A Study of Young Running Backs: Harris, Akers and You

One of the many reasons I prefer college football to professional football is the vast variety of identities among different college programs and coaches. In a similar sense, that is what makes the somewhat unpredictable science of recruiting so entertaining too; one recruit fits in at one institution but not another, thus affecting his choice and shaping the overall output of signing day.

Different teams have different needs because different teams run different offenses. That is a vast and gross oversimplification of the differences between programs and their playbooks, but an applicable one nonetheless. Can you imagine Brandon Peters picking Georgia Tech and running the triple option? Or Denard Robinson picking Texas Tech and running the air raid offense? It just doesn’t make sense.

Before I beat you over the head with more obvious claims and lose you, allow me to shift to running backs, the second-most talked about position on offense, depending on who your friends are. Under Jim Harbaugh and Tim Drevno, Michigan has resorted to not necessarily a run-first offense, but definitely a more traditional pro-style, power offense that does pretty well on the ground. Much of this is credited to a talented and hard working offensive line (I played center in high school, so I know it’s important to compliment the big uglies from time to time), but much of it is also credited to the different styles of running back that carry the ball.

De’Veon Smith is a textbook bruiser, relying on strength instead of speed to get his yards. Ty Isaac shares a similar frame and size but has more end to end speed and elusiveness than Smith, but not as much as Karan Higdon or Chris Evans, who get most of their yards by following blockers and making tacklers miss. It makes defensive play calling very much a cat and mouse effort against Michigan, requiring different personnel packages and alignments for certain backs and throwing it all out the window and adjusting on the fly if a different back ends up with the ball.

The Future 

Now that Harbaugh and running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley have a few recruiting cycles under their belts, we are starting to get a better indication of what their ideal running back looks like.

In 2016, his first full cycle, he landed Kareem Walker, who was the top running back for quite some time until some uncharacteristically bad showcases, the aforementioned Chris Evans, and Kingston Davis, who could be projected to be the fullback of the future with Hammering Panda Khalid Hill and Henry Poggi set to graduate.

So, Michigan has a bruiser (Davis), a speedster (Evans), and an all-around back (Walker). Pretty well rounded stable. But it could use a couple more capable bodies. 

The 2017 recruiting class is deep with running backs, and Michigan already has 3 very talented commits from that pool:

  • 5’11” 180-pound O’mMaury Samuels (#21 RB in the country according to 247, #1 overall in New Mexico)
  • 5’9” 200-pound Kurt Taylor (#93 RB, #95 in Georgia),
  • 6’1” 230-pound AJ Dillon (#20 athlete, #1 in Massachusetts).

Judging by their heights and weights, you can guess who fits which category, but I wouldn’t quite label either of them a bruiser.

AJ Dillon

As the #1 player out of Massachusetts for 2017, there is some hesitation amongst more casual fans that his stats and rankings are a bit inflated because he isn’t playing against the highest competition.

At the 2016 Opening Finals in Oregon, Dillon tested extremely well even compared to the highest rated recruits, finishing 9th overall (5th among RBs), but considering he was the tallest and heaviest (by a good 20 pounds) of the group, his numbers stick out all the more.

His highlight film is remarkably similar to Michigan legend Chris Perry, primarily in the way they are both so balanced. Dillon can change directions at full speed, and takes massive strides while doing so, making it unbelievably difficult for tacklers to deliver a solid hit. In the rare chance they do deliver a solid hit, Dillon’s pure size usually absorbs the hit and he just keeps on trucking. 

For example, in one of his more electric runs of the season, Dillon breaks a run from his own ten yard line for a touchdown. What impresses me the most is that he spots his gap and attacks it with full speed even though the weak side linebacker (#43) telegraphs the play from the outset. He diagnoses is it properly but is simply overmatched by Dillon’s speed. In a similar play from Perry, he counters right and after he turns the corner, sheds the attacking linebacker effortlessly, keeping his eyes downfield for the duration of the run. Throughout all of Dillon’s film you see a similar forward thinking mindset, eyes consistently downfield watching the blocks develop and the defenders approach.

Kurt Taylor

Don’t let his height fool you, Taylor is every ounce of his listed 200 pounds, and gives bench presses nightmares. He was the 2nd commitment in the class and even though he was not invited to such prestigious showcases as the Opening, he will be playing in the inaugural Polynesian Bowl this coming January.

Taylor knows his game well; he doesn’t have the size to overpower linemen at the point of contact, but he can easily throw off a smaller linebacker or safety. On his high school film, a very popular play is the inside zone out of the shotgun, which oftentimes results in Taylor blowing past the line of scrimmage and gaining another four to five yards after the point of contact in the secondary.

Remind you of anyone you know? (Bossman thinks so, too)

I have no doubt that Taylor has more straight line speed than Mike Hart, but the way he just collects and carries tacklers like merit badges made me think of Michigan’s all-time leading rusher and tree trunk leg-man. 

O’Maury Samuels

Samuels is victim of the relative anonymity of New Mexico high school football, similar to AJ Dillon in the northeast.

As the #1 recruit in the state (by a very wide margin), Samuels got lots of looks from schools in the southwest but not much else. He was with Dillon at The Opening finals over the summer but did not test out the same success; a slightly faster 40-time and the best vertical leap of anyone, but lower power/explosiveness scores, which tells me that Samuels is an escape artist that blows by (or over) defenders on the regular, all of which his film confirms.

To continue the thread of ghosts-of-Michigan-running-backs-past, Samuels reminds me of the very man that recruited him to Michigan: Tyrone Wheatley. Wheatley is a little larger than his 2017 recruit, but what they have most in common is a freakish acceleration that leaves everyone in the dust. Do not give Samuels the edge with space to operate, or you will pay dearly, just like Washington did against Michigan in the Rose Bowl. I wonder how Samuels would do returning kicks – look at Wheatley’s acceleration in this clip; when he hits the 30-yard line, he just hits 5th gear and is gone. 

The Possible Future 

For as good as the three young runners are, Harbaugh and Co. aren’t done recruiting at the position just yet. With the highest and second highest ranked running backs still rumored to be on the board, how does this shape the rest of the class?

Najee Harris

There isn’t much I can say about Najee Harris that you don’t already know. A current Alabama commit out of Antioch (CA), Harris has been dropping hints of some doubt about his decision; he visited for the BBQ in August, Harbaugh visited him on the bye week and was extremely well received, was quoted in October that his mind “wasn’t set”, officially visited UCLA on November 12th, and as of last week, is visiting Ann Arbor again in December. And even though Harris is nearly silent on social media, here’s another subtle hint: 

His film is about what you would expect for the #1 recruit in the country. Depending on play calls and game situations, Harris can outrun a defender, break his ankles with a stutter step, or run them over straight into the ground. He’s somehow a combination of a speedster and a bruiser, like pre-ACL tear Todd Gurley (hair and everything) with more moves on the trick stick.

We spoke about fit earlier – how about Harris? For starters, if he does end up at Alabama, it might not be the same as it was in years past. Any Alabama pundit will quickly tell you about the similarities between Harris and Heisman winner Derrick Henry, but Alabama has a different look on offense with dual threat QB Jalen Hurts.

After an extremely successful regime as a ground and pound offense (which made Henry so successful), would Harris still be the best fit at Alabama? They are rushing the ball at the same rate (42.8 rushes per game in 2015 versus 42.6 rushes per game in 2016), but the huge difference is to whom the ball goes. (Note: all Alabama stats are through 10 games)

  • In 2015, Henry ran the ball 395 times (61% of rushing touches) for 2,219 yards, nearly three quarters of Alabama’s total rushing yardage for scrimmage.
  • In 2016, QB Jalen Hurts leads the team in rushing attempts (126; 29.5% of rushing touches) and is second in rushing yards (735 yards for 28% of yardage).

Alabama is running the ball the same number of times but it is mostly through their quarterback and through a running back by committee (not unlike Michigan). Following Hurts are Damien Harris (102 attempts for 759 yards), Joshua Jacobs (67 for 467), Bo Scarbrough (62 for 358) and BJ Emmons (35 for 173). This raises a couple of questions:

  • 1) Is Jalen Hurts the new rule to Alabama, or the exception?
  • 2) Assuming Harris goes to Alabama, will he be the primary back or join the carousel?
  • 3) Was their high usage rate of Derrick Henry just because he’s Derrick Henry?

A lot of those questions can be applied to Michigan too. After De’Veon Smith’s 144 carries (29% rushing usage), Isaac (74, 15%), Higdon (64 13%), and Evans (74, 15%) are all within a negligible difference of each other in terms of snaps. Another set of questions for Michigan:

  • 1) As Harbaugh gets more entrenched in Michigan, will he resort to the Lloyd Carr single-back offense?
  • 2) With Smith and Isaac graduating and Kareem Walker taking off his redshirt for 2017, where would Harris fit in the offense?
  • 3) Assuming Harris picks Michigan, what would the other 3 running back commits do?

That last one is the burning question. For what it’s worth, though he is committed to Alabama, his 247 Crystal Ball sits at 43% USC and 29% Michigan (out of 7 predictions). Everyone remembers the negative publicity Harbaugh endured after Erik Swenson and Rashad Weaver announced that their offers were pulled and they were seeking scholarships elsewhere; that is the absolute last thing Michigan and its fans would want again.

Cam Akers

Even though Akers plays quarterback for his high school in Mississippi, he is being recruited as a running back because tackling him is like trying to tackle the wind. You know it’s there and you can do everything you can, but it just goes right past you. Depending on the service to which you are most loyal, Akers is listed as high as the 4th ranked overall recruit (Scout) or as low as 24th (ESPN), but his film is something special. Calm, elusive, speedy, and balanced, Akers  tests well in a combine atmosphere as well; he tested 3rd at The Opening Finals, posting a 140.13 total score, 2nd best among running backs.

Akers was scheduled to visit Michigan this past weekend for the Indiana game but because of his high school playoff schedule, he couldn’t make the quick travel work and had to cancel.

He was scheduled to visit OSU for The Game (so at least he could witness Michigan’s offense at work and get a better idea of how he would fit), but now there are rumors circulating that he is visiting hometown favorite and leader in the clubhouse Ole Miss.

*looks around*
*closes blinds*
*builds pillow fort*
Akers would fit in best at OSU.

I hate to bring up last year’s matchup, but even though OSU was using one primary back (Ezekiel Elliott), they ran a very simple offense against Michigan: zone reads and take advantage of eager linebackers and collect 8 to 10 yards before the absurdly deep free safety was forced to make the stop.

This year, without Elliott, OSU has gone to Mike Weber as the primary back but he is not being used as frequently as his predecessor; Weber leads the team with 166 carries, but will come nowhere near Zeke’s 289 in 2015. JT Barrett is tucking the ball and running a lot more (164 rushing attempts to 115 in all of 2015), and Meyer has weaponized Curtis Samuel a lot more out of the backfield (84 carries).

Michigan’s defense has shown some vulnerability on the edge in the run game, a weakness Ohio State will surely exploit in Columbus in a few days, and adding Akers could be absolutely brutal for future Michigan defenses.

Looking further into the future, Cam Akers (5’11” 213 pounds) and Mike Weber (5’10” 215) are near carbon copies of each other, which would make their offense – and the edge rush – all the more potent. Akers loves to stretch the field laterally, using every possible yard towards the sideline before making his decision and cutting up field. With the way Michigan loves to run between the tackles and run behind what feels like 8 tight ends at times, this doesn’t complement Akers’ skillset as much as OSU’s smoke and mirror show. With JK Dobbins (#1 All Purpose Back on 247) already committed, he and Akers could be the 2017 edition of Curtis Samuel and Mike Weber.

Many assume Michigan completely out of the race for Akers (Michigan has a whopping 0 out of 23 Crystal Ball predictions which leans to 30% Ole Miss), and canceling his visit seems to reinforce that fact. Michigan was included in his Top 10 back in May, but as of two weeks ago, Coach Wheatley is not giving up without a fight.

Now, Fish does not have either of the latter running backs in his most recent BGRC, nor does Land of 10’s Brandon Justice in his most recent edition. The three backs that are currently committed are all so uniquely “Michigan” in their style and their effort, and it’s exciting to think about the possibilities of their respective future usages at Michigan. Akers and Harris have played their recruitments close to the vest, considering how highly they are ranked; most prospects within the Top 10 have made some sort of lean one way or the other. Only time will tell, but if you’ve learned anything today, it’s all about fit. 

Header photo: Michael Macor, San Francisco Chronicle 

Bill Getschman