2017 Senior Bowl Running Backs Preview

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* All height and weight measurements have been updated with official Senior Bowl numbers.

Many members of the Inside The Pylon team are attending the Senior Bowl in Mobile. I will not be. I am jealous. I enjoyed writing this article on one of my favorite positions to watch. Boy, has it increased my envy though. This is an intriguing running back group, with each back possessing different skillsets to the other. Each has something they need to show more of at the Senior Bowl. Each has something they will flash. I look forward to the drills providing a better idea of every prospect’s capabilities.

(Sorted alphabetically)

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Corey Clement, Wisconsin

Age: 22

Measurements: 5ft 10, 221lbs.

Production: 3092 rushing, 5.4ypc and 36 touchdowns

Clement is a downhill runner, the sort Wisconsin’s big lines always suit and produce. He has a rumbling running style, lacking initial explosiveness and needing a runway to get up to a breakaway top speed. He often took what was blocked for him by the offensive line, and picked his hole well. However, he showed little creativity, and lateral agility, except for the odd stiff arm and juke in the open field.

On passing downs, focus drops are a worry. He often seemed to switch his attention to turning upfield too soon, resulting in him dropping very catchable passes. When staying back to protect his quarterback, he struggled with speed off the edge.

In the Senior Bowl, I look forward to seeing him in pass-protection and pass-catching drills. To maximise his NFL prospects, he needs to show that he can be a three-down back. The two-down back is a dying breed, reserved only for very special talents. I do not believe Clement is at that level. I also want to see what Clement’s footwork and foot-speed is like, because it appeared slow at the beginning of plays on tape.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Matt Dayes, North Carolina State

Age: 21

Measurements: 5ft 9, 207lbs.

Production: 2856 rushing, 5.2ypc and 34 touchdowns

Dayes is a one-cut running back who runs behind his pads and bounces off of tacklers. His one-cut style is lethal on outside runs, where he runs across the field and then plants his foot, exploding into the crease he has found. As a smaller prospect, his burst is a tad disappointing, but he has really nice open field speed. His size and speed sees him bouncing runs outside often.

His speed is best put to use in the passing game, where he ran a variety of routes out of the backfield, the slot, and while split out wide. He was particularly dangerous on screen passes, which formed a significant portion of NC State’s offensive gameplan. His route-running is crisp for a running back, but more importantly he has shown that he can adjust to the ball mid-flight. He just needs to be able to do this more consistently. The same applies to his ball location skills.

In pass protection, he was at times knocked to the ground by blitzing linebackers, and he struggled with speed-to-power pass rushers. His solution was often a cut block, but better linemen saw this move coming – due to its slowness. This was best evidenced against Clemson, where their line hurdled it regularly.

In the NFL, Dayes would likely be coveted more for his receiving ability than his running. It is therefore crucial for him to dominate linebackers when he is in receiving drills against them. If he locates the ball and adjusts to it on a regular basis, he will boost his draft stock through his Senior Bowl showing.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Kareem Hunt, Toledo

Age: 21

Measurements: 5ft 10, 208lbs.

Production: 4945 rushing yards, 6.3ypc and 44 touchdowns

Hunt ran behind one of the best lines in the MAC during his time in Toledo. He presses the point of attack well, finding holes where the play was not originally designed to go. Hunt is always looking to get north-south, lowering his pad level and trucking defenders. He also uses a nasty off-hand stiff arm, which he throws defenders away with. Hunt’s burst combined with his line would often see him go untouched into the second level, where he would break tackles, juke and churn his legs. In greater space he lacks top-end speed, but he sets up defenders by stringing together cuts, jump cuts and jukes excellently.

His physicality, combined with his second effort, makes him an excellent finisher, particularly in short-yardage situations. Where there was an unblocked linebacker ready to fill the gap and prevent the first down, Hunt would run him over and fall forward for the first. At the goalline, he has the ability to leap over the pile.

In the passing game, he caught 41 passes for 403 yards in 2016. He has the best hands out of this Senior Bowl running back group, catching under pressure and in traffic. On check-and-release routes, Hunt was proficient at making himself available to his quarterback, nestling in the space between the defensive line and linebackers. One of the special plays he made came when he did not even catch the football. Hunt surged down the field after releasing into a hitch route, showing great competitiveness. He cut block a would-be-tackler, allowing a Toldeo receiver to score against Northern Illinois. Toledo understandably leaned on Hunt a fair bit in the passing game.

In pass protection, he recognised cornerback blitzes and picked up the free rusher – demonstrating a good understanding of his role. Where he struggled was with pure speed off the edge, and also on surrendering the inside at times. He needs to learn how to shepherd rushers to the outside on a more frequent basis. He will need show some improvement in this area at the Senior Bowl.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State

Age: 22

Measurements: 5ft 8, 169lbs.

Production: 6409 rushing yards, 6.0ypc and 62 rushing touchdowns

Pumphrey is one of the most explosive players in recent years, let alone out of those attending the 2017 Senior Bowl. He is a cheat code-style running back, with blistering stop-start quickness, speed, and acceleration. His great speed control is particularly lethal when he combines it with jukes moves at the line of scrimmage. This changes the direction of the run entirely, leaving defenders in the dirt. He also does this by pressing the point of attack, shaping as if he is going inside, and then planting an explosive cut to the outside. He is cunning with how he does this, setting the cut-back up throughout the game by running inside – where he finds seams to explode through. Important for maximising his athleticism, he runs with good vision, using his blockers nicely – for instance on pin-pull schemes.

At 169 lbs, there will be worries about his size during the draft evaluation process. He struggles to finish in short-yardage situations, and he initially had difficulties against the best defensive front San Diego State saw this season in the Houston Cougars. More pertinently, he took some huge hits in college which knocked him down. On the other hand, he missed zero games through injury. Furthermore, he can avoid tacklers through his slipperiness in addition to his lightning-in-a-bottle style. He squirts past defenders with a rapid spin move or jump cut, and also can get so low and bend so far that he squeezes and bounces through tight spaces. Fumbles are minimized by his ability to seamlessly switch his ball-carrying hand. Additionally, he is smart with his body. Rather than trying to run people over, he preserves himself, running out of bounds when necessary.

Considering his ridiculous twitchiness, it is unsurprising that Pumphrey found himself in the slot and split out wide as a receiver. He ran flat routes, out routes, streaks, and wheels – a multitude of plays. When making the catch, he managed to adjust to balls thrown behind him. He is aggressive in pass protection, fighting throughout the play. An area to work on is his open-field blocks, where he suffers from poor angles.

At the Senior Bowl, I want Pumphrey to confirm that he can run inside against some of the best defensive linemen in college. I’m excited to see his speed advantage show itself in the drills, and I feel his ability to cut and explode in short spaces could see him become a great route runner.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]De’Veon Smith, Michigan

Age: 22

Measurements: 5ft 11, 220lbs.

Production: 2235 rushing yards, 4.5ypc and 22 rushing touchdowns

Smith’s college production is affected by his surroundings: Michigan ran the ball by committee. Although he did not manage to win the job full-time, instead being leaned on more heavily when he was hot, Smith has shown traits which are desirable at the next level.

He is a tough downhill runner with a burst that is well above average for a guy that weighs in at 224 lbs. This size sees him run through ankle tackles, drag piles, and lower his shoulder into defenders. This power is combined with shiftiness, which mainly comes in the form of a nice juke move at the line of scrimmage. This results in defenders with good opportunities to stuff Smith missing. In the open-field, his hurdle move proved effective.

He really showed his speed on toss plays, which is where he tended to have his biggest runs. This was largely due to Michigan having an athletic line, who got outside and created space for Smith. That being said, Smith still finished the opportunities.

Smith had more difficulty finishing in short yardage situations, where he was often stuffed when running inside. He also seemed to get what was blocked for him rather than being creative or powering through lots of tacklers. Lastly, he missed a fair few potential cutback lanes – which in fairness is not really his style.

Jim Harbaugh frequently likes to push his running back out on a swing route on passing plays. Smith showed great hands on these opportunities, catching away from his body. In blitz diagnosis, Smith had difficulty with cornerbacks coming at the last second to rush the quarterback. That, though, is a particularly hard element of pass protection, and Smith was outstanding when holding up against blitzing linebackers, using great leverage to win the rep.

I look forward to seeing Smith take on some quality linebackers in pass protection drills; it will be a fierce battle. I really would like to see him bully defenders more when running the ball inside in short yardage situations.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Jamaal Williams, Brigham Young University

Age: 21 (will be 22 at the NFL draft)

Measurements: 6ft, 211lbs.

Production: 3901 rushing yards, 5.4ypc and 35 rushing touchdowns

Williams came back from his year of absence with a vengeance. He was the soul of BYU’s 2016 offense. He showed power, power, and more power, bouncing off of tacklers and persistently driving his legs. He does not give up on plays, always driving with high effort. His ability to run through people is aided by a number of factors. The positioning of his shoulders, which is square in relation to the line of scrimmage is useful, as his solid base and balance. He jump cuts to get small through holes, steps and jinks at the line of scrimmage to halt defenders and create space, and he understands when to get low. Running behind his pads, he trucks would-be tacklers and carries gang tacklers.

At the second level, he has a big off-hand stiff arm and more jump cuts. He has the burst to extend runs, yet sometimes appears almost too hesitant when picking a hole. (This will likely be determined depending on what NFL line he ends up running behind.) When in open space, Williams lacked the final gear to breakaway completely, seeing him caught from behind.

Additionally, Williams displays good elements on the mental side of being a running back. He presses the point of attack, getting very skinny, hiding behind the pile and finding tiny seams to run through. He kept the football secure for most of his college career, wrapping both hands properly around the football on impact and switching his ball-carrying hand at speed.

His impact on BYU’s passing game was limited. He did not get the opportunity to catch the ball that much, being made available from the backfield as a checkdown option, or on a hitch or swing. Despite Williams making some tough catches in traffic, he was largely a disappointment when he did receive catching opportunities. He did not fully extend his frame and showed a limited catch radius. Where he did impress was running down field to block when his mobile quarterback took off.

In Mobile, his catch radius will likely disappoint. He will probably show some good ability when taking on bull rushers in pass protection, but the area he struggled was cut blocking – something we are unlikely to see in drills for safety reasons. When cut blocking, Williams, on occasions, took bad angles. The interview stage for Williams will be important too, as he is questioned on his suspension from the 2015 season for an undisclosed rules violation.

Post-weigh-in edit: I, like many people, was shocked at the lightness of Hunt and Williams, who had previously been listed well into the 220s, if they played at the weight they were recorded at, it is disappointing that they did not show more lateral agility.

Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattyfbrown. Check out Matt’s other work here, such as the Mountaineers Red Zone Creativity.

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