Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m going to be honest with you, the season is so close I can feel the opening game sunburn on my brow ridge and the metallic taste of light beer on my tongue, and I’m running out of things to write about. In a brief moment of inspiration, I stumbled across this idea while calmly and respectfully telling someone on twitter why they were wrong about Alabama being “WRU” (Clemson is the obvious choice for WRU, and it’s not even close).
Kansas State’s signature position over the last few years has either been “OLU” or “QBPowerU” but neither of those are sexy enough to get the Wildcats where they need to go in the college football world. RBU, however, has a nice ring to it, and K-State’s new staff just might make it happen with the run heavy schemes Klieman and Messingham are bringing to Manhattan.
Out of all the positions in college football, running back has seen one of the biggest shifts, mainly due to the pro game. Gone (or at least exceedingly rare) are the days of a lead back getting 25+ carries in a game. With a few exceptions (looking at you, Frank Gore), running backs have an expiration date in the NFL. You can only take so many big hits and suffer through so many leg injuries before you run out of juice. Nowadays, having a running back rotation in college football is a selling point. If you can keep your lead back to around 150-200 carries, he’s not only going to be more productive for you late in the season, but he’s also going to have more tread on the tires in the eyes of NFL scouts.
Last season, Alex Barnes was overused, especially considering his physical running style. Dalvin Warmack only getting 36 carries when Barnes toted the rock 256 times was coaching negligence. If you look at the top programs, almost all have gone to a running back by committee system. Kansas State had backs on the roster, but they were mainly used to hold down the bench in case of a strong wind gust. That’s just not how it’s done anymore.
Take Alabama for instance. In the past, Nick Saban would have strapped a saddle to whichever of their stud running backs he liked the best and ridden him until he dropped. In 2015, Derrick Henry had 395 carries to Kenyon Drake’s 77 and Damien Harris’s 46. In 2018 Saban adapted to the new realities of college and NFL football and spread out his carries in a more equitable manner.
Damien Harris led the Crimson Tide with 150 carries, followed by Josh Jacobs with 120 and Nagee Harris with 117. If anything, limiting carries helped the Alabama running backs in the NFL draft. Jacobs was the first running back taken, at 24th overall by the Raiders. Harris followed a little later, when New England selected him with the 87th pick.
From what I’m hearing from the new coaching staff, you’re going to see a running back rotation this year, and I’m all for it. There will be plenty of carries to go around. There is no reason to run James Gilbert (the presumptive lead back) into the ground while Harry Trotter (my favorite name in college football) and Jordon Brown sit on the sideline. In fact, I think you’ll see the Wildcats go 4 deep at running back with Joe Irvin getting a handful of carries in certain games.
Couple a run friendly offense with a coaching staff willing to actually play multiple running backs, and you’ve got a solid recipe for running back recruiting. Throw in the fact that you’ll mainly be running against defenses designed to stop the spread passing attack, and Kansas State should become a beacon for high school running backs in the Midwest.
This year the Wildcats missed out on the top back in Kansas when Ky Thomas decided to row his boat to Minnesota, but the days of missing out on top running back prospects should come to a quick end under Klieman and Messingham. In the 2021 class, 4* running back Tank Thomas out of St. Thomas Aquinas High School, is considered the best prospect in Kansas. It’s early, but if the Wildcat offense looks like I think it will look this year, don’t be surprised if Tank (another awesome name) gives Manhattan a long look.
Every coach needs to be able to carve out at least one niche position in order to get traction in the college football world. Alabama and Nick Saban started at running back and built from there. At Clemson, it all started with Nuk Hopkins and Sammy Watkins at wide receiver. The Wildcats have a chance to carve out some space at the running back position in the college football landscape, and I for one, am excited to watch it happen.