Zach Kelly: Effectively Coaching Your Running Backs [AFCA Virtual Clinic Series]

Zach Kelley: Effectively Coaching Your Running Backs [AFCA Virtual Clinic Series]

In this virtual clinic, Zach Kelley from Cedar Hill High School (TX) discusses running back play and culture. Coach Kelley highlights different inside and outside zone coaching points, his weekly RB practice schedule, and some components of his personal coaching philosophy for the running back position.

#HouseCall Culture

Coach Kelley and his RB unit have adopted a position-specific culture branded as #HouseCall Culture. This culture is comprised of a set of beliefs that each running back in the CHHS program adheres to. Some of these beliefs include the desire to do everything necessary to win. An example of this is if an athlete doesn’t block, then they do not get playing time. Another aspect of this unique culture is the acronym F.A.M.I.L.Y, which stands for Forget About Me I Love You. This highlights a selfless attitude among the position group allowing each player to take pride in what his teammates do. Coach Kelley also emphasizes the importance of rewarding big plays without the football. As an example, if the running backs provide key selfless blocks or consistently carries out run fakes in a game on Friday night, Coach Kelley will reward them with breakfast the following morning during their weekly game film review.

RELATED ARTICLE: Running Back Footwork Fundamentals


Another way to create a unique position group culture is to spend time together away from football. Coach Kelley invites his players over to his house once or twice a year, where he and his wife provide meals and host a Madden or 2K tournament.

“I’m always so big on those relationships and just working on those and cultivating those so that way you get the best product out on the football field,” said Kelley. “But more importantly your kids are setup for post-football life because everybody who is watching this and everybody who has played football knows you have a shelf life.”

The first point Coach Kelley makes when talking about coaching zone concepts is to not over coach. This stems from his belief that the running back position comes naturally based on body type and instincts.

“You can always tell who has the potential to be a good running back at the high school level and college level just by seeing them run and make some cuts, you can even see it in 7 on 7 sometimes,” said Kelley. “If they have a little bit of move and if they have good instincts you can see it.”

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The next point Coach Kelley highlights when coaching zone play is the eyes. The pre-snap picture helps reveal what the post-snap movie will look like. He says that running backs have two options they are given, an even front or an odd front. He says that if they are running inside zone to the left, the running backs should be looking at the nose (if it’s a 3-man front). This also helps determine the aiming point for the running backs. If they are looking at the 1-technique, the aiming point is outside the guard. If it’s a 3-technique it might be a little tighter inside the guard. After determining the pre-snap read and post-snap aiming point, the running back should adjust to the next level threat and use some instincts they have in their toolbox. Running backs should be comfortable enough to J-step, keep the elbow eye high and keep the shoulders squared to go downhill. With that being said, Coach Kelley admits it is flexible to a degree because the running backs need to be comfortable. Often times when running zone plays it is important to be patient. Determine if the aiming point is cloudy or clear, and then bend or bang based on what you see. After that, it is important to finish by sticking your foot in the ground and rolling. Coach Kelley says it is crucial to not get caught up on missteps but finishing the play to the best of your ability.

One important difference between inside zone and outside zone is aiming point. On inside zone, the running back should look at the 3 or 1-technique (if it’s a 4-man front). On inside zone with a 3-man front, the running back should look at the nose. For outside zone against a 3-man front, the running back should look at end man on the line of scrimmage, and the aiming point becomes the tackle instead of the guard.

As the clinic progressed, Coach Kelley dove into his weekly individual drill schedule. During this portion of the clinic, he emphasized the importance of keeping the drills game-like. No matter what drill the players are practicing, they should experience everything a game could throw at them. Some of Coach Kelley’s weekly drills are listed below:

  • Every day – Pre-Practice (Ball Security, Cone Cuts, Banana Block)
  • Monday – Ball Skills (Auburn Drill, All Routes, Short Yardage, Cut and Cover with 2)
  • Tuesday – Run Blocking (Cut Blocking, LB Mirror Drill, Hand Placement)
  • Wednesday – Pass Pro (Gauntlet, ½ Man vs. Blitz, Blitz Pick-Up, Late Cut Drill)

*For a complete list and breakdown of individual RB drills please reference Coach Kelley’s Virtual Clinic Video*

Coach Kelley does a great job highlighting his personal philosophy for coaching the RB position. He suggests asking what the running back saw as they went through a practice rep or gameplay rather than just yelling for them to hit the gap. This allows for dialogue and expansion of knowledge. Coach Kelley also points out that even though there is some flexibility, the running backs should have a reasonable explanation for what they saw. Kelley once again emphasizes the importance of ball security. As a Cedar Hill running back a fumble equates to 50 log rolls.

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The next aspect of Coach Kelley’s philosophy is one that stood out. He says that it is important to preach game reps. Instead of using terms like “full speed,” he ensures that the effort throughout practice is exactly like it would be in a game. The last thing Coach Kelley recommends for any coach is to come up with something unique and new for your group. This will excite the players and provide something to be proud of.

Ask Coach Kelley

Q: How Do you handle discipline with your position group?

A: Depending on the situation I will talk with them and run them or roll them with log rolls.

Q: What is your pre-game routine with RB?

A: We go through team stretch and exchanges/ball security with the QB. The players will be ready to play but that is important before any game.

Q: How do you allow for RB position players to be who they are, given different body types?

A: You have to be able to find a way to make one guy miss. Every guy isn’t the same so there is flexibility, but they need to utilize their unique tools to avoid getting tackled by one guy.

Q: How involved are you and your running backs in special teams?

A: Running backs and linebackers are typically expected to play on special teams because of their body types. With special teams being such a big element of the game, my running backs know that if they are put on a ST unit, they better bring it, or they’ll be fired.

To watch Coach Kelley’s Virtual Clinic, along with numerous other videos, please log in to your AFCA membership account and search through the AFCA Educational Library.


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