Class of 2011 RB superlatives
Malcolm Brown's power running and Isaiah Crowell's explosiveness top strong RB class
Superlatives seem fitting for this year's running back class because it's filled with outstanding talents that are versatile in skill set and ability. When comparing the three five-stars -- Isaiah Crowell (Columbus, Ga./Carver), Malcolm Brown (Cibolo, Texas/Byron M. Steele) and Aaron Green (San Antonio/James Madison) -- each has his own style and area of outstanding quality. When Mike Bellamy (Punta Gorda, Fla./Charlotte) and Savon Huggins (Jersey City, N.J./Saint Peter's Prep), the No. 4 and 5 rated backs respectively, are factored in, the collective stats for these five outstanding runners are mind-boggling -- over 10,000 rushing yards combined in this season alone. There is no wasted talent in this high-end class of running backs.
These five backs moved the chains in their own style, as did the rest of the 12 RBs in the ESPNU 150. Running backs in general come in all shapes and sizes -- perhaps more than any other position in football. They also possess different skill sets, which make them unique and productive in their own fashion. Significant, top-end speed is not always the most important trait of a back. Attributes such as vision, quickness, lateral agility, initial burst through the hole and ability to make people miss in space are vital qualities. Not all backs possess all, or even half, of these characteristics, but each characteristic can make a back in the right scheme with the right opportunities a dangerous commodity.
Best inside runners
What we look for: These backs have a knack for squaring up their shoulder pads quickly, getting downhill and attacking the hole with urgency between the tackles. We use the term "pick and slide" in our reports, and this is used to describe a back's ability to avoid with patience, to find seams and to move laterally in-line through the tight creases. The best inside runners consistently break initial contact, fall forward and finish runs. Downhill strength, power and low centers of gravity are not a must but beneficial for in-line production.
The Longhorns could be going to more of a run-oriented look on offense, which makes sense with Brown in the fold. He has the prototypical size and power to withstand punishment and finish runs between the tackles, but it's his ability to quickly see the cutback and plant and burst through the downhill seam that makes him such a dominate inside runner.
What makes Huggins such a great in-line back is his ability to run decisively and get downhill without a lot of hesitation. It also helps that he has great explosiveness when he plants his foot in the ground and gets north. What puts this guy into a top-five rating among backs is his ability to break initial contact inside or avoid it with quick, subtle cuts.
Mike Blakely (Bradenton, Fla./Manatee)
He is short but not small, and he uses his compact frame to his advantage between the tackles. The Florida commit runs with great balance, vision and quickness, allowing him to pick and dart his way through the in-line traffic, rarely giving defenders a clean shot at him. If there is a small crease he will find it and slice through. That ability to exploit the open running lane makes him a great fit for what the Gators do on offense.
Top home run threats
What we look for: Simply put, a home run threat can take it to the house any time the ball is in his hands. Excellent top-end speed and the extra gear needed to separate from faster defensive backs in the second level are required. Give these guys a small crease or the edge on the perimeter and they can take it the distance. Aside from game-breaking speed, the best home run threats are typically elusive and strong. Most of their big runs are sprung from breaking arm tackles or making defenders miss through the second level.
Bellamy is the all-time touchdown leader in the state of Florida for a reason. Give this guy a tiny crease to daylight and you are likely going to be looking at the back of his jersey. In regards to quickness through the hole and top-end speed in the second level, he's in a category by himself. He's a game-breaker who can score from anywhere in a variety of ways. Bellamy will remind Clemson fans of C.J. Spiller.
Backs who have the ability to run through second- and third-level defenders or past them are usually the most dangerous. Crowell has the capability to do that, thanks to his excellent explosiveness. His ability to reach top speed in a flash makes this prized recruit such a threat.
Green's ability to cut on a dime and burst through the seam without gearing down much, if any, places him in this category. The future Cornhuskers RB possesses great vision to find the seam and burst out of his cuts. Outside speed and quickness are excellent, and we expect this five-star back to make a significant contribution in Lincoln early in his career.
Best workhorse backs
What we look for: These running backs are capable of wearing down a defense over the course of a game and are able to run inside with consistent power. They often deliver a blow on their way to earning productive yards after contact. They have to be tough, durable, display superior in-line running strength and strong in the fourth quarter. These guys are high-carry, every-down, finishing, load backs that want to be fed the football and get stronger with carries.
Brown's great speed-to-power ratio and hard, second-effort running style is the perfect recipe to wear down a defense. He has the bulk, low center of gravity and stamina to absorb the hits, break first contact and get stronger as the game goes on. The No. 10 overall prospect has produced consecutive 2,000-yard seasons.
Jeremy Hill (Baton Rouge, La./Redemptorist)
Hill was a workhorse for Redemptorist High School, averaging close to 25 carries per game including a 35-carry, 282-yard performance on ESPNU in September. He has great size and is built more like an H-back or fullback, with the downhill strength to pound the rock and make smaller defensive backs think twice about coming up to tackle him.
Kenny Hilliard (Patterson, La./Patterson)
Hilliard is another load back out of Louisiana who has gone head-to-head with Hill and looked equally as powerful. He barrels through arm tackles, rarely going down on first contact, with impressive lower-body power and upper-body strength in the form of a violent stiff-arm. The LSU commit is Louisiana's all-time leading rusher by using his 220-pound, durable frame to handle over 1,000 carries in his career.
Most versatile backs
What we look for: The word "dynamic" epitomizes this category. The ability to line up all over the field and create mismatches is a must in today's open offenses. Polished receiving skills are a necessity, and return skills are an invaluable bonus. Projected multi-purpose or change-of-pace backs often fit into this category.
Herschel Sims (Abilene, Texas/Abilene)
Sims fought through injuries this season, but when totally healthy he can make things happen in a big way on the ground or through the air. He can create matchup problems in space with his ability to cut on a dime and elude. The Oklahoma State commit's pass-receiving skills are polished, and as a runner he moves the chains with pure speed and deceptive leg strength.
Demetrius Hart (Orlando, Fla./Dr. Phillips)
If Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez can hang onto Hart, he will have an ideal fit for what the Wolverines do on offense with their running backs. He's one of the better multi-purpose runners in this class, as he brings great hands, speed, elusiveness and deceptive in-line strength to the table.
DeAnthony Thomas (Crenshaw, Calif./Crenshaw)
Thomas is one of the more versatile and dynamic prospects in the entire class. We would not be shocked if he sees action on both sides of the ball during his career at USC. As a projected running back, Thomas has outstanding speed, quickness and athleticism to get creative in the offensive backfield. He's likely a change-of-pace, scat-back type (if he plays offense) and an immediate threat as a returner.
What we look for: The back with the highest ceiling when projecting three to four years down the road and has the most room for continued physical development or improvement in skill set. These backs should become more productive with full-time, college weight training, coaching and positional polish.
Brandon Williams (Brookshire, Texas/Brookshire Royal)
The Oklahoma commit fell under the radar in the early going but not anymore. Williams shredded defenses for close to 2,500 yards this season with a supreme blend of size and top-end speed. What's exciting is that we still feel like his best football is ahead of him, once he fills out his tall, long frame in Norman.
Daniel Lasco (The Woodlands, Texas/The Woodlands)
Like Williams, this Texas native has a tall, lean frame that may resemble a safety's body more than a running back. Lasco can flat out run and his speed and quickness make him dangerous when he gets to the second level. With added bulk and strength to assist his downhill, between-the-tackles skill set, the sky is the limit for the future Cal runner.
Brendon Bigelow (Fresno, Calif./Central East)
Bigelow has suffered two season-ending injuries during his high school career, but it's fair to say he is one of the best runners in the country when healthy. With a full-time strength and conditioning and physical therapy team at his side in college, look for this lightning-quick, extremely-fast runner to bounce back with big numbers for the Washington Huskies.
Billy Tucker is a recruiting coordinator for ESPN Recruiting and has close to a decade of coaching experience at the college and high school levels.
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