver, and hold up blitzers in pass protection.
Using a variety of running back drills is a great way to develop complete backs, both for youth football and experienced players. Still, the role of a running back on a team may vary greatly based on the scheme as well as skills of each athlete, so drills chosen must reflect that.
Today, running backs come in all shapes and sizes, from a tiny 3rd down back to a big, bruising power back. Offensive schemes are being designed to take advantage of these diverse sets of skills. The complete 3 down back who can run, catch, and block is becoming more rare.
Fewer running backs being capable of carrying a full offensive load is not an excuse to make one dimensional backs. If they are only capable of being productive in the running OR passing game, the defense will be able to key in on that.
Every back in your system doesn't have to be elite running, receiving, and in pass protection, but they can't have any glaring weaknesses. While they can still have their niche in the offense, they need to be versatile enough to keep the defense honest.
Being able to carry the football so much is what makes running back such a unique position. The ideal back is able to fight for tough yardage between the tackles, have enough speed to be at threat in the open field, and have the strength and ball security to fall forward on every carry.
Carrying the football can sometimes be more art than science. Some backs are more naturally include to make defenders miss in the open field or bowl them over for first down yardage. Still, running backs need to have a variety of moves to be able to make defenders miss.
Patience in waiting for the hole to develop and the vision to see open holes is also crucial for backs. While many would argue that some backs just naturally have better vision, it can be drilled repeatedly so backs get enough mental reps to know where cutback lanes are.
Find the Hole
Being able to see the hole develop is the first step for a successful carry. Too many backs just take off running where they think the hole is supposed to be and completely miss the opening in the defense that the offensive line has created.
This drill addresses that by forcing the back to find the hole and accelerate through it. The drill uses 3 defenders to simulate defensive lineman. The defensive lineman each are instructed by the coach of which gap to shoot.
With their being 5 different holes to choose from in this drill, it should be easy for the back to find an open gap. While a real play with offensive lineman and linebackers would be more messy, this teaches making quick decisions in the backfield.
Change of Direction/Footwork
Having good footwork and the ability to change direction is one of the most crucial skills that a back can have. This drill, which you can see in the video below, teaches being able to change directions with sharp cuts while holding the football.
Cones are used to help point out where the cuts should take place, and they can be lined up in a variety of ways. One example is the box drill, where the back makes sharp 90 degree turns around the outside of the cone.
It is important that the back makes quick, decisive, and sharp cuts. The backs should get plenty of repetitions on this drill so they can work a variety of angles and directions, but it is important that the focus on having a good plant leg and exploding off of it.
When running between the tackles, ballcarriers will find a lot of "trash" in their way - offensive lineman or defenders who could be in any location. There will be blockers, defenders on their backs, and arms reaching out everywhere.
It is important that backs keep a good stride and are able to go over, around, or through all that trash, depending on what works best. When going over trash, they need to be able to get their knees high and keep their legs pumping.
Keeping the feet moving will allow the back to break through arm tackles and not be tripped up by any teammates or defenders who may be on the ground. The video below shows a demonstration of this drill, which consists of jumping back-and-forth over a double pad and then sprinting with high knees over 3 more single pads.
The jump cut is a favorite of many running backs because of its ability to shake defenders. In the video below, former NFL RB Kendall Gaskins demonstrates the jump cut drill, using 3 dummy pads.
While it is called a jump cut, the move is really more of a side hop. A normal dummy pad placed horizontally represents a good distance for most athletes to simulate moving around a defender.
While the video shows 3 different pads being used, this can be done with any number depending on what makes sense for the drill. The important part is the technique of the jump cut, followed by an explosive acceleration through the hole.
The stiff arm is a favorite of many backs, both big and small. When used strategically, it can really prevent a defender from being able to wrap up and can create some distance between the two.
The goal of the drill, which is demonstrated below, is to use the stiff arm on a defender who is on the back hip. The back should aim for the chest or number area and extend the arm out into a locked position and knock the defender away.
Bags to a Move
The bags to a move is a great drill for running backs. It works on both footwork in traffic and securing the football. It is performed quickly to simulate moving through traffic and making a move in game speed.
The video below shows the drill being performed with 5 bags being laid flat, horizontally, on the turf. There is one coach at the end holding a dummy to simulate a defender. There is another coach off to the side with a pad who attacks the football.
The goal is for the athlete to secure the football, use fast high knees to get over the bags, and then practice a move to make a defender miss. The first coach will try to knock the ball loose while the second pretends to go in for the tackle.
The back should make a sharp move when meeting the second coach. This is great for practicing a variety of moves. Some that could be used in include the juke, spin move, or jump cut. Getting through the 5 bags can be done with 1 leg, 2 legs, or sideways.
Finishing a run by falling forward for extra yardage is one of the most underrated aspects of running the football. The piggyback drill specifically works on this by forcing the back to "carry" a defender down the field.
This drill can be performed with just 2 players. The first player is a back and the second is a tackler. The tackler gets behind the ballcarrier and wraps him up around the waist as he would for a tackle.
This forces the back to run with a good forward body lean, pick the foot up, and drive the legs. For beginners, the defender shouldn't provide much resistance or actually try to tackle. They should just be hanging on for the ride. More advanced versions will have the defender provide more resistance or add a second tackler.
Hanging on to the football is a must for running backs. Defenders won't just try to tackle the back, but knock the ball loose. Any back who can't hang onto the football probably won't spend much time on the field.
The video below shows an example of a ball security drill. There are cones setup for the backs to cut off of. These can be in any location and it is a good idea to switch it up so the RBs can work on different cuts.
Coaches with pads are lined up near several of the cones. When the back approaches that cone, the coach will punch at the football with the pad and try to knock the ball loose. This forces the back to focus on securing the ball, even when making sharp cuts at high speeds.
Banded Ball Security
There are many different drills that focus on ball security, because it is such an important skill. Getting loose and careless with the football can quickly change the game and lead to a big play for the defense.
The video below demonstrates the Carolina Panthers RBs performing the banded ball security drill at a practice. This drill requires 3 different cones and at least 2 athletes with a band to be performed correctly.
The back lines up with the 3 cones placed several yards (whatever the rough length of the extended band is) in front of him to the left, straight ahead, and to the right. A second player is behind the back holding on to a band for resistance.
The back sprints into the direction of whichever cone the coach points at. The second player provides resistance with the band. The farther the band stretches out, the more resistance the band provides. The goal is to be able to touch the cone and secure the football.
Running Back Gauntlet
Gauntlet is a popular term for football drills, and you can find it being used for blocking, pass rushing, running, and receiving. The running back gauntlet drill below is a fully padded drill that simulates inside running plays.
This drill uses a center, quarterback, and tailback on offense and a defensive lineman on defense. There is also a downfield blocker and downfield linebacker that simulates a block on the second level.
The tailback takes a handoff from the quarterback and makes quick cuts based on his blockers at each of the 2 levels. He is supposed to read his blockers, make the cut and get to the end line. Extra players are off to the side to set up a kind of out of bounds.
This is a lively drill that can lead to some serious hitting. It is not only a good drill for the running back, but it also allows 2 blockers to set up blocks and 2 defenders to work on shedding blocks and finding the ballcarrier.
Offenses are continuing to increase the role of running backs in the passing game. Even traditional offenses will give backs a key role as a dump-off option on 3rd downs. More advanced offenses will have an even bigger role.
Some at the position today are more receiver than back. This is because it creates serious trouble for defenses if the running back is a threat out of the backfield. If they stack the box, a linebacker won't be able to cover the back in man coverage. If they bring in a nickel or dime defense, the offense should have plenty of room to run it right up the gut.
Having backs as receiving weapons like this can be further enhanced if the back is able to move around the offensive formation. This can further create mismatches by getting one of the fastest weapons on offense potentially matched up with a slow linebacker.
The best receiving backs are not just able to catch passes out of the backfield, but also by lining up in the slot or split out wide. From there they can run any routes a receiver could and with a favorable matchup, rather than being limited to traditional running back routes.
This is probably the most common use of the word gauntlet in football. This is a receiving drill that is a staple of the NFL Combine, but can be very helpful for running backs to improve hand-eye coordination and catching fundamentals.
The receiver or back runs in a straight line down the football field. There are a series of passers lined up to the left and the right of the back. As the back crosses into each quarterback's zone, a pass is thrown.
The back must cleanly catch the football and secure it, but then quickly let go to move on to the next target. This takes sharp mental focus and clean catches to be able to catch all the balls in the drill.
Press Coverage Breaker
You may find it surprising, but many running backs will get pressed or bumped when going out for pass routes. This could be done by a linebacker who sees the running back leaking out of the backfield or by a defensive back when the back lines up in the slot or split out.
Regardless of how the situation comes up, this drill works on getting a clean release from press coverage. The back begins by lining up in a low and athletic position. There is a coach holding a pad on the other side of the fake line of scrimmage.
The back explodes off the snap and gives the pad a strong rip or bunch. The goal is to get as clean of a release as possible, so it doesn't impact the rhythm and timing of the pass route. The back explodes past the pad and can begin a pass route if so instructed.
Release and Hitch
This is another good drill for working on getting a clean release and into the route quickly. This is particularly useful if the running back motions or lines up in different spots in the formation, as this simulates a wide receiver release from press coverage.
In this drill, the back is lined up across a dummy acting as a cornerback. The RB should quickly zip past the press using a rip technique and then getting into the route quickly. It is important to stay low and balanced yet powerful, particularly in the first few steps.
The video below shows the release followed by a hitch pattern. This can also be done with a variety of other routes. It is especially important to work on the main routes the back may run when split wide and actually facing man press coverage.
A complete running back will be able to run any route in his route tree. The video below shows an example of a drill that works every route. Ideally, a good receiving back will be able to run routes out of the backfield, from the slot and split out wide.
This drill is a little less formal, because it can be done in many ways. The goal is for the back to work on every route he uses on game day, focusing on good, crisp technique and separation skills.
This drill is also important to be done with the quarterback to work on the timing of the passing offense. It can also be done with different types of defenders to simulate the coverage that could be seen on game day. This will also make the timing feel more realistic as the back can deal with press coverage, off coverage, or zone coverage.
Just because running backs are being used more as receivers does not mean they aren't needed in pass protection still. Whether it be to cover up for a leaky offensive line or just provide extra help with an elite pass blocker, backs need to be able to help keep the quarterback upright.
You know pass protection is crucial because of the sheer number of running backs who have been benched for being unable to keep the quarterback safe, from the high school level to the NFL. No matter how talented an RB is, he probably isn't as important as the quarterback.
Pass protection is particularly tricky for backs because they are almost always dealing with bigger defenders who are coming at them with a full head of steam with plenty of time to accelerate. This is why getting a good number of reps with different pass blocking running back drills is so important.
To counteract this tough matchup, it is crucial that backs used solid technique in their protection. Luckily, backs are usually the last line of defense and only have to protect for a couple seconds maximum, but blitzing linebackers and defensive ends are no joke and can quickly embarrass a back if they aren't using good form.
Punch and Multiple Blitzers
The punch and multiple blitzers drills are great for teaching or reinforcing good pass protection technique for tailbacks. This is a drill that can be done without full pads as it is more technical in nature.
The punch drill consists of 1 back with 2 defenders holding a pad. The RB goes back and forth punching each bag. The important concepts are to have an athletic stance and a solid punch to each bag. The back should be able to switch directions rapidly and get plenty of reps in.
The multiple blitzers drill simulates what it is like for the RB to pick up linebackers or defensive backs who are shooting games on pass plays. The back first blocks a linebacker blitzing the A gap and then switches to what could be an outside linebacker blitzing outside. While a back wouldn't block 2 blitzers on the same play in a real game, this setup helps get extra reps in.
Protect and Mirror
The protect and mirror drill helps teach running backs the fundamentals of good footwork and technique when dealing with pass rushers. The focus is maintaining a good position with a strong base that can move laterally.
The defender can move in either direction. It is shown here with the blitzer moving relatively slow, but this can be picked up as the RB gets more experience and has the technique to handle it. The back simply slides laterally to mirror the blitzer across the line of scrimmage.
A more advanced version of this allows the defender to get more aggressive and try to get past the line of scrimmage. The back must mirror the blitzer, but when he makes a move to get around, the back needs to protect by giving a solid punch and not moving backwards.
1 on 1 with Linebacker
This is a live pass protection drill that can really get the pads blocking. The best simulation for a real football game is a big, strong, and fast linebacker coming full speed ahead wanting nothing more than to put someone on his back.
A 1 on 1 pass protection drill might be the most challenging and must important pass protection drill for a running back. If the back can protect for a few seconds in this situation, he should have no problem on game day.
The drill is pretty much as simple as it sounds. A linebacker and a running back line up across from each other. The goal of the linebacker is to get around or through the running back to get to the pad that is being used to stand in for a quarterback.
The RB's goal is obviously to not let that happen by protecting as long as possible. This forces the back to use all the protection skills already learned. The running back is already at a disadvantage, because he rarely has to protect this long in game situations. Still, if he can hold up in this situation, the quarterback shouldn't have to worry.
A successful back today is capable of filling many different roles on offense, and the drills chosen need to be able to hit all of the major skill areas. It is important to work on both strengths and weaknesses to be an all-around back.
Running the football, receiving and pass protection are skills that all backs need and these running back drills address them. Choose the ones that suits your needs best and mix in plenty of variety.