Tevin Coleman completed one of the more unique college careers of the past 15 years. Over the past two seasons, he’s averaged a robust 7.5 yards per carry on 401 attempts, and this past season averaged 169.7 rushing yards per game, below only Melvin Gordon (184.8) and possibly the best running back you’ve never heard of, Terrell Watson (201.1) for prospects in this draft.
He closed his age 21 season by finishing seventh in the Heisman voting race, rushing for 2,036 yards on 270 carries while adding 15 touchdowns. More impressively, he did all of that on an Indiana team that ranked 90th in points per game (25.1) and 102nd in points allowed per game (32.8).1 Coleman himself accounted for 2,177 yards from scrimmage, which was 45.1 percent of the Hoosier total in 2014.
A lot of running backs have carried bad offenses before, but the truly unique aspect about Coleman’s career is his reliance on long distance scoring runs. Coleman is listed at 6’1”, 210 pounds, a build which is unique in its own right. He’s basically a running back trapped in a slot wide receiver’s body, similar to that of recent prospects such as Jamaal Charles and Darren McFadden or Hall of Famer Marcus Allen. That wide receiver-esque frame shows itself on long runs as it’s tough to find video evidence of anyone catching him in the open field.
Coleman scored 28 times on the ground over his tenure in Indiana, with 18 of those runs coming from 20 or more yards and 14 of them coming form 40 or more yards. In fact, those 14 carries alone account for 27 percent of his entire collegiate career rushing total.
While you’d like to see explosive plays from a prospect at an amateur level, is it potentially problematic for his NFL future if that production isn’t really sustainable? After all, in 2014 just 2.4 percent of all carries in the NFL went for 20 or more yards and just 13.4 percent (51) of the 381 rushing touchdowns were from that length of more. It’s extremely likely he’ll have a hard time generating long runs at his usual rate during his pro career, though they’ll surely remain in his arsenal.
This first thing I want to look at is if his dependence on highlight scoring runs was even abnormal. Comparing him to the other highly touted prospects in this class, I broke down rushing scoring plays into buckets stemming from inside the 5-yard line all the way up to touchdowns of 50 or more yards (there were 17 of these in the NFL in 2014 and an average of 17.8 per season since 1998).
Coleman had just eight scores inside the 5-yard during his career while the entirety of the group averaged 41.4 percent of their scores from that area. Let me state right away that short yardage rushing scores are driven by opportunity. First, the opportunity created by your offense overall and second, the player himself getting those touches. A great example of this in the NFL is Jamaal Charles, who has been on poor offenses and even in a timeshare in his career. He had just eight total rushing attempts inside the 5-yard line over his first five seasons in Kansas City, but has 20 over past two seasons. I digress because this isn’t a study in short yardage effectiveness as Coleman (or just about any back) can succeed in that area given real opportunities. I’m not taking much away from a low total here.
Only Gordon and Duke Johnson had above a third of their scores coming from 20 yards or more while Coleman is at nearly two thirds. In terms of 40 plus yard scores, he doubles the field and is far above the pace in 50 yard scores. Taking a glimpse at the other backs, you see a lack of explosive plays coming from T.J. Yeldon, Jeremy Langford, Ameer Abdullah, David Cobb, and Jay Ajayi. That’s where the issue of perspective comes into play. You want a back to tear through amateur opponents, but be a balanced player entering the league so he’s not victim to having a weakness expose his long-term value. The fact those players are lacking explosive plays can also be problematic in the other direction.
To remove some of the “eye of the beholder” perspective, I went further down the rabbit hole and looked at a mix of the top running back prospects and fantasy performers from the past 15 years and compared their scoring output in college to the this group. Using the same number of players for my sample, here’s what I found.
Now you really see how anomalous Coleman’s collegiate touchdown production has been. Averages stay the same in all tiers of runs in this group as they do with the incoming class and Coleman still dwarfs the average of the competition in reliance on scores at every level after 20 yards or further. Although not to the same degree as Coleman, this could be a negative check mark in the books of Gordon and Johnson as well, who are above average in terms of relying on long distance runs to anchor their production.
You see same balance here as you do with everyone outside of Coleman in the first group. Chris Johnson, perhaps the most volatile runner of the past several seasons, has the most rushing scores of 40 or more yards since 2000 with 17. But even while at East Carolina he was a balanced scorer. Ironically, it’s McFadden, a player that Coleman is often compared to, that’s the closest to him in collegiate splash play production and that hasn’t carried over to the NFL.
The NFL success of Le’Veon Bell and Matt Forte as pass catchers has compensated for their lack of explosive plays, which has carried over into the league. Bell has scored 12 of his 16 rushing touchdowns inside the 10-yard line over his first two years in the NFL with just one over 40 yards, while 63 percent (26) of Forte’s 41 rushing scores have come from inside the 10 as well. That receiving prowess both displayed in college and carried into the pros gives hope to the prospects of Ajayi and Abdullah while possibly being a red flag for those of Yeldon, Cobb and Langford. Of all of the big producers, the only one to shed his skin from college and become a different player is McCoy.
In the end, this is just analyzing one unique aspect of Coleman’s game and is by no means meant as a overall determination on him as a prospect. The fact that he displays the ability to hit so many home runs is still a positive, although it is dampened by his lack of balance since he won’t be ripping off a 50 yard touchdown per week at the next level. Even before we get to see how he tests out physically we already know that he truly is one of the more unique performers to enter the league.
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