You Just Signed A Blue-Chip Running Back! Now What?

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 3: Isaiah Crowell #1 of the Georgia Bulldogs carries the ball against the LSU Tigers during the SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on December 3, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

We continue the comparison of recruiting expectations and reality with a look at the running back position. Does parity reign, as it is beginning to in the NFL? Stay tuned to this series here.

We've all seen the film at some point. Some wonderfully fast, athletic high school running back carves up undersized, overwhelmed defenses with speed, power and elusiveness. If they are hemmed in toward the sideline, that's fine; they'll just pull a Tecmo Bo Jackson and reverse field to the other sideline, then just continue zigging and zagging until they end up in the end zone. They are bigger, stronger and faster than almost every defender they face, and they know it. They don't know how to handle adversity, but who needs to worry adversity when you're able to run like this?

Former five-star running back Bryce Brown was the worst best at this, but you see it time and again.

Film like that, along with some nice measurables, tends to earn you quite a few stars in the evaluation process. Brown, after all, was the No. 1 recruit in the country according to Rivals.

But film like this doesn't not necessarily tell you what a back will do when defenses are actually good at tackling (and won't let you just spin through three weak defenders) and fast enough to make you pay dearly for attempting to reverse field. And the results back that up.

In the NFL, people are slowly coming to understand that the running back position is one of almost mix-and-match capability. The great ones don't necessarily stay great very long, and the replacement-level options are seemingly limitless. That doesn't stop teams from freaking out and overpaying for backs sometimes, but the conventional wisdom has certainly shifted a bit toward rusher parity at this point.

To an extent, at least, the same holds true for running backs at the college level. While 2011 was a banner year for freshman receivers, the most highly-ranked running back signees did not exactly achieve at an amazing level.

  • Rivals.com's No. 1 running back in the Class of 2011, Texas' Malcolm Brown, rushed for 742 yards (4.3 per carry) and a minus-9.6 Adj. POE.
  • No. 2 James Wilder Jr. (Florida State) rushed for 160 yards (4.6 per carry) and a minus-1.3 Adj. POE.
  • No. 3 Brandon Williams (Oklahoma) rushed for 219 yards (4.8 per carry) and a minus-8.0 Adj. POE.
  • No. 4 Isaiah Crowell (Georgia) rushed for 850 yards (4.6 per carry) and a minus-2.9 Adj. POE.
  • No. 5 Mike Bellamy (Clemson) rushed for 343 yards (6.0 per carry) and a plus-0.2 Adj. POE.
  • No. 6 Mike Blakely (Auburn) redshirted due to eligibility issues.
  • No. 1 all-purpose back Demetrius Hart (Alabama) redshirted after tearing his ACL.

We often hear that blue-chip backs fail to see the field too much because they are still learning blocking assignments and whatnot; but really, the backs must also learn how to actually gain yards when they are no longer infinitely faster and stronger than the defenses they face. While strong rookie seasons do happen (South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore was strong in 2010, and Auburn's Michael Dyer was prolific), even the most highly touted running backs tend to play, at most, a supporting role when they hit campus.

Since 2005, 60 running backs have been given either a five-star or high-four-star designation by Rivals.com. Forty-four of the sixty have seen playing time as true freshmen. But only a small handful have produced at anything better than a slightly above-average rate.

(Note: here's where the Adj. POE measure comes in quite handy. It adjusts for opponents, so if a player torches Directional State in mop-up time, and it boosts his per-carry averages for the year, he doesn't receive an inordinate amount of credit for it. In all, it suggests how much better or worse a player was compared to a perfectly average college running back.)

As we did with receivers yesterday, we will make an attempt to categorize backs based on the roles they played as true freshmen. When talking about five-star blue-chippers, we tend to expect them to play immediately, and most of them do.

Did Not Play -- 16 players (27 percent)

Either because of injury, ineffectiveness or a crowded depth chart, a decent percentage (27 percent) of five- and high-four-star backs did not play as true freshmen. This isn't necessarily the red flag that it may be at receiver. Five players on this list went on to log at least one 1,000-yard season (Clay, Miller, Murray, Williams, Wood), and a sixth (Tyler) came close. A few players never came close to living up to their billing (Hales, Calhoun, Berry), and Seastrunk transferred after one year in Oregon, but for the most part most of these players end up making at least a minor contribution to the team with which they signed.

Mop-Up Time (Fewer Than 50 Carries) -- 11 players (18 percent)

  • Charles Scott, LSU (46 carries, 277 yards, plus-6.0 Adj. POE in 2006)
  • Antone Smith, Florida State (36 carries, 188 yards, plus-4.4 Adj. POE in 2005)
  • Lennon Creer, Tennessee (36 carries, 214 yards, plus-0.8 Adj. POE in 2007)
  • Jason Gwaltney, West Virginia (45 carries, 186 yards, plus-0.8 Adj. POE in 2005)
  • James Wilder, Jr., Florida State (35 carries, 160 yards, minus-1.3 Adj. POE in 2011)
  • James Aldridge, Notre Dame (37 carries, 142 yards, minus-3.7 Adj. POE in 2006)
  • Marlon Lucky, Nebraska (43 carries, 129 yards, minus-3.9 Adj. POE in 2005)
  • Brandon Williams, Oklahoma (46 carries, 219 yards, minus-8.0 Adj. POE in 2011)
  • Jonas Gray, Notre Dame (21 carries, 90 yards in 2008)
  • Carlos Brown, Michigan (16 carries, 41 yards in 2006)
  • Stafon Johnson, USC (three carries, 17 yards in 2006)

Stories in this category vary. Scott went on to post a plus-45.3 Adj. POE for his career, Gray posted an underrated plus-20.4 Adj. POE in his time at Notre Dame, and Creer posted a plus-10.1 Adj. POE at Tennessee in two years before transferring. But players like Lucky (career Adj. POE: minus-4.1) and Aldridge (minus-21.4) failed to even approach their hype, and others, like Smith and Johnson, were above average at best.

Minor Contributor (51-100 Carries) -- 17 players (28 percent)

  • Noel Devine, West Virginia (73 carries, 627 yards, plus-17.4 Adj. POE in 2007)
  • Keiland Williams, LSU (76 carries, 436 yards, plus-5.0 Adj. POE in 2006)
  • David Wilson, Virginia Tech (56 carries, 338 yards, plus-5.0 Adj. POE in 2009)
  • Ben Tate, Auburn (54 carries, 392 yards, plus-4.7 Adj. POE in 2006)
  • Edwin Baker, Michigan State (85 carries, 427 yards, plus-2.8 Adj. POE in 2009)
  • Jonathan Stewart, Oregon (53 carries, 188 yards, plus-1.7 Adj. POE in 2005)
  • Emmanuel Moody, USC (79 carries, 459 yards, plus-1.3 Adj. POE in 2006)
  • Joe McKnight, USC (94 carries, 535 yards, plus-0.5 Adj. POE in 2007)
  • Cyrus Gray, Texas A&M (75 carries, 354 yards, plus-0.4 Adj. POE in 2008)
  • Mike Bellamy, Clemson (57 carries, 343 yards, plus-0.2 Adj. POE in 2011)
  • Silas Redd, Penn State (77 carries, 437 yards, minus-0.5 Adj. POE in 2010)
  • Brandon Saine, Ohio State (60 carries, 267 yards, minus-1.8 Adj. POE in 2007)
  • Bryce Brown, Tennessee (93 carries, 439 yards, minus-3.1 Adj. POE in 2009)
  • Enrique Davis, Ole Miss (64 carries, 245 yards, minus-3.8 Adj. POE in 2008 after signing with, and almost immediately transferring from, Auburn)
  • Darrell Scott, Colorado (87 carries, 343 yards, minus-6.6 Adj. POE in 2008)
  • Armando Allen, Notre Dame (86 carries, 348 yards, minus-7.7 Adj. POE in 2007)
  • Dillon Baxter, USC (59 carries, 252 yards, minus-8.0 Adj. POE in 2010)

Devine truly had some of the most amazing high school film you will ever see, and it earned him a five-star rating despite the diminutive stature that typically hampers other backs (think Jacquizz Rodgers) in Rivals' ratings.

Devine was one of five players in this group to post a career Adj. POE of at least plus-12.

1. Gray (+30.8 Adj. POE)
2. Devine (+26.5)
3. Wilson (+21.2)
4. Williams (+16.3)
5. McKnight (+12.7)

All five of these players posted a positive Adj. POE score their freshman seasons, too. Those that didn't, never really recovered. Either they would transfer soon (Brown, Scott, Baxter), or they would serve mostly as average to below-average backs in their careers. Both Davis (minus-17.9 Adj. POE) and Allen (minus-20.3) were about three touchdowns worse than the average back in their careers, despite lofty recruiting rankings.

Solid Contributor (101-150 Carries) -- 11 players (18 percent)

  • C.J. Spiller, Clemson (129 carries, 938 yards, plus-14.6 Adj. POE in 2006)
  • Jamaal Charles, Texas (119 carries, 878 yards, plus-13.0 Adj. POE in 2005)
  • Mike Ford, South Florida (139 carries, 648 yards, plus-12.3 Adj. POE in 2007)
  • Michael Goodson, Texas A&M (127 carries, 847 yards, plus-7.5 Adj. POE in 2006)
  • Christine Michael, Texas A&M (138 carries, 657 yards, plus-6.1 Adj. POE in 2009)
  • Chris Wells, Ohio State (104 carries, 576 yards, plus-2.6 Adj. POE in 2006)
  • Toney Baker, N.C. State (124 carries, 546 yards, plus-1.5 Adj. POE in 2005)
  • Trent Richardson, Alabama (126 carries, 621 yards, plus-0.1 Adj. POE in 2009)
  • Onterio McCalebb, Auburn (105 carries, 565 yards, minus-1.8 Adj. POE in 2009)
  • Graig Cooper, Miami (125 carries, 679 yards, minus-2.1 Adj. POE in 2007)
  • Kevin Grady, Michigan (121 carries, 483 yards, minus-3.0 Adj. POE in 2005)

If you get more than 100 carries during your freshman season, chances are good that a) your coaching staff feels pretty good about your overall prospects, and b) the good feelings are justifiable. Only three of these 11 players ended up with a negative career Adj. POE (Baker, Grady, Cooper), while three have been in double-digits on the positive side (McCalebb, Wells, Michael), and three have been spectacular -- Richardson's career Adj. POE is plus-49.4 (suggesting he has been over eight touchdowns better than the average back), Charles' was plus-46.9 and Spiller's was plus-44.8.

Immediate Workhorse (151+ Carries)

  • Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina (249 carries, 1,193 yards, plus-11.4 Adj. POE in 2010)
  • James Davis, Clemson (165 carries, 879 yards, plus-7.3 Adj. POE in 2005)
  • Isaiah Crowell, Georgia (185 carries, 850 yards, minus-2.9 Adj. POE in 2011)
  • Michael Dyer, Auburn (182 carries, 1,093 yards, minus-3.1 Adj. POE in 2010)
  • Malcolm Brown, Texas (172 carries, 742 yards, minus-9.6 Adj. POE in 2011)

Perhaps because of low sample sizes, this is an odd category. Three of the five got a ton of carries despite not being particularly impressive with them (Crowell and Brown were both average at best this season, and while Dyer served as a nice distraction from Cam Newton last year, he didn't necessarily gouge great defenses with many of his carries -- 351 of his yards in 2010 came against Arkansas State, Ole Miss and Chattanooga). Crowell and Brown each racked up a large volume of carries, basically, out of necessity (both Texas and Georgia suffered from injuries and depth issues), so it is difficult to know what their freshman seasons mean for the rest of their career.

Summary

Of the 60 players above, 56 eventually recorded at least a small number of carries at their respective schools, and they combined to post a career Adj. POE of plus-478.4, or about plus-8.5 per player. That is certainly good, but it isn't as amazing as some would probably think. There are plenty of stars in this batch, but the median performance is more like that of Edwin Baker, Michael Goodson or, perhaps, Carlos Brown.

What is perhaps most interesting is that some of the best true freshman seasons in recent years have been posted by recruiting also-rans. San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman (a three-star prospect) posted a plus-26.9 Adj. POE in 2010; in 2009, Temple's Bernard Pierce (a two-star prospect) posted a plus-24.2 and Pitt's Dion Lewis (three-star) posted a plus-16.9. Each season, a few true freshmen will make an impact, but they might not be the ones you expect.

Fear not, fans of Alabama (the Tide have scored a commitment from five-star back T.J. Yeldon), Florida State (high-four-star Mario Pender), Georgia (high-four-stars Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley), Miami (five-star Randy Johnson), Pittsburgh (high-four-star Rushel Shell), Texas (five-star uber-back Johnathan Gray) and Texas A&M (five-star back Trey Williams) -- your blue-chip commits are still likely to perform at a better-than-average level at your respective great schools. But while we tend to think of every blue-chipper as Adrian Peterson, they are more likely to be Joe McKnight.

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