Running Full-Circle

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May 21, 2001
Running Full-Circle

Big and strong, Earl Campbell resembled a fullback, and had, in fact, excelled in high school as a linebacker. Even today, Campbell is remembered more for his bruising running style than for being fleet of foot. And while true, Campbell was nearly poetic in his assault of would-be tacklers, he was also deceptively fast.

As those who remember his Herculean effort against Miami on Monday Night Football will attest, Campbell could turn on the jets in an instant, making him that rare back that possessed both power and speed.

In Campbell’s day, he was the exception, not the rule. Guys named Payton and Dorsett reshaped the way people raised on Jim Brown viewed the running back position. But now, nearly 25 years after Phillips made Campbell the first pick in the 1978 draft, the trend has gone full-circle, and the powerful but speedy back is once again in vogue. Only they’re more powerful than Campbell, and quite a bit faster. The prototype is Michigan State’s TJ Duckett.

Duckett (6’2″, 255) bench presses 505 lbs. and runs a 4.45/40. Considering his frame, that’s nearly unfathomable. Last year, he rushed for 1,353 yards and averaged 5.6 yards a carry. But as good as he was, it may have only been the tip of the iceberg’s tip. Or, as CNN/SI succinctly put it, “(Duckett) could equal career totals of 2,022 yards and 17 TD’s this season alone.”

The heightened expectations are due to key factors that may have stacked the deck against Duckett in 2000. First, he played much of last year with a sprained shoulder, which limited the former linebacker’s effectiveness when taking on tacklers. Like Campbell, Duckett prefers running through, rather than around, a defense. Also, the Spartans lost their two starting wide receivers to the 2000 NFL Draft, and had a giant question mark under center. Defenses thus keyed on Duckett.

And still, look at his numbers.

The later is still a potential impediment in 2001, as Michigan State’s offense figures to be Duckett and a cast of nobodies, but the former is not. Duckett was once again healthy when the Spartans began spring drills this past March, and is expected to have a monster 2001 season. He’s easily one of the two or three best backs in the nation.

Running just behind Duckett (due to lack of playing time) is Miami’s Najeh Davenport. The 6’1″, 250 lbs. back runs a 4.3/40 and has scouts drooling over his limitless potential.

His development, however, has been slow. During the Fall Kickoff Classic in 1999, Davenport tore his ACL and missed the season, a blow, to be sure, but Davenport took the opportunity to add 15 pounds of muscle and increase his speed. He returned in 2000 to a deep and talented group of backs, and saw playing time split between himself, James Jackson and Clinton Portis. The trio combined for 1,726 yards on 332 carries, proving too valuable as a unit for coach Butch Davis to pick just one as his go-to-guy.

The ‘Canes, who lost Jackson but also added Jarrett Payton to their backfield (yes, Walter’s son), are contemplating moving Davenport to fullback, which, much like the knee injury Davenport suffered, sounds like a bad thing, but may actually turn out to be a blessing. The idea is to not only get Davenport on the field more often (and thus, more touches), but also to showcase his blocking and receiving skills, both of which are already NFL-ready. The added exposure could push Davenport to the top of the running back heap.

As promising as Duckett and Davenport look, though, there’s debate over whether the Texans should use a top pick on a back. The past decade has cast doubt over the running backs’ place of importance in the (re)building process. 

Ki-Jana Carter is the one and only back taken first overall since 1986, and he was, of course, a titanic bust. At the same time, guys like Jamal Anderson (seventh round pick), Stephen Davis (fourth round pick) and Terrell Davis (fifth round pick) were excelling, despite their lack of draft pedigree. By the time Curtis Enis flamed out at the fifth overall pick in 1998, running backs had acquired a dime-a-dozen luster.

But those are the exceptions, and by no means the rule. While it’s not uncommon to find running backs buried deep in the draft (Denver has made a science of it), it’s not a skill that’s exclusive to the position (Kurt Warner, for instance, went undrafted). Statistics suggest that the best running backs in the NFL, generally, were the best running backs in college, and thus, first round material. Of the 13 backs that rushed for 1,200 or more yards last season, all but four (Stephen Davis, Corey Dillon, Mike Anderson and Rickey Waters) were first round picks.

So, yes, running backs are still important, and running backs are most definitely still worth a first round pick, perhaps even, the first overall pick. Especially if they continue to make them in the mold of Earl Campbell. TJ Duckett TJ Duckett The War Room Return to The War Room