Gameplan: Two running backs on offense?

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The idea of a two-running back offensive formation has long captivated the imagination of fans and Longhorns are no different. Star running backs, even in the modern game, can have a major impact and are often the very best athletes on the field. So wouldn’t two superstar running backs be better than one?

The University of Texas has a unique history with double running back sets and they’ve factored into most all of their National Championships.

The 1969 and 1970 Longhorns broke through and won back to back National Championships due to the brilliant “wishbone formation.” The origin of the Wishbone was in trying to solve for how to make the most of a loaded backfield which included running backs Steve Worster and Jim Bertelsen. On the flip side, the 2005 Championship decades later was won partly due to a defensive stop where the USC Trojans infamously had their Heisman-winning running back Reggie Bush on the sideline for fourth and two because he didn’t share the field with power back LenDale White.

Texas had some potential complications in 2005 of their own in trying to get all of their talented running backs on the field. This was a time when Ramonce Taylor, Jamaal Charles, Selvin Young and Henry Melton all had roles for the team and it was hard to involve more than one of them at a time. Of course the Longhorns were ultimately a Vince Young team so it didn’t particularly matter if their loaded skill position group weren’t all involved. Everything revolved around VY anyways.

In Sarkisian’s pro-style universe, the offense still heavily emphasizes quarterback play but is more running back-centric with most of the actions revolving around a considered or feigned hand-off to the running back. In such a system, how can you revolve the offense around more than one running back? Can a stable solar system exist with three suns?

Solving the “three-body problem” was already an apparent task for the coaching staff because the Longhorns had a pair of proven backs in Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson. With the addition of Alabama transfer Keilan Robinson, it’s become a more serious consideration.

The world of two-back offense

It’s hard to involve more than one main running back in the offense at a time. As the old adage goes, “there’s only one ball out there…”

Whoever doesn’t have the ball needs to be doing something helpful in service of maximizing the opportunity for whoever does have the ball. When you’re a receiver, the bar here is a bit lower on a down to down basis. Ideally the receiver is either holding the attention of a cornerback (who may not be much of a tackler anyways) or blocking the corner or safety for an RPO to maximize the opportunity for a run down the field.

If you’re in the backfield or the box? The bar is now considerably higher. The defenders you are matched up against are very likely to have a detrimental impact for the guy who actually has the ball. Now you’re talking about box safeties, linebackers, and defensive linemen who are around the box for a reason, they know how to find the ball and bring down the one who carries it.

So while on the surface, it sounds fantastic to say “one Bijan Robinson is great, but how about two? Make the defense worry about both of them!” What does the guy without the ball do? How does he make sure the linebackers (and safety) hovering around the box don’t ignore him and go swarm the guy with the ball?

The option used to present solutions here as the quarterback would give it to one or the other back (Worster or Bertelsen, for instance) based on the decisions of unblocked defenders. Then teams began to emphasize individual superstar runners and vertical passing attacks with the I-formation. Now the star running back would be paired with a fullback escort to block for him and instead of reading options, the quarterback would help things along by occasionally faking the handoff before chucking it down the field.

For most of the RPO spread era, particularly the smashmouth/pro-style Briles variety of offense Sark has employed, the custom has been to pair a star running back like Bijan with an “ancillary” fullback/tight end hybrid. This guy would allow the offense to execute lead runs to suck in defenders as the defense worked to match numbers at the point of attack only to allow the quarterback to punish them for the overplay by throwing pass-options far enough afield none of them could then make the play.

Your receivers become the second star running back in the old-school option. Bijan is Worster running the dive and Jordan Whittington is Bertelsen as the pitch man.

It doesn’t have to work exclusively in this fashion though and there are emerging options for trying to utilize more than one running back at a time. Those solutions may not have been worth deeply exploring in order to maximize Roschon and Bijan at the same time. There would have been more than enough snaps to feed both mouths and Roschon could have served a very useful role keeping miles off Bijan’s tires for games like Oklahoma. In the same way Texas liked to be able to run Sam Ehlinger 12+ times in big games, you like to have the option to get Bijan 25+ touches to give the offense an extra gear in the Red River Shootout.

But now that Keilan Robinson is in the mix? It may be time to explore a potential next iteration of RPO spread offense.

Moving beyond ancillaries

The one obvious pitfall of using an ancillary around the box to lead block for your running back is the way he guides the linebackers to the ball. Many defenses today are designed to send the linebackers to where the tight end goes and backfill gaps behind them with a safety. This allows them to meet big bodies at the point of attack with their front-line defenders and also can allow the safety who is backfilling to pause a beat and sit on any RPOs before closing to fill his assignment.

Here’s an example against the Texas inside zone play Tom Herman built the previous offense around against the TCU defense.

The easy RPO on this play is the slant or bubble to the slot, so the Frogs would have their strong safety (nickel in most team’s language) take it away. It’s fairly difficult for a quarterback to turn to the field here and put the ball in the running back’s stomach but then turn back to the boundary to throw the glance to the X receiver. The footwork is tricky and he needs to have a good command of the full field and be able to coordinate quick movements and mechanics with accurate reads and rapid decision-making. Taking away the field pass options are the main concern for the defense.

But even if the quarterback can hit the boundary RPO, the TCU middle linebacker would try to encourage the running back to cut back and meet him there while leaving the boundary gap for the weak safety to come down and fill after he had already covered up the boundary glance long enough for the quarterback to give up on it.

Meanwhile the main core design of the play was to run behind the double team and the tight end and the defense would have their linebackers, especially the field linebacker, ready to stop it. Coach Drayton would drill footwork and reads carefully with his running backs on inside zone to help them make the linebackers wrong and potentially hit the gap left to the boundary safety before he could get there.

A simpler solution to these defensive tendencies is to change up how the tight end is used in the run game to create more options for where the ball should go and more hesitation for the defense trying to fit gaps.

Lincoln Riley, the necromancer of the portal and lord of misdirection, has been at the forefront of using a few different methods to resolve this issue.

In the world of outside zone, where Texas began to major in 2020 and will continue to utilize in 2021, an offense can do a world of hurt to defenses trying to key the tight end. Here’s a few examples from the Sooners against Oklahoma State in Bedlam:

What’s notable here to Texas fans is the alignment and the personnel. It’s a split back formation, there’s no obvious tight end or fullback but instead two guys aligned at running back and then a slot to help spread the field. The split backs are Rhamondre Stevenson (6-0, 235) and Mikey Henderson (6-2, 234), the latter of whom was listed in 2020 as a tight end but is now listed as a 223 pound running back and who is the recipient of the ball on both of these examples (from the same drive).

Outside zone presents its own issues to the defense when they want the linebackers to key the tight end. Unlike inside zone, this play has the running back target the edge and then cutback as needed, often into an A-gap on either side of the center, whereas on inside zone he aims at the A-gap and cuts right or left off-tackle based on the linebacker fits. On outside zone, unless the tight end is leading around the edge, he’s probably not taking the linebackers to the ball.

On these split outside zone actions like Oklahoma was running, the blocker is just looking to cut off the guy on the edge with a trap block or even a cut block so he can’t chase the play down from behind. Then you mix in the arrow route where he appears to be throwing a backside block to protect the cutback but then hits the flat…

This puts tremendous strain on the backside linebacker, which is the Sam here for TCU in our diagram. He’s used to handling the cutback lane for the outside zone play but someone has to cover the second running back (T for tailback here) if he releases to the flat. If the strong safety covers the flat route, who’s covering the slot? The free safety? Tough cover and one which will inevitably set up the play-action feigning an RPO glance before sending the slot vertical on a double move.

You’ll often see teams struggle to work out who’s supposed to cover what on zone-arrow schemes and then big plays result.

An important component for the offense is the changing role for the second member of the backfield beyond the traditional running back. If your offense has evolved to make the blocking duties easier in order to accommodate a receiving tight end who isn’t much of a blocker, how far can you go with those adaptations? Far enough to accommodate a second running back with some size and willingness to block?

The old Wing-T offense was designed to utilize multiple running backs at the same time and would do so by giving the running backs easier blocking duties when they weren’t the guy with the ball. Outside zone blocking tends to generate more of those simpler blocking assignments than the more smashmouth-oriented inside zone or gap running schemes.

Texas two-back sets in 2021

The Longhorn personnel is a bit different than at Oklahoma or elsewhere. Roschon Johnson and Bijan Robinson are 6-2, 223 and 6-0, 215, respectively. Either of them are capable of throwing a cut block or slowing up the end on the backside of outside zone and either can lead block a linebacker. Keilan Robinson has been listed at 5-9, 190 by Alabama but he may be closer to 210 now after some offseason weight gains.

Additionally, Bijan and Keilan Robinson are pretty talented as pass-catchers and Roschon Johnson is proven in pass protection and catching checkdowns. If you told me Sark was absolutely planning to run two-back sets with Roschon and Bijan and it wasn’t just lip service to a team leader and veteran in Roschon to keep him out of the portal…I’d assume the plan was to flex Bijan out some. Adding Keilan into the equation makes this even more likely.

So while Texas could ask their running backs to hybridize their role with the ancillary (Cade Brewer and Juan Davis), they could also use them some as H/slot receivers. Tom Herman’s Longhorns experimented with this concept back before 2019 as a plan for involving Jordan Whittington and later Devin Duvernay. They infamously brought it out against Oklahoma with Duvernay as the hybrid, which made it rather transparent, and the Sooners sniffed out the designs and stuffed them.

The more formations and personnel packages you mix in, the less detailed each grouping has to be since it becomes harder for opponents to gameplan them all on a week to week basis. So Texas could use some two-back sets like Oklahoma’s and they could also mix in some H flex receiver sets. Keilan and Bijan are each reportedly at least somewhat versed in the receiving game so flexing out the second back may be the bigger emphasis for the Longhorns in 2021.

There’s a lot you can do here with swinging and motioning a back out just before the snap as a target on an RPO or in trying to create matchups. Take Texas’ mesh play, which has a four-read progression for the quarterback starting with the running back wheel route and then a fifth receiver who’s mostly just staying out of the way.

You can, and Sark surely would, also use the fifth receiver as a pre-snap alert option. Texas could motion Keilan or Bijan Robinson out to wide receiver before the snap and then keep an eye on how the defense adjusted.

If the opponent sends a core defender out of the box to cover them in man coverage, maybe you give the running back a chance to run by them on a vertical route, or maybe you smile at getting one of their defenders they’ve been repeatedly drilling on how to cover mesh out of the middle of the field.

Texas actually did almost exactly this against Oklahoma in 2020. They got Bijan running past Sooner middle linebacker David Ugwoegbu outside and Sam Ehlinger missed him.

Since it was third and one, many Texas fans were frustrated by Ehlinger’s decision to take the deep shot, especially since OU was in disarray inside and didn’t have the crossing routes covered at the sticks. Nevertheless, this should have been six points with a better throw. They also should have gone for it on fourth and one the following play…but I digress.

At any rate using the running back in the passing game is a potentially deadly weapon. The defense is planning to check him with run-stopping personnel…because he’s a running back. If you start moving the backs around the defense has to start cross-switching their matchups and they run out of good coverage defenders on the field. With his speed and some reported work as a hybrid, Keilan may fit into a similar mold as Bijan. How does the defense react if both are in the backfield at the start of the play and they motion in turn? One minute you’re rapidly communicating to make sure Bijan doesn’t run by someone and then Keilan is motioning to the other end of the formation and who’s left to cover him? It’s a tough set up.

The Longhorns badly lacked receivers who could get reliably open in 2020 against man coverage and having a few formational tricks up their sleeves for creating matchups and confusing defensive assignments could go a long ways toward helping them build a bridge to a future with better pure wide receiver play. It’s also easier to teach a young quarterback how to execute a gameplanned play designed to get a particular guy open than to execute a number of different progressions every other snap.

Modern offense continues to evolve and hybrid star players who can handle different roles help good teams to consistently find the right matchups. Texas added another interesting and potentially hybrid piece in Keilan Robinson who may help them to either unlock or insure Sark’s most important weapon, Bijan. Maybe the Longhorns can at last get back to multi-back offense.

History major, football theorist.