Over the last decade or two, the most dramatic shift in the NFL has come to the running back position. In previous years, running backs were a premium position. Wearing down defenses was the default way to attack. But today’s NFL seems to devalue the position as the shelf life of a running back is considered jeopardized at age 30. However, in the ACC, there are a couple of RBs that are immensely talented to the point of potentially necessitating high picks to obtain them. Let’s take a look at the ACC rushers that could pummel defenses come Saturdays in the Fall.
Clemson’s Etienne: The “Cruiser” back
“Cruiser” back? Did I just invent a new football phrase? Travis Etienne is one of the biggest names in the ACC, but especially for the position. Instead of a “bruiser,” a ball carrier that does not shy away from contact but welcomes it, I see a “cruiser” as a smooth operator. His contact balance, agility, speed, acceleration, and reaction timing are exceptional.
Seamless movement skills characterize Etienne’s game. He’s able to handle the physicality of running inside but can bounce out if necessary. He reads his blocking setups well, reacting in the backfield to adjust to run defenses. He hits the hole and top speed so quickly, it’s a blur. Etienne is a phenomenal runner in all areas. In the open field, he’s a menace. He not only can make people miss, but he runs with a second gear that genuinely encapsulates the term “cruiser.”
Reminder: Travis Etienne might run a legit sub-4.3 pic.twitter.com/EHuScygQRd
— Trevor Sikkema (@TampaBayTre) May 6, 2019
It is the home runs and big gains like above that litter Etienne’s tape. He’s consistently able to find daylight and push himself for extra yards off of speed alone. More incredible, though, is his tendency to stay upright despite contact. He’ll always find a way to keep his frame even, so contact ultimately stumbles him but barely removes his speed. His leg drive is powerful, which stands out.
Consistently he’s able to drive through would-be tacklers to daylight because he’s balanced and churns his legs. Etienne has the gear and speed to truly be a game-changing back. But, at this point, he’ll need to develop consistent pass blocking and hands as a receiver to truly become a three-down player. Etienne is a home run hitter at this point that needs to work on the rest of his game.
For a player who predicates his game on speed and finesse, Travis Etienne has MASSIVELY underrated contact balance and leg drive.
I’ve been shocked by how many yards he’s gained after contact through the games I’ve watched. pic.twitter.com/MrttIrCBvI
— Carter Donnick (@CDonScouting) July 24, 2019
Etienne is one of the most dynamic players in the ACC. He’s the Clemson career leader in yards per rush and points per game, which is astounding when considering the history of offensive talent that Clemson has grown over the last few years. Considering he is only in his third year in college, and he’s already third all-time in Clemson career rushing touchdowns, Etienne is on pace to be one of the greats at not just Clemson, but in the history of college football. He is potentially a Heisman candidate.
Etienne is very highly rated by PFN staff.
Boston College’s bruiser back
AJ Dillon. A monster of a running back with only five percent body fat and the frame of a grown man playing amongst teens, Dillon is one of the most physical runners seen in quite some time. His legs are long, his upper body is a boulder, and he doesn’t shy away from contact often.
Weighing in at 251 lbs, Dillon is a unit with remarkable athleticism. He posted a 39-inch vertical jump this spring, which is shocking at his size. He uses that frame to grind his way through his carries to ensure he maximizes yardage. My favorite trait of his game is his ability to hold onto the football. Holding it close to his body, he’s driven through contact and tries his best to fall forward for yardage.
AJ Dillon has forced 11 missed tackles on the ground so far this season – safe to say that number is going ??
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 13, 2018
Surprisingly, Dillon is a shifty back even with that size. On film, he jumps off to me as a slower runner, with a second gear in the open field but not at the speed of the prior mentioned Etienne. But Dillon exhibits short-area quickness that assists in his gaining yards. Even with a stacked box, Dillon’s vision and ability to move laterally are plus traits that get him more yards than expected judging by how the blocking schemes break down. He’s excellent at pursuing angles and understanding the placement of incoming defenders to move and cut for more yards. He’s one of the more dynamic backs in the ACC that can handle a bell-cow role.
#BostonCollege RB AJ Dillon has very good contact balance and tenacity. His frame is #NFL ready with most of his mass favoring his lower body for good ground generated power. Elite finisher, always falls forward and plays physical to the whistle #devy #CFF pic.twitter.com/H77JBcXnfT
— Jason DiRienzo (@allpurposescout) November 20, 2018
This is where Dillon is best. He’s a real bruiser that will push the pile, but he’s relatively patient from down to down and can flow with his blocks to pursue better chances at openings. The one negative is his lack of passing skills, which haven’t manifested much in the run-heavy approach of Boston College. But in his few moments, Dillons seems a competent pass blocker and has decent enough hands to get by.
Ultimately, my impression is that Dillon can light up the ACC if he’s able to benefit from strong blocking ahead of him. Recently, former right guard Chris Lindstrom went in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. That’s a significant blow to what was a solid group. If they elevate their game, and Dillon’s work ethic this offseason to get in shape results in better speed and endurance, we could see a record year from the Eagle rusher.
Blue Devil weapon
The previous two runners were already featured in my early ACC watch list. But this last player is a talented, versatile weapon for the Duke Blue Devils. Deon Jackson is a player that is primarily overlooked because he plays at Duke University, which hasn’t had a highly touted player offensively since former quarterback Daniel Jones last season, and possibly former wide receiver Jamison Crowder before that.
Jackson stands out because of the completeness of his game. He’s a jack of all trades back that possesses adequate speed and agility for the NFL level. His versatility is important because it ensures that he can get on the field. He’s a quality return man and is a great running back. Jackson notched just under 900 rushing yards, seven touchdowns, all with a 5.3 yards per rush average. Added on to that are 26 receptions for 253 receiving yards.
#Duke Jr RB Deon Jackson (6’0” 220) has caught my eye. Looking into his stats, he broke out in 18’ with a 19.41% DR. Posted 847 rush yards & 7 rush TDs avg 5.3 ypc. 6.72% target share (32)/ 24 rec for 246 yrds & 2 TDs. 247Sports profile shows 4.37 verified 40. 114.25 SPDSC #devy pic.twitter.com/elcXnNwWc5
— Jason DiRienzo (@allpurposescout) May 12, 2019
Jackson reminds me a little of Duke Johnson, former Miami Hurricane and current Cleveland Browns running back. His polish and movement skills give him an enhanced route running ability, and he has soft and consistent hands. With Daniel Jones gone, the Blue Devils may rely more heavily on a standard rushing attack, but his skill set makes him suitable to stay out for third-down too. At 6’0”, 215 lbs, he’s a great size no matter what role he’s asked to play.
Felix Davila is a writer for PFN covering the NFL Draft. He is also the editor for the AFC North team. You can follow him @DavilaFootball on Twitter.[sv slug=”felixdavila”]