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Despite NFL Draft stock, the star college running back isn't going away ... yet

Whether the NFL values running backs highly or not, college football will keep going through its own trends and cycles.

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Running backs used to be picked No. 1. Bishop Sankey was 2014's top RB pick ... at No. 54.
Running backs used to be picked No. 1. Bishop Sankey was 2014's top RB pick ... at No. 54.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

SB Nation 2014 NFL Draft

You might recall David Wilson as a talented running back for Virginia Tech, one who piled up 1,709 yards in 2011 before leaving school a year early.

But Wilson is significant in modern football history: he is the last running back to be taken in the first round of the NFL Draft. This fact has not been lost on the best players who play the position, as Ohio State's Carlos Hyde complained about the position being overlooked and Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey vented that he should have played corner.

Jon Bois documented this trend in 2011, noting that NFL teams were less likely to take running backs early in the first round and were distributing carries more evenly than they were in the past:

Given the choice, would you rather draft an exceptionally talented back in 2012, and spend the resources to acquire another in 2016 so you can prepare for the day his body won't do running back things anymore? Or would you rather draft two reasonably talented backs and split the carries between them, thereby keeping them fresh in both the short and the long term?

This chart by Jon shows the current trend:


However, the total number of running backs being picked has not gone down.

On the one hand, there were only five drafts since 1994 (the year in which the draft shrank to its current seven-round format) in which there were fewer running backs taken than the 22 who were taken in this past weekend's draft. On the other hand, there has not been much of a change in total backs taken since the '90s. About 20 to 30 running backs tend to be taken every year.

So if NFL teams are still taking roughly the same number of running backs, but they aren't investing first-round picks, the conclusion is that teams see running backs as fungible players whose spots can be filled in the later rounds. They have started seeing running backs more like guards and middle linebackers and less like quarterbacks, left tackles, and pass rushers.

In part, NFL teams have reached this state of affairs because they have realized that running backs have relatively short careers. Watching the production of backs like Chris Johnson and Eddie George fall while they were both still in their 20s was an object lesson in what happens when a player is overused at an especially punishing position.

What about college football?

Just as college football has been affected by the bevy of innovative offenses bubbling up on the high school level, the NFL has been affected by trends in college football. And the NFL influences college football as well. While NFL Draft results could encourage top running back recruits to play defensive back instead, we haven't heard of that happening just yet.

Contrary to perception, top college teams have not largely gone away from the workhorse model, which has fluctuated in popularity over the last 25 years ...


... but there are signs that current trends could swing that way, at least for a while.

Spread-to-run teams tend to split carries between the quarterback and the running back, not unlike the old wishbone teams. Pro-style teams like Alabama and Georgia have figured out a way to keep their runners from getting too much mileage: recruit a collection of talented backs and then have them share carries. In fact, they use this as a recruiting pitch now, arguing to recruits that they will arrive fresher in the NFL if they tote the ball 200 times per season instead of 300. Even Wisconsin, the poster child program for overusing one runner, split carries in an even fashion last year, with James White getting 221 carries, and Melvin Gordon getting 206.

The future of running backs sharing carries on the college level will be interesting. The last five national champions both employed running back committees, so if other programs are looking to copy the recent success of Alabama, Auburn and Florida State, then college football will continue to trend away from one runner dominating the carries.

Trends, cycles, and exceptions

Andre Williams ran for 79 percent of Boston College's rushing yardage in 2013. Mark Konezny, USA Today

But what happens when a program gets a once-in-a-generation talent? As much as one might prefer that teams avoid putting too much of a load on one player, did we really expect Oklahoma to split carries between Adrian Peterson and Kejuan Jones?

We are poised to see another test for this phenomenon at LSU, which did not sign a running back in its 2013 class in order to clear the decks for No. 1 freshman Leonard Fournette in 2014. Les Miles' teams have consistently used the committee approach, but will they do the same when they have one runner who is significantly better than anyone else on the roster? Can the Tigers fight the temptation to give Fournette 339 carries as a freshman, as Oklahoma did with Peterson?

Fans of a certain age might feel wistful if Fournette doesn't have the same impact that Herschel Walker had when he averaged 25 carries as a freshman. Football aficionados like me grew up in an era of I-formation football, in which running backs like Eric Dickerson, Thurman Thomas and Emmitt Smith were workhorses. One guy got the lion's share, and the team rose or fell on that back.

We like to imagine that the football that was played during our youth is the true form of the game. However, I-formation football with one feature back was the exception, not the rule. Early offenses such as the single wing and the Notre Dame box were all about misdirection and multiple carriers. Later, the wishbone dominated.

Author Willie Morris captured this change in "The Courting of Marcus Dupree," one of the great books written about football and the modern South. Dupree was the undisputed top recruit in high school football in an era before there were recruiting web sites. Dupree saw USC winning with its student body left approach to I-formation football and then Georgia riding Herschel Walker to a national title, so Barry Switzer sold Dupree that he would change his favored wishbone approach to allow Dupree to be the focus. The upshot was that football was trending towards the I-formation, at least for programs that wanted to land Dupree-level talents.

And two years after Dupree left, Oklahoma won a national title while running the wishbone.