The zone run scheme can be frustrating for a running back at first because he was usually the best guy in high school, never had to know what to read or look for, and just typically did whatever he wanted. The zone scheme is very professional in that it asks the player to perform a specific task and be part of a greater plan. The runner must understand the system. He must be focused on his point of attack read and then his secondary read. This can often be very boring for him. As we've seen countless times, however, that player will reap the benefits of a well run zone system and he will get his yards. The runner must stick with the system, trust the system, and not deviate from the system. When the light comes on, bam!, he will reach a point where his eye's light up and he understands that the defense's pre-snap alignment is primed to get absolutely shredded.
Backs in zone schemes need to be "One Cut Runners", or "1C" runners. For more on this, let's turn to Denver:
A "1C" is a runner (he can be either powerful or fast) who starts to run in one direction, and when he sees a hole open up in the defense he cuts back to that opening and runs in a straight line. This goes against the instincts of most players.
Some RBs "juke", which means they fake side to side movements, and use agility to gain yards. Other players commit right away and dedicate themselves to a play or a direction. [Neither of these are desirable in this system. Antone Smith dedicated himself to a direction way too early.]
But 1Cs must have patience and vision. They must be able to run towards the direction of the play, have the vision to not commit until the see an opening, and the discipline to make "one cut" towards the hole and to stick with it. They must also have the confidence to pick a hole, since the coordinator doesn't pick it for him, but rather it is based off a read or series of reads.
Another key for a 1C is the ability to keep one's legs moving during a tackle. This is because most RBs like to spin or juke (or use other methods), but a 1C usually faces tackles in confined spaces where other methods don't work (confined because the second level is full of OLs, not just LBs). This is another reason why Antone did not run well in our system; he went down when his legs got tangled. Here again, the 1C does what does not come naturally to most RBs.
In addition to the above, we require a runner with precision (in his cuts), patience, vision, and determination
The runner must be decisive and confident, both in himself and his system. He has to trust the system. Occasionally, there will be a huge hole opening up where the play is absolutely not designed to go. The player must be disciplined enough not to fall for the trap. Sometimes it might work, other times it might not, but cutting to a hole that is not based on the runner's read is a recipe for bad habits and negative plays (see above). Deviating from the system turns the running game into big/little, which we cannot tolerate. Again, our running game is all about having no negatives, even at the expense of bigger plays. As discussed above, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that avoiding unfavorable leverage situations is more beneficial to an offense than turning a 5 yard run into a 10 yard run, for example. (see above). This type of deviation can cause the system to lose structural integrity. Our runners get one precise cut, and they must make the best of it. There is a minimum level of discipline we require in our runners. Some lesser runners have it and some supremely talented runners do not. There are both philosophical and schematic reasons for this, and they play off each other.
We cannot have an indecisive runner, either in choosing the hole or IN the hole. By that, I mean that the determination of the running path must be made before the runner hits the hole. Some backs do very well cutting inside holes, but our system kills players who depend on moving laterally within the hole. There can be no decision making in the hole. We are not looking for a runner who wants to make everyone miss. That is a recipe for disaster in this system (and for fumbling). Improvisation, at least in the formative stages of the play, is not tolerated.
Coachability is a major factor as well. One of the reasons you saw Denver and New England run this system so well without highly touted runners (at the time), was that their runners did not have the luxury to do it their own way. 5th or 6th round picks in the NFL must listen to everything a coach says and do everything right, absorbing all of the finer teaching points. If they do not, they will be cut. Star runners, however, can afford not to listen because they know they are under a huge contract and will not be cut. You'll recall that the Broncos traded Clinton Portis away for Champ Bailey, in large part because they valued a corner over a runner, but also because they knew they could find another runner to function within their machine. Applying this to college, we find that things get easier. While a runner may be very highly recruited, there is no general manager pressuring the coach to play the highly recruited runner over a lesser recruited runner. The only emphasis is on playing the runner who can best excel in the system. In this way, it can force a star player to be more of a team player. This is very important when you consider that this system, at least to the level FSU executes it, will be very new to almost all new college runners.
The runner needs to be able to understand what is being asked of him. For instance, he may be asked to plant and explode to a hole that will not open for another step or two. You may think this does not mesh with the patience requirement, but it does. This is not a loaf scheme, we want the runner to spend the minimum amount of time in the backfield as possible, without running outside the constraints of the play. We want the runner hiting the hole as soon as possible- but not too early. Do not confuse this with guessing. Ideally, we want him bursting through it right as it opens up. We need him to see things based off the system, not through sight! We want him to burst through the hole just as it opens up, and by judging his point of attack double team block, studying the system, and having good patience and a decisive cut, he can do just that.
Speed is not overly important in this system, but momentum quickness matters. If the runner is small, he needs to be fast. If he is a power runner, he can be slower. In both situations, the runner needs to be able to clear the arm tackles in the hole without dancing, be that by running by them quickly, or running through them. In either case, the runner's legs cannot stop at contact. It is important to remember that because the runner initially runs parallel to the line of scrimmage as he reads his blocks and determines the hole, he is not able to build his momentum/ speed over a long stretch. Our runners must reach their top speed (whatever that level is) quickly. Obviously, making a decisive cut helps the player to gain momentum and build speed.
Some highly recruited runners do not fit Florida State's system, and that is okay. This isn't about finding all the best pieces. It is about finding the best pieces to fit what Florida State does.