As much as Adrian Peterson is renowned as the best running back in football whenever he is healthy, there hasn’t really been a successor to his style of play at a level that would qualify a runner to be a feature back. Melvin Gordon and Todd Gurley were drafted highly because of their physical running styles in 2015, yet both have struggled to remain effective throughout their short NFL careers. Instead, the running backs who have shined through 2016 are doing so by being able to make plays in different ways.
Ezekiel Elliott has made the most headlines as a rookie, leading the league in rushing. But as gifted as he is as a runner, the reason he was drafted fourth overall is because he is a complete back, catching 55 passes during his two seasons as a starter at Ohio State and showing the ability to pass protect on third down.
The next three running backs at the top of the rushing leaders are DeMarco Murray, David Johnson and LeSean McCoy. One common factor among those three are how reliant their passing games are on their production.
Murray has caught 24 passes and two touchdowns for the Titans, while Johnson has 17 catches and 238 receiving yards for the Cardinals and McCoy has 19 receptions of his own already this season. Offenses need their running backs to be able to take advantage of mismatches with linebackers in coverage, the way the Steelers employ Le’Veon Bell and the Falcons used Tevin Coleman to shred the Broncos for 132 receiving yards this past weekend.
The University of Tennessee’s offense has been based on Josh Dobbs and Jalen Hurd’s ability to run the ball with toughness during their 5-0 start, however backup running back Alvin Kamara at times looks like the player on the offense most likely to be a star at the NFL level.
He got more work than a normal backup last year due to Tennessee’s commitment to the run game and ability to have him and Hurd on the field at the same time, as he carried the ball 107 times for nearly 700 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. Against Texas A&M this past Saturday, he showed he could adjust to the high volume with Hurd out of the game due to an injury.
Kamara ran the ball 18 times, gaining 127 yards and finding the endzone twice. He used his deceptively powerful 5-foot-10 frame to force missed tackles and shake off defenders, while still maintaining the balance and agility of a smaller back.
He has real speed and accelerates well enough to break through holes and become dangerous getting up the sideline. However, like Bell and Johnson and Coleman, what Kamara brings to the table as a receiver is what gives him a chance to be really special.
Against the Aggies, Kamara caught eight balls for 161 yards and a game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter. More importantly, he did so from a variety of spots on the field. Below, he starts in the slot and motions into the backfield before emerging out the other side as the recipient of a swing pass from Dobbs.
As the ball is snapped, he is still in the backfield. Because Tennessee is likely to hand it to him there or break out the option with Dobbs and the traditional running back the other way, Texas A&M respects the integrity of the play and keeps the linebackers in the box.
Dobbs sees the linebackers stacked up in the middle of the field and quickly gets the ball out to Kamara, who meets a defender in the flats. However, with no help from pursuing defenders Kamara shakes the first tackle and makes his way to the sidelines, where he bursts for a big 15-yard gain.
His ability to break down the defense kept the Volunteers offense moving all game. He took a screen pass for 53 yards early in the game, and although he fumbled at the end of it he showed how dangerous he can be with a blocker in the open field. His touchdown came on a check-down with Dobbs looking to the endzone and finding no one to throw to. He dumped it off to Kamara, who had space to work with and the goal line within reach.
Yet, it is his ability to line up in the slot — a place he is comfortable due to limited opportunities in the backfield behind Hurd — where he separates himself from other receiving backs.
The five-wide look with a tight end on the field forces Texas A&M to keep a credible run defense in the game. Had they come out with a true dime package, logic states that Tennessee would have countered by bringing the tight end in and running the ball with Dobbs and Kamara in the backfield.
However, they are able to get the matchup they want, with a linebacker lined up over Kamara close to the numbers. A quick slant with just enough of a hesitation to put the linebacker a step behind is all that is needed, and Kamara is running free across the middle of the field.
He runs a crisp route and has sure hands on the catch, with the speed and agility of a running back that helps him gobble up yards after the catch and finish the play with toughness. It is this ability that allowed him to catch 34 passes and three touchdowns as a sophomore, and he already has 20 catches and three touchdowns less than halfway through his junior campaign.
Kamara did a lot to open up the Tennessee offense, and although Hurd should be back against Alabama this week, don’t expect Kamara’s role in the passing game to shrink too much. He might not match a career-high 18 carries with Hurd healthy, but he is a dangerous option that forces the defense to change the way they defend the Volunteers offense.
If pro scouts are watching, they will note that he is one of the few players in college football that can change the way defensive coordinators in the NFL approach the game. Commitment to the running game is great, but in a pass-first league, having a guy who could seamlessly transition from running back to receiver is what every offense craves.