Just an old interview with Chad Spann.http://fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/20/q-and-a-with-chad-spann-underrated-rb-prospect/Most college football stars are highly courted prep athletes. Chad Spann wasn’t one of them. Although he was a first-team all-state running back in Indiana, he didn’t receive interest from a single Division I college. When Spann took matters into his own hands, the best offer he got was his only one: a chance to join Northern Illinois as a walk-on behind nine other backs on the depth chart. Four years later, this two-time 1,000-yard rusher and Mid-American Conference M.V.P. is one of the more underrated runners in the 2011 N.F.L. draft.
Spann recently discussed his rise from college football obscurity, the craft of running the football, and his future as an N.F.L. hopeful. He is projected as a late-round pick at best, but Spann’s early college experience has raised his awareness of what it takes to work his way from the status of a “camp body” to an integral part of a team. His talent, work ethic and love of grinding tape makes him a player to watch closely when the pomp and circumstance of the draft ends and the real selection process of training camp begins.
MW: You led the nation in rushing touchdowns in 2010, won the MAC’s Offensive Player of the Year Award, and the coaches of the conference voted you M.V.P. as the winner of the Vern Smith Leadership Award. However, you had to create homemade highlight videos and send them unsolicited to Division I coaches just to begin your career as a walk-on.
When I asked Oklahoma RB DeMarco Murray, a prized recruit, about his college football journey, he said that he had to learn there were “100 DeMarco Murrays” on every team. In contrast to Murray trying to initially fit in, you were forced to stand out and prove very early on that your skills were overlooked. You just completed your college athletic journey from walk-on to conference M.V.P. What did it take both on and off the field to earn this opportunity?
CS: Simply put, the little things. I always felt confident that I could be successful at the Division I level. As a walk-on, I had to prove this day in and day out to my coaches and teammates.
I came into camp my freshmen year ninth on the depth chart at running back. It was an unfamiliar place for me. I had been the starting running back on every team I had been on since I was nine years old and had never played special teams. I knew I would have to learn quickly if I was going to reach my goal of not redshirting and contributing as a true freshman.
Long story short, I started on special teams and worked my way up from ninth to the second on the running back depth chart. Making that big of a jump wasn’t easy, and I wasn’t making many friends on the defensive side of the ball while doing it.
I had to separate myself from the other running backs, especially the other freshmen. During practice, I would run forty yards down the field after every play. I blocked defenders way past the whistle. I refused to let one person bring me down alone. The defensive players took offense to a freshman walk-on working so hard, but those same guys eventually became some of my best friends in college.
In the off-season, I did everything I could to show how committed I was to getting better as a player. I broke down film with a graduate assistant three times a week. I studied every runner we had on the roster, not just the plays I was in for.
By seeing the plays that were run every day from different angles and actually studying what was happening and why, I started to see the big picture and all the possible options a back has as a play develops. I feel like this is what greatly improved my vision and patience as a runner. I also gained a better understanding of blocking schemes and defensive fronts from all this film study.
In summer, players have the option to go home for a few weeks before “optional” workouts begin. I never left. I was with the strength and conditioning coach a week after school ended in May.
During my freshmen year, about 10 guys stayed to train. Every year more guys would join our program. By my senior year, there were about 60 players who stayed all summer. It was no coincidence that this year was our most successful season as a team.
Additionally, I started working one on one with the assistant strength coach on quickness and explosiveness. By my senior year, another 15 guys were doing these extra workouts with me. These were a few of the “little things” that helped me not only get an opportunity, but put me in the best position to succeed when that opportunity did arise.
MW: A lot of draft analysts will tell you that running back is one of the most instinctive and intuitive positions in football. While this generalization may have some truth to it, it implies to the general public that speed, strength, and agility are all that matters.
Based on my film study, you’re one of the better after-contact runners I’ve seen in this draft class in the same way I thought Ray Rice was one of the most skilled in his. Neither of you are ever going to be 5’11″ or 225 lbs., but what you possess is excellent technique as a between the tackles runner. Will you explain what those techniques are that help you routinely get yards after contact and how you refine them?
CS: Love this question. There were three things that I was taught to be mindful of as runner in college: run with a low pad level, explode through contact, and most importantly keep your eyes up. If you can do those three things, it makes running between the tackles easier.
However, that’s not all it takes. Understanding the defensive fronts and blocking schemes play into your vision and patience. Being able to move your body in a way to deflect hits rather than absorb them is also very crucial. Feet can never stop on contact. And understanding when to take a hit and when to get down are all very important tips to running between the tackles.
MW: Comfort with contact is obviously an integral part of playing running back. I had a college classmate, who is now a professional musician, tell me the reason he pursued music was because of his brief tenure as the starting runner for his high school team. Football ended and music began when he got stuffed in the backfield and temporarily lost feeling in his limbs. Why do you think you’re comfortable with collisions?
CS: Hitting is an inevitable part of the game. It’s almost like the phrase “eat or be eaten.” In football, it’s “hit or be hit.” I decided a long time ago that I wasn’t going to be the guy getting hit. It sends a message to the defense and by the fourth quarter they’re tired of being hit. Big, second-half runs come that way.
MW: I think there’s a difference between timed speed on a track in shorts and functional speed on a football field in pads. Some players have 4.3- or 4.4-speed but with 21 other players on the field they tend to play slower because they don’t conceptualize the game fast enough to react decisively.
You don’t have that problem, and I think one of the reasons can be attributed to your vision. How does one improve his vision as a ball carrier?
CS: I think vision comes with knowledge of the game. The more you understand what is going on around you the better you can react. Learning the blocking schemes for the offensive line as well as defensive fronts will make reading plays easier. Just like a quarterback, most of a running back’s reads come before the play even starts. So when the ball is snapped you are not reading or thinking anymore, you’re just reacting.
MW: Can you give me an example of what you’re talking about?
CS: One example is running an inside zone to the right to a 4-3 defense where the defensive tackle is playing the Shade/1-Technique/A-Gap player backside. I know that the center and backside guard are going to double team that A-Gap player up to the middle linebacker. This means the hole will probably be backside and behind the center-guard double team, because the A-Gap player is being pushed to the play side.
Understanding this blocking scheme helps me because there are times when the hole first presents itself that I cannot hit it immediately because the double team might not have gotten to the linebacker yet. Knowing this, I will continue on my path front side as long as I can to put the offensive line in a better position to make blocks at the linebacker level. A runner with patience lets his blocks set up before he makes his cut.
MW: Do you study other runners? If so, who do you try to emulate?
CS: I probably spend more time watching runners who are similar to me than I do watching film of myself. Ray Rice has always been one of my favorites to watch. I also watch Ahmad Bradshaw, Maurice Jones-Drew and Knowshon Moreno as well as some others. I like to see what they do in the open field, how they set up their blocks, as well as how they set up their moves. Watching film of others, just like watching film of myself, shows me all the possible options I have in a given situation.
MW: What things have you adopted from other backs and whom did you take from?
CS: I try to take little things from all the backs I watch. There isn’t one guy out there who is just perfect at everything. Guys are put into different situations to play to their strengths. One person I do kind of emulate but it’s grown into my own thing is Moreno. I use to watch his college film during my sophomore year and really noticed the way he could gear down, drop his hips, change directions, and speed back up. I was not a big cutback runner at the time and I still am not, but I have found ways to use that in my game.
MW: Wasn’t Moreno a reason why your teammates gave you the nickname Superman?
CS: It was my personal spin on Moreno’s superman pose. The whole week heading into the bowl game of my sophomore year I studied Moreno. When I got in the game and hit a big run, I got up and put my hands on my hips as if I was Superman. When I got back to DeKalb, my teammates started calling me that and eventually it got out to the media.
Then on homecoming the following year, we went for it against Western Michigan on a fourth and one on their 19-yard line. We ran power right and I made a guy miss in the hole, got about five more yards, and made another guy miss. I cut at an angle to run away from the pursuit and dove into the end zone. There were some great photos taken of that dive and it looked like I was flying. From then on I was Superman to everyone.
MW: Which aspect(s) of your game do you believe is underestimated by those who evaluate talent either in the media or the N.F.L.?
CS: I can give you two off the top of my head: my hands and my speed. In our offense at Northern Illinois we didn’t use the running back very often in the passing game. My junior year, we had a veteran offensive line which let me have more opportunities to line up in the slot or run check down routes. Senior year, we had four new starters on the offensive line, so I was asked to help out pass blocking much more often.
MW: I compared your style to Priest Holmes, and when you read my take on Twitter, you told me that Chicago Bears wide receiver Johnny Knox told you the same thing just the day before while you were training with him. Why do you think you’ve been stylistically compared to Holmes or Ahmad Bradshaw?
CS: I think my stature plays a big part in the comparison. The three of us are shorter backs, all around 5-9, and about 200 pounds. I think we all rely on our vision and instincts to be able to run between the tackles rather than trying to always get to the outside runs like most smaller backs. Another thing Priest Holmes could do was score touchdowns, which I did a lot of at N.I.U.
MW: Speaking of Holmes and Bradshaw, anyone with a little bit of perspective about the N.F.L. draft understands that there are numerous examples of running backs who developed into starters despite being late draft picks or not drafted at all. Holmes, Bradshaw, Arian Foster and Terrell Davis are all examples.
Obviously getting drafted would be a high point for you, but as a man who proved college football wrong, what did you learn about that experience that you would apply to the beginning of your N.F.L. journey?
CS: Once again, I think it comes down to the little things. I have to be willing to do whatever it takes to be a contributor on the team. I was a starter or backup on every special teams unit until my senior year. Also doing the extra film study, the extra workouts, and the extra-extra workouts. Continuing on at the next level with that commitment is essential to my N.F.L. future.
MW: N.I.U. alums Michael Turner and Garrett Wolfe are in the N.F.L. Have you talked with them about the transition? If so, what have they shared with you about the demands of the position at the pro level?
CS: Garrett Wolfe has kind of been a mentor to me my whole college career. The biggest difference between college and the pros he told me was the defensive line. Defensive end has become one of the most athletic positions on the field.
I played against New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul in the International Bowl my junior year. At one point during the game, he tackled me and then picked me up and set me on my feet. I felt like a child or maybe a doll being thrown around. After the game, he did a back flip with all of his pads on. You don’t see that kind of strength and athleticism every week in college. Garrett explained to me that there is a Pierre-Paul on every team in the N.F.L.
MW: Chargers GM A.J. Smith attended your Pro Day workout. The Chargers also drafted Turner. You were recently in San Diego on a visit. What kind of feedback did the team have for you as a prospect?
CS: Very positive. They told me they’re looking for a third runner and think I could fit in their offense.
MW: What will you be doing during the draft?
CS: I haven’t thought too in depth what I would like to do on draft day. I know I don’t want to be sitting in front of the TV for three days. I think I might go golfing with my two brothers. Just relax and ease my mind.