Running Back Essentials: Switching Hands

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All fumbles are inopportune moments.  All fumbles change the dynamics, flow, and momentum of the game.  One of the many ways a fumble can occur is when the running back holds the ball on the wrong hand.

Changing hands as a ball carrier is a necessary, yet oft-neglected or overlooked skill, at the high school level for running backs and even quarterbacks and wide receivers.  There are players who exhibit clear favoritism toward carrying the ball on their dominant hand and are nervous to carry the ball on their other hand, much less make an immediate change to avoid a defender.  We emphasize carrying the ball on the “outside arm” away from the defender, but the transition to the outside arm is an important detail we must underscore and drill in practice.  Doing so will increase the confidence of the running back and drastically lower the incidence of fumbles.

I work on hand changes with the running back on a daily basis.  The drill is simple, requires very little space, and can be performed on the field and off the field.  On the field, simply line up all quarterbacks and running backs and have them hold the ball properly on the same hand.  There are only two coaching cues.

“Cover over the top.”

“Rip across.”

running back Figure 1

running backThis method protects the ball with two hands covering the football against the body during the transition.  The running back firmly secures the ball on the other hand instantaneously with the index finger and middle finger securing the tip and the back of the ball firmly planted inside the elbow with the elbow clamped down and flexed.

The transition is secure, fast, and the newly freed hand is available to swipe away a defender’s hand or perform a stiff arm.  So fast and secure is this technique that I have had my running backs cover up with two hands in the hole and then fluidly switch hands after making a linebacker miss.

The advanced version of this drill will involve the running back completing the zig zag drill or doing the jump cut drill.  As the running back approaches the cone, he covers up the ball over the top with two hands, makes a cut, and comes out of the gate with the ball on the other hand. (See Figure 2)

Even if the running back changes his mind and decides not to switch hands, the ball remains secure in the original hand. (See Figure 3)

Such security and usefulness is not present in other erroneous transition techniques.  There are two major examples of incorrect hand transitions that coaches must identify, explain, and correct.  One common error is when the running back covers the ball underneath.  This technique is flawed for three reasons.

First, in order to cover underneath, the ball carrier must raise and open the elbow carrying the ball.   This will allow a defender a split second to punch the ball out or snatch it outright.  Split seconds can make a difference in a game and for the split seconds the ball is exposed, the risk of a fumble increases significantly.

running back Figure 3

Second, when covering underneath, the ball carrier cannot be as decisive and aggressive as covering over the top.  The running back must accurately lay the ball on the bottom hand.  There is a risk that the ball carrier will drop the ball.  (See Figure 4)

running back

Figure 4

Thirdly, there is also the risk that if the running back is not careful with the transition, he will rip across from underneath and cause his own fumble.  When pulling the ball to the other side from underneath, the back tip of the ball will not be secured on the inside elbow.  It will be extended beyond the outside elbow and an aggressive rip will inadvertently cause a self-inflicted fumble.

running backWhen covering over the top and ripping across, the back tip of the ball will be secured inside the elbow naturally as the ball carrier clamps down on the other side.  When covering underneath and pulling across, the ball will not be secured inside the elbow because the arm enters at an inconvenient angle underneath that makes it physically impossible to make a transition free of adjustments.

Every split second the running back has to think about adjusting and securing the ball is a split second lost in speed and a split second gained in ball insecurity.

The other incorrect hand transition involves the running back putting two hands on the ball on the sides like he is extending for a first down or a touchdown.  This is appropriate if the ball carrier is in a last-ditch effort to fight for yards and deems that the reward of success outweighs the risk of a fumble in that particular game situation.  However, if done solely to change hands during the course of a run, this is not an ideal technique. (See Figure 5)

The flaws of this hand change technique are obvious.  The ball is not secured against the chest, which will allow a defender to disrupt the hand change.  Furthermore, if the hand change proceeded and the receiving hand was not placed on the front of the ball, the ball will require adjustments on the fly because neither the front nor the back of the ball will be secured automatically in the transition.

The proper technique provides ball security through all phases of the transition.  The ball will remain secure even if the ball carrier decides not to change hands after covering up the ball.  So effective and secure is this technique that it can even be performed in the hole in traffic.

“Cover over the top.”  “Rip across.”

Phil Tran, MSED, CSCS, is the Head Football Strength and Conditioning Coach and Assistant Football Coach for the prestigious Gilman School in Baltimore, Md., and the owner of PT Strength, LLC, a strength and conditioning business. Contact Coach Tran at For more information about offense, check out our archives.

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