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It wasn't long ago that running back was the glamour position across all levels on the football field.
In the last decade, the NFL has become a passing league and college football has grown increasingly enamored of the spread and zone-read offenses. The transitions have left high school football as one of the last frontiers in which carrying the football is a place for alpha dogs.
The last two classes in particular have shown that running the ball still holds prime value, and there is a thought that it may usher in the reinvention of big running backs.
The recently signed class of 2013 had six running backs ranked inside the top 36 of the Rivals100. The first iteration of the industry standard for rankings of the class of 2014 features seven players inside the top 30 who run the ball on a regular basis.
Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said he is seeing two trends on a collision course.
"These last few classes in particular have been really strong at the running back position, and even as college football and the NFL go to tandems and specialists in the backfield there are more and more kids who can run, block, and catch passes," he said. "Honestly, I think there is something to the idea that the devaluing of the position has become a motivational factor for these kids. They don't want to come off the field and are working hard to be more complete players."
Derrick Green finished the class of 2013 evaluation period at No. 8 in the national rankings and signed with Michigan. Hailing from Richmond (Va.) Bayside, he was measured at 6-foot and 220 pounds, making him the nearest elite-level back to prototypical size for today's game.
In the last 20 years of professional football, the average height and weight of the top 10 rushing-yardage gainers each season were 5-foot-11 and 217 pounds.
Behind Green in the 2013 rankings were more tall running backs.
Thomas Tyner of Beaverton (Ore.) Aloha was listed at 6-foot and ranked No. 17. Ty Isaac from Joliet (Ill.) Catholic towered at 6-foot-3 and was ranked No. 27. Derrick Henry left high school as the nation's all-time leading rusher out of Yulee (Fla.) High and was measured at 6-foot-3 and 243 pounds. He was ranked No. 36 overall.
The class of 2014 is no different.
Top-ranked back Leonard Fournette of New Orleans (La.) St. Augustine is listed at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds. Jalen Hurd of Hendersonville (Tenn.) Beech was measured at 6-foot-3 and ranked No. 15. Just behind Hurd at No. 17 is Bo Scarbrough, who hails from Tuscaloosa (Ala.) Northridge and will enter his senior year at 6-foot-2.
Farrell said this move to bigger backs is somewhat surprising.
"Traditionally, these are guys who would have been looked at as too tall and too long," he said. "They would be guys who people would say can't get low enough or running too upright makes them an injury risk, but each has shown to be better than conventional football wisdom says he should be.
"Guys like Hurd, Isaac and Henry are just very good running backs, and even though they are tall they are running backs.
"I don't think Isaac could move to another position," Farrell said. "And I don't think Henry has the mentality to slide to defense. Hurd is an athletic player, but I don't see a need for him to consider a move, either, even if he is capable of doing so."
One of the most successful big running backs on the professional level was Brandon Jacobs.
A free agent after playing in a limited capacity with San Francisco in 2012, Jacobs had multiple 1,000-yard seasons as a 6-foot-4 back for the New York Giants.
Farrell said Jacobs' height was an NFL anomaly but he may have helped with the current status of backs.
"Brandon was the tallest kid I have dealt with in high school who I thought could be a running back at the next level," he said. "It is rare -- and still is because we are really talking about guys who are the exception -- but these are players who can get it done at the next level even if being 6-foot and under is still ideal."
Fournette said he doesn't worry about what the measurements say; his goals are unchanged.
"I want to be the best player ever to come from Louisiana," he told Rivals.com. "My coaches and parents insist that I don't have anything to prove, but I won't be satisfied until I am the best."
Fournette enters his senior year with 5,828 yards and 72 touchdowns, and he is coming off a season in which he was named the Gatorade Player of the Year for the state. Reaching the all-time marks for the state is certainly within his reach.
The No. 3 player in the Rivals100 figures to be one of the most heavily recruited players in the country, and he said he has been given a wink and a nod by LSU coach Les Miles.
After LSU did not sign a back in the class of 2013, Fournette said he believed Miles was talking directly to him when he said that this upcoming class was in need of a great back who has speed, power and ball skills.
"They're waiting on me," Fournette told Rivals.com.
"I take that as a compliment."
Farrell said the ultimate compliment is that, despite the change in philosophy at the next level, these players are staying true to themselves.
"High school football is about keeping the ball in your best player's hands," he said. "We saw a time when that was guys like Percy Harvin and Derrick Williams and sometimes it is a dual-threat quarterback like Vince Young or Terrelle Pryor, but right now it is these guys.
"Players like (No. 2-ranked) Jabrill Peppers, Hurd, Scarbrough, and Fournette are so talented that you want the ball in their hands 40 times a game if they can handle it. Their size makes them physically able to take it, and the physical gifts make them stand out for rankings purposes."
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