If you kept up with my two installments of scouting notes for Wisconsin’s bout against Ohio State, you noticed a common theme – Chris Borland and Carlos Hyde are really, really good at football. Even while playing on a field sprinkled with future NFL talents like Bradley Roby, Ryan Shazier, Melvin Gordon, Joey Bosa, and Jared Abbrederis, these two stood out above everyone else. Borland was everywhere with 16 tackles (10 solo) and two quarterback pressures, while Hyde made his presence felt with several physically imposing runs on his way to 85 yards at a five yard per carry clip. Hyde in particular built up a reputation as a nearly unstoppable force in 2013 with over 1,500 yards, a 7.3 yard per carry average, and 15 touchdowns in just eleven games. His fearsome power was both intimidating and awe inspiring at the same time as he routinely required two or three defenders to stop his momentum. At a surprisingly svelte 240 pounds, Hyde was arguably the biggest hammer in all of college football.
When sitting down to watch Ohio State’s unstoppable force meet Wisconsin’s immovable object, I expected a good show. On one side of the ball you have a linebacker so athletic that he can do standing back flips at will and land in the splits "just for fun." On the other, you have a running back who might be a distant relative of a Mack truck. Both of these players were among the best at their craft, and both of them were poised to beat the bleeding crap out of each other for three hours on national television. Color me excited.
Hyde struck first early in the first quarter on a read option run off tackle. While Braxton Miller read the blitzing safety from the slot, Hyde was reading left tackle Jack Mewhort. The right defensive end slanted inside of Mewhort in order to turn his head away from the blitz and help free up the safety to track down Miller, which as a result plugged the original intended lane. You can see Mewhort jab his post foot (inside foot) up and inside off the snap, which was a move to get inside positioning and turn the defensive outside while sucking the linebackers inside. If executed correctly, the linebackers would fill the B gap against Hyde, and the athletically gifted Miller would be able to pull the ball and race a defensive end to the corner for a big run rather than have to outrun a linebacker. However, with the slanting defensive end and safety blitz coming on fast, Miller was forced to let Hyde have the ball and work his magic.
Hyde read the defensive end inside and swiftly went off the outside hip of Mewhort. Borland was in the middle of dropping to cover the slot receiver "hot" while the safety blitzed, and was unable to get back to the middle of the field in time to catch Hyde. Take a good look above at Hyde’s unreasonably quick burst for a back his size. As soon as he reads the block and squeezes inside to get out of Borland’s range he is gone. Only a good low tackle in the secondary separates him from breaking off a huge touchdown.
From watching the game in full, it seems as though any time Borland was not around to corral Hyde himself, the young Buckeye was able to pound and bludgeon his way through every other member of the Badger defense with ease.
And, on rare occasion, pound Borland directly.
What really sets Hyde apart from other similarly sized, powerful runners from previous draft classes is his incredibly nimble feet for a human battering ram. Throughout the game I saw him bounce, juke, and stutter his way into cracks in the defense with far more quickness than I expected.
This particularly nasty bounce caught my attention in the third quarter. Despite the run being contained for a minimal gain by a good pursuit from Borland and Dezmen Southward, the initial cut from the play side A gap from Hyde after seeing the inside linebacker fill was tremendous, and his quick feet showed as he worked his way down the back side of the offensive line all the way to the opposite numbers. There is a rare stop/start suddenness to Hyde’s running ability to go with his power that makes him a huge threat every time he sees a crease about to open.
Beyond nifty footwork, Hyde also has excellent vision and a keen sense of how to set up defenses for failure. Often times Hyde will premeditate a bounce to the outside by attacking inside to create traffic, only to swing around the wash to the corner with a sharp cut before anyone can react. Conversely, Hyde is also adept making linebackers false step in one direction or another with quick lateral jabs, which doubles as propulsion into or out of a hole. His body control for a big man is breathtaking, and at times he almost looks like a slower, less agile, but more powerful version of LeSean McCoy (or if you want to go the other way, a quicker, faster Eddie Lacy).
Hyde’s unique combination of patience, agility, and power were put on full display on this great first quarter run.
Taking a close look, Ohio State sets up a simple half back dive to the weak side A gap from shotgun on second down. The left guard and left tackle are tasked with driving out the 4-technique defensive end and right outside linebacker respectively. The center is supposed to double team the nose tackle with the right guard and then advance to the second level to kick out the right inside linebacker. Hyde can key off the center’s block to run on either side of him. If the A gaps are not open, he has an option to bounce to either the strong side B gap or all the way to the strong side D gap if need be, though doing so will put him in direct contention with an unblocked Chris Borland.
The ball is snapped. As the center combos on the nose tackle, it looks as though the weak side A gap will be the gap of choice. The backup Wisconsin nose tackle is getting blown up, and will be out of the way shortly.
The right inside linebacker attacks the vacant gap wide, creating a plug next to the play side guard and forcing any up the gut action to go to the right of the center, and right into Chris Borland. Knowing this was a possibility, Hyde is prepared to create an opening with his feet. Cutting to the B gap will put him squarely into Chris Borland, and bouncing to the D gap when Borland already has a yard head start on him is not appetizing as well. Hyde’s best option to hit the strong side A gap, but to do so safely he has to move Chris Borland out of the way first. Borland needs to be moved to the yellow X, and Hyde has just the pair of feet to do it.
Hyde makes a quick shake to the outside to bluff a bounce outside (pink arrow), which then forces Borland to take one step to his left to prepare to chase him down. While not the ideal "bite" that Hyde was hoping for, it is just enough to give him some room to wiggle back to the A gap and get the first down.
Half the defense gets caught up on top of the discarded nose tackle, and Hyde bursts into the second level to finish his run with a punishing blow. Complete runs like this that show patience, vision, cutting ability, burst, and power are common place with Hyde, and in my mind he is no doubt a first round quality running back.
With all of that being said, however, no matter how deadly Carlos Hyde is on every single snap, he was not the most dangerous predator in The Horseshoe that night. In the three Ohio State games I had watched leading up to the Wisconsin contest, not a single defender was ever able to stop Hyde from moving forward on first contact by themselves.
And then Chris Borland gave it a whirl.
I knew that Borland had a reputation being one of the pound for pound most relentless, hardest hitting, straight up baddest dudes in all of college football, but to hit a freight train like Carlos Hyde at an angle and have him stop moving? If that doesn’t deserve a round of golf claps from Richard Sherman, then I don’t know what does.
Even more impressive was Borland’s work on a fourth and short in his own territory. Everyone on the field, in the stands, and watching at home knew that Carlos Hyde was getting the ball, the only question was where he was going to go with it. Evidently, his destination ended up being right into Chris Borland’s arms, short of the first down marker.
Let’s break this down further.
Above you will see the called power run blocking assignments diagrammed in yellow. This is a pretty standard power run for short yardage with the left guard pulling, the tight end kicking out the play side outside linebacker, and everyone else drive blocking or down blocking in the other direction to give the pulling guard (and Hyde) space to work with. Wisconsin’s run fit assignments are diagrammed with red and orange. The red arrows are showing the defensive line pinching into the interior of the offensive line in order to plug the middle and force the running back to bounce outside. This assignment is what is referred to as "spill". The orange arrows indicate the outside linebackers containing the edges of the offense in a "force" roll. "Spill" sends runners to the outside, "Force" sends them back inside. When used in conjunction, these two assignments are meant to force ball carriers into certain gaps which linebackers will "fit" or "fill" in to, and collectively these are known as "run fits". Some defenses use corners or safeties as their "Force" while others use linebackers or linemen, and most of the time coordinators will switch up these responsibilities based on the personnel they have to work with.
In the previous still you will also see a blue triangle, which represents a "triangle key". There are three main types of "keys" that linebackers have to read when diagnosing and attacking within their run fits.
1. Running back keys are just what they sound like, in that the linebacker is watching and flowing towards the running back and simply following the ball. While simple and mostly effective, the simplicity of the read also opens up the linebackers to be susceptible to play action fakes and other misdirection plays more easily.
2. Offensive line keys are when a linebacker is reading the blocking scheme rather than the direction of the running back. While slower to develop, you will be hard pressed to find an offensive play in the history of football that is not at least partially tipped off by the offensive line in some way. If the linebacker has the patience, diagnostic ability, and intelligence to understand blocking schemes, tendencies, and every single responsibility of everyone on their defensive unit he will always put himself in the right place by reading the offensive line. In addition, it is much harder to get caught looking on play action fakes when reading the offensive line because the backer will be able to read that no linemen have advanced down field earlier than he will be able to read a running back not having the ball.
3. Triangle keys are a combination of both running back and offensive line keys, in addition to watching the snap of the ball itself. Generally a linebacker will watch the snap to see which way the quarterback turns and catch the direction of movement from the running back, while also keeping his peripheral vision on the offensive line. Once he sees the direction of the running back, if the quarterback turned for a hand off, he switches to reading the offensive line. By understanding his defensive line’s responsibilities on any given play he can diagnose who will be spilling, who will be forcing, who is blitzing, who is dropping, and where exactly the linebacker fits into all of this. More often than not simply understanding who is doing what pre-snap can help the linebacker understand which gaps are the most likely to need his attention, so while reading the offensive line he can naturally flow faster to the ball in certain gaps without even thinking.
For example, when reading the triangle on a zone stretch run to the strong side of the formation, an intelligent linebacker will start scraping in the direction of the offensive line’s blocking by watching the snap and seeing the quarterback begin his extended hand off. After keying the running back in that same direction, he will then start keying off the offensive line. By understanding that he hypothetically has a tight-6 technique defensive end crashing the C gap to force a cut back into the back side pursuit, he has no need to scrape too far and can be patient while reading the play develop. Depending on coverage responsibilities he might peek at the tight end to key on any potential play action pass, or possibly leave it to the safeties and Sam linebacker. If he reads the 6-technique beat the reach block for the C gap, and the 3-technique beat the reach block for the B gap, then that narrows down his options almost entirely to cut back lanes. From there the backer can simply work he way down gaps with his eyes to see which defensive linemen won and which ones lost. If a gap is lost, he attacks it immediately and tries to make a play. When young players say that they are able to read and play faster as they learn the defense, this is exactly what they mean. Keying the snap, direction of the quarterback, direction of the running back, movement of the offensive line, and most importantly knowing everyone else’s jobs on defense can turn anyone into a great linebacker. When combined with unbelievable athleticism, you get an All-Pro.
Unfortunately for a lot of linebacker-needy NFL teams, it is rare to find someone at the college level who reads triangle keys and has the athleticism to make it in the pros. As practice times get shorter for player safety reasons, coaches have less and less time to teach their players how to read keys at a high level, so many linebackers are only taught how to read running back keys. Some are taught how to read offensive lines as well, but a special breed that put in enough extra curricular time in the film room eventually develop an aptitude for reading the triangle. It is a skill that must be drilled in over the course of multiple years, and Chris Borland happens to be one of the few who has it.
Now, on to the next still. Here we see Borland reading Miller turn to his right, Hyde run to his right, and a guard all pull to the right side of the offense, completing the triangle. He knows that the left 5-technique defensive end is pinching to the play side B gap, as well the left outside linebacker playing force on the play side D gap, so he immediately starts flowing to the play side C gap without even having to think. This, as they say, is what makes up a linebacker’s "instincts".
Borland stays tight behind the chaos in the middle of the line of scrimmage and waits for the pulling guard to engage the play side inside linebacker, at which point he can burst into the remaining gap that creates and take on Hyde for himself. If Hyde goes to the other gap, he knows that will be filled as well. Why Ohio state decided to run power into the teeth of Wisconsin’s linebacking corps is beyond me, but that shows the kind of trust they have in Carlos Hyde to simply run over everyone who dares oppose him.
Unless of course that opposition is Chris Borland.
One of the highlights of the game for me was this 2nd and goal snap on the Wisconsin one yard line. Ohio State is running a half back dive right at Borland. With the right guard and right tackle blocking the defensive end and outside linebacker, and the center blocking Beau Allen one on one in the middle, the hole is vacated for a showdown between two of the Big 10’s best. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, this is kill or be killed on the goal line, and Chris Borland is one hell of a killer.
Carlos Hyde is not a man that gets stone walled very often, if ever, and yet we’ve already seen him get stopped cold by the 5’11" Borland three times. Those sudden jolts into reality were not the only party favors that Chris Borland brought with him to Ohio, he also got to have some fun on passing downs. Borland’s lack of height has the ironic benefit of giving him insane balance due to a low center of gravity, which has helped him develop a downright disgusting spin move when rushing the passer. Hyde never stood a chance.
And neither did Ohio State’s right tackle.
What most impressed me about that play, despite the fact that Borland missed Miller (again), was that he never gave up. Borland misses, pursues, and runs Miller all the way down to the sideline without hesitation. Say what you will about Wisconsin, but relentlessness runs in their blood up there. I remember jumping out of my chair and audibly gasping at Borland’s efforts when I first saw this play, only to be reminded by the silence in my apartment that nobody else was around to share in my amazement. It takes a lot for a grown man to turn into a giddy little kid while watching a replay of college football all alone, and yet #44 managed to do it.
Borland does not only possess agility and flexibility, but also the raw strength to toss blockers aside if need be.
Even when Hyde tried to put his lead blocking skills to use to open lanes for his speedy quarterback, Borland’s excellent sideline to sideline speed, power, and ability to work through traffic was always there to ruin Braxton Miller's day.
Though Hyde’s Buckeyes emerged victorious in the war on the strength of their passing game, the individual heavyweight brawl between two immensely talented players was clearly won by Chris Borland. Athleticism, intelligence, and ferocity helped him have a huge game in prime time, and I have little doubt that his presence on the field was the biggest factor in Hyde being kept under six yards per carry for the only time in the entire regular season. Without their All-American linebacker in tow, who knows just how much damage a talent like Hyde could have done. Wisconsin was lucky to have him, and so too will the NFL team that drafts him. Whether that lucky team is the Texans is still unknown, but the thought of Brian Cushing and Chris Borland destroying offenses alongside fellow Badger J.J. Watt is tantalizing to say the least.
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