All-Star Game Crystal Ball: Running Backs
Welcome back to the Crystal Ball, where I take my guesses at which players end up in draft all-star games such as the Reese's Senior Bowl, the East/West Shrine game, and the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. In this article I'm going to cover the running back group and who I believe will get a shot to impress coaches and scouts in January's segment of the draft circuit. Let's kick it off with the big one, the Senior Bowl. Note that I won't be including underclassmen who graduate and are therefore eligible. I'll also be avoiding adding fullbacks. There are good odds that Winston Dimel from UTEP and Britton Abbott from Oklahoma State end up at one of these, but I just don't know enough about them to make an educated guess.
Damien Harris, Alabama
Bryce Love, Stanford
Myles Gaskin, Washington
Karan Higdon, Michigan
Qadree Ollison, Pittsburgh
Nick Brossette, LSU
Damien Harris, assuming he decides to participate, is the one surefire pick for this. Every other player on this list has questions that could push them to the fringe if we see some late risers. The emergence of Tua Tagovailoa has limited his touches, but Harris has one of the most well-rounded skill sets in out of this group of backs. He won't break off home run plays, but his vision and leg drive are enough to create yardage for himself regardless of the offense he's working behind.
Bryce Love had probably the most expectations placed on him out of any senior back, considering he was coming off of a season with over 2000 yards rushing. Love's historic season where he averaged 8.1 yards per carry is a thing of the past. He's now averaging 4 yards a carry and will likely finish the season below 1000 yards on the ground. It's a stunning falloff for a player who was once arguably the most elusive back in college ball. The piles of injuries that have mounted on him could even prevent him from participating in this game. That said, you don't have one of the best seasons in NCAA history and get sent down to the Shrine Game. This will be a massive proving ground for Love.
Gaskin has never been considered a potential first round back like Harris or Love, but he has put together a remarkable career with the Huskies. He has posted over 1300 yards in every season with the team, and could end up eclipsing that mark once again as a senior. He has just enough speed to break long runs and some surprising shiftiness in the open field. It's unlikely his stock is elevated into rounds two or three with his performance at the Senior Bowl, but he could do it with an impressive showing in both Mobile and Indianapolis.
Another potential sub-200 pound back? I hope you're getting the theme of this senior class. A lot of these backs are too small to be considered feature guys for some NFL teams. I believe Higdon is the hardest running of them all, as he consistently lowers his pads and finishes his runs out strong. He hasn't been an player on passing downs, which will be key to a successful draft circuit. Watch out for Higdon to rise if he comes in over 200 pounds and plays physically throughout the week.
Qadree Ollison burst onto the scene in 2015 with a freshman season that surpassed 1100 yards as a runner. The following two seasons he disappeared behind other backs, tallying just over 500 yards between his sophomore and junior years. Now? He's pushing for the 1000 yard mark again. A powerful back at 225-230 pounds, Ollison is a battering ram who is on the rise in a group with plenty of questions. He's been a pleasant surprise.
Nick Brossette wasn't even a guaranteed starter when we kicked off the year. He waited patiently behind Leonard Fournette, Derrius Guice, and Darrell Williams. Rather than transfer he hung tough and finally got his opportunity. He came out banging the drums, rushing for over 100 yards against the highly touted Miami Hurricanes. Brossette is a meat and potatoes runner that has drawn James Conner comparisons with his style. He won't create on his own, but he runs tough and takes what is given. The SEC pedigree will be a big factor in boosting him to this spot.
How would I stack this group at the moment?
1. Damien Harris
2. Myles Gaskin
3. Bryce Love
4. Karan Higdon
5. Qadree Ollison
6. Nick Brossette
East/West Shrine Game
Ryquell Armstead, Temple
Bruce Anderson, North Dakota State
D.J. Knox, Purdue
Lexington Thomas, UNLV
Nico Evans, Wyoming
Ty Johnson, Maryland
Armstead has taken a similar path to Ollison, although not as severe. As a sophomore he reached the 900 yard mark while averaging 5.9 yards per carry. His production dropped significantly as a junior, as he only reached 3.9 yards per carry. As a senior he is on pace for over 1000 yards rushing. Earlier this season he had a stretch of four straight games topping the hundred yard mark. Armstead may not be the biggest back but he runs hard, often times creating for himself when his line can't. He's one of the many backs in this group that could be called up to Mobile.
North Dakota State has been a hotbed for FCS talent, and Bruce Anderson continues that tradition. He's currently averaging 7.1 yards per carry and should top the 1000 yard mark without much of an issue. Despite only having more than 12 carries in just one of the six games he has played this season he is already past the 500 yard mark. Taking on some higher level competition from the FBS level will be key to getting drafted late.
One of the least discussed backs in this class, Purdue's D.J. Knox has quietly put together a season over 540 yards rushing at the halfway marker. He's built stout and strong at 5'7" and 210 pounds. His timeshare with fellow senior back Markell Jones could hinder him from continuing his current pace, but both are names to watch for the upcoming winter.
Want another slim back who has been ultra productive? UNLV's Lexington Thomas has a career average of 5.9 yards per carry. He is likely going to pass the 1000 yard mark for a second straight season. He has surpassed 100 yards in four of seven games at the halfway point. At a very slender 5'9" and 170 pounds there will be questions about his ability to hold up, but his game screams change of pace runner.
Whew, Nico Evans has come out of nowhere. The Wyoming Cowboy had only 108 yards rushing in his career prior to 2018. He made the most of a week 0 matchup against New Mexico State, hopping onto the national stage with a 190 yard performance. He hasn't slowed down. Sitting on a cool 7 yards per carry, he has been explosive enough to hit long runs. He's no track speed specialist, as I'd guess he runs in the high 4.5s. He is a tough runner in the hole though, always squeaking out another yard or two. He could get the shot in Mobile with a good week at the East/West and some injury "luck" above him.
Ty Johnson's 2018 season can be characterized in a few ways. The one I've seen used most by fellow analysts? Underused. Johnson was seemingly shunned against Texas in the season debut, which drew the ire of some of the guys at The Draft Network. Johnson will likely finish his college career never topping 150 carries per season, but he's a dynamic runner who is always a big play threat. His health will be paramount to where he ends up.
How would I stack this group at the moment?
1. Ryquell Armstead
2. Ty Johnson
3. Lexington Thomas
4. Nico Evans
5. Bruce Anderson
6. D.J. Knox
NFLPA Collegiate Bowl
Devine Ozigbo, Nebraska
Ryan Fulse, Wagner
Jordan Ellis, Virginia
L.J. Scott, Michigan State
Darrin Hall, Pittsburgh
Travon McMillian, Colorado
The thick 235 pound Ozigbo has been in competition for the starter job with the Cornhuskers for his entire career. Never before has he surpassed the 500 yard mark, but since the decimation of the team's RB corps he has taken the majority of the work since week four. Ozigbo posted 329 yards between his performances against Purdue and Northwestern, and could continue to put up numbers as the year drags on. As of this writing he's over 100 yards against Minnesota. A late day three selection may be the peak, but he deserves a shot at the bowl games.
We're hardly past the halfway mark for a lot of these teams, so most players are scrapping in the 600 yard range if they're playing at a high level. Although the FCS ranks aren't nearly as talented as the FBS, it's still rare to see guys running up outrageous statlines. Wagner's Ryan Fulse only posted 47 yards against Syracuse, but he's already over the 1000 yard mark despite only playing in seven games. Much of it has come on the back of a 271 yard massacre of the D2 Bowie State Bulldogs, but it's still shocking to see.
Jordan Ellis from Virginia has not been as effective against teams with better talent such as the Miami Hurricanes and North Carolina State Wolfpack, but he's averaging 5.5 yards per carry and sitting at over 500 yards rushing through six games. The most difficult stretch is over and Virginia still hasn't faced any killers in their schedule. A potential ACC Conference Championship berth or high level bowl game will be key to Ellis' stock. Testing and a shot at an all-star game will help to clarify where his athleticism lies. The 225 pound Ellis is estimated as a 4.64 40-yard dash rusher by NFLDraftScout.com.
L.J. Scott has done a lot of damage to his stock. I mean, a lot of damage. Over the summer he stated on Instagram that he thinks about quiting football every day. He has never topped 1000 yards as a runner, but has looked surprisingly lethargic as of late. Injured throughout most of 2018, he has averaged only 2.8 yards per carry as a senior. I've never been a big fan of his game, but he may not be draftable. He'll get looks on name alone, but it'd be stunning if he got taken considering the backpack of red flags he's carrying around.
The Robin to Qadree Ollison's Batman, Darrin Hall is the defined RB2 for the Pittsburgh Panthers. Despite that he is averaging 6.6 yards per carry and should have a shot at getting picked this April. Hill is slightly smaller than Ollison, but he's a comfortable 5'11" and 225 pounds. The lack of production throughout his career will be worrisome for a lot of teams, but he has faced James Conner and the aforementioned Ollison fighting for carries.
The former Virginia Tech Hokie Travon McMillian is now a member of the Colorado Buffaloes, and he has taken off. McMillian topped 1000 yards as a stud freshman, but decided to transfer after splitting time with other backs. Through 7 games he is over 600 yards and should top the 1000 yard mark once again as a senior. He struggled significantly in a matchup with USC, but has been stringing together 100 yard rushing games early on.
How would I stack them at the moment?
1. Darrin Hall
2. Travon McMillian
3. Devine Ozigbo
4. Ryan Fulse
5. L.J. Scott
6. Jordan Ellis
There are some talented players I had to omit from this list for a variety of reasons, but of course the ultimate decider is a lack of space on rosters. Here are some of the guys that just barely missed the cut.
Best of the rest
Jalin Moore, Appalachian State (Injury)
Jacques Patrick, Florida State
Marcus Outlow, Coastal Carolina
Patrick Laird, California
Braeden West, SMU
Let me know what you guys think about these picks and who you would prefer getting in. Personally, Laird not making it into an all-star game was one of the most difficult choices I made, as I am intrigued by his vision. He may end up getting an invite as high as the Shrine game if he returns to his 2017 form.