The first year the illustrious Heisman Trophy was handed out was in 1935. In the first 50 years (1935-1985) college football's most distinguished individual award was given out, running backs (or called halfbacks) won 33 times in 50 seasons, including a stretch of 12 straight years (1972-1983) highlighted by celebrated names like the only two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin, Tony Dorsett, Marcus Allen, Earl Campbell and Herschel Walker.
From the 1950s through the 1990s, pro football teams relied heavily on the running game. All-time great backs like Jim Brown, Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Walter Payton and Eric Dickerson used to be the head honcho of their offenses week-in and week-out. They carried a considerable workload that usually involved 20-35 carries per game, and were most often the highest paid players in the NFL. Teams prioritized the run game over everything else offensively. Smash-mouth football at it's finest.
It was the norm. And it worked.
Nowadays, not so much. Since the turn of the 21st century, there's been a paramount shift in how offenses aim to reach the endzone. It all stems from quarterback play and letting it fly more through the air.
Since 2000, college quarterbacks have won the Heisman 19 times in 23 seasons (2000-2022), while only three running backs won in that period. Also since 2000, quarterbacks have won the NFL MVP 19 times in 23 seasons, while running backs only won four times in that spell, with the last time being in 2012.
Now the signal-callers are the highest paid players in the NFL, and running backs are being devalued. Throw in the franchise tag and you'll see why running backs are so frustrated. They are being marginalized on the field too on both the collegiate and pro levels.
What about on the high school level?
Is the running game still the lifeblood of a team? Has the reliance on the passing game trickled down to prep football? How did it get to that stage? Is the running game just dead all together?
Those very questions were explored throughout Mansfield/Richland County by speaking with head coaches and running backs from five high schools to get their perspectives in Part 1 of a two-part series on the State of the Running Back.
Evolution of the Spread Offense
Teams putting their quarterback in the shotgun and using three-, four- or five-wide receiver sets has taken over football as a whole. On the high school level, it's exploded. The 11 Personnel Offense (one running back, one tight end) and three receivers on the field has became a popular grouping, as the Los Angeles Rams found comfort in the formation during their 2021 Super Bowl winning season.
Most coaches pointed to the early-to-mid 2010s when they saw a change.
"I would say definitely when I started there was a lot more two-back systems, especially at the time I was in the Firelands Conference at Mapleton," said Shelby coach Rob Mahaney, who's coached high school football since 2010. "When we went to the spread, we were one of the first teams in the conference to do it. Now teams run the spread or some variation of it."
"I probably came in right on the cusp of the spread being kind of a normalized thing," said Ontario coach Aaron Eckert. "My first system was a spread offense where we didn't have a second back. I've always been a spread guy."
"Over that time, things opened up. You've seen more teams go more 10, 11 or even zero personnel with fewer backs in the backfield," said Clear Fork coach Aaron Brokaw. "At the college and professional level, you're seeing more one back sets or no back sets."
"I graduated college in 2014 and that's when I really think it started changing," said Plymouth coach John Gillum. "Our school threw the ball quite a bit. We started seeing spread offenses and not as many fullbacks. Power game was pretty much gone. More teams were using zone-blocking schemes, and it evolved from the physical standpoint where less bodies were in the box. Now it's spread out defenses and try to play the numbers game."
Players too have noticed an increase in chucking the ball around.
"When we play bigger schools, yes," said Plymouth senior running back Layne Bushey. "Seems like they are getting away from the running game a lot. They'll do screen passes or jet sweeps but there not driving up the middle like it used to be."
"I think there's definitely been more passing over the years," said Clear Fork senior running back Luke Schlosser.
"I've noticed slightly," said Ontario senior running back Chase Studer. "Some teams are more spread, which I don't think I would personally like."
"Just because I like running the ball a lot," Studer said with a smile. "I'd be fine playing receiver but I like running the ball more."
What's behind the passing innovation?
Pablo Picasso once famously said "Good artists copy, Great artists steal."
That's reverberated from NCAA football to the NFL, where pro teams have embraced college-style offenses like spread concepts, RPOs (run-pass option), Wildcat offenses, zone-read options and the no-huddle. The NFL took from college and in many ways high schools have grabbed a hold of those same elements to incorporate in their offenses.
Lucas coach Scott Spitler, who's in his 31st year coaching football at the prep level, spots it too.
"Because of the NFL and college game, we've seen the high school game change more into spread attack. A lot of cases they want to spread you horizontally, and attack you vertically in the passing game."
What triggered that?
Spitler and Brokaw pointed to the rule changes made over the years that have favored quarterbacks (getting hit less) and receivers (illegal contact, pass interference). Basically an elevated insistence on seeing more points scored.
"The rules at the collegiate level and NFL level is obviously more geared toward wanting to see a lot of points, protecting the quarterback and creating situations where they will score a lot of points," Spitler said.
"Rules have tended to favor the offense a little bit at the higher levels, and quarterbacks at those levels are able to make throws that guys we have year-to-year at the high school level can't consistently make," Brokaw said.
Toss in the entertainment component where watching high-flying offenses is just a better viewing experience for fans, and the ripple effect becomes more clearer. More points scored, more fan interest. More fan interest, higher TV ratings. More eyeballs equals more revenue.
"There's such an emphasis on points, trying to get fans to buy tickets, streaming services and stuff like that, so the NFL and college football's attempt is to put lots of points on the board," Spitler adds. "With that comes that fan interaction, which leads to dollars, which drives the game at those two levels. It does at the high school level to some extent but we're not out there recruiting or drafting players."
Another key factor is the idea of using your best athletes at the skill positions.
"A lot of high schools are going to put their best player at quarterback because he touches the ball a lot," Mahaney said. "You gotta utilize that guy. That's why you see a lot of quarterback runs and obviously throwing the ball. At the high school level, most of the time your best player is your quarterback. You build the offense around him."
"Everyone is about playing in space right now and creating more space for their athletes," Eckert said. "There are more kids now likely to play receiver because they're throwing them the ball more. Rather than getting tight, everything is about getting wider and spreading out."
"I would say it's more skilled base," Bushey said. "Teams are starting to get faster players and more vertical players. And that doesn't really help out the running game."
Running the football might not move the needle like it used to but is it still conducive to winning football games on the high school level?
Part 2 runs tomorrow.
This article originally appeared on Mansfield News Journal: Exploring where the running back position stands at the prep level