The disappointment of in-state running back phenom Cam Akers signing with Florida State over Ole Miss was packaged in layers. It not only served as a decisive litmus test of the recruiting damage rendered by the NCAA investigation, but crushed the hopes of many that he could be the answer to years of inconsistency on the ground under Hugh Freeze.
While some may blame the Rebels’ running woes simply on a lack of high-end talent in the backfield, the numbers suggest that having a former five-star back as your primary option isn’t a prerequisite for an effective run game. To prove this, I looked at the top 20 offenses in terms of rushing S&P+ from the past five years and recorded how their top two rushers graded as high school recruits.
The results show that the majority of runners in those top offenses rated as three-stars or lower, though having blue chips to hand the ball off to certainly didn’t hurt.
Five-star recruits are more rare than people realize, so the fact that they make up more than ten percent of the players in the graph above shows that having one of these guys clearly makes a difference. Still, the fact remains that plenty of other teams who didn’t make as big a splash on Signing Day were able to maximize what they had in the backfield.
Ole Miss’ backfield will boast three former four-stars in 2017: senior Jordan Wilkins, redshirt sophomore Eric Swinney and sophomore D’Vaughn Pennamon. And let’s not forget that you need more than running backs to build an effective ground game—the Rebels also have plenty of talent on the offensive line.
In fact, Ole Miss will have a better mix of talent at running back and offensive line in 2017 than it’s had since Freeze took over, at least according to the recruiting rankings. Here’s a breakdown of blue-chip backs and linemen since 2012:
Swinney and Wilkins return from injury and administrative incompetence, respectively. The offensive line will be deeper than ever, with a handful of redshirt freshmen joining an already talented, somewhat seasoned group of blockers. The back end of the 2015 season proved that a relatively steady line, mobile quarterback, and a decent stable of backs can yield a solid running game, as the Rebels finished 24th in rushing S&P+ that season.
In other words, having Cam Akers was never a requirement for improvement on the ground next season. It obviously would have been nice to land him, and depth at the position could become an issue starting in 2018, but there’s plenty of reason to expect immediate progression when it comes to running the football. Adequate depth, combined with schematic changes brought by new offensive coordinator Phil Longo, will make it hard to accept another dismal year in this regard.