Once upon a time, running backs carried offenses to the “three yards and a cloud of dust” mantra, running through alleys and plowing through linebackers en route to touchdowns. Now, few care for them, treating them like downtrodden stocks with minimal investments and turning to them only when they need to inches for drive-extending carries.
Simply put: the running position has been devalued.
A big reason why NFL personnel men are devaluing running backs is because of the scheme they come out of. Arizona Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt alluded to this when discussing the topic prior this past April's draft, "It's all over the place with running backs, but some of that is because of the systems colleges use. There is a big difference in what a back is asked to do at this level and what a back is asked to do in college."
And the last two years' drafts appear to support his opinion. The 2011 and 2012 NFL draft saw a total of four running backs (Trent Richardson, Doug Martin, David Wilson and Mark Ingram) taken in the first round -- all of which came from pro-style offenses. It makes a lot of sense when one considers why this has happened; base NFL run packages, such as 'Power' and 'Counter', are used from under-center sets and pass protection is vital in these offenses. These two traits fit University of Florida running back Mike Gillislee, who has recently become a very interesting prospect heading into the 2013 NFL Draft.
Mike Gillislee, who is roughly 5'11" and 200 lbs., has risen up draft boards after a hot start to his senior campaign, most notably headlined by a breakout week 6 game against the rival LSU Tigers where he rushed for 146 yards on a career-high 34 carries against.
Physically speaking, Gillislee is a downhill runner that is built sturdily, has the foot speed to turn the corner and doesn't have many carries to his name in his four years (284 as of week 7) with the Gators. He's also possesses strong balance that enables him to stay on his feet upon receiving contact, is always falling forward to pick up extra yardage and shows willingness and toughness in pass protection.
The scheme he's operating in has showed off his talents tremendously, which enables him to get downhill in the two-back, power running game that the Gators employ.
Gillislee doesn't have great agility, often wasting steps laterally when attempting to make sharp and quick cuts so he's best suited when he can plant his foot in the ground and hit a gap as he does in this offense. One of the run concepts of choice for the Gators has been 'Power', which is a lead play from a pulling back-side guard that is ran from a two-back set.
(All credit goes to draftbreakdown.com for use of video to create snapshots.)
The Gators' Power concept allows running back Mike Gillislee to get the handoff and immediately get downhill, where he can use his vision to find the alley (running lane) to spring into the open field.
Although the lack of outstanding agility is a knock on Gillislee, simply because it places limits on how effective he is in other concepts, such as zone stretches, he can still be an effective ball carrier for two reasons: 1) he's unlikely to lose much yardage in this running style and 2) NFL teams use these types of run concepts.
One recent example of a drafted ball carrier that fits this running style is DeMarco Murray of the Dallas Cowboys. Like Gillislee, Murray is a downhill runner and is best used in concepts such as Power and Counter, which allow him to get downhill immediately and do damage in between the tackles.
Speaking of doing damage in between the tackles, Mike Gillislee is able to be effective in that area without even touching the ball. Pass protection is the key to getting on to the field as a running back in the NFL and Gillislee has proven that he has what it takes to do well in pass protection. Although he has had issues at times with identifying and recognizing fronts, which is arguably due to his inexperience, he has shown the toughness and effort to have success at times and cause hope for the future.
Against the aforementioned LSU Tigers, Gillislee was isolated against a rusher after a play action pass saw his offensive line execute a full-slide to his right -- something that will also happen in the pros. He responded remarkably to the challenge by willingly stepping up, setting up a strong base, engaging with the rusher and dropping his pad level.
Another instance came earlier in the season when he had to administer a different kind of assignment: a check-release that is a staple of West Coast Offenses. This job required him to leave the confines of the backfield to chip the edge rusher and then release over the middle of the formation to serve as an outlet receiver for the quarterback. Once again, Mike Gillislee fared well.
Although his positional value is declining, University of Florida running back Mike Gillislee is rising up 2013 NFL draft boards because of his blend of good size, speed, downhill running ability and attitude in pass protection.
He is likely to continue his meteoric rise that saw him go from receiving an undrafted free agent grade to a potential top 100 pick and ball carrier for the New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers or Detroit Lions.