In 2014, few teams ran the ball more often than Boston College. The Eagles ranked eighth in the nation in rushing attempts per game, averaging 48.85 rushes each time they stepped on the field. They ranked seventh worst in the nation in passing attempts per game, averaging just under 19 attempts per game.
It's a stark contrast that has the Eagles ranked among teams like Air Force, Army, Navy, Georgia Tech, and Georgia Southern among teams exclusively using an option approach. It's a run first mentality we've spoken about and beaten into the ground in a debate among those who favor throwing the ball more and those who believe in "ground-and-pound."
Taking that mentality debate out of the equation, let's assume BC won't significantly change in 2015. Let's assume they're going to remain a run-first team willing to pound the ball and control the clock. Even if they pass the ball more and with greater variety, their identity is always going to remain on the ground.
BC is extremely deep in the running game, with a number of backs who can beat teams using a number of different styles. If you think about it, you can break down the Boston College running game into three different types of runner: 1) downhill, between-the-tackles bruisers; 2) balanced running backs capable; and 3) speed guys.
The between-the-tackle style running game starts and really ends with Jon Hilliman. Hilliman has very good vision and the strength and burst to slip through seams. He is very good at hitting the hole fast, bursting through it, and breaking through it. He's the type of guy who can get hit by a defensive tackle, keep chugging, and use his forward momentum to keep going. He's not the type of guy who's going to deke, slip, and juke through traffic; he's going through you, not around you.
The bulk of BC's running game sits with the balanced backs - the Myles Willis and Marcus Outlow type runners. Where Hilliman's vision takes him to the seam inside the line, Outlow is capable of reading the edge and bursting around blockers. Where Hilliman has a second gear and the ability to power through the gaps, Outlow has the raw intangibles and elusiveness to stretch defenses laterally as opposed to downhill. You can ask him to run the draw play up the middle or take the pitch.
Then there's the speed guys. Speed guys don't necessarily have to be the fastest guys on the roster, but they have to have the ability to play possession games. These are the guys where there's a speed option for them in the roster; instead of making the read, the QB takes off out of the pistol or shotgun formation and runs to one side in a pitch option. The third guy, if he's a speed guy, comes back the other way. If you want a speed play, look at the reverse option to Sherm Alston and you'll see what I mean.
In order to improve the BC offense from a running game perspective, the Eagles will have to become different in the way they throw looks at defenses. Last year, given the offense's limitations in the passing game, BC became slightly predictable on offense. If you saw three tight ends across the line of scrimmage with Hilliman in the backfield, you knew the run was going up the middle between the tackles. If you saw Alston in motion, you could bet on a fly sweep. If you saw Outlow lined up in the backfield in the shotgun, you knew Tyler Murphy was running that read option. Defenses audibled accordingly, and in certain games - Clemson and Louisville as most notable - it was shut down.
What BC could do this year is to diversify the formations as they develop further skill sets. A guy like Hilliman is never going to clear out the backfield for a 40 yard pass play, and a guy like Alston is never (nor should he) going to run up the middle. And I'm not saying to change up the offense to the point where a running back's skill set makes him a wide receiver. You don't want to change the play calls.
What you do want to do is change up the way the plays get called, and that's something that starts on the communication from the signal caller. With an inexperienced offensive line, BC can work around the deficiencies by adding wrinkles and short takes in the backfield. If a guard is getting burned by a defensive tackle, the option can allow for a shovel pass reverse pitch to a running back out of the slot. The DT would then, in theory, commit the high felony of overpursuit, allowing the speed back or balanced back to take off the opposite direction.
After all, they don't have to know you're not holding four aces if you make them think you're holding four aces.
That only creates space for the balanced and speed games, though, meaning there's still further development that could be done to Hilliman's game. For a runner like him, creating the space with a slide step or counter move out of the backfield can do more than I think we give credit for. Teaching and developing a runner to still go straight ahead with a little move here or there gets those big nasties playing interior line to once again commit too far to one side, allowing him to use his elusiveness to get by. Remember that Hilliman's elusiveness is his power and ability to make guys miss inside.
We know the running game is going to be a big part of the Boston College game. We know the running game is deep, and we know the backs are ultra talented. So let's test them out and see how complex we can make this offense. If it turns out that it doesn't work, we can always strip those parts and go back to what works. In all fairness, it's unlikely BC will need to fix the running game at all, but in the interest of looking ahead, here's to hoping we can continue to see new things out of a coaching staff that's shown it can push the envelope a little within a rigid, structured setting.