I consider myself a “positive realist.” I enjoy keeping an upbeat, relentlessly positive attitude towards football player and team development. There have been very few instances of negativity in my scouting career, as I generally attempt to keep more pessimistic views to myself unless otherwise prompted.
At the same time, I think I keep a realistic outlook on everything football related. Even those prospects whose games I am drawn to, I won’t bullishly rank them high up on my personal draft board (see: DaeSean Hamilton, who I “only” ranked as a borderline top 50 player despite him being my favorite wide receiver prospect in 2018).
So, what’s the point of this whole rant? It’s a nice way of telling you that I don’t believe there is any elite talent at the offensive skill positions in the 2019 NFL Draft class.
The quarterback group lacks a prospect that I can confidently say would've been in my top 4 quarterbacks in 2018. The wide receiver group is made up of larger humans than last year, and the class has the potential to be a deep one, but I’m not sold on them being better prospects (unless the prodigal son D.K. Metcalf declares). The running back crop has some nice talent, but there isn’t a Saquon Barkley or Derrius Guice in the group.
Now, I won’t be pessimistic about these prospects, because there is a lot of depth at some of these positions. There are numerous players that currently project as more of “Day 2” prospects, all jumbled up together. As the home stretch of the college football season is upon us, it’s just about time for players to begin to separate themselves at these positions.
Particularly at running back spot, there is a whole mess of “solid” prospects, each coming with their own set of flaws. However, there is one player who I think is not only currently underrated, but is primed to raise their stock and secure a spot among the top 3 running backs in the class. That player is Michigan’s Karan Higdon.
By now, you likely know about Higdon as the bellcow running back for Michigan. The Wolverines are currently riding an 8-game winning streak, positioning themselves for a shot at the College Football Playoff. Higdon’s legs have been a huge part of their success, as he’s gained 100 yards or more in his last 7 games, all Michigan victories.
Normally, running backs racking up that type of production at a school as storied and highly ranked as Michigan would generate more buzz in draft circles. But, the semi-obvious negatives that Higdon will have to navigate as a prospect are his “lack” of size and elite athleticism.
Listed at 5-foot-10 and 202 pounds, Higdon’s measurables are just about equal to what Christian McCaffrey was coming out of Stanford (5’11, 202). McCaffrey, and other players of similar stature such as James White (5’9, 204), Theo Riddick (5’10, 201), Duke Johnson (5’9, 207) have all been given the label of “undersized.” The thing about Higdon is, he is a completely different style of running back than those previously mentioned players. Lacking that shiftiness, quick footed waterbug elusiveness, Higdon wins in a completely different way.
The biggest strength to Higdon’s game? His contact balance. Normally, 200-ish pounders don’t have the lower body balance and power that Higdon has. He is an arm-tackle breaking machine, and even when he gets wrapped up he will gain positive yards through the defender. Look at what he did to the Michigan State defense:
In those three particular runs against the rival Spartans, Higdon racked up 4 broken tackles and 64 yards after contact.
The way Higdon can drop his pads, lower his shoulder and churn his knees up to his chest allows him to play the game like you’d expect a 220+ pounder to play. The other thing to note about Higdon? Despite his shorter frame, he is absolutely shredded in the upper body. Based on his traits and muscular frame, his “lack” of size shouldn’t hold up his evaluation.
When Jim Harbaugh became the head coach of Michigan, it was obvious right away that he wanted to implement a power running game. Implement, he has. Michigan's offense is built off the run, with various power, duo, split-flow counter, and zone running schemes. It's not uncommon to see Michigan play with 21 (two running backs, 1 tight end) or 12 (one running back, two tight ends) personnel.
Higdon thrives behind pullers or split-zone blockers, setting up second level defenders and bringing force through the gaps that he finds. With Michigan playing a balanced variety of under-center and shotgun looks, Higdon has experience in just about any play or alignment as a runner.
Now, can the vision Higdon shows really mask athleticism and long speed concerns? I'm here to tell you it can. Higdon might not be a guarantee to take it the distance once he gets in space, but he's as consistent as they come as finding the right hole to get through those first and second levels. Add in his contact balance translating at the end his longer runs, and you have a running back that is still a threat to break off big gains.
Karan Higdon won't stack up to some other running back prospects in the sense of particular traits. He doesn't have the athleticism of Rodney Anderson, the frames of Benny Snell or David Montgomery, or the elusiveness of Justice Hill.
However, he will contribute as a player who consistently gains positive yards, and will translate right away into any scheme he's placed. With how Higdon hits the hole, he's a threat for chunk yardage plays at any time. Plus, with how he handles contact and breaks tackles he's a legitimate redzone option.
Expect Higdon to be one of those "risers" as NFL Draft season approaches.