When Jacksonville Jaguars rookie running back Leonard Fournette said the jump to the NFL was “really easy” after his time playing in the much-hyped SEC for LSU, a lot of observers raised an eyebrow. Things certainly haven’t always looked easy for SEC backs drafted in the first round.
Todd Gurley, who was taken 10th overall out of Georgia in 2015, had an outstanding rookie season but struggled badly as a sophomore. Alabama’s Trent Richardson was out of the league in just four seasons after the Browns used the third overall pick on him in 2012. Georgia’s Knowshon Moreno had one 1,000-yard season among the six he lasted in the NFL after going 12th in 2009.The most productive highly drafted SEC backs around these days are likely Mark Ingram and Darren McFadden — neither of whom has ever looked like the star he was in college.
Still, while the SEC hasn’t had the standouts of the Big 12 (Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma) or even the Big Ten (Le’Veon Bell, Michigan State), it has put a lot of backs in the league. Since 2001, there have been 97 player seasons in which a player from the SEC has had at least 100 rush attempts in a season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, compared to only 58 for the Big Ten, 43 for the Big 12, 68 for the Pac 10/12 and 38 for the ACC. This complicates the SEC’s reputation for turning out relative busts at the running back position a bit, since its players have at least shown the capacity to earn carries in the league.
Here’s a chart showing each individual player season for SEC backs drafted since 2001:
Many of the outliers aren’t much of a surprise — Peterson has seen some of the finest rushing seasons in league history over that period, and Bell may be the best back in the league today. But others require a bit more strain on the memory, such as Penn State’s Larry Johnson, who had two outstanding seasons after he emerged from behind Priest Holmes on the Kansas City Chiefs’ depth chart.
More relevant, though, are the players who not only didn’t come up playing against SEC speed, but were outside the Power Five altogether. LaDainian Tomlinson, Chris Johnson, Michael Turner, Alfred Morris, Doug Martin, LeSean McCoy and a cavalcade of high-performing backs have combined for 187 player seasons with at least 100 carries since 2001. (This includes players such as Clinton Portis and Willis McGahee, who played for Miami before it joined the ACC in 2004.)2 And today’s top backs also include Jay Ajayi out of Boise State and David Johnson out of Northern Iowa.
Not that any of this falls on the head of Fournette, whom everyone is taking a little too seriously. The SEC does put a lot of players in the league, and in positions to contribute for their teams. But if Fournette runs over the NFL the same way he did those SEC run defenses, he’ll be the first to do so in quite a while.