The value of a running back has been beaten to death, with many stating with validity that they are not worthy of first round picks due to their short shelf life. Another reason for that is simply that the majority of running backs average around the same amount of yards per carry and very few break long runs unless they are Adrian Peterson. As a result, values have never dipped further, with head coaches looking to the mid-to-late rounds to find a gem. In 2013, that gem could be the University of Miami’s Mike James.
James has certain characteristics that a late round gem typically possesses. He doesn’t burn the track or grass with great long speed, he tends to dance in the backfield at times and if I’m being honest, he doesn’t have outstanding vision. But who does have all those things? Few do and they’re typically those aforementioned first round freaks like Adrian Peterson.
But what James does have is leveled balance, surprising strength in upper and lower bodies, light feet, innate instincts, intellect, patience, constantly moving feet and the always important size. He is likely to check in at the NFL Combine around 5’10, 220 pounds, giving him a natural low center of gravity to go with his built-up bulk. These two traits amalgamate to form impressive strength that enables him to shake off wimpy tacklers that attempt to arm tackle him. Here’s a tip: Don’t do it.
James’ light feet are also something of a revelation as most tailbacks at his size don’t have that quality. He’s able to slip in and out of gaps and lanes whilst changing directions and seeking room to run. On multiple outside zone run calls against Georgia Tech earlier this season, his light feet were on show along with his patience and instincts.
On one particular play, James was aligned in a traditional tailback alignment seven yards from the spot of the ball. Upon taking rhythmic steps to his right, he received the handoff and scanned his blockers, specifically the tackle-tight end combination at the end of the line of scrimmage. They weren’t re-establishing a new line because of the “force” player setting the edge, so James had to look elsewhere to run. The nearest gap, the B-gap, was about to be filled by a linebacker, forcing James to slide his feet patiently once more before finding himself behind the right guard-center combination block; there was not much there either. A lane showed up but there was traffic in it, albeit on the ground, so James slid once more behind the backside tackle and found a running lane for a quality pickup on a play that initially seemed doomed.
This is the kind of patience that ball-carriers need to have and James perfected it – now he just needs to do it more consistently opposed to wasting steps. What was intriguing about his tape, however, was that he wasn’t just running on zone stretch calls; he was running downhill on the almighty “Power” concept and running quite well, following his pulling guard and getting yardage before falling forward, which he often does. This versatility is important to note because not all ball-carriers are effective stretch runners due to their inability to find the cutback. Typically a running back is either a frontside or backside runner, not both. James could, perhaps, be both.
Moreover, one of the league’s best and most underrated running backs is Frank Gore of the San Francisco 49ers. In a game of inches, Gore tends to pick up the most of them and that’s what James often (if he’s not tip-toeing) does as well. He is constantly churning his feet, looking to pick up as much yards as he can despite receiving contact.
In the same game against Georgia Tech, his downhill prowess was on display when four defenders surrounded him after catching a screen pass. In most cases, the runner will avoid contact and attempt to dive for the first round. That’s not necessarily frowned upon but what James does here is sticking his inside foot in the ground as he nears the first defender, spins back to the inside, then administers a second spin on another defender before finally getting himself into the open field, where he carries two more defenders for additional yardage. That’s determined running.
Last but not least, there is something about Mike James that you simply don’t see in all running backs: instinct without the ball. When he doesn’t have the ball, James is still looking to make a play.
He has shown countless times a willingness to block for his quarterback, sitting in his base and taking on defenders, and then following it up by getting into the middle of the field and opening up as an outlet receiver. He’s thrown the extra chip shot on defensive ends when it’s least expected, the extra block on reverses, the block on the linebacker in the hole when he’s lined up as an up-back while his teammate carries the ball and he’s thrown the springing blocks on special teams; in a few words, James works hard and keeps his head on a swivel.
And that’s all you can ask for.