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Whiteboard Wednesday: Breaking down running back reads in a zone offense

Running inside and out

Murphy Jones/Tomahawk Nation

Tomahawk Nation is bringing you more and more analysis about what the Florida State Seminoles will do under their new staff, breaking it down to each of the important coaches and their philosophies. We discussed the basics of Norvell’s offense and the running game previously in the Whiteboard Wednesday series.

As we dive into the depths, we know there are some concepts that bear explanation. Coaches install offenses in steps, and we’ll do the same. Take some time to revisit the Mike Norvell offense and then come back to gain further insight to the running back position.

One of the exciting part for our scheme team is to discuss football in the comments section. We always look forward to your feedback and questions. Please don’t be shy to ask follow-up or clarifying questions after reading.


The running back history books at Florida State is a whose who of the position in college football. There have been a number of all time greats to lineup in the backfield and carry the ball for the Seminoles. What made them so great? Was it all about their athletic talents?

We hear so much about quarterbacks reading a defense but did you know that running backs have reads as well? It may come as a bit of a surprise but on run plays there are a series of reads to help the play be more successful. I’m not going to bore you with a historical review of why this all came about as defenses evolved so lets dive right in.


The inside zone play is the bread and butter run play for any offense. There are a number of important factors that go into a successful zone running play such as depth of alignment, aiming point, patience getting into the hole, and then reading the play.

Today, we want to focus on the read portion of the play. The backs aiming point is the playside leg of the guard (think play is going right, right leg of the guard). The back will be reading the first down linemen to the playside except for a shaded nose.

If the first read leverages his head to the outside the backs eyes switch to the first down linemen backside. See the following picture:

The defensive linemen being combo’d by 62 and 75 is the first read. The defensive linemen being blocked by 65 would become the second read for the running back.

In the photo you can see the two defensive tackles are slanting to the playside. This movement by the DL should put the running back on his second read. It is important that the back make his read no later then his third step.

The back needs to press (stay on the path to) his initial path to keep defenders moving to their left. All of this sets up blocks and the cutback. Once a back makes his choice he must commit and burst.

Let’s take another look:

Notice the different in head placement on the back in the two shots.

The first photo the back has his eyes on the right DT and this clip his eyes are on the left DT. Based on these reads and leverage by the defensive linemen the back should be in the backside C-gap (between 66 and 40).

Is that how it plays out?

Here is another example of inside zone. I’m going to post the clips and allow you to walk through it with what you’ve learned.

Where will the ball go and how will the play end?


Outside zone is very similar except that it is to the outside. The back will emphasize similar points like he did when running inside zone. The main difference is the play is going wide instead of inside.

The back must ensure that his depth, track, and reads are right all the while staying patient. Being off on any of these could result in a negative play.

The reads for outside zone are similar to inside zone except wider. The back will be reading the first defensive linemen from outside-in.

This read will typically be the defensive end to the defensive tackle on the play-side. If the ends head is to the inside of the blocker then the back will look to bounce. If the ends head is to the outside of the blocker then the back will move to his next read.

Let’s take a look at an example:

We see the first read is aligned inside of the tight end and the second read outside of the guard.

As the play develops the 49ers run jet motion and the TE goes backside to block. The end has his head to the outside of the tackle while the DT has his head outside against the guard. The back while staying patient on his track should be in position to cut back inside of the DE and DT while outrunning the backside tackle.

Let’s see it in full:

Like before, here are some stills of an outside zone run. Can you determine where the ball will end up?

Did you get it right?

Take it to the comments with any questions you might have, or any additional comments or takes you’ve got to piggyback off this: the floor is yours.