T.J. Yeldon is a big man with a little stride. How well will it work in the NFL? Learn who else share this running style.
Big Men, Little Steps
I grew up in Ohio and Georgia so it’s not much of a surprise that Herschel Walker and Keith Byars were two of my favorite college runners as a kid. Both were the centerpieces of their respective offenses and considered locks as future NFL feature backs.
Funny how everything changed when they left college, because their careers couldn’t have been more different.
Walker took the money from Donald Trump and the USFL. He earned a pro football regular season rushing record of 2411 yards and 21 rushing touchdowns on 438 carries, but it’s a record that will never be publicly legitimated because most see the USFL as an inferior league dotted with exceptional players.
And after 5-6 seasons of production condensed into three years with the New Jersey Generals, Walker “finished” his pro career with a 12-year stint in the NFL, making him the reigning Methuselah of running backs. Despite only earning two Pro Bowl appearances, Walker was good enough post-USFL for the Cowboys to negotiate a decade of dominance from the Minnesota Vikings in exchange for the running back’s services.
Not counting Walker’s USFL years (not the right thing to do), Byars’ 13-year career in the NFL tops Methuselah. However, Byars’ career didn’t look like it would last three seasons. By the end of his second season (1987), the former Buckeye had earned a total of 1200 yards from scrimmage.
But Byars’ career was reborn. In 1988-89, the big back had nearly twice the yards from scrimmage as he did during his first two seasons and his role evolved into more of a fullback and H-back.
Walker and Byars’ careers intersected in 1992 when the Eagles acquired Walker as its lead back and used Byars as a fullback and tight end. The former Bulldog earned 1300 yards from scrimmage and Byars contributed over 600 yards in a variety of roles.
Despite the fact that Walker was a sprinter with a body cut from iron and, by comparison, Byars looked more like vending machine on casters, their running styles had one major thing in common: They were big men who took little steps.
It’s a disconcerting characteristic when one imagines a good running back, because one likes to think of a ball carrier tearing through defenses with the abandon of a fully open stride. However, good ball carrying includes a host of contradictory qualities. At some moments we’re preaching patience, security, and a desire to seek contact and at others, we’re exhorting abandon, elusiveness, and imagination.
Yeldon: A Short Strider Capable of One Big Cut
Not surprising, running back has the greatest collection of diversity when it comes to style, athleticism, and physical measurements of any position on a football field. However, good footwork is one of the common threads that runs through every quality runner.
Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon is a big back (6-1 or 6-2, 221) with similar dimensions as Walker. Like both Walker and Byars, Yeldon runs with Flintstone footwork.
When you watch as much football as I do, you need a sense of humor to keep some perspective. Yeldon is a talented back with power who reminds me of runners who carried the mail in the `80s and `90s. His short stride seems odd at first look, but it afford Yeldon to access crowded lanes and maximize his power because he’s maintaining his strong base.
Here is a tough run of six yards with 8:59 in the half from a 1×2 receiver 11 personnel pistol set. The Alabama line slants left against Oklahoma’s 4-3 scheme with seven in the box.
Although the initial steps during the exchange evoke an image of Wilma shouting, “Fred, the Brontosaurus Burgers are ready!!” the down hill cut that Yeldon executes is a fine display of agility. The runner widens his stride and with one step cuts 90 degrees down hill while bending his body from the action to his left.
Before I really studied backs, I used to watch Walker run and associate small steps with backs who didn’t have the ability to make sharp cuts.
However, Yeldon has more bend than Walker — even if Walker’s strength-speed combination at the peak of his powers was only shared by a handful of great runners.
Yeldon’s run displays how his stride length is more flexible and it aids with his balance. Despite leaning towards the pursuit, Yeldon maintains his balance as the defender attempts to wrap the runner’s waist.
Yeldon shortens his stride after the initial cut, keeps his hips bent to maintain a strong base, and he deflects some of the wrap with his free arm so the backside pursuit cannot get a first grip on the runner’s waist.
When a defender comes over top to hit Yeldon head-on, the runner deflects some of the contact while also turning inside the hit to avoid enough of it to move forward. Elusiveness isn’t always about making a defender completely miss. Power runners are often elusive because they avoid enough contact to continue moving forward.
Even if Yeldon has more maneuverability than Walker, he’s not a scat back. This 2nd-and-7 with 12:55 in third quarter is a good example of what happens when Yeldon tries to string together moves that require strong lateral agility.
The hesitation to set up a hop to the left and back to the middle is a nice idea, but he slips during the second change of direction. The inside foot never hits the ground when he tries to readjust his stride length and he has to fall forward on this five-yard gain that could have been a much larger gain with the blocks that he set up.
Yeldon is a “slow to the hole, fast through it” type of back like Le’Veon Bell. Unlike Bell, he lacks the flexibility to layer moves on a consistent basis to turn solid gains into big plays. When he was at Michigan State, Bell reminded me of Eddie George in his prime — big, powerful, agile, and quick enough to earn big gains while still wearing down a defense.
Yeldon projects more of a grinder than Bell, but with enough speed to break a big play with one advantageous cut or spin. I have a lot more to study of Yeldon between now and April, but unless I see something dramatically different, Yeldon reminds me more of Bell’s predecessor in Pittsburgh, Rashard Mendenhall.
Although Mendenhall earned a lot of outside runs off option pitches compared to Yeldon, both are one-cut runners with enough speed to break bigger gains past the line of scrimmage, but the power to push a pile or spin through contact. Mendenhall only had 4236 yards and 37 touchdowns as a ball carrier during his NFL career, but he accounted for over half of those totals during his two healthy seasons in Pittsburgh.
Football fans with short memories may find the Yeldon-Mendenhall comparison disparaging, but it’s far from the case. Mendenhall proved that when healthy and his mind was in the game that he could hang as an NFL runner.
We see a lot of NFL-caliber talents fail to make that transition from the college game to the rigors of the professional format. The fact that Yeldon compares to a player who not only had talent, but exploited it for a time is a positive. Mendenhall was a top-five back his jam-packed 2008 draft class, don’t be surprised if Yeldon earns a similar status in 2015’s dense group of RB talent.
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