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Lovett and Ebner — How to Win With the Modern Running Back

Running backs are devalued in modern football because passing is so much more efficient. But what if your RBs are a big part of the passing offense?

NCAA Football: Kansas at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Running Backs are so 2000, man

When I was growing up, running backs were sort of the face of football. LaDainian Tomlinson was running for a 1000 yards every year and “The Bus” was somehow a RB at like 260 lbs. The NFL, and even college football to some extent, was old school. The RB carried the offense.

All that has changed. Running backs are hardly ever drafted highly anymore, as teams recognize there isn’t much difference between a 2nd round RB and an undrafted free agent. So many of the best athletes end up playing RB that there are a surplus of guys at the position. Furthermore, so much of their success is due to offensive line play and to the offense’s passing game—it doesn’t matter how good of a RB you are if there is nowhere for you to run because your OL can’t block or if there are too many defenders in the box.

Thus, the central problem with investing too much into a running back is that they can’t dictate the game to nearly the same extent as an elite wide receiver. There is essentially no defense for a perfectly thrown pass to ever a well-covered wide receiver. There is plenty of defense for a very good running back.

It’s not that running the ball is no longer valuable. It’s just more dependent on other things going well. If you can threaten a defense with the pass enough to run the ball for 7 yards every play, that’s obviously very valuable.

How Baylor Can Build Their Offense Around Running Backs

John Lovett and Trestan Ebner are two of the better players in the Big 12, period. Both are true seniors, having played since they were true freshmen after joining Rhule’s first recruiting class. They’re different players: Lovett is taller and thicker with longer legs, he’s your prototypical “one cut and go” guy; Ebner is shorter and stockier but with quicker feet and better top end speed.

Lovett is really good on gap schemes. Gap schemes are those which involve pulling an OL, when you pull an OL it creates an “extra” gap wherever they’re going. These plays take longer to develop and generally highlight RBs who can patiently wait for their OL to hit their blocks and then explode through the gap. Lovett showed his ability to do so multiple times on Saturday.

Here, Baylor is running G-T counter (the backside Guard and Tackle, G-T, are pulling to the playside). Watch as Baylor’s right guard and right tackle pull to the left here, ultimately connecting with nobody but Lovett makes something out of nothing.

They don’t only run gap schemes for Lovett. Here they are running standard inside zone (where OL are blocking a zone in front of them) and he explodes through the hole, makes one guy miss, and pulls several Jayhawks forward for a first down.

Generally, Ebner is better on zone schemes than gap schemes. He’s not as naturally patient as Lovett; he’s a guy you want running with a full head of steam as soon as he gets the ball (Sqwirl Williams is the same way).

Alright, so Lovett and Ebner are really good at running the ball. Didn’t I start out by saying that’s just not that valuable in today’s game? Well here is where Baylor will take it to the next level: involving them in the passing game.

We saw this under Rhule, but I think this will be fully realized under Fedora and Munoz this year. When you come out in a standard formation with the RB next to the QB, you can very easily motion the RB out of the backfield. For a guy like Ebner, you’d ideally want somebody as athletic as a CB or a very athletic safety covering him, but with some many guys split out wide there are only so many defenders who can cover. This leads to very advantageous situations for the offense, where a slow LB is covering Baylor’s best offensive player.

In the image below, Ebner is the most inner receiver at the top of the screen running the short option route. Everyone else is clearing space for him, he just has to “win” against the LB. He makes easy work of him and it goes for a big play.

Not only can you line up your running backs as wide receivers, you can throw to them on designed plays out of the backfield. On this play below, Baylor is lined up with both Lovett and Ebner in the backfield (something I think you’ll see a lot more of as the season goes along). They’ve established Lovett as a legitimate running threat on these gap schemes (notice #72 Mose Jeffery, the RG, pulling on this play). This could be designed play action, but it is also possible that Brewer is reading the linebackers to see whether they come up to stop Lovett. They do, so Brewer pops the ball over the head to a wide open Ebner.

The Lovett and Ebner Show

Lovett and Ebner are some of the better players in the conference and probably, along with Tyquan Thornton, Baylor’s best offensive players. With continued questions about Brewer’s arm strength (it didn’t look great to me this past Saturday, unfortunately), I expect that much of Baylor’s offense will revolve around utilizing them both in the running and passing game. Lovett will constrain the defense by punishing light boxes, Ebner will punish defenses by being used all over the field.

Before the season started, Ebner was my pick for breakout player of the year. I know that he was highly regarded, but I didn’t think most fans realized how varied-ly he’d be utilized. I thought he would probably end up with more yards receiving than rushing. Lovett and Ebner’s box score was basically a dream for Baylor (especially with 3 OL out). Lovett had 17 carries for 79 yards, while Ebner 36 yards rushing and 53 yards receiving (Baylor’s leading receiver).

Look forward to much more from them in 2020. Baylor has a special duo.