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What college coaches look for in a running back prospect

Speed, vision, agility, and toughness are key traits for RB U.

Edgerrin James Getty Images archive

The Miami Hurricanes went from 1980 through 1994 without having a 1,000 yard rusher in an era of college football focused on the ground and pound. In 1978, OJ Anderson ran for 1,266 yards and 8 touchdowns under Howard Schnellenberger. In 1995, Danyell Ferguson ran for 1,069 yards and 12 touchdowns under Butch Davis. Over those 15 years Miami didn’t just abandon the running game, they really just split duty in the backfield. In the mid 80’s the ‘Canes had Melvin Bratton and Alonzo Highsmith. In the late 80’s there was Leonard Conley, Stephen McGuire, and Alex Johnson. In the early to mid 90’s carries were split by McGuire, Larry Jones, Donnell Bennett and James Stewart.

Once Butch Davis, Larry Coker and Don Soldinger came in or back to Miami, they wanted to install the Dallas Cowboys offense which focused on a lead back, a fullback and a tight end. In 21 personnel (2 running backs and one tight end), the ‘Canes went from a one-back spread to a pro style offense. Under Davis, Miami had a 1,000 yard rusher in ‘95, ‘97, ‘98, and 2000. In ‘99, the ‘Canes had a 700 (James Jackson) and 800 (Clinton Portis) yard back.

The ‘Canes went on to produce 1,000+ yard rushers in 2001 and 2002 with Rob Chudzinski as OC. Portis and Willis McGahee became NFL feature backs, as did Edgerrin James. James Jackson and Ferguson had short NFL careers. In more recent times, the ‘Canes have had some good backs in Duke Johnson, Mark Walton, Travis Homer and Deejay Dallas- even when the offenses weren’t clicking they always seemed to be.

So what do coaches look for in a running back? Let’s find out.

Miami Hurricanes Beat Nebraska Cornhuskers for National Championship Photo by Jon Soohoo/WireImage

The highlight tape

In Bruce Feldman’s book, Meat Market, the Ole Miss Rebels have their sights set on two running backs: Robert Elliott III and Joe McKnight. Neither player wound up signing with Coach Orgeron as Elliott wound up at Mississippi State and McKnight at USC. When Orgeron was at Miami from 1988-1992, the ‘Canes would alternate their big bruising backs like Jones, McGuire and Stewart with shifty backs like Conley and Johnson. It’s similar to the approach USC took with Reggie Bush and LenDale White.

Orgeron loved Elliott’s tape as it displayed swift hips and open field acceleration. He was a small town kid that Ole Miss was first on the scene for and eventually developed into a four-star per the services. Elliott was also a track star which is always a positive in the eyes of coaches, but he didn’t play defense at his small high school which was seen as a lack of toughness. Coach O wasn’t sold that Elliott was coming to Ole Miss, or that he had the toughness and competitive nature needed to be a full-time back in the SEC.

With McKnight, it was hard for people not to love his highlight tape that was dubbed, “Better than Reggie Bush’s” in high school. McKnight was a five-star and was sharing the number one and two player in the country honors with QB Jimmy Clausen in 2007. While McKnight didn’t win a Heisman trophy, he did go on to have an NFL and CFL career.

McKnight was an obvious playmaker at John Curtis in New Orleans, and he had all of the things coaches want to see in a running back. McKnight didn’t just run the ball, he also put up amazing receiving numbers. He also played cornerback, and could return kicks and punts. He scored 22 touchdowns his junior season, and 30 touchdowns his senior season.

One Group of 5 assistant and recruiter described the key traits they look for on a highlight tape as: vision and balance, a physicality to their running style, competitive streak, and home run ability. I think of Clinton Portis when I read that list, even if his home run ability wasn’t always there- the rest sure does read like CP.

At camps

40-yard dash- A running back’s linear speed is important to an extent. If a RB is running a 4.9 they’re not going to be fast enough against top tier talent in the Power 5 world. However, its not the be all and end all once a back passes a certain threshold. Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor put up crazy numbers for the Badgers, and then ran a 4.39 in the 40 at the Combine at 226 pounds.

To put that into perspective, Saquon Barkley ran 4.40 in the 40 at his NFL Combine at 233 pounds. Only six RB’s at the NFL Combine ran under a 4.5 in the 40, so keep that in mind when different high school combines or colleges post 40 times. Deejay Dallas ran a 4.58 in the 40 at 217 pounds.

20-yard shuttle- Taylor hit 4.24 in the 20-yard shuttle which isn’t a great score. For as explosive as he was in the vertical jump and broad jump (below) his 20 should’ve been better. However, it does put him in the top-six of RB’s. Dallas ran a 4.32 in the shuttle.

Vertical Jump- As I’ve stated in previous recruiting posts, the VJ tests a player’s explosiveness especially in the glutes, hamstrings, and quads. It’s a safe way to test the squat without the risk of being under a bar. Jonathan Taylor had a solid VJ score of 36” at the NFL Combine, while Dallas hit 33.5.”

Broad Jump- While Ole Miss didn’t test the BJ under Orgeron, I believe in it firmly. It’s a great test of explosiveness in the power angles (ankles, knees and hips). Taylor also tested well in the BJ with a jump of 123,” while Dallas jumped 119.”

Kurt Hester’s Combine 2.0 “Zig Zag” drill


Read & react is the most important thing I want to see from a RB. You can’t get them in pads at a camp or combine so you have to see how fast they play when there are variables versus a closed-course like the 20-yard shuttle. Also, too many RB drills are just a guy going over some bags doing basic footwork movements from 1995. I want to see a back move in a way that mirrors actual game play. Here are a couple of great drills to simulate a game, without contact.

“Tony Dorsett” is a great drill to see the reaction time and cut ability of the back

“Zeke Elliott” also show the read and react, a sharp jump cut and spin back inside

The running back total package

College coaches at all levels want to see that first step quickness and two-stride burst. In a zone scheme, the back will play “slow to, fast through.” That means the RB wants to milk it and wait as long as he can until deciding to either “bang” or hit the A-Gap, “bend” or cutback into the weak side A-Gap, or “Bounce” into the B-Gap or even the C-Gap depending on where the hole is.

When you hear vision, it’s about the back being able to see the holes open up and feel 1st level to 2nd level. Some runners can’t do that and they’re typically going to be ‘gap scheme’ runners or told which hole to go through. For zone backs, it’s an option but one that has to be carefully coached into the player, and of course a little bit natural instinct or “vision.”

At one G5 school their recruiting coordinator says that he looks for a set of particular items. Those items make up the best running back they can get on campus. Think about Edgerrin James as you read this, because that’s whom I picture.

1- Initial quickness

2- Balance and body control

3- Inside running skills

4- Power and ability to break tackles

5- Elusiveness

Characteristics 6-10 are: outside runner, acceleration and burst, hands, pass blocking, and run blocking

Their Critical Factors for a RB are: Instincts and vision (see above), durability and stamina, toughness, playing strength, ball security, and play speed (not their 100m or 40 but how fast they look on film in pads).

One Power 5 assistant send over his evaluation materials for the RB position, too.

1. Size and frame: Must have some length (doesn’t have to be super long) and put together well. We prefer thicker lower body frame and growth potential.

2. Overall athleticism: Fluid movement patterns, loose hips, balance and body control, elusiveness, and foot quickness.

3. Ball security: Need to watch an ample amount of game film. Make sure the ball isn’t on the ground! Shows ability to keep ball high and tight, isn’t reckless when running with it.

4. Burst and explosion: Explosive burst and acceleration!!! Can split defenders by “changing gears.”

5. Power and ability to run behind pads: Good leverage, lower center of gravity, ability to break tackles at LOS, ability to break tackles in open field, power through first contact (Yards After Contact).

6. LONG SPEED: Top end speed is a must. Must be able to break plays open and run away from people. Stay away from strictly “power” backs unless you plan to have him grow into a FB/H. True RB’s have to have speed!

7. Instincts and vision: Good process to LOS, ability to one-cut and get vertical, anticipates well, sets up blocks, ability to process vision quickly.

8. Physicality: Physical as a runner, physical in pass protection (need to see SOME pass pro!), willing to block without the ball.

9. Ball skills: Can frame and pluck the ball naturally, effective route running ability (make cuts in space without ball), field awareness, willing to contribute in pass game.

10. Position flexibility: Ability to play in the slot/empty sets makes a RB more marketable.

Independence Bowl: Louisiana Tech vs. Miami Al Diaz/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

What does this mean for Miami?

The Miami Hurricanes went 6-7 but managed to bring in two of the best running backs in the nation in Jaylan Knighton and Don Chaney. Knighton, a four-star from Deerfield Beach, is more of a scatback at five-foot-nine, 194 pounds. Chaney, a four-star from Belen Jesuit, is stockier. Chaney is five-foot-eleven, 203 pounds coming out of high school. And of course, the return of Cam’Ron Harris.

Knighton is your home run threat with an nasty one-cut move and the speed to break a touchdown on every run. When he turns the corner he is absolutely uncatchable. He’s the kind of back Oregon produced during the Chip Kelly era. Expect him to be involved in the passing game and running game making big plays.

Don Chaney Jr is more of a traditional Miami running back in the mold of Portis, James Jackson, and Mark Walton. Chaney doesn’t have the same breakaway speed as Knighton but he’s a tough, powerful, inside runner who was used to the hammering of being in a wing-t offense in high school. Chaney is also a threat to catch the ball but less as a slot receiver and more as a screen and swing guy.

2020’s clear starter; Harris (once Davis) ran for 576 yards and five touchdowns (5.1 yards per carry) in 2019, after averaging 5.9 yards per carry as a true freshman in 2018. He’s been plagued by a terrible offensive scheme from both Mark Richt and Dan Enos, and will hopefully be better utilized by Rhett Lashlee. Harris has the tools, it’s a matter of an OC finding out how to use him in their scheme.

In the end, you have to get them to commit! Even if it’s to be 100% committed to their top-9 AND 100% committed to their recruitment still being open.

If you’ve made it this far you’re in for a treat. My “highlight tape” which is really just my RB drills video for quarantine but I remixed it into a “hi-lite reel” to make fun of high school kids while bored on quarantine. If you haven’t seen a Hudl highlight littered with goofy sayings, freezing the shot at the wrong time, and random Dude Alert Meters you’re missing out on a cultural phenomenon like no other. ENJOY (PS. I played offensive line, very poorly as a slappy).