NFL DRAFT: GROUP OF FIVE RUNNING BACKS TO WATCH
By Rebecca Rennie
At the time of writing, the future of the 2020 college football season is highly uncertain. With three conferences already cancelling fall football and potentially more to follow, I was unsure whether to complete this article.
There’s the possibility that none of the prospects below are able to play this upcoming season. How that factors into a potential 2021 draft class is unknown.
At some point however, whether this year or a future year, these prospects will get their chance. So for now, hopefully this proves an enjoyable read and puts some talented prospects on your radar.
The Tigers have rapidly developed into one of the most consistent competitors in the Group of Five. They have also had a growing NFL Draft presence, particularly at the running back position. Though pro impact has been minimal to unproven as yet, the likes of Darrell Henderson, Tony Pollard, Antonio Gibson and Patrick Taylor Jr. have all recently reached the NFL.
That success under now-departed coach Mike Norvell included bringing in exceptional athletes, often raw or requiring a position change and getting them on the field with the ball in their hands. Former high school QB Gainwell is the latest example of the latter. The redshirt sophomore standout has the potential to be the most coveted prospect of the lot.
The Tigers’ superb 2019 season included an 11-1 regular season and an AAC Championship win over Cincinnati. That led to a New Year’s Six appearance and competitive loss to Penn State to conclude the year. Gainwell was one of the breakout stars in his first full year playing. Surpassing 2,000 yards from scrimmage, he dominated as both a runner and receiver, including 16 total touchdowns. He did have a somewhat rough outing in that Cincinnati title game. However, the Bearkats D-line dominated in the trenches, smothering Gainwell and giving him limited opportunity.
With a physically engaging style, he plays bigger than his relatively lighter weight listing. While anticipating Gainwell to exceed 200lbs by the draft, his physicality between the tackles shines through regardless. Where much of his appeal stems from however, is his presence as a receiving threat. Gainwell could be one of the better pass catching backs in recent draft classes. Not only outstanding out of the backfield, he also produces from the slot, with yards and the catch, and on downfield targets.
The overall versatility reflects a well-rounded skill set and athletic profile. His shiftiness and general short-area quickness contribute to making defenders miss and breaking big plays. Gainwell is regularly effective in sticking his foot in the ground and evading tackle attempts. Equally, there’s no fear of taking hits, regularly driving through contact to finish runs. The Tigers star in unquestionably a tough, high motor player.
While the lower body explosion and shift is fantastic, Gainwell’s top speed appears good but not great. He demonstrates anticipation but the vision can be inconsistent despite his production. Keeping in mind his relative newness to the position, this should improve with time. His pass protection is currently a primary area of weakness for Gainwell. In addition to the smaller frame, his poor technique is an issue in executing.
The former 3-star recruit has rapidly developed into one of the more exciting prospects at the position. The versatile skill set and receiving ability are sure to be highly coveted already, with plenty room for development. It will be fascinating to see how he follows up his monstrous breakout year, whether this season or next.
With MAC football the first FBS conference to confirm postponement, Patterson’s future is uncertain. What is unquestionable however, is that the Buffalo back is a quality pro prospect whenever his time comes. Relative to most GO5 programs, the Bulls were loaded with pro prospects, looking poised as potential MAC champions. Patterson has been a huge part of the rise in fortunes, under excellent head coach Lance Leopold.
A solid to good athlete, Patterson doesn’t bring elite speed and explosion, along with a listed weight under 200lbs. That said, he has more than enough athletic ability for the pros and he has a compact stout build for his shorter frame. What immediately stands out with Patterson’s film is how polished he is in every aspect of playing the position. In addition to the impeccable technical execution, the redshirt junior has obvious natural instincts and football IQ.
Taking the above into account, it’s no surprise that Patterson was so productive right from his redshirt freshman season. The 2018 MAC freshman of the year topped 1,000 rush yards and 14 TDs in his first season. Last year’s sophomore season took that production to another level. In 2019, Patterson rushed for a school record 1,799 yards and 19 TDs on the ground. He has formed a devastating duo with fellow junior Kevin Marks, another with pro potential.
Over his two seasons, Patterson has not seen a great deal of work as a receiver, totalling 20 receptions. The film suggests potential to provide much more in this area, however. Patterson looks natural running routes in space, with soft hands and catching well in stride. Given his body type, he could be expected to have a prominent role as a receiver in the pros. While seeing more tangible numbers going forward would be helpful, Patterson should excel in such a role.
As a ball carrier, Patterson combines his polished technique with outstanding vision and physicality. An extremely tough and aggressive player, the Buffalo junior gives his all to every snap and carry. Patterson is ultra-consistent with plus footwork, decision-making and making full use of his good contact balance and natural leverage. There will be running backs in upcoming draft classes with more upside than Patterson, but few as pro-ready, consistently reliable or as determined and tough.
Through six seasons, head coach Craig Bohl has solidified the Cowboys as a competitive entity in the Mountain West. With three 8-win seasons over the last four years and a 2-1 bowl record during that time, they have also had a pair of high draft picks recently in 3rd round LB Logan Wilson and top 10 pick Josh Allen at QB. During this summer, Xazavian Valladay has been one of the best unexpected surprises during film study. He could be the next Wyoming standout to earn a mid-round draft selection.
His lean frame, impressive burst and agility are partly reminiscent of Darrynton Evans from the previous draft class. Both also demonstrated smart play and reads, that could see Valladay prove similarly coveted in an upcoming draft. His breakout 2019 redshirt sophomore season wasn’t quite as productive as Gainwell and Patterson’s above. However, he showcased a fantastic skill set to go with nearly 1,500 yards from scrimmage.
Valladay has obvious athletic traits for the next level. With quick feet and effective acceleration, he makes plays outside, stretching the defense and winning angles to the sidelines. Once free on the second level or after the catch, he has legit home run ability, utilizing long strides. His burst and changes of direction, alongside good vision and reactions allow Valladay to create out of structure as plays break down. A great example is highlighted in the video below.
Though not overly broad and physically imposing, Valladay plays big with endearing toughness. It may not be how he primarily makes his money but there’s a lot to like about how he runs between the tackles. Willingly taking and delivering hits, he challenges defenders directly, churns for extra yardage and breaks his share of tackles. He flashes good use of his hands and enough contact balance to aid his progress through traffic.
The redshirt junior has not seen a great deal of work through the air to this point. However, he looks more than comfortable when called upon. His 11 receptions in 2019 averaged over 19 YPC thanks to some game-breaking catch-and-runs. He seems to have relatively little buzz at this stage but has a translatable skill set. Whenever Valladay does hit the draft, expect his name to quickly become more heavily discussed.
Regardless of competition level, the Cajuns featured one of the nation’s most impressive run attacks in 2019. That led to stud O-lineman Robert Hunt earning a 2nd round pick from the Dolphins and under-rated guard Kevin Dotson going to the Steelers in Round 4. They led the way for a trio of talents backs of differing skill sets. Speedster Raymond Calais was selected by the Bucs in Round 7, and the powerful Trey Ragas returns as a senior. Also returning is fellow senior Elijah Mitchell, an appealing blend of the two and arguably the best pro prospect.
It’s easy to foresee scouts being excited about the combination of measurables, with Mitchell appearing to tick off the boxes in terms of the size, power and athleticism trifecta. The upfield burst and overall straight-line speed for his 221lb frame is immediately evident and results in regular chunk-yardage gains, taking full advantage when space opens up in front of him.
While he makes the most of open run lanes, that’s not to say that he doesn’t impress at the line and in traffic. Mitchell flashes the ability to pick his way between the tackles with nice footwork and reactionary shifts. He brings bang behind his pads, lowers his shoulder into tackles, and regularly breaks through tackle attempts.
The effort is fantastic, finishing every run falling forward and driving for maximum yardage. His style isn’t overly subtle or complex but it certainly is effective. He may not be at an elite level in creating outside of structure but executes well and generally makes the right decisions. His impressive 2019 year included 16 rushing TDs to go with 1,147 yards on just 198 carries. The junior wasn’t able to show much in the passing game last year but was productive with his chances in 2018.
Mitchell will be a senior, but one with less career carries in college than many. In addition, he’ll still split carries with Ragas (more on him below) and others. He has a complete skill set, with physical traits and athleticism, contact balance, toughness, vision, and better receiving skills than the stats suggest. Day 3 should be a lock, with a spot on Day 2 not beyond him if he stands out pre-draft.
The Warhawks have mostly been an afterthought as a source of pro prospects recently. Only two players have heard their name called in the NFL Draft over the last 12 years. There’s potential to increase those numbers in 2020, however, thanks to a gem of a playmaker at running back. There’s so much to like about Johnson’s play style, energy and motor to go with an exciting skill set.
His go-to game film was a standout performance against a disorganized but talented Florida State early in 2019, but the Junior College transfer had a strong season throughout. Against the Seminoles the UL-Monroe runner totalled 126 yards and a TD on the ground. For the year, Johnson piled up 1,298 rushing yards at 6.46 yards per carry and 11 rush TDs.
Johnson features a bowling ball build and light feet. The dynamic back plays with a spring in his step and is explosive cutting upfield to burst onto the second level. Clearly an NFL-caliber athlete, Johnson is equally productive both to the edges and between the tackles. The key technical deficiency evident in his film is a tendency to get over his pads, head leading and dropping. Despite that, he shows good balance, utilizing his low center of gravity as he works through traffic. The toughness and leverage pluses work significantly in his favor.
More than just athletic, the ULM standout regularly shows patience and timing for blocks and holes to develop, before surging north. Unsurprisingly given his commitment, Johnson gives his all in pass protection. The issues with form and keeping his head up appear in this area also, however. There are aspects to his game that can improve as referenced, but the dynamic runner can find a home in the pros.
OTHER PROSPECTS TO WATCH
Trey Ragas, Louisiana: Not many backs in the 230lb range move as well as Ragas. It’s not surprising to hear some throw out names such as Brandon Jacobs when discussing Ragas. A power-through-contact runner, the Cajuns back isn’t the shiftiest laterally but accelerates well with nice footwork. Tough to bring down at the best of times, once he has an open running lane and head of steam, he’s tough to stop. Breaking tackles sees him pile up yards after contact, and averaged 7.07 YPC in 2019. Durability has been a concern with ankle and knee issues previously.
BJ Emmons, Florida Atlantic: An Alabama transfer, Emmons maintains some of the intrigue that saw him as one of the top RB recruits in the country out of high school. Multiple foot injuries have played a part in his underwhelming college career. He returned from a broken ankle early in 2019 to finish last season strongly. The flashes at 5’11, 230lbs are impressive. The lateral agility for his size is rare. He could show more consistent toughness between the tackles, too often looking tentative as he braces for contact. Technically, his footwork can let him down. There’s development required but he could be worth a late round flyer.
Justin Henderson, Louisiana Tech: The JUCO transfer is another with a bulky frame for his size, at 5’9, 228lbs. That powerful body type and good contact balance saw him frequently bounce off defenders and break tackles. His productive junior year included 15 rush TDs and over 1,000 rush yards. More reps could see improvement, but his vision and reads were not consistent from his 2019 film. There’s plenty to work with however, and a relentless motor that will aid him in the meantime. Translatable size and physical traits, though a projection at his current level of consistency and execution.
Gaej Walker, Western Kentucky: Though he played RB in high school, Walker spent his first few years in college at defensive back. He converted to offense for his junior year to great success. The 5’11”, 195lb back rushed for over 1,200 yards, handling a heavy workload. Walker is lean framed but a top athlete with next-level upfield burst and agility in space. Though not a physical force, he plays with toughness between the tackles. His footspeed is impressive, though regularly with wasted motion as he gathers himself to change directions. There’s potential to earn a complimentary role and shows potential as a pass catcher.
Feature Image Credit: UB Athletics