We all know the back story on new Purdue OC Graham Harrell’s playing days in college. He threw for an absolutely mind boggling amount of yards in three seasons at Texas Tech under Mike Leach and even coached under him for two seasons at Washington State. That influence shouldn’t be understated when it comes to Harrell’s ability to scheme the passing game for his offenses, but many times Purdue has seemingly struggled to be able to run the ball when it has needed to over the last two decades. That isn’t a new problem as Joe Tiller, Danny Hope, and Jeff Brohm all seemed to struggle establishing the run or getting it working when it is needed the most.
The issue for Harrell may have gone down a similar path if it wasn’t for his time at North Texas under well regarded former head coach Seth Littrell and at USC under Clay Helton. It was at that first stop under Littrell where Harrell learned more about the spread running game that was developed in Littrell’s offense under coaches like Kevin Wilson and Larry Fedora. Those two coaches had relied on and developed great spread running schemes, as evidenced by Tevin Coleman’s success at Indiana.
So what can we expect to see from Purdue’s offense in terms of the running game that will have one of the more dynamic backs Purdue has had in recent history in Devin Mockobee? He showed he could break long runs and be a weapon with blocking that was, at times, subpar. Could a scheme change help him and the offense grab more chunk yards in the run game? Will the additions of new offensive lineman help? Let’s take a look at what the running game might look like for Purdue heading forward and what that might mean for players like Mockobee and Tracy.
In Harrell’s offense at USC and WVU, he used a multitude of looks to try and gain a numbers advantage in the run game or went with a zone blocking schemes that allow backs to find lanes to cut into. The zone blocking scheme I think probably benefits Purdue’s backs the most as they appear to have good vision once the ball is in their hands. Devin Mockobee is especially good in this regard as he often times is able to stretch a running play to allow the zone scheme to open up cutback lanes.
The issue with zone blocking schemes is that it requires some athletic lineman working in unison to be able to make it effective and Purdue looks like they may end up starting as many as 3 new offensive lineman, two of which are brand new to the program. It’ll be up to new offensive line coach Marcus Johnson to get that unit up to par. The zone blocking scheme, though, is probably the best bet for Purdue to be able to let Mockobee use his best attribute, his vision, to grab big plays.
Here is a great video that explains the concept of zone blocking in the run game as the space required to explain that here would be astronomical:
The other concept that Harrell used frequently in his time at USC was a nub or sniffer in the backfield. This is typically an off the line of scrimmage tight end who is put into motion pre-snap and is used similarly to the old-school fullbacks or H-backs. This is an important aspect to Harrell’s offense because it is hard for the defense to know where they need to put their numbers. The key will be having a QB who can audible when necessary by changing the blocking scheme or changing the direction of the run. It will be interesting to see if Harrell uses that same concept at Purdue with players at tight end who are more built for being receiving threats like Garrett Hudson, Paul Piferi, Drew Biber, and Max Klare.
This concept can be seen in this footage from Penn State football using a sniffer to lead block for the running back for a big gain:
What can make this usage so effective is slipping those tight ends out of the backfield in the passing game and getting them up the seam quickly. This is where players like Miller and Piferi have shown some ability in their limited opportunities in past seasons. This type of placement isn’t an entirely new concept at Purdue appeared to try and use this the past couple of seasons to help their run game concepts but the tight ends they did have just didn’t fit the mold that they needed to really be effective in that role.
The key for this offense this season to run the ball will be getting the offensive line adjusted quickly to the new concepts in Harrell’s offense and finding which concepts they do the best. The advantage this season versus years past, this offensive line appears to be a bit more athletic which would lend itself to being a better zone blocking team. This would lend itself better to Mockobee’s strengths with his vision and cutback ability (roll the Indiana highlight for this point) to help provide Purdue with the necessary run game to pair with what should be a very solid passing game with new QB Hudson Card and a litany of talented wide receivers, both new and old.