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During the first week of training camp, Eskimos head coach Chris Jones outlined the three most important skills a CFL running back must have.
Running is actually third on the list. Second, is catching the football. The most important skill according the Chris Jones is blocking.
That answer might surprise some, that running isn’t the top priority for a running back, but welcome to three-down football which is really two down football.
Hugh Charles is entering his fourth season with the Eskimos and eighth in the Canadian Football League. He knows the drill when it comes to blocking.
“You know this game has a lot of aspects in it and as running backs there are three phases. Running, catching, and blocking,” Charles said.
“The coaches will tell you the first thing is to protect the quarterback, to protect the main asset on the team and that’s the quarterback.”
Eskimos starting pivot Mike Reilly says running backs have a heavy load of responsibility to carry.
“Their job is very intense,” he said.
“They have to know what the offensive line is calling and the protection schemes so they know who they are blocking. It’s not just a matter of you line up and look across the line of scrimmage and you know who your guy is. That can change at the snap of the ball when defences start twisting and blitzing. They have to be able to react very quickly.”
The most recent example of a running back who was victimized by poor blocking skills was former Eskimo and Toronto Argonaut Cory Boyd. Boyd recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and was the leading rusher in the CFL two years ago when he was released in early August by Toronto and then quickly signed by Edmonton.
Boyd had the running skill down pat but his blocking was a major concern. Add to the fact that his catching abilities were also suspect; Boyd is no longer in the Canadian Football League.
This is not a direct criticism of Cory Boyd; it’s an example of what has ended the careers of many running backs in the CFL. The vast majority of running backs come from the United States. Down there, you can get away with three yard average on first down. In the CFL as Hugh Charles points out, you need much more on first down.
“Definitely on first down, you want to get four or five yards, because it’s easier to call plays when it’s second down and six or second down and five” Charles explained. “If you are in second and 10, you know and the defense knows it has to be a pass for the most part.”
So what has happened to the fullback? Those big bruisers who would not only help to open holes for the running back but be able to help in pass protection?
The fullbacks are still around however their role has changed. You see fullbacks mostly in first down situations and some second and medium’s and short yardage. Fullbacks are now more athletic and lean because many play a role on special teams.
In second and long situations most offence use a five receiver set to spread the field. That means the running back has to stay in the backfield and offer protection for the quarterback if needed.
All a running back really needs to do according to Charles is support the offensive line. Very few running backs have the capability of putting a defender on their behind.
The fiercest blocker I can remember seeing was Troy Davis who would do whatever it took to keep his QB upright. All a running back has to do is to chip a defender, to give the quarterback that extra half second he needs to throw the football clean.
Charles is joined the running back stable by second year Eskimo John White, and rookie Tyler Thomas. I asked Chris Jones how he felt the backs blocking skills rated so far in training camp and he said “just okay.”
There’s no doubt the Eskimos want to have a solid rushing attack. In this new offence which is supposed to give quarterbacks plenty of throwing options all over the field, the backs will need to be solid at catching the ball.
Charles has proven he has good enough hands, rookie Thomas picked up over 60 combined yards in the Eskimos first pre-season game against the B.C. Lions with over half of those yards coming as a receiver.
John White has had some trouble becoming a reliable receiver; he dropped too many balls last season and it has carried over into this year’s camp.
The main goal of the Eskimos new offense this year is to limit the hits on starter Mike Reilly who was beat up for most the 2013 season.
The Eskimos need to be the hammer and not the nail.