After much thought and consideration, here's how I'm voting for the loaded preseason All-SEC RB slots
I promise I’ve spent more than enough time thinking about how I’m going to vote for the 2 preseason first-team All-SEC running back slots.
Let me rephrase that.
I’ve spent too much* time thinking about how I’m going to vote for the 2 preseason first-team All-SEC running back slots.
So as you read this, trust me that it’s coming from a place of thought, and not one of “I’m trying to do something bold to get noticed.” Also, trust that me not listing your team’s back on my first- or second-team ballot isn’t an indictment of him. After all, 2021 is “return of the back” in the SEC (trademark pending). Feelings are going to get hurt.
There are 7 backs who I believe have some sort of argument for first-team All-SEC. Tank Bigsby, Isaiah Spiller, Zamir White, Jerrion Ealy, Chris Rodriguez, Kevin Harris and Brian Robinson all, I expect, will get first-team votes at SEC Media Days next week.
Personally, I think preseason all-conference teams should be about what we’ve already seen from a player and who we’d expect them to be if they stepped on the field tomorrow. That gets murky sometimes because a lot of people like to do end-of-season projections.
Keep that in mind as you disagree with several of these takes with my future ballot:
RB — Zamir White, Georgia
RB — Brian Robinson, Alabama
My thinking — Imagine waiting behind the likes of Josh Jacobs, Damien Harris, Najee Harris and Bo Scarbrough. Robinson stuck it out for 4 years and it’s finally his turn to be the Alabama starter. He’s a career 5.0 yards per carry guy, but in 2020, he ranked No. 2 in the SEC in yards after contact and success rate (@SEC_StatCat). Pro Football Focus had Robinson with the SEC’s No. 4 running grade among backs, though he only got 1/3 of the snaps of Harris.
Robinson isn’t higher on the preseason ballot because while he’s been great in limited reps, he has yet to have a game with more than 13 carries, he’s still waiting on his first 100-yard game and he’s been pretty much a non-factor in the passing game to this point. But there’s obviously a clear path for Robinson to be a first-team guy at season’s end.
As for White, AKA “Zeus,” I was glad to see him stay healthy last year in his first season as a starter. He’s second among returning backs with 11 rushing scores in 2020, and he’s third in that group in success rate (go follow @SEC_StatCat if you aren’t already). We saw flashes of some of the explosion that was there in White’s pre-knee injuries days. This was exactly the player Georgia fans had been waiting for:
THAT’S HOW YOU START A GAME ZAMIR WHITE
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 7, 2020
I settled on third-team for White because for starters, think about this, Georgia fans. Is James Cook the better overall player? Granted, he’s a different player because of what he does in the passing game and maybe that’s not fair to hold against White, but I can’t put a guy second- or first-team when I think better things happen when somebody else in the backfield touches the ball (PFF graded Cook better in rushing, receiving, pass blocking and run blocking).
RB — Isaiah Spiller, Texas A&M
RB — Kevin Harris, South Carolina
My thinking — Let me start with Spiller first before I get blasted by the South Carolina faithful.
Spiller is the most accomplished back in the league dating back to the start of 2019. Not a ton of third-year players enter with 411 scrimmage touches under their belts. Spiller is that guy. He’s also that guy who dropped the truck stick on hard-hitting Ventrell Miller and delivered arguably A&M’s biggest touchdown of the Jimbo Fisher era:
Isaiah Spiller: Most 15+ yard runs among returning SEC RBs (32)pic.twitter.com/1Ri8KjZn7G
— PFF College (@PFF_College) June 24, 2021
If you just want to fill out your ballot based on career rushing yards, Spiller is your guy. He and Kevin Harris would be your backs as the SEC’s leading returning rushers.
But if there’s a knock on Spiller, it’s that he actually ranked outside the top 10 in the SEC in broken tackle rate, and he was No. 19 among qualified SEC backs in negative play percentage at 9.09%. That’s probably why PFF barely had him graded inside the top 10 overall among SEC backs in 2020. It’ll be interesting to see how Spiller performs with only 1 returning starter on the Maroon Goons, but don’t get it twisted. He’s still one of the the top backs returning in college football.
The same could be said for Harris, who ranks No. 2 among returning FBS backs in rushing. What Harris did in that offense, which really didn’t have any downfield passing game, was darn impressive. To average 6.2 yards per carry and 114 rushing yards per game seeing loaded box after loaded box couldn’t have been easy. That’s why he’s got a legitimate case to be a first-team All-SEC back.
So why didn’t he get that kind of love here? Well, the advanced numbers from 2020 weren’t kind to Harris (stats via @SEC_StatCat and PFF).
- No. 25 among SEC backs in negative play percentage (11.4%)
- No. 21 among SEC backs in success rate (44.3%)
- No. 18 among SEC backs in broken tackle rate (25.4%)
- No. 11 among SEC backs in average yards after contact (2.8)
- No. 10 among SEC backs in 1st down + TD rate (31.9%)
- No. 6 among SEC backs in PFF overall grade
- No. 6 among SEC backs in PFF rushing grade
Some of those things are important to note when a guy like Harris averages 49 rushing yards on 3.4 yards per carry in games against top-50 run defenses, but then he averages 142 rushing yards against non-top 50 defenses. That’s the argument against Harris and why I’d rather win a game being played tomorrow with 2 other SEC backs.
RB — Chris Rodriguez, Kentucky
RB — Tank Bigsby, Auburn
AP — Jerrion Ealy, Ole Miss
My thinking — Yes, I copped out by putting Ealy in the all-purpose slot for the first-team. In case you were wondering, I’d have Wan’Dale Robinson as my second-team all-purpose guy and the aforementioned Cook as my third-teamer. Ealy led the SEC in kick return average, and he’s also solid catching passes out of the backfield, so the all-purpose tag fits him.
Why Bigsby for first-team? Shouldn’t a guy show that he can stay healthy for an entire season before getting that honor? There’s always going to be that injury risk with Bigsby with the amount of contact he takes on. There’s a difference between being injury-prone because of physical limitations or just being a guy who runs that risk in order to be the best version of himself. Bigsby is the latter. He’s a nightmare to tackle — Grant Morgan told me he was the toughest player to bring down last year — which explains why he was No. 1 among SEC backs in broken tackle rate (42%) and he was No. 5 in FBS in broken tackles per attempt (0.34).
Bigsby had 5 games vs. top-50 run defenses, and he averaged 6.4 yards per carry. Before that Tennessee game when he got hurt, he was PFF’s No. 3 graded ball-carrier in FBS. Not bad for a true freshman in the SEC West.
That brings us to Rodriguez, AKA C-Rod. Let’s get the negatives out of the way. He’s never started a college game. That’s actually part of the reason why he never even seriously considered leaving for the NFL after his strong finish to the season (more on that in a minute). Rodriguez is also a total non-factor as a pass-catcher — he was at least PFF’s No. 1 pass-blocker among SEC backs — and he doesn’t have the initial burst out of the backfield that some have.
Ok, I think that covers the negatives. Now, the positives. There are a lot.
The regular metrics like Rodriguez, as do the more advanced ones. The guy has a career average of 7.1 yards per carry. After Auburn completely bottled him up in the season opener, his final 9 games of 2020 yielded 7 yards per carry. In his final 4 games, that number went up to 7.5 (he averaged 120 rushing yards on 16 carries in those contests).
He’s now playing in an offense that’ll have more balance under new offensive coordinator Liam Coen. It’s simple, though. When Rodriguez gets the ball, good things happen. He was No. 2 in Power 5 in percentage of runs that picked up a first down or touchdown (41%), and he was No. 1 in the SEC in both negative play percentage (2.52%) and success rate (65.6%). No returning running back in FBS had a better PFF grade in 2020 than Rodriguez.
Think that Rodriguez was just a benefactor of the Big Blue Wall? Guess again. He was only No. 17 in the SEC in yards before contact, and he was No. 1 in yards after contact. In other words, it’s not like he got an 8-yard hole every time he touched the rock (Harris ranked No. 2 in the SEC in yards before contact and No. 11 in yards after contact). Like Bigsby, Rodriguez is one of those guys who gets going once that first hit comes. As @SEC_StatCat pointed out, Rodriguez led the SEC in his 2 seasons in average yards after contact in conference play.
That’s why Rodriguez is gaining preseason momentum to be one of the nation’s sneaky-good players. More importantly, that’s why Rodriguez is worthy of that first-team nod. He’s not a product of volume or circumstance, and if anything, he’s actually in position to benefit more from those things in 2021.
Rodriguez is worthy of that distinction. At least if you’re willing to look at something besides total rushing yards.