High school running backs working to refine game for next level


BEAVERTON, Ore. -- The demise of the running back has become readily apparent throughout multiple levels of football, but the position is far from extinct in the sport.

If there was one constant refrain during draft season and into NFL free agency, it was that a tailback's value to teams has been diminished severely from where it was just a few years ago. Yet, though they seem to be turning into a rare breed at the professional level, most high school running backs haven't given a second thought to moving elsewhere in order to provide a more lucrative path to the NFL.

"It's always going to be running back for me. I feel I can be good enough to be a first-round, second-round draft pick in the NFL as a running back," Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) four-star running back Jordan Scarlett said. "I see Adrian Peterson doing fine in the NFL just running it. I don't see why I can't."

Many of the nation's top high school backs descended on Nike's World Headquarters for The Opening this week and they came in all shapes and sizes. Almost every one of them CFB 24/7 talked with echoed Scarlett's confidence in being able to find a home at that position at the college and NFL levels, and were not really interested in changing positions for the most part.

Several backs cited the success of Peterson, Eddie Lacy, Marshawn Lynch and others when discussing the position, and one noted the success of the Seattle Seahawks on the ground during their run to the Super Bowl earlier this year.

Still, most understood they have to be more of a complete player in order to make it far in the game nowadays, and not just be capable of running student body left and student body right.

"NFL scouts look for a running back that can catch the ball, block, can be tough and run it," Orlando (Fla.) Timber Creek back Jacques Patrick said. "I feel I can bring all those things to the table and just need to keep improving at my craft. One day, hopefully, my name will get called in the draft."

Uncommitted to a college but considered a Florida State lean, Patrick will likely join a crowded backfield no matter where he ends up. Most of the players at The Opening at the position -- everyone is considered a four- or five-star caliber recruit -- are their high school's workhorse carrying the football on Friday nights. The changing reality of the position is coaches are looking to use more of a tailback by committee, such as the one that the Seminoles used successfully in their run to a national title last season.

Most schools sign at least one tailback each recruiting class and some often grab at least two depending on their depth chart. Though recruiting is of a fickle nature, most of the high schoolers understand that and there's less of an issue for most with a big name in the backfield ahead of them then there is with, say, quarterbacks.

Catching the ball has also been a renewed focus for many backs as they adapt to offenses that are increasingly derived from the spread. Backs went through many of the same drills as the wide receivers at The Opening and even the linebackers in attendance spent plenty of time going over coverages to help pick up running backs out of the backfield.

"I always was good at catching the ball because I have big hands. It's just something that came natural to me," Patrick said. "I definitely put more emphasis on it now that I see what's happened in the draft. Pass blocking too because you have to protect the quarterback. Between those two things, it's something we emphasize at my high school in order to get ready for the next level."

Fellow Floridian Scarlett echoed those comments and noted how much he focuses on his blocking skills in order to stay on the field for as many downs as possible, too.

"I definitely work on pass blocking every day because you have to get that down to be a complete running back," he said. "I'm still working on my catching but if I flex out to the slot and run a couple of routes I'd do fine."

There will always be running backs in the game of football and while recruits may sometimes get shifted by their coaches, they are singularly focused on making a difference for their college teams with the ball in their hand running between the tackles.

But the position itself -- and what's required of the running backs -- is unquestionably evolving. Even at the high school level, backs are rarely thinking about how late their position is getting picked in the draft and instead focusing on working hard to not get left behind.

Follow Bryan Fischer on Twitter @BryanDFischer.

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