Preseason Top 5: Big 12 Running Backs

Photo: Mark D. Smith-USA Today

For a conference known for churning out running back prospects such as Adrian Peterson, Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine, Darren Sproles, and D’Onta Foreman, chalk up the 2018 NFL Draft as a lost year. No running backs from the Big 12 were taken, a rarity for a conference that will regularly have multiple running backs drafted.

Looking ahead to 2019, the class of Big 12 running backs will be looking to get the conference back on track, and they are primed to do so in a big way with multiple potential first-round picks.

1. Rodney Anderson, Oklahoma (6'1, 219)

Rodney Anderson is my preseason RB1 for college football and enters the season as a bonafide Heisman hopeful. In an offense that will presumably be more predicated on the run with Kyler Murray at quarterback, Anderson will be the bellcow. He has the ideal size and strength combination for the NFL, and has the vertical burst and power needed at the next level. Anderson possesses the necessary contact balance and does a good job avoiding low tacklers and breaking through arm tackles despite his taller frame. Anderson consistently picks up positive yards through contact, and will get dirty in between the tackles and hit the hole with pop. He does an excellent job at sticking his foot in the ground and hitting a crease at it opens up, and seamlessly glides by his blockers at the second level. Anderson is lethal in the open field with his vision and long speed, and can be used in the screen game. His lateral movement ability shows behind the line of scrimmage and in the open field, as he can occasionally leave defenders grasping at air.

Anderson can occasionally have questionable vision, especially on zone runs, and seems like he is guessing as to what hole is opening up. He can be too quick to cut back or bounce when not necessary, and hit the line of scrimmage before giving the offensive line a chance to open creases. Though he is a willing blocker in pass protection, Anderson needs to do a better job of squaring himself towards oncoming blitzers to stop their charge completely.

Anderson is a potential first-round pick and top running back taken in the Draft. His combination of traits along with his frame and strength make him as close to a top-75 lock at running back as there is in the upcoming draft class.

2. David Montgomery, Iowa State (5'11, 216)

While Rodney Anderson is my preseason RB1, there is a competitor for that spot in his own conference in Iowa State’s David Montgomery. He is a different style of runner than Anderson, as Montgomery possesses outstanding contact balance and lower body strength. He consistently overpowers defenders and runs through contact, picking up yards and breaking tackles at an astronomical rate. His stout, muscular build is that of a workhorse running back in the NFL. It will often take multiple defenders to take down Montgomery, as he churns his legs through contact. He is a surprisingly good later mover and is patient behind his blockers, with an obvious second gear that he will hit as creases begin to open. Has long field vision and will cut to green grass and use his relentless running style and vicious stiff arm to keep potential tacklers at bay. Montgomery lined up all across the formation for the Cyclones, and even showed some ability as a route runner from receiver alignments.

Montgomery can have lapses in vision and look to bounce the run when it is not necessary to do so, and will come with a solid amount of negative runs. Along with shaky hands as a pass catcher, Montgomery doesn’t have the long speed to separate from defensive backs in the open field, and can get run down by defensive backs.

While his athleticism is not that of Anderson’s, it’s hard not to be drawn to the running style of Montgomery. His powerful, strong frame will surely entice teams within the top-75 picks of the NFL Draft, and he projects as a true #1 workhorse running back for a team at the next level.

3. Justice Hill, Oklahoma State (5'10, 190)

If Rodney Anderson and David Montgomery end up battling it out for the top running back spot in the draft, Justice Hill could be the favorite for #1 change of pace back. While he doesn’t have the frame of a traditional bellcow running back, he would fit perfectly in a timeshare as an effective zone and open space runner with receiving potential.

Hill, like Montgomery, has outstanding contact balance for his size. He does an excellent job pressing on zone runs, before putting his foot in the ground and bursting through the hole vertically. Hill will find open space and be effective in it, picking up yards in a flash with his quickness. A slippery runner with lateral quickness, he is a nightmare for linebackers to read with his cutbacks.

Hill is slightly undersized, and durability will undoubtedly be a question if a team plans to use him as a feature back. Despite his contact balance, jump cuts, and array of moves, Hill can get himself in trouble with his elusiveness because he often runs without a plan. Hill needs to play a bit more within himself, as he ends up contacting second and third level defenders because of an inability to manipulate them with space to either side.

Hill projects as a likable mid-round selection, as his strength for his size and balance will draw in plenty of NFL scouts. If Hill can add some bulk and alter his running strategy beyond the line of scrimmage, he could become an effective back in a two headed monster backfield.

4. Alex Barnes, Kansas State (6'1, 227)

Alex Barnes will come to the NFL with a ready built, muscular and imposing frame. On tape, Barnes does an excellent job in space at avoiding low tackles with a powerful stiff arm. He stays unfazed working against smaller defenders, and can hit them at full speed and burst by them. Barnes is effective as a power runner, as his vision works best while running behind pullers. He will glide off a puller’s backside, bursting through the hole as soon as it opens. Barnes does an excellent job of bouncing whenever linebackers collapse inside, and has the athleticism of an NFL running back.

Barnes can struggle behind the line of scrimmage, often being uncertain of when to hit inside and when to hit a hole if there isn’t a lot of space. Barnes will remain upright through the hole and fails to run behind his pads as he crosses the line of scrimmage, minimizing the effect of his built frame. His assertiveness in pass protection is a work in progress, and he is far too passive and has actually gotten run over, a concerning aspect to his game for a 227-pounder.

Barnes finally got the majority of carries last season, and will look to take on a heavier workload in 2018. He has shown nearly no receiving ability, and will need a more well-rounded and productive season to earn draftable grade that his athleticism and size warrants.

5. Darius Anderson, TCU (5'11, 204)

Darius Anderson is one-half of a timeshare in the TCU backfield, but will enter the season as the favorite to win the majority of carries. Though a bit undersized, he has incredible field vision, seeing blockers work down the field and cutting off of them with ease. Anderson thrives in space, and is better running the outside where he can corner and burst vertically, Despite being on the lighter side, he has a thick and strong upper body and has some shake and elusiveness to him in the open field. Anderson continually got stronger as games wore on, and is so effective in space that he has the traits of a running back with receiving potential.

Anderson can struggle on the inside run, getting tripped up far too often and unable to work through tacklers. Despite possessing plus lateral agility, he rarely uses it behind the line of scrimmage when the opportunity presents itself. In the open field when a defender meets him, Anderson can get driven back as he’s unable to work through contact.

Anderson has the traits of a potential change of pace back with receiving ability, but will need more production in that regard this upcoming season. Being in a timeshare at TCU should keep Anderson with plenty left in the tank upon entering the NFL, and getting drafted and carving out a role at the next level should undoubtedly be in his future.