Offensive shift

Spread offenses and multiple-back sets have changed how RB is played

Updated: January 1, 2013, 8:57 AM ET
By Mitch Sherman | ESPN RecruitingNation

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- A certain irony exists here this week as five of the nation's top running backs vie for carries in the practices before the Under Armour All-America Game, set for 5 p.m. ET Friday on ESPN.

As they arrived Sunday on site at Walt Disney World Resort for four days of preparation, some 1,500 miles away in Minneapolis, Adrian Peterson churned past 2,000 yards and within grasp of Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record.

[+] EnlargeAlvin Kamara
Miller Safrit/ESPN.comAlvin Kamara says running back has evolved into a hybrid position.

Peterson is the gold standard. The high school running backs, all coveted by an elite group of college programs, talk of him with reverence -- many unprompted.

"To live up to him," said Dontre Wilson, an Oregon-committed back out of DeSoto (Texas) High School set to play in the UA Game as an athlete, "that would be an amazing thing."

But Peterson is an anomaly. There is likely no one like him in football today. Production from running backs in the NFL is on the decline. The past three seasons have produced 16 percent fewer 1,000-yard rushing seasons than from 2004 to 2006.

At lower levels, spread offenses are all the rage. Since 2000, 11 of 13 Heisman Trophy winners played quarterback. In a 13-year period from a generation past that ended in 1985, 12 running backs won the Heisman, including Archie Griffin, Tony Dorsett, Charles White, Marcus Allen, Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson.

They were legends, the best athletes in the game. But where have they gone?

Well, some play wide receiver. Others picked defense.

"I like to give the blows instead of taking them," said Kendell Beckwith, the nation's No. 2-rated athlete in the ESPN 150 who plans to play linebacker in college after a high school career at Jackson (La.) East Feliciana, where he was a two-way star. "The offensive side on the next level is not for me."

And the rest have had to adapt.

Yes, for those who choose the less-glamorous path as a running back, the rules have changed.

You have to be versatile. Most college and NFL teams rely on multiple backs. If you can't function as a receiver and thrive in pass protection, your time at running back is limited, if not eliminated.

The result? Well it's on display in Florida this week. Most of the best running backs don't play or look much like Peterson.

Wilson is 5-foot-10 and 174 pounds. Keith Ford of Cypress (Texas) Ranch, the nation's No. 3 back at 5-10 and 200 pounds, runs better routes than the receivers on his high school team, according to his coach.

"I really took pride in that," Ford said. "I worked on it, and good things came of it."

Fourth-rated back Alvin Kamara of Norcross (Ga.) High School is 5-10 and 192 pounds. Sixth-rated Ryan Green from St. Petersburg (Fla.) Catholic is 5-10 and 187. Ty Isaac, No. 8 out of Joliet (Ill.) Catholic, stands a wiry 6-3 at 217 pounds.

"I think it's really evolved into a hybrid position," Kamara said. "Back in the day, it was pound, pound, pound. But for a lot of the guys who are here, it's because we can do a lot more than just run the ball up the middle.

"Still, we're going to get hit every play. It comes with the job. You've got to be mentally tough. My mindset as a running back is to go no matter what. You've got to have a fight in you, something extra in you to keep getting up and going back at it."

No doubt, it requires a unique approach to play the position.

"You have to be a different guy," the USC-committed Isaac said. "Even if it's not running the ball, you're a lot more intricate piece to the puzzle when it comes to the entire offense."

Progressive coaches at every level stay ahead of the curve in how they utilize backs.

"It's about getting them in space now," said Claude Mathis of DeSoto, who coached Wilson. "It's about getting them one-on-one against linebackers. We try to get mismatches, and Dontre probably scored eight touchdowns this year because of it."

Former NFL coach Herm Edwards, an ESPN analyst and coach of the Black Team in the Under Armour All-America Game, preaches versatility to young running backs. Then again, the guys who make it here already know that, and they insist the position remains as attractive as ever.

"It pushes you to be that upper-echelon of player," Isaac said. "I see where the league is going, and it's definitely a motivator to become one of those rare great players."

Edwards likens an overreliance on the passing game to the 3-point shot in basketball: It's not the magic formula to victory.

"When you really need it," Edwards said, "it's not always there. You can throw the ball to score, but you've still got to run the ball to win."

The average career of an NFL running back has dipped below three years. Stars emerge and fade quickly.

Recruiting is nearly as unpredictable. The top prospects a year ago, Johnathan Gray and Keith Marshall, started well this year at Texas and Georgia, respectively. Others from recent years, like Michael Dyer, Isaiah Crowell and Bryce Brown, endured circuitous routes.

Injuries hit the position hard too. See Marcus Lattimore.

Jermie Calhoun and Darrell Scott, the top-rated duo from 2008, fell flat.

An era ago, Max Redfield may have trained to play running back. On Friday during the UA Game, he'll announce his college choice -- Notre Dame, USC or Ohio State, one of which will add a premier safety to its 2013 recruiting class.

"It's just not as glamorous to play running back," said Redfield, from Mission Viejo (Calif.) High School and the fourth-ranked athlete in the ESPN 150. "You do more of the dirty work.

"But if you're really good, you're going to go somewhere."

Which brings us to Kelvin Taylor, the thoroughbred of this class. Taylor, a Florida commit from Belle Glade (Fla.) Glades Day and the No. 1 running back in the ESPN 150, is the classic back at 5-11 and 216 pounds.

[+] EnlargeRyan Green
Miller Safrit/ESPN.comRunning backs like Ryan Green have to be heavily involved in the passing game.

He has the speed. He has the vision. He has the genes as the son of Fred Taylor, a former 13-year NFL veteran who rushed for more than 11,000 yards in his career.

Kelvin Taylor amassed 12,019 yards from eighth through 12th grades, more than any player in the history of high school football. He scored 192 touchdowns. He has trained with NFL backs like Frank Gore.

Taylor appears to offers that rare combination. He's a natural.

"It's about instincts," Taylor said. "One thing my dad always told me was just to see the hole and hit it. Things come so fast. You play off instincts. Once you get it all down pat and don't have to think about it anymore, oh man, that's when it's really fun."

And that's the caveat to this discussion: When a truly elite back operates at his best, there's nothing better in football. It's a thing of beauty, as Peterson reminded everyone, including the nation's top high school back, on Sunday.

"Adrian Peterson, that's my man," Taylor said. "I'll probably go back in the room after this interview and study his moves."

Taylor tried in high school to play like Peterson. He'll do it again on Friday. It's his attempt at the most sincere form of flattery.

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