Scouting talent at the running back position is a fun but cumbersome process at times. A lot of backs can find success at the college level courtesy of the level of play or the quality of the supporting cast/offensive line, which makes for a more detail oriented approach if one hopes to get proper impressions. While perusing the current rushing leaders in college football, there’s plenty examples of both.
But while the top of this class is universally applauded for being high class, there’s a number of other backs who have caught my eye for various reasons throughout the first three weeks. These four backs have shown desirable NFL skills, in one way or another, which forces me to acknowledge them and prioritize seeing them more as we start to begin conference play.
Rashaad Penny, San Diego State – 5’11, 220 lbs
Penny is making the most of his chance to be the featured back after sitting behind Donnell Pumphrey for three seasons. Penny did manage 1,000 rushing yards in 2016 on just 135 carries, but he’s simply on another level this year. Three games into the season, Penny is over halfway to a thousand yards after putting 216 and 175 on PAC-12 schools Arizona State and Stanford in each of the last two weeks.
The numbers are fine and dandy, but what’s driving Penny up my watch list is that he’s a much more sustainable NFL player in terms of style when compared to his former teammate, Pumphrey. A physical runner, Penny has a nice second gear in space, which he’s showing both on chunk runs and on his kickoff return reps. Penny has the look of a between the tackles runner at the next level, so now I’m aiming to ascertain where his floor and ceiling are.
John Kelly, Tennessee – 5’9, 205 lbs
The thing I love most about Kelly is that he’s been the sole player with any consistency for the Volunteers. Former Tennessee RB Alvin Kamara was quick to praise Kelly to myself and Joe Marino when he appeared on the Draft Dudes podcast last spring, and it’s easy to see why now. An endorsement of that level is enough to star someone’s name, but when Kelly comes out and generates the kind of performance he did against the Florida Gators last weekend, and he’s now a priority.
Kelly runs heavier than his size and doesn’t shy away from contact. But there’s a level of elusiveness here that also has kept early season defenders on their heels trying to square him up.
Ronald Jones II, Southern Cal – 6’0, 200 lbs
Texas was largely able to put the screws on Jones last weekend after consecutive rushing games, but it was the manner in which Jones attacks his runs that has me excited about his game. Jones, like Kelly, has a level of aggression to his game that’s easy to like. He pressures defenders in space by closing down angles and then will reaction appropriately, either working around or through bodies for yards.
Jones is part of a potent Trojans attack, so I don’t necessarily expect USC to ride him into the ground this year either. This was a player who NDT Scouting had on their 2nd team All-Draft Eligible team this summer; Jones II has been worth the billing so far and now it’s time to take him seriously as an NFL Draft prospect.