New Oregon RB coach Locklyn has one year of on-field college coaching – 2021 at Western Kentucky as RB coach – but he’s been involved in football coaching since 2009. After a college career as a running back with FCS Chatanooga (as he recounted on this entertaining podcast) and then making a go at pro football, he returned to the state of Tennessee where he was a high school offensive coordinator for eight years at four different schools with some pretty impressive records. He made the leap to college coaching at Memphis in 2017 and spent three seasons there in off-field roles, overlapping with future Oregon head coach Dan Lanning, OC Kenny Dillingham, and special teams coach Joe Lorig. He finally left the state of Tennessee in 2020, following head coach Mike Norvell to Florida St as director of high school relations.
Prior to the 2021 season, WKU’s running back room was kind of a mess. Its leading rusher in 2020 was a converted DB, and two other backs with significant carries were two-way players as well. Their cumulative average in 2020 was 4.5 YPC. WKU head coach Tyson Helton made a staffing change in 2021, bringing in Zach Kittley to run the offense from the Texas Tech Air Raid tree, and Locklyn took over the backs.
Those three defensive players were then out of the RB room, and Locklyn reset the lineup with a four-back rotation — all full-timers, two of them getting carries for the first time — and the average rose to 5.3 YPC. The leading back in terms of carries (101), yards (617), and average (6.1), Noah Whittington, has since transferred to Oregon. The other three also did pretty well with similar body types and running styles, averaging between 4.6 and 5.3 and getting between 27 and 81 carries apiece.
The Hilltoppers’ offense threw the ball about twice as often as they ran it, and quarterback Bailey Zappe set all-time FBS single season passing records in yards and TDs. But the running game wasn’t like some Air Raid offenses I’ve watched like Wazzu for several years, where they were all surprises checked into by the QB. Instead they were more or less the standard set of zone- and power-blocked runs from spread looks that virtually all modern college offenses use, called from the booth like any other. I also didn’t see much of opposing defenses selling out to stop the pass by using very light boxes, like UW has done for several years (actually, two defenses did that against WKU in 2021, but I’ve excluded those games from the clips in this article).
The only real schematic assistance that the offense gave the run game was fairly frequent use of RPOs; otherwise their rushing success came down to what it usually does - quality backs and strong offensive line play. I expect all three of those factors to continue at Oregon.
The most striking thing about all of Locklyn’s backs in 2021 was how patiently they ran, waiting for blocks get in place and then exploding through the hole. That’s something that often takes years for backs to develop (I recently spent about three seasons at Oregon waiting to see it consistently) so it was remarkable to see at WKU across the board with a new staff and basically a new set of players. Some examples:
(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to 1⁄4 or 1⁄2 speed)
- :00 – Pretty classic counter here, watch the back’s footwork (this is Adam Cofield, the #2 RB). First the counter step, then a little outside shuffle to get the OLB to stay outside, waiting for the LT to come around to put his foot down, cuts through the hole, lowers his shoulders into contact, keeps his feet and stumbles into the endzone.
- :12 – This is an outside stretch zone and Whittington is showing a lot of patience while it develops. He’s thinking about that far B gap since the RT has it opened up so wide, but sees that two of the d-linemen and both inside backers do not have square shoulders to the line of scrimmage and his o-line is going to clear them out completely, so he makes the smart cut in to open grass.
- :32 – Again, nice patience waiting for the pull. This is Whittington, but his running style (particularly footwork) is almost indistinguishable from Cofield, despite the fact they’d never seen the field together before this season.
- :40 – The three outside blocks all develop late on this play – the H-back, the LT, and the slot receiver – and it could have gone a couple different ways. Whittington stutters just enough for it to become clear, then goes.
The other main factor that I think contributed to WKU’s rising rushing average during Locklyn’s tenure was a consistent fight for extra yardage. Every back I watched showed hard running into contact and diving to pick up a few more while airborne when they were being tripped up. Some examples:
- :00 - The RT is losing control of his block and the center (who I thought was the weakest of WKU’s run blockers) isn’t engaging and turning his at all, so the blocking only gets about 3 yards of this run. The additional 4, very typical of this RB room, comes from Cofield’s fight, including getting picked up and slammed down during an attempted rip of the ball.
- :08 – It’s 3rd & 3 despite what the chyron says, and the fake double screen holds the backside safety but not the playside one. Also the C and RG aren’t controlling their blocks at all. So Whittington gets creamed by three guys from two directions (plus some extra-curriculars), but gets the 1st down.
- :24 – This is Kye Robichaux, the #3 back. Really impressive balance here, breaking three tackles and then securing the ball tight as he takes the final hit.
- :42 – Blocking gets the first 4 yards here including the 1st down, but watch the footwork by Robichaux at the 38-yard line, that little inside move makes the safety hesitate and prevents him from getting a clean wrap-up to stop the run dead, instead allowing another 5 yards even though he does get the tackle.
The old adage in football is that you can’t coach speed. I didn’t see any lightning-fast backs at WKU, but I did see guys who knew what to do with their speed, both when the play was there for them to hit and get extra, and when it wasn’t and they had to improvise. Some examples:
- :00 - WKU ran outside from these twin stacks a couple times per game to keep the defense honest, and the backs had to do the hard work to pay them off. Whittington is fast enough to get to the edge even with the slight detour he has to make to get around the ILB crashing in, and with no help because the LG turned around to deal with that backer.
- :16 – The inside run blocking just isn’t there for this play, the RG pulls but his hat is on the wrong side. The perimeter blocking is sound but those guys are expecting it to be an inside run so Whittington has a lot more traffic when he chooses to bounce outside. Good balance lets him get 5 yards on 1st down from what might have been a stuff at the line of scrimmage.
- :24 – Here’s Cofield again, this time on a nice draw play that I’ve been wishing would come to Oregon for several seasons now. The defense takes the bait so he just needs to accelerate from a standstill into the open grass, and he winds up wearing the OLB like a backpack for 12 yards.
- :32 – I picked this one because the field was in pretty bad shape in Boca Raton and a lot of runners went down trying to make cuts. Whittington keeps his balance nicely and just explodes after putting his foot down, and finishes with a nice dive for extra yardage.
Finally, while Kittley’s offense didn’t feature the backs in the passing game too much (actually something of an anomaly for both Air Raid and RPO-based offenses), I thought the backs all showed pretty good hands when the ball went their way on checkdowns and the occasional screen or wheel route. I don’t have a single embarrassing drop charted, but I do have a couple remarkable catches of wobbly balls thrown under pressure. Here’s a representative sample of passes thrown to running backs:
- :00 - Here’s a checkdown to Cofield, by far the most common usage of backs in the passing game. Textbook technique here: slips out, quickly shows his numbers, smooth catch with the ball completely secured before he turns, then a burst downfield for 12 yards.
- :09 – I don’t have much film on backs in pass-pro since most defenses didn’t want to blitz against Zappe and leave holes open, so that’s the biggest question mark I still have left for Locklyn’s backs in general and Whittington in particular. This is what I saw much more often – Whittington waiting for a green dog, and when it doesn’t come he leaks out and looks for a pass. Same smooth catch, properly securing it before turning, and the burst to quickly get 8.
- :18 – The scheme didn’t have a lot of these inside screens and Zappe’s a little rusty at throwing them, this one is higher than it needs to be. Whittington has to go up and get it, which is not easy when moving forward, turning back, then turning forward again without losing momentum.
- :26 – Here’s Robichaux on a wheel, he gets a big middle linebacker on him and easily outpaces him. The throw’s a little long but the back reaches out and secures it with nice soft hands.