So you think you can run

A 55-year-old speed guru helps make Oregon the fastest offense in football

Originally Published: September 3, 2013
By John Brant | ESPN The Magazine

Tyler JohstoneRic Tapia/Icon SMIOregon's offense, lead here by Tyler Johnstone, ranked third in rushing last season.

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WHEN TYLER JOHNSTONE arrived at the University of Oregon in the summer of 2011, he already thought he was fast. He had come out of Hamilton High in Chandler, Ariz., as a three-star tackle, coveted for his speed and athleticism. But to excel in D1, the then-6'5", 245-pound Johnstone thought he'd have to add at least 50 pounds to his rangy frame.

"I sort of expected to turn a page once I got to Oregon," says the redshirt sophomore. "I'd pile on the iron for the bench presses, pump my weight north of 300, have my gut spilling over my belt like the left tackles in the pros."

Two weeks after graduating, Johnstone reported to Eugene and learned that he would be attending speed school, an Oregon institution. There he'd be taught the specific biomechanical techniques that motor the Ducks' warp-speed offense. Speed school, in simplest terms, would teach Johnstone how to run.

"I thought that was sort of weird," he says. "I was already recognized for my speed. I assumed it was a talent that I was born with. How could anybody teach you to run faster?"

But Jim Radcliffe, then beginning his 25th season as head strength and conditioning coach -- his third under former head coach Chip Kelly -- isn't just anybody. He is regarded as one of the nation's foremost experts on sprint training, and the spoils of his speed school and year-round conditioning, combined with the introduction of Kelly's spread offense in the Dennis Dixon era, have kept the Ducks in the running as the fastest program in the Pac-12.

"What partly defines us is that we teach running as a skill every bit as basic to the game as blocking and tackling," says first-year head coach Mark Helfrich. "Coach Rad is always thinking and pushing, always putting science ahead of tradition, and he's been doing that for a long time."

So following protocol, Johnstone enrolled in the speed school: a series of weekly sessions recommended for all new players, regardless of position. Not even Heisman hopeful De'Anthony Thomas, perhaps the fastest college player in the nation with a 4.34-second 40-yard dash, passed it up. Johnstone was put in a group with other linemen, and then Radcliffe and his assistants started showing the players that essentially everything they knew about sprinting was wrong. "It was all the little things," says Johnstone, 20. "How you pointed your toes, the set of your shoulders, the angle of your elbows. In Oregon's offense, you have to redline it during plays and redline it between plays. In speed school, we learned specifically how to redline it."

They would also learn that the 55-year-old Radcliffe is a show-not-tell kind of S&C coach. Stories are told about how he once leaped from a standing position to the top of a desk -- wearing wingtip shoes, slacks and a tie -- to demonstrate his plyometric program. And in 2003, after a 42-10 loss to Washington, Radcliffe joined the players for a punishing mass of up-downs (run in place, flop down to belly, jump back to feet, repeat).

"We had to do some insane number of reps," says Tony Salazar, a wide receiver on that team who is now in Nike's football sports marketing department. "It was so many that we had to do them in shifts, half the team at a time, interspersed through a two-hour practice. Coach Rad did every one of those up-downs with us -- with both groups of players."

[+] EnlargeOregon Speed Training
Eric EvansJohnstone calls the 55-year-old Radcliffe "the most amazing old guy" he's ever seen.
Johnstone learned the bottom line on the O-line: Quickness and endurance outstrip sheer size. Last season Oregon averaged 299 pounds up front, a whopping 15 fewer pounds per man than national champ Alabama.

"Bama O-linemen need plenty of bulk to execute Nick Saban's smashmouth man-blocking schemes," says ESPN analyst Brock Huard. "But Johnstone and [center] Hroniss Grasu are equipped for a zone-run game predicated not on brute force but on movement, stamina and the ability to shield defenders, not necessarily pancake them. The goal is to cut down the initial man and scrape to the second level, eventually wearing down bigger front sevens."

Indeed, the key to Oregon's ascendance might lie less in the telegenic speed of its scatbacks than in the largely overlooked speed of its tackles and guards. In 2009 Radcliffe published "Trench Warriors," an online article in which he delineated his philosophy for training linemen. He panned exercises performed in a sitting or prone position -- the big man's traditional weight-room staples -- in favor of "any drill that involves projection of the hips." Other Radcliffe notes: Stride length can be improved more readily than stride frequency; stride length is largely a function of hip flexibility; speed and strength are most productive when speed is superior to strength; get fast first, then build endurance.

"We do stuff that's pretty wild," says junior Grasu of drills at a typical workout. "You'll see 300-pound guys walking around on their hands. In the offseason, I'll work out with linemen from other schools, and they can't believe how flexible I am."

Now a speed-school grad and prepping for the 2013 season, Johnstone toils in tandem with Grasu and several other offensive linemen on this drizzly May morning a week after the end of spring practice. They're running a series of 30-yard sprints up the asphalt ramp leading to the main gate of Autzen Stadium. On game days, this incline teems with thousands of fans jostling to watch the Ducks, whose blur offense has produced a 46-7 record over the past four seasons. Just last season, the team ran 81 plays per game, ninth most in the FBS.

Johnstone steps deliberately to the line, another 30 yards ahead of him, settling into a relaxed two-point stance, toes pointed straight ahead, shoulders and back straight. At a nod from an assistant coach, he accelerates off the line, moving with the fierce economy of a thoroughbred breaking from the gate. He glides up the hill, running balanced and tall, ankles locked to lessen ground contact time, thumbs up so that his arms pump straight ahead and lips fluttering to keep his jaw relaxed.

Radcliffe declined interview requests, adhering to the tradition that an S&C coach's proper place is backstage, not center stage, but he confirms in an e-mail that they're not trying to build fitness with this drill. He says it's all about technique. That means speed accrues as a byproduct of proper sprint mechanics. If a player trains intelligently -- patiently increasing his hip flexibility and consequently lengthening his stride -- he will eventually, inevitably, run faster.

Although he's mastered that precept now, Johnstone, back in the summer of 2011, hardly aced speed school. "There was so much new stuff coming at me that I was actually relieved to be redshirted freshman year," says the 277-pound Johnstone, who now runs a 5.08-second 40 and is on the preseason watch list for the 2013 Outland Trophy and the Lombardi Award.

Now the precise stride mechanics that seemed confusing before feel like second nature, he says. During workouts, he doesn't have to think about where to hold his thumbs or remember to flutter his lips, and during games, when the blur is rolling, the feeling transcends words. "Sometimes when everything is clicking and the defensive guys are sucking wind, showing that hunted look, we just sort of look at each other," Johnstone says. "We realize that we're taking the game to a place where nobody's been before."

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