"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
19 Jan 2011
by Doug Farrar
Here's the third installment in our look at the top draft-eligible players. If you haven't read the two quarterback pieces, you can find them here:
Moving to running backs, as Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout told me this last week, "there's basically Mark Ingram and everyone else." For our purposes, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner was paired with Illinois' Mikel LeShoure, a prototypical bruiser, if you look at height and weight alone.
As always, it's important to being the educated take in the interest of informing my ramblings -- this week, FO compadre Bill Connelly gives his take on both players.
One year after helping his Crimson Tide team win the national championship and winning the Heisman Trophy for his trouble, Alabama's Mark Ingram dropped from 1,658 to 875 rushing yards, ended his collegiate career on the All-SEC second team, and prompted questions as to his readiness for the NFL. Alabama coach Nick Saban seemed to believe that Ingram's real problem in his 2010 season (according to the Birmingham Herald) was his new place in the world, and the expectations surrounding him after that great sophomore season. But Ingram overcame the knee injury that cost him the first two games of 2010, he overcame the three losses the Tide had in 2010, and he rebounded from a difficult season to come away with the school's rushing touchdown record -- he broke Shaun Alexander mark with two scores in Alabama's 49-7 beatdown of Michgan State in the Capital One Bowl.
After that game, Saban was unusually talkative. "I remember when Mark first came here, he used to try and run over every defensive player," he told reporters. "He wanted to score a touchdown every time he got the ball. Probably his greatest asset is the competitive spirit that he has. He's a hard worker. He has a tremendous amount of pride in his performance relative to challenging himself to be the best he can be."
Having signed a multi-million dollar deal with GT Sports Marketing (whose president, Gary Takahashi, recently said that "(Ingram is) a national champion. There's nothing tarnished about him like the Auburn kid (Cam Newton)."
Well, alrighty then. Ingram is preparing for the Combine at Sonic Boom in New Orleans, and he heads into the pre-draft process as the only widely viewed first-round prospect running back. I wanted to see what he showed against a touch defensive opponent, so I reviewed Ingram's 11-carry, 41-yard performance against South Carolina (a 35-21 loss), a defense that ranked third in the nation in S%P+ against the run.
The game started for Alabama with a quick pass from quarterback Greg McElroy to Ingram, who hit the running back right past the defensive line for a three-yard gain before South Carolina's defenders converged on him. He kinds of floats through under defenders in his routes on plays like this and turns quickly ahead. Ingram's first carry came three plays later, with the Tide facing second-and-6 at the Gamecocks' 43-yard line. Ingram gained seven yards up the middle out what I would actually call a Wildcat play; yes, it was identified correctly. As Marquis Maze headed across the backfield from right to left and took a fake from Ingram, the South Carolina front brought eight to the box and got blocked out of the way so that Ingram could shoot up the middle.
On this play, I saw two valuable characteristics I had seen from Ingram before. First, he hits that first quick burst with authority. That's impressive enough, but what I really like is his ability to adjust to what he sees in front of him, slow down in a short space, and reassess his opportunities. He's not a lagging, over-patient runner at the hole, and he doesn't sprint himself into tackles. That highly developed sense of speed change will serve him well in the NFL.
The next play, an 11-yard screen to Ingram, showed his "speed awareness" the other way -- he took the quick pass from McElroy, waited for his blockers to get downfield, and then turned on the jets. I don't know that I've ever called a running back "situationally aware" before, but that's what I'd call Ingram. He has a knowledge of what's happening around him that you don't always find with skill players, especially at the collegiate level.
Ingram got bottled up on the next play, and that's where the game started to go south for him. It was a shotgun sprint up the middle, and as Alabama proved to use no deep threat, South Carolina felt more comfortable either stacking the box or using tighter and more underneath coverage looks.
Ingram isn't is a bruiser. He has a 5-foot-10, 215-pound frame, and he's obviously spent more than his share of time in the weight room, but he doesn't push the pile -- that's not his game. I see him more as a complementary NFL back working best in a system where an often-used and complex passing game spreads out defenses and lets him use his sense of where the gaps are and his second-level burst to make big gains. His success with direct snap plays shows how quickly he can find a lane, but he didn't have too many against South Carolina, and at the NFL level, that would be even more of a problem.
Bill Connelly: Mark Ingram is a little of everything. He's not the strongest runner in the draft class, but he's strong. He's not the fastest, but he's fast. Really, the only elite trait he seems to possess is his footwork. He takes small, sure steps as he's figuring out his chosen path, then he bursts into the open field. He appears extraordinarily sound in his fundamentals, and because of that, he maximizes his abilities. His efforts were reflected well in our college advanced stats (POE, Highlight Yards).
Ingram is clearly well-rounded and accomplished, having won the Heisman in 2009 despite playing against a strong set of defenses. Besides his footwork, what might appeal to scouts about Ingram is his pass-catching ability. He caught a combined 53 passes for 616 yards and four touchdowns the last two seasons and could quickly thrive as a third-down back at the next level. His junior season did not match his award-winning sophomore campaign, but he should be a steady and serviceable back.
For an NFL comparison, I'd use Ryan Mathews -- he has similar size and well-rounded traits.
While Ingram has apparently labored under the expectations of a nation, Illinois' Mikel LeShoure has encountered different issues -- maturity problems (getting his jaw broken in a fight with his teammate in 2008, and being suspended for violating team rules in 2009), and a relative position under the radar in a running backs class that doesn't promote excitement. From a national perspective, we've probably heard more about Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers, who currently projects on NFLDraftScout.com's rankings as a mid-round pick, than LeShoure, who may be one good Combine away from top 40 status.
From an on-field view, as Bill notes below, two aspects of Leshoure's game leave the observer wondering about his pro potential -- the spiky nature of his per-game production, and the fact that he could just as easily run a 4.7 40-yard dash as a 4.5.
I wanted to review Leshoure as I did Ingram -- against a tougher run defense. But the Illinois-Ohio State game wasn't accessible, and I settled for his 29-carry, 184-yard, three-touchdown game against Baylor in the Texas Bowl. Baylor finished the regular season 93rd in run defense S&P+, so keep that in mind.
The first thing that stood out when Leshoure lined up for his first rushing attempt out of the I-formation (spinning out of left guard for a two-yard gain before he was tripped up) is how big he is in comparison with the other players. He's listed as 6-foot and 230 pounds, and he looked like an offensive lineman in this game. That was my first watch point -- his size would certainly be less of an asset in the NFL if he couldn't bring other things around it.
Leshoure started his team's second drive from the Illinois 32-yard line with 8:59 left in the first quarter. He took a sprint draw out of an offset Pistol I-formation over the right side for five yards, showing admirable turn-and-go and first-level speed. He bumps past first contact as you'd expect of a back his size, but I don't see a lot of momentum after he gets wrapped up, which might help to explain his inconsistent production. The leg churn common to most great after-contact rushers isn't evident. He runs surprisingly upright as well, which his NFL coaches will probably rectify.
On his next run, which went for 17 yards, he took the ball out of a tight bunch left, hit the hole with surprising speed, got a few foot-fakes in the open field, and bulled his way for a few extra yards after he was wrapped up. It took this run to make me realize who he reminded me of. He's about 15 pounds heavier than Marshawn Lynch, but he has the same kind of hybrid power style. Leshoure is not a typical bowling ball type of power back, though he'll probably be termed as such based solely on the eye test.
I have some pretty serious questions about Leshoure's ability to transition to the NFL without some mechanical fixes. Right now, he's often a man among boys from a physical perspective, and he tends to struggle when that isn't the case. My sense is that if he can get his base lower when he's running and do more than drag defenders behind him, some team could use him as an intriguing power back. But in the same way I've seen Lynch get caught most of the season behind a bad line and in a system that doesn't really fit his specific attributes, I fear that Leshoure might get the nod from a team expecting a traditional power back and getting something else. We're going to have to think a bit outside the box with this guy.
Bill Connelly: I've got to say, few running back prospects intrigue me as much as Mikel LeShoure. At the collegiate level, he possessed both power to run through arm tackles and speed to avoid getting caught from behind. His movement is fluid, and his cuts are decisive. A preliminary glance at his advanced statistics reflects well on his quality of running, and his size and stature are appealing. He can catch the ball well too. I just can't tell how fast he truly is. Anywhere between a 4.4 and 4.8 40 time isn't going to surprise me. If he posts a strong speed score, I'm sold.
Heading into his junior season, the knock on LeShoure was his consistency. He averaged a robust 6.8 yards per carry at Illinois in 2009, but he was all-or-nothing. Eleven carries for 184 yards against Fresno state, and nine for 14 against Cincinnati. Fifteen for 122 against Purdue, and 10 for 25 against Minnesota. That changed in 2010. He did suffer from a late-October slump (184 yards in 54 carries against Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue), but in all, he posted at least 77 rushing yards in 12 of 13 games, at least 106 in nine, and more than 140 in each of his last four games. In five games after November 1, he put up 917 yards and 11 touchdowns on 123 carries (7.5 per carry). Again, it all comes down to 40 time with him. He seems to have all the tools you could want otherwise.
I would say that he's a LeGarrette Blount type, only with slightly less upside and infinitely more sanity.
36 comments, Last at 23 Jan 2011, 7:47am by Mr Shush