In a campus to canton (C2C) league, the incoming freshmen are the “rookie class” since almost all college players headed to the NFL are rostered. For 2021, five-star RB Treyveon Henderson is proving to be a popular pick somewhere in the 2nd or 3rd round of a C2C startup and most likely the top non-QB in a freshman draft. I have even seen people suggesting he should be the 1.01 freshman over any of the quarterbacks even in multi-QB formats.
While there is a consensus on Henderson, freshman player evaluations can fluctuate wildly after the top tier. There is plenty of value to be had by identifying lower rated three stars that pop on film and/or are headed to a thin depth chart. The most extreme examples of three star studs in 2020 were Deuce Vaughn racking up 1076 yards and 9 touchdowns for Kansas State and Ty Jordan gaining 723 total yards and scoring 6 times in only 5 games. Both won freshman of the year in their conferences despite being fairly low rated recruits. Sadly, I should acknowledge that Ty Jordan’s life came to a tragic and unexpected end during this off-season. I celebrate his life and tremendous accomplishments on the field.
Other examples of three star running backs exploding early are Sean Tucker who lead Syracuse in rushing and Frank Gore, Jr. who started immediately for Southern Mississippi. Kimani Vidal and Cam Porter both finished strong for Troy and Northwestern, respectively, and set themselves up to be bell cows in 2021.
The following players are my favorite three star running backs (per 247sports.com composite rankings) in the 2021 class. Players with the “EE” designation will enroll early in the spring.
Tier 1 – Immediate college stud and NFL potential
|Devin Neal||Kansas||5’11”||208||5||OkSt, Iowa, Neb|
One of the most interesting recruiting stories of 2021 is how this superb athlete became a Kansas Jayhawk. He is from Lawrence, which may have played a role in keeping him home but typically guys like this don’t wind up in the KU blue and crimson. Coach Les Miles must have worked his magic by landing Neal, one of the smoothest running backs in the class. 247 sports likes him better than the composite, giving him four stars and a RB12 ranking.
Blending great size with excellent instincts, patience and agility, Devin Neal looks like he belongs in the who’s who of this class. He is not only impressive on the ground, but put multiple receptions on tape that would be remarkable for a receiving prospect. You can find goal line slants, sideline toe taps and contested catches scattered throughout his film. He did not face the stiffest competition in high school, but I don’t see what else you could possibly ask for. Neal appears to have as high a ceiling of any back not named Treyveon Henderson in this freshman class.
Notable departures: Pooka Williams Incumbents: Two 3* ATH turned RB Daniel Hishaw & Velton Gardner
|Trevion Cooley||Louisville||5’11”||208||26||Ark, UF, MSST, SCAR, UT, Utah, VaTech|
Cooley is my number two 3 star, 247’s top composite 3 star, and in 247’s own rankings he is the RB7 and has 4 stars. It’s safe to say this is not a risky pick but he’s got everything going in his favor. Cooley had an extensive offer list and leaves high school with a senior line of 99-986-14 in only 8 games. He will enroll early with good size that easily projects to a workhorse frame in the NFL.
The tape shows excellent burst, fluidity and power with adequate long speed for the occasional house call. He looks smooth in and out of cuts, mixing vision with forward momentum at all times. Louisville has a gaping hole in their backfield left by Javian Hawkins and only sophomore Jalen Mitchell remains as significant competition. My only concern is that Cooley registered a mere 5 receptions over his last 19 games and while that may be a function of his high school offense, that part of his game remains murky.
Notable departure: Javian Hawkins Incumbents: Jalen Mitchell & Hassan Hall
Tier 2 – Talented with open depth charts and NFL potential
|Gabe Ervin||Neb||6’0″||200||30||AzSt, Ark, BC, Colo, FSU, UGA, UM, OM, Tex, USC|
Boasting the most impressive offer list of the group, Gabe Ervin had the attention of playoff contender and running back factory the University of Georgia. He will enroll early and already is the same size as some backs entering the NFL draft this year.
When watching him, it is evident immediately that his first step is different. He makes quick, decisive movements and can accelerate faster than his competition. Playing for Georgia powerhouse Buford High School, he faced quality opponents in the state’s highest classification. While there isn’t a lot of receiving work on his tape, there were a few instances of catching some passes out in front of his body with good hands. Ervin should have a good chance to earn a considerable workload right away in Lincoln.
Notable departure: Wan’Dale Robinson Incumbent: none Transfer in: Markese Stepp
|Deshun Murrel||UCLA||5’11”||190||30||PSU, Vandy, VT, OkSt, Neb, GT, Duke|
It is certainly odd that an all-state running back in Alabama is making the trek to the left coast next fall. UCLA won Murrell’s signature after a sensational senior season where he racked up over 2300 yards and 37 touchdowns in just 10 games. There are many SEC teams that would benefit from Murrell’s presence but he will star in the Pac-12 instead.
On tape it’s clear that he is a smooth slasher with long speed. He has a good forward lean and can make single cuts then accelerate around defenders. There is some evidence of power and contact balance, but it doesn’t appear that is a key part of his game. There was not much in the way of pass game work so that also remains a mystery as he heads to the golden state.
Notable departure: Demetric Felton Incumbent: Brittain Brown Transfer in: Zach Charbonnet
|Will Towns||WF||5’11”||190||14||BC, Pitt, Vandy|
Towns is smaller than the players listed higher but with the typical 15-20 pound college gain, he can still be tracking towards the NFL. He is the first back on the list that truly excels as a receiver, lining up out wide and securing passes at multiple levels of the field.
He is electric with good overall vision and feel as a runner while also showcasing legitimate long speed that should translate to power 5 college football. Given the state of Wake Forest’s backfield Towns is likely to be utilized right away in the return game and as a change of pace back. Assuming he can put on some weight, he appears to have many tools that will enable him to be a complete feature back within a couple years and possibly hear his name called in the NFL draft.
Notable departure: Kenneth Walker III Incumbent: Christian Beal-Smith Transfer in: Christian Turner
Tier 3 – Quality college backs with early opportunity
|Taj Butts||Missouri||5’11”||205||9||UK, ISU, Louis|
Four year starter Larry Rountree leaves a lot of unanswered questions in the Tigers’ backfield. Tyler Badie is versatile but is unlikely to be a feature back in the SEC. Butts and class mate B.J. Harris will have a chance to compete for touches immediately upon checking into their dorms.
I like Butts due to his advanced frame to be first in line. He lacks the overall speed of some others on this list but in the short area he is explosive and uses effective jump cuts to evade defenders. A discount version of Kamarro Edmonds came to mind while watching his tape, as their running style seemed similar.
Notable departure: Larry Rountree III Incumbent: Tyler Badie
|Iverson Celestine||Tulane||5’10”||198||6||Utah, UVA|
I love Celestine’s tape. If you simply hit play without telling me anything else I would be hard pressed not to think he’s a top 10 back in the class. He shows the ability to access multiple tools that be uses to evade, manipulate or simply destroy defenders. In addition to that, he displays legitimate receiving chops, making over-the-shoulder grabs deep down the field as well as seamlessly absorbing swing passes and turning up field.
Despite all this brilliance, he is headed to Tulane and only received 6 offers with his highest profile school being Utah. This tells me there is likely something I can’t see on the film, whether it is weak competition or off-field problems. It has been pointed out that his high school 100 meter times are sluggish and would imply he does not have much long speed at all. In game action, he appears bursty and not only takes runs to the house but also gets open on routes beyond the line of scrimmage. Given he will be an extremely low risk investment, I am still be happy to roster Celestine in C2C and hope he is a unicorn.
Notable departure: Amare Jones Incumbent: Cam Carroll
|Bill Jackson||Tulsa||5’10”||195||11||AzSt, Kansas, Neb, Purdue|
Entering college with good size, Bill Jackson also walks into a thin depth chart at Tulsa. With his solid frame, he can easily get to 215-220 pounds and shows a nice all around skill set. One criteria I look for is a quick first step, which can separate JAGs from players that may be able to make a difference at the next level. Jackson has good initial burst and also a variety of moves he’ll deploy to earn yards.
He had 11 offers including multiple from power 5 teams which is encouraging despite Jackson taking the group of 5 route. Given the depth chart and his skills on tape Bill Jackson seems like a good candidate for early work and opportunity is worth a lot at the running back position. In C2C leagues I feel comfortable taking a late stab at Jackson hoping he could contribute early.
Notable departures: Corey Taylor II Incumbent: Deneric Prince & T.K. Wilkerson
|Antwan Roberts||Wis||6’2″||195||8||UK, Miz, Vandy, Duke, UL|
Roberts is probably the only back on this list who has an established, highly rated recruit ahead of him on the depth chart. Jalen Berger was a 4 star who already has a large set of fans in Madison, but I liked what I saw from Roberts. He is the tallest back on this list by 2” and yet his movements are silky with a springy bounce. He shows nice vision and ability to slash through holes despite his size.
I found his style to be more brains than brawn even though he was likely bigger than most defenders he saw. There are occasional collisions throughout his tape but usually he wanted to scoot around or between would-be tacklers. The cherry on top that gets him in my top 10 is his receiving ability. Roberts shows good hands down the field with multiple catches on passes that travel over 20 yards through the air. He could wind up over 225 pounds in a few short years and if he can keep the other smooth skills, Wisconsin may have another stud runner on their hands.
Notable departures: Garrett Groshek & Nakia Watson Incumbent: Jalen Berger
Tier 4 – Wild card all-purpose back
|Xavier Coleman||BC||5’10”||190||14||Baylor, Pitt, Wazzu|
Two years ago, Ainias Smith was a 3 star athlete heading to Texas A&M that was off most people’s radars. After 2 productive seasons in College Station, he has bounced around as a running back and receiver but is electric when he touches the ball. As a sophomore he was second on the team in yards from scrimmage with 857, with his touches almost evenly split between attempts and receptions. Coleman strikes me as a similar player.
It is hard to know if he’ll find a positional home to thrive. But Boston College seems to be searching for a hybrid type playmaker. Travis Levy attempted to fill that role but after 4 years doesn’t have much to show for it. The Eagles brought in Jaelen Gill from Ohio State but he only played receiver in 2020. Coleman can do it all as a running back and receiver, as almost 50% of his highlights show him lining up out wide. It looks like he has tremendous long speed and could immediately be one of the fastest players on the team. I think he can be a returner from day 1 and work his way into additional touches.
Notable departures: David Bailey Incumbent: Patrick Garwo II & Travis Levy