College football teams run the ball a lot more than they pass it. In 2021, just 45 of the 130 teams in Division 1 college football passed the ball more than 50% of the time, which was actually a high-water mark. In the 2003-2004 season, that number was more like 36.
Despite this, quarterbacks and receivers get more attention in the media than the guys grinding it out on the ground. Schools are praised for their passing games, and sometimes questioned by the fanbase when they don’t let the QB air it out a little more.
Running backs and fullbacks are a huge part of college football offenses. Even so, finding advanced stats to help you analyze a college football team’s running game is incredibly difficult. In every case I’ve come across, the information is hidden behind a paywall.
This post offers some suggestions for evaluating RBs and FBs at the college level, long before publicly available advanced stats make considering their skills much easier.
Look at a Young Player’s High School & College Production
Running backs depend less on other players than any other offensive player. QBs and WRs need each other to succeed. You can credit offensive lines with helping RBs and FBs bust through the defense, but those players are helping out with the air game, too, which neutralizes that argument.
Because running backs’ results depend mainly on their own skill, their pure statistical production is more meaningful than a QB’s yards/game or a WR’s yards after contact. Production is the most important category for a young athlete who wants to run the ball for a living.
At the high school level, top-level running backs rush for 2,000+ yards and notch 28+ touchdowns in a season. At the college level, the expectations are different, based on the increased level of competition. A 1,000+ yard season in college football is noteworthy, as is a TD total in the double digits. At both levels, logging 2 or more seasons with those high-dollar stats marks the player as elite.
When evaluating RBs coming right out of high school, I look at yards/game and consider it against their total number of carries. You want to favor backs who carry the ball less, mainly because their bodies take less of a beating over time.
Here’s an example of how I’d evaluate two 2021 running back prospects from Texas. Ernest Davila out of Poteet racked up 236.7 yards/game, but he did it with 11% more carries than Rueben Owens II from El Campo. When I see that Owens also averaged two more yards/carry compared to Davila, I know which running back I want on my college team. I’ll always take the guy who protects his body better by getting more yards on fewer carries.
Give a Young Player’s Injury History Heavy Consideration
Pay special attention to high school and college running backs that play full seasons. Games played is a boring stat, but when you’re evaluating young players with less experience, it gives you a good sense of a player’s ability to stay healthy and stay in the game.
This goes double for evaluating players entering college from high school. Young bodies are at their most pain-tolerant and they tend to rehab and get back on the field faster than older players. Guys who miss a lot of games in high school are probably going to be injury-prone as adults.
Looking at the top 2021 RB prospects in Michigan, you see plenty of guys averaging 200+ yards per game, but only a handful who played a dozen or more games. I’ll almost always back the guy with a slightly lower average yards per carry stat if he stuck it out for 12 or 13 games.
Give me Ty Holtz of DeWitt High School and his 210.1 yards per game over Ben Peterson of Fennville, even though Peterson’s numbers are technically better. Why? Holtz put up his numbers across 13 games and saw 10% fewer touches than Peterson. That’s meaningful at the high school level.
One caveat – you shouldn’t necessarily be turned off on a player if he’s had his ACL repaired. I don’t want to get too deep into it, but basically, ACL repair is at such a high level now that athletes can completely rehabilitate from it and have fully successful pro careers. Tom Brady is the first name that comes to mind when I think “successful football player who recovered from ACL surgery.” That’s not bad company.
The NFL Has a Body Type – Compare Young Athletes to It
The ideal running back is both fast and big, both strong and agile. It’s a freakshow of a body type that’s rare in the human species. Considering the league’s best running backs earn $15 million a year, it makes sense that the body type that suits the role is a bit of an outlier.
Players under 200 pounds are an injury risk. Running backs over 238 pounds are considered too slow or just not athletic enough. That gives potential NFL running backs a specific window of acceptable weight, somewhere between 200 and 238 pounds. This is a pretty firm window. Failed NFL careers at the RB or FB position usually come down to body type.
If you want to consider how a young athlete (a high school or college football player) will fare at the next level, consider how their body type fits into the NFL’s preferred running back template.
Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III is a prime example of the NFL running back body type. He’s 5’10” and 210 pounds, maybe a little on the short side, but with the fast and strong form preferred by pro football front offices. The same goes for Central Michigan’s Lew Nichols III – 5’10” and 220, he’s stronger than MSU’s Walker but also a little bit slower at the start.
By the way, those two guys were far and away the best running backs in the college game in 2021.
Consider a Young Player’s “Athleticism”
I hate this word because it’s imprecise. When scouts and coaches talk about athleticism, they’re referring to an athlete’s general performance across several jock-type domains.
A running back with a 40-yard dash below 4.5 seconds has “athleticism,” but so does a guy who can do lots of reps on the bench press, or a guy with a 25+ inch vertical leap or 10+ foot broad jump. Most of these skills aren’t complimentary, yet they’re all covered under the umbrella of “athleticism.”
One problem with giving athleticism too much weight – RBs who are good at trucking and tackle-breaking just aren’t as valuable in the modern league as they once were. Young backs just aren’t going to be able to depend on those skills against the big men in the NFL.
Compare NFL Combine results to draft results to see how little most NFL coaches and administrative staff really care about pure athleticism. In 2021, the fastest 40-yard dash time came from Anthony Schwartz, who went in the 3rd round and totaled 135 yards as a rookie in Cleveland. The top two performers on the bench press went in the 4th and 6th rounds, and one of them still hasn’t played a down of pro football.
One of the best RBs from the 2021 draft was Travis Etienne out of Clemson. His performance in the Combine is pretty emblematic of what successful running backs accomplish – he ran a 4.45 40, benched 18 reps, and weighed in at 5’10 and 215 pounds. Of course, injury took Etienne out of his rookie season, so we still have no idea how his “athleticism” will translate to the real world.
Evaluating running backs at the high school and college level is tough. Pro football bettors have a huge library of free stats they can crunch on – college bettors unwilling to pay big bucks for access to advanced stats are forced to make do with what we can get our hands-on.
The four tips in this post will help you analyze the ground game of a college football team. About 65% of Division 1 college football teams use the ground game more often than they pass the ball. It’s possible to have a deep understanding of the abilities of college running backs (yes, including true freshmen) without spending money for advanced stats.