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Anthony McFarland is the Steelers new weapon-X, Part 1: An origin story

Looking at Anthony McFarland’s 2018 rise to national recognition.

Maryland v Temple Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images

I’ve been going through a lot of film on Anthony McFarland Jr., and I decided to break this film room into 3 sections, similar to the breakdown of Diontae Johnson I did after the 2019 draft.

Part 1 will cover the first nine games of his college career,

Part 2 will cover the final three games of his Freshman year, his breakout games against Indiana and Ohio State, as well as the season finale against Penn State.

Part 3 will cover his sophomore season, and I’ll try to show why his numbers dropped, the impact of his injury as well as any growth in his game, and will include my thoughts for the 2020 season.

But for now let’s start at the beginning of his college career.

Anthony McFarland broke his fibula in his senior year of High School. Even without being healthy he was still a highly valued recruit, ranked in the top 100 by several recruit rankings. In 2017 he wasn’t fully recovered, and ended up red-shirting that season. Coming into the 2018 season McFarland, a RS Freshman, was toward the bottom of a deep RB rotation.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the RB

This is one of McFarland’s 3 touches in his first college game, his balance is nice here, the defender gets a really good swipe at his feet, and he is able to get 7 yards after that contact.

Against Bowling Green he would get 10 touches, ranking 4th on the team, mostly in shotgun or H-back. While his rushing was modest, this game contained the longest reception of his college career.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the RB.

A nice run and catch for a big gain, even though this was in the second game of the season, McFarland would only gain 17 receiving yards the rest of the 2018 season.

McFarland would be the leading rusher in the next game, moving from 8th in touches against Texas to 1st with 11 touches and his first 100 yard game in a loss to Temple.

While he has a number of good runs in that game, this was my favorite. Anthony McFarland Jr. is the RB.

It may not look like much, but the point where he plants his right foot on the 37 yard line and explodes into the hole marks one of the first times in his college career we’d see his best trait.

Here’s a half-speed zoomed in view of it.

He almost looks like he teleports a yard with that move, and here it gets him past the 2 defenders who are right on him and he falls forward for a 5 yard gain, 7 yards after he planted his foot to burst into the hole. When you are fast enough to make a GIF look like frames were removed, that’s impressive.

Maryland would next face Minnesotta, coming in at 3-0 and who would end up going 7-6 with a Bowl Game win over Georgia Tech. Ty Johnson and Anthony McFarland would both run for 100+ as the Terrapins handed the Gophers their worst loss of the season.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the RB.

While the Maryland offensive line was dominant that day, you can see McFarland’s speed and his smart angles on this run, his first college TD. I really like his path after breaking into the secondary, as he gets the rest of the defenders trapped behind his downfield blockers. Downfield blocking will be a consistent theme in his big plays.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the RB.

McFarland’s second TD is even better than the first. He shows smart running here, pinching as close to his lineman #75 as he can, and it sets up his cut outside, and again you can see the acceleration at the <40 yard line (about 4 yards after the line of scrimmage) where he turns up field and is gone. Notice how his hips and shoulders all instantly align. McFarland has straight line speed, and the ability to line everything up instantly and explode forward is a real weapon.

McFarland only touched the ball 6 times in the game, but he was involved in other areas, here he is lined up as the wing-back, the player farthest to the top of the screen.

A good effort, but not very good execution. Blocking is a weakness, but he will improve.

Against Devin Bush and the Michigan Wolverines the Terrapins would struggle, especially from the tailback position, as most of their rushing yards were gained on jet sweeps and QB scrambles.

But that doesn’t mean there weren’t any good runs. McFarland is the RB behind the QB in this play.

There isn’t much blocking success on this play, but after breaking a Chase Winovich tackle attempt McFarland is able to gain 14 yards with blue shirts all over him. McFarland runs low and with good balance, which makes him hard to bring down when defenders can’t get him squared up.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the RB.

This is a great run in heavy traffic, finding his way through the blue shirts for a solid gain. This is it for the good, but on a day where McFarland had very little help he was still able to pull off a few nice runs.

Against Rutgers McFarland would again lead the Terrapins in touches with 11.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the H-back, just off the line to the top of the screen.

I think plays like this could have been more valuable for the Terrapins if they used it more, defenses counter those jet sweeps by getting their DEs into the backfield wide, you can see the DE coming up looking to defend the sweep, then backing off and McFarland gains 5 yards on the pass. It doesn’t look like he’ll even get that much, but he is able to burst into his straight line speed and get past the first defender.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the RB.

This reminds me a lot of what the Steelers RBs saw in tougher games last season, the line is holding ground, but not getting any push, and there aren’t any run lanes. I like that McFarland doesn’t try to bounce this outside, but lowers his head and crashes into the side of his lineman, giving enough added push to move the pile a bit and fall forward for a 5 yard gain.

Iowa was the second best run defense in the Big 10 in 2018, one of the three teams to hold Maryland to single digit points (MSU, PSU), and the only team to shut them out.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the wing back to the bottom of the screen.

Here the DE reads the play quickly and is fast enough to get to McFarland in the backfield. This will show up again, where a disciplined defense with smart, athletic DEs are able to wreck Canada’s run game. The QB play didn’t help, the DE isn’t reading from the QB to the RB here, and there was a lane for the QB if he kept the football.

Against Illinois McFarland would get more than 11 touches for the first time in his college career, Ty Johnson strained his calf early in this game, and would only see 5 more carries over the last 4 games of the season.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the RB.

That’s good hard contact McFarland bounces off of, and he gains another 9 yards for it. He’s not a power back, but he is built low and can deliver a hit if the defender isn’t squared up.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the wing back to the top of the screen.

McFarland approaches this block with the intelligence and patience he shows in his runs, he follows the TE until the defender commits to a course, and then engages.

Michigan State would also take down the Maryland rushing attack, barely giving up any yards before the 4th quarter when they had a 3 score lead.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the running back.

McFarland runs right at his RT who is getting driven back, which causes the LB to come outside to try to seal the edge, then you see McFarland jump cut and manage to gain yards. The defense was up to the task and it is a small gain, but the thought process from McFarland is consistent and effective.

While the next 2 games would launch McFarland into the national spotlight, I wanted to show why he was in position to have those 2 games. What you see in these plays is the same thing you will see in the next part of this series. McFarland put a lot of good traits on this film, vision, using blockers, patience, balance, and enough power to break poor tackles.

But the important thing is his speed. McFarland is largely a straight line speed guy. his best traits are that wicked jump cut when running laterally, and his ability to plant his foot, turn his hips and shoulders and explode forward in that straight line.

When he sees the lane open up he hits it fast with breakaway speed. In part 2 we’re going to see all of these traits come together in dominant fashion.