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Wednesday October 16, 2013Understanding Protections Part of Learning Curve for Young Running Backs

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Kelvin Taylor rushed for 2,423 yards and 41 touchdowns as a senior in high school. During his record-shattering prep career at Belle Glade (Fla.) Glades Day, he totaled more than 12,000 yards and 141 touchdowns in shattering the state’s career rushing record formerly held by some guy named Emmitt Smith. 


Question: How often do you think Taylor had to pass block? 


Asked. Answered. 


“The hardest phase for young backs trying to integrate into the rotation is understanding how important protections are,” Florida running backs coach Brian White said. “One missed assignment, the quarterback is hit, the ball is turned over, the game is changed.” 


For the fan on the couch, pass protection is probably one of the least understood nuances of football. When a quarterback is sacked, the first assumption is someone on the offensive line was at fault. And maybe they were. 


But maybe the quarterback held the ball too long. Maybe the tight end missed his chip. Maybe a wide receiver didn’t read the defense and break off his route. 


Or maybe the running back didn’t see the linebacker coming. 


“You run the ball, that’s one thing,” UF coach Will Muschamp said after Saturday’s 17-6 loss at LSU. “You also have to block and block the right guy.” 


The Gators, running backs included, missed some guys against the Tigers and this week went to work on correcting those breakdowns, as No. 22 Florida (4-2, 3-1) heads to unbeaten and 14th-ranked Missouri (6-0, 2-0) for a key Southeastern Conference East Division matchup Saturday at Memorial Stadium. 


With starting tailback Matt Jones out for the season with a knee injury, UF now must lean on junior Mack Brown and Taylor, the true freshman, to pick up the rushing game load, but also count on them to take care of their responsibilities in pass protection. 


“You have to trust your eyes, watch film and know the game plan,” Brown said. 


Brown has an obvious edge over Taylor in experience, and actually blocked pretty well against the Tigers. The Missouri game will be the 47th of his career -- compared to just the fifth for Taylor -- so there’s not a lot of things that are going to surprise him anymore. He went through that phase a few years ago. 


Like the first time he saw a defensive tackle standing up on the line of scrimmage. 


“That was crazy,” said Brown, who now feels more comfortable with his pass-blocking, but is always looking to improve. “You have to look where the safety is rotating; if he’s dropping down. If he’s going to the strong side, they’re probably blitzing from that side. You have to scan the defense as soon the huddle breaks and figure out what's going on.” 


This is the transition -- more like baptism by fire -- that Taylor is undergoing. The true freshman tailback got his first real SEC action at Baton Rouge, rushing 10 times for 52 yards and showing a change-of-pace burst that figures to suit the Florida offense well. 


The Gators, though, can't subject quarterback Tyler Murphy to the kinds of jailbreak rushes the likes of which he saw against LSU. Taylor’s crash course in the blocking phase of the game intensified in earnest Monday, both on the field and in the meeting room. 


“You have to understand fronts and coverages. You have to know what your responsibilities are, whether it’s a five-man protection, six-man protection, or seven- or eight,” White said. “There’s a lot of adjustments that have to happen and it has to be done fast.” 


The combination of familiarity with the system and good technique makes for a good base. But there’s another absolutely essential element to be a successful pass-blocker. 


“Vision,” White said. 


A running back must identify, decode and anticipate where blitzes are coming from. Quickly. 


And, again, how often did Taylor do that back in Belle Glade? 


“It’s a whole new world,” Terry Jackson said. 


Jackson is UF’s director of player development and community relations, but most Gators remember when he was part of the Steve Spurrier’s stable of backs during the offensive glory days of 1990s. Six times Jackson gained 100 yards in a game, including 118 on 12 carries in the Sugar Bowl blowout of Florida State to capture the program’s first national championship. 


A two-way standout at Gainesville P.K. Yonge, Jackson came to Florida as a linebacker, then moved to running back his 1995 redshirt freshman year. 


It was time to block. 


“A lot of times, it was more like trying just to get in a guy’s way,” Jackson said. “All I wanted to do was give the quarterback enough time to get rid of the ball.” 


That’s the idea, but a lot more goes into it. Offenses and defenses have become so sophisticated in their schemes that from the moment the quarterback sets the field -- protections, routes, everything are determined once the QB identifies the “Mike” linebacker at the line -- the back needs to be looking for linebackers in overloads, safeties dropping, and cheating cornerbacks looking to dash the edge. 


Sometimes, Jackson said, a defender will disappear from the back’s field of vision. 


That’s a key to be ready. 


“You have to scan everything,” Jackson said. “It could be one guy. Could be any of three guys. Could be all three coming. Whoever it is, you better be in body position and ready to use the proper technique. That comes with experience.”


Brown has the experience. 


He’s seen defenders disappear. 


“When that happens, something else is about to happen,” Brown nodded. “Trouble's coming.”


Knowing the first sign of "trouble" is the best way to avert disaster. 


Jackson was an NFL rookie with the San Francisco 49ers when Arizona Cardinals eight-time Pro Bowl safety Aeneas Williams came on a blitz and blind-sided quarterback Steve Young. Young suffered a concussion on the play, the seventh of his career. He never played again. 


A running back missed his assignment. Jackson would not say who. 


“Steve Young's career ended ‘cause a guy stepped the wrong way,” Jackson said. “It’s a coordinated effort. Everybody has to be in tune. Everybody has to know what they’re doing.” 




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