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Meet the New Guys: Running Backs

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The real question is: which one of the newcomers wins the Heisman first?

Tom Hauck

It’s that time again. Nearly 4 years ago, I was given the opportunity to write for RBR for one purpose: evaluating recruits. Since then, I’ve gotten roped into writing pretty much everything else under the sun, but my first love still remains: player scouting.

I love looking for a new player’s strengths and unique capabilities and trying to project how he’ll use them to benefit the team in the future. It probably comes from my years of messing with team rosters on the NCAA and Madden video games growing up.

In any case, there’s a lot of different factors that go into it. You can always stir up an argument over the accuracy of using stats, measureables, or the ever-nebulous “eye test” as a primary means of scouting a football player. Personally, I think they all have their place and each needs context.

For high schoolers, though, stats are often hard to come by. As is their accuracy. The “eye test” can only come from watching film, but often enough, you only get a 5 minute highlight video, rather than a full game of play. And everyone in high school runs a sub 4.4 forty yard dash. It’s just fact.

So, my general method is this: I watch every highlight video I can find, including from summer camps, and look for specific traits, rather than results. It’s not how many sacks a defensive lineman gets, its how he accomplishes them. And if I watch an entire video of a receiver either taking a screen pass or going deep, then I’ll assume that his route-running is a bit under-developed.

As for measureables, I use SPARQ, which is a standardized method of testing developed by Nike. Many players participate in Nike’s combines each year, and can then choose to allow their results to be posted publicly. The tests are a forty yard dash, twenty yard short shuttle, vertical jump, and kneeling powerball toss. Those numbers, factored in with the player’s weight, give a SPARQ number.

I took things a step further from there and normalized SPARQ by position to give each player a “Z-score”, which is a measure of standard deviations.

With that out of the way, we’ll start the series with the two running backs who signed with Alabama in 2018, Slade Bolden and Jerome Ford.


Slade Bolden

Is he a running back? A QB? A wide receiver? How about all 3? Bolden is just one of those guys that you give the ball to, regardless of how he gets it.

He’s a little undersized and his forty-yard dash is underwhelming, but his shuttle, vertical, and powerball are all above average. All said, the 0.11 Z-score puts him in the top 54% of collegiate football players in terms of pure athleticism.

Pros

Versatility is the name of the game here. Bolden is a playmaker, no matter where or how he gets the ball. As a senior, he passed for 1600 yards and 20 touchdowns while rushing for 1400 yards and 20 more touchdowns. Plus he plays some slot receiver and even cornerback.

With the ball in his hands, he runs with a wide base, a low center of gravity, and short, choppy strides. This makes him tough for defenders to lock on to, and he’s got the suddenness to make people miss— not with an ankle-breaking juke, but by changing his speed and direction early enough to make defenders mess up their angles constantly.

He’s also very decisive, and will hit top speed just an instant after planting his foot and turning up field. He wastes very few steps, as every foot movement is either being used to turn a defender around or else he’s going full-speed to the endzone.

As a receiver, he’s a decent, if unrefined, route-runner due to his suddenness. More impressive, however, is his ability to make contested catches and keeping his balance to stay inbounds near the sidelines.

Cons

He’s not going to be a college QB. Most of his passing success is based off the fact that defenses key in on him running the ball, leaving his receivers wide open. He has a slow wind-up and release and has very little velocity on his throws. But, he’s not being recruited to play QB, so I’m not worried about it.

He’s small for a running back— under 200 pounds. You have to wonder if he’ll be able to have much success in breaking tackles at all in college. He also doesn’t have top-end speed or that “extra gear” you see with some players to pull away from defenders down the side line.

Prediction

I don’t think Bolden plays this year. With the depth at running back and receiver already on the team, his only chance will be to really show out as a kick or punt returner. He looks to have the skills to be an electric return man, though no highlights are around to prove that he can field a punt. Ultimately, he redshirts this year and competes to be a receiving, change-of-pace back in the future.


Jerome Ford

Ford did not record any data with Nike, so we have no access to his SPARQ numbers. However, I would guess (solely based off of watching him) that he has somewhere around a 4.48 forty yard dash and a Z-score of about 0.5. Like Bolden, he’s a running back who works just as often as a receiver, and has experience on special teams and defense as well.

Pros

Where Bolden is sudden, Ford is smooth. He’s a speedy athlete with a smooth grace to his running style that looks like a knife running through butter as he slips past a defense. He’s got an extra boost of breakaway speed when he hits open field, often leaving defenders in the dust who thought they had a good angle on him.

He’s also got a nasty hop-step (like Damien Harris or Mark Ingram) that is his main weapon of choice when confronted head-on by a defender.

As a receiver, he’s mostly been used as a deep-ball threat, as his pure speed was just on another level from anyone he played against in high school.

He’s an accomplished kick returner with the speed to break through for a big play on any given return, but he also plays as a gunner and a blocker on special teams as well. He’s also an eager blocker down field, and uses both his hands and feet well to keep himself positioned between the ball carrier and defender.

Cons

Like Slade Bolden, Jerome Ford is also a bit undersized, and as such is not great at fighting through contact or breaking arm tackles. He also doesn’t keep his balance well when defenders go for his legs. He also doesn’t display a strong arsenal of moves or footwork to dodge defenders, mostly relying on either his speed or the hop-step.

As a receiver, he has little experience running routes other than going deep, and he also has never really had to make contested catches, as he’s just blown by everyone in high school for easy touchdowns.

Prediction

Just like Bolden, I don’t really expect Ford to have a role in the offense this year. I do think he has a very good shot at getting time on special teams though, due to his willingness as a blocker and tackler, as well as his potential as a returner.


As a final note, all player ratings and stars are pulled directly from the 247sports composite. I don’t think they’re perfect, but they are a good representation of the general media thoughts on a player.

All sizes and testing data come from ESPN’s recruiting database, which pulls verified info from Nike combines.