It takes quite a bit to stand out in this loaded 2021 NFL Draft class; it takes even more to stand out as a running back with hopes of making it in the NFL, a league that has devalued the position over time. Only recently, with the talent seen in Tennessee Titans’ Derrick Henry, who stiff arms defenders into oblivion, can a running back be the sole or one of a select few reasons a team finds sustained NFL success. Teams can luck out in the running back market, finding talent with what they deem a reasonable contract.
Former Arkansas running back Rakeem Boyd’s journey to the next level has been filled with everything but luck. Boyd, who spent a year at Texas A&M before re-starting his career at a junior college and then transferring again to the Razorbacks programs, was humbled in the most excruciating way a player could be. His time at JUCO, Independence Community College to be exact, was documented in the Netflix series “Last Chance U.” There, during the 2017-18 season, Boyd rushed for 1,211 yards, giving us all a glimpse of what we would see the next three years at Arkansas.
While at Arkansas, Boyd’s career ballooned. He improved season after season, first rushing for 734 yards and two touchdowns his sophomore year and 1,113 yards and eight touchdowns his junior year; it was his career-best. It was a testament to his hustle. Boyd always excelled at football—that was never a problem. It was just waiting for everything else to click, and at Arkansas it did.
Boyd’s oft-criticized exit from collegiate football was as unexpected as the COVID-19 pandemic that continued to wreak havoc globally. His decision to miss the final games of his last season at Arkansas still weighs on him; but now, more mature than the young man who was forced out of Texas A&M, Boyd is laser-focused on the upcoming draft.
Boyd spoke with The Draft Network on Thursday, his 23rd birthday. He’s currently in Houston, training at EXOS amid a climate crisis unlike anything the state, or country, has seen. Boyd is safe, with the only disruption so far being to his training schedule.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
TDN: At A&M, there were obviously academic struggles and not being able to get to class. Your mentality at the time was clearly different then as opposed to now. What was the moment it clicked that you wouldn’t have a future there?
RB: I was young and didn’t know what was really going on; I couldn’t put all my eggs in the basket. When [Texas A&M] said, “We can release you,” right after that, I went to a training session, and I was just like, “Damn, it really happened to me.” Because I was the top guy coming out of Houston, thinking I'm the s**t. They humbled me real quick, basically.
[Writer’s note: Boyd was a 4-star prospect by ESPN and Rivals out of high school. He was also an ESPN top-300 recruit.]
TDN: Can you briefly walk us through your winding collegiate journey, and what went into the decision to go to Independence?
RB: At A&M, there were some ups and downs. Obviously, football was never a problem. It was—I had my time there. I learned my lessons; that’s the best way to put it. Right after, I was like, ‘Hey, what should I do now?’ Boom. I end up finding out about this school, Indy, they’re just starting—I never even heard about them or wanting to be on a TV show until I got there. [I heard] they take a lot of transfers [and] to go check this place. So, my mom drove me down there. When I started playing football and going to school, I remember saying, ‘Man, I gotta get my one year done.’
TDN: What were you able to take from the environment at Independence—much like that of a high school where you practice on an open field with barebones equipment—compared to the amenities and access of Division I programs?
RB: It really just made me who I really am; I came from nothing and I made it into something, is how I would say it. For most people, it might not be that bad anymore; but some parts, it was tough. You can ball at every level, you just got to put your mind to it. When times got hard, and I couldn’t find an end, it ended up good for me.
TDN: You’ve had a large number of challenges—with transfers, playing through injury, and this past season amid the coronavirus pandemic—what was the most challenging part of your final year at Arkansas?
RB: I really wanted to play my last game at Arkansas and then at the end, I really didn’t get to so that hurt me a little bit. But at the end of the day, you got to move on.
Boyd will take his best attribute with him to the next level. His powerful running style makes it difficult for any opposing defender to stop him, and his breakaway speed is unmatched when he’s able to find a lane—or make one of his own. His journey to the NFL has allowed him to mature both on and off the field in a way that will prepare him for anything the next level throws—or in this specific case hands—his way.