Every year, we search tirelessly for the small school player who will come out of nowhere to have a storied career that no one saw coming. It’s the classic underdog story that everyone roots for when watching sports. As we all know, this year’s running back class is loaded. This may cause even more players to slip through the cracks than usual, allowing NFL teams to pluck up talented backs that would normally get drafted as undrafted free agents. Most of these backs will be the small school players that we root so hard for. To learn more about these backs, here are my top 15 draft-eligible small school backs.
1. Jeremy McNichols, RB, Boise State
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McNichols has been extremely productive at Boise State. He’s an above average athlete with good vision and great receiving ability. He may even be a better prospect at this stage than former Broncos Doug Martin and Jay Ajayi. He’s currently my RB7 in this class.
2. Kareem Hunt, RB, Toledo
Hunt is another productive small school back who has a good amount of name recognition. He’s a bigger back at 225 pounds, but has excellent agility and vision. He’s difficult to bring down on first contact, and is a hard runner. He’s a top ten back in this class for me.
3. Jamaal Williams, BYU
Williams is the toughest back in this class. At 220 pounds, he’s already tough enough to bring down, but with how hard he runs he almost always breaks tackles. I see Williams as a one cut and go back, which lets him get downhill and take on smaller defenders with his toughness and power.
4. Elijah McGuire, Louisiana-Lafayette
McGuire is one of the most electric backs in this class. He’s got amazing receiving ability and elusiveness, which at a minimum should allow him to carve out a role as a third down back in the NFL He’s no slouch running the ball either, and I see him as a Giovani Bernard type in the league.
5. Donnell Pumphrey, San Diego State
Pumphrey is probably the most best known small school back in this year’s class. He’s the all-time leading rusher in NCAA history, and his speed s a big reason for that. However, his small size might keep him to more of a third down roll in the NFL. He’s a high floor, low ceiling type player for teams.
6. Matt Breida, Georgia Southern
Breida may only be 190 pounds, but don’t let his size fool you. He’s an athletic freak who can squat double his body weight, and also has electric speed. Even though he’s only 190 pounds, he consistently breaks tackles and runs over defenders. He can also make people miss in the open field. If Breida gets invited to the combine, he could rise up draft boards quickly.
7. Brian Hill, Wyoming
A tough runner on an improved Wyoming team, Hill reminds me of current Seahawks running back Alex Collins. He’s a tough runner with good patience, and I’m confident he can be a solid contributor for an NFL team. If he does better than expected at the combine, expect Hill to get drafted in the mid rounds of this year’s draft.
8. Marlon Mack, South Florida
While Mack is only a junior, I have a feeling he may declare since Willie Taggart left for Oregon. He’s been one of the most productive backs in the country over the last three years. He’s a speed back who thrives on outside zone and stretch plays. I could see him going in the later rounds of this years draft.
9. I’Tavius Mathers, Middle Tennessee State
Mathers quietly had an amazing season this year, racking up the most receptions by a running back in a single season in NCAA history, while rushing for over 1500 yards. A transfer from Ole Miss, he clearly has talent. He’s got no hype right now, but I’d expect him to be a quality receiving option for a few seasons.
10. Aaron Jones, UTEP
After rushing for 1300 yards for his sophomore year, he tore his ACL during his junior campaign. He bounced back this year, rushing for over 1700 yards and 17 touchdowns. Jones has great burst and vision, and is an underrated back amongst these small school studs.
11. D’Angelo Brewer, Tulsa
Brewer is a player who probably won’t declare, but is extremely exciting to watch. He’s a threat to score every time he touches the ball, with blazing speed and elite burst. In this regard, he reminds me of a smaller Jerick McKinnon.
12. Tarik Cohen, North Carolina A&T
If there’s any player who deserves the Darren Sproles comparison in this year’s class, it’s Cohen, not Donnell Pumphrey. He’s only 5’6”, but is 180 pounds, which is a decent weight for his size. He’s a quick twitch player who is ridiculous in the open field. He’s really a joy to watch, but he has his work cut out for him because of his school and size
13. Roc Thomas, Jacksonville State
Thomas is a former five star recruit who transferred from Auburn after this year. He was supposed to be one of the top backs in this class. He ran for 782 yards in just nine games this season, which is impressive when you consider he joined the team in July. I highly doubt he declares this year, and if he doesn’t he’s a name to remember for next season.
14. Devante Mays, Utah State
Mays was injured for a good portion of this season, but he’s one of the most athletic players in this class. He’s 5’11”, 220 pounds, so he has great size for the position. He has a 41-inch vertical jump and can bench press 425 pounds and squat 515. I’m not sure if he’ll get drafted, but he has the athletic profile of a UDFA who can make a big impact for a team.
15. Jahad Thomas, Temple
The first time I heard of Thomas was watching him tear apart Penn State at Lincoln Financial Field in 2015. He’s a solid all around back, but doesn’t possess have any outstanding traits. He’s also limited as a receiver. I could see him contribute for a team for a few seasons, but I’m not sure if he’ll get drafted or if he’ll ever be fantasy relevant.
- Anthony Wales, Western Kentucky
- Rashaad Penny, San Diego State
- Marcus Cox, Appalachian State
- Chase Edmonds, Fordham
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