Hester could be here a month and they'll never know. He is one of the best players in college football. They just need to be around him long enough to know it.
-LSU Head Coach Les Miles
In a sport dominated by imprecision, clichés have become the dominant force in the fast paced world of scouting. From the World Wide Leader to Joe Schmoe blogger in his cubicle, everyone seems to be using them these days, and once more, everyone seems to be using them with frightening ambiguity. And, amidst the growing assortment of phrases and one-liners that have come to make or break a player’s chances of NFL success, no player has been subjected to more clichés than former LSU running back Jacob Hester.
We’ve heard them all by this point. Hard working. Good understanding. Team player. Just a football player. Overachiever. Even the ubiquitous “utility player” we would normally associate with the baseball diamond. The list goes on and on, but no matter how many seemingly “positive” clichés get thrown at the guy, there’s always another one around the corner which asserts his limitations.
For Jacob Hester, these are the clichés that we most often hear when the question of playing running back in the NFL pops up; the always present “yea but” clauses which seem to cling to him like some kind of bad rash. “Lacks ideal speed” and “doesn’t have natural athleticism” are only a few of the phrases I normally hear when listening to evaluations of Hester, usually accompanied by some kind of statement on how he could be a good “locker room guy.” While I don’t doubt Hester’s attributes as a leader, a teammate, and a fine musician, I do question whether or not the perception of Hester’s future in the NFL is accurate, and have set out to make the case for his implementation not as a fullback, but rather as a full fledged, no-joshing-around-here running back.
That’s right folks. I am here to tell you today that the fans, the media, and even the scouts have it wrong. And I am here to tell you that Jacob Hester, as a white dude playing running back, has fallen victim to one of the most entrenched stigmas associated with the game today.
The Other Side of the Coin
Remember when no one wanted to recruit or sign a black quarterback? And if they did, he was shifted to cornerback or wide receiver. Now we have the same problem with extremely productive white running backs.
-Recruiting Analyst Tom Lemming, 1999
Stereotypes, like in life, are a normal part of the game of football. They range from a wide spectrum of criteria, including the often overused examples of height, weight, speed, and strength. They flow from our perception of what a football player “ought” to look like, and have somehow managed to capture our imagination to the point where we’re willing to have arguments about a guy’s 40-yard dash time after he’s scored a touchdown.
From the perspective of the scout, the coach, and the common fan, Jacob Hester does not resemble a college football tailback, much less the heart and soul of an offense which is coming fresh off of a National Championship. Yet coming in between 5’10 and 6’ (depending on what you read) and weighing in at the 224 lbs, Hester would appear to have ideal size for the position. Serviceable speed, a great first step, and terrific strength would also seem to make him a candidate for the next level, as would his terrific performance for the Tigers in 2007.
There’s only one problem however, and that’s that Jacob Hester is white.
(Shock. Awe. Sirens. Chaos. Mass Hysteria. Kablaam)
Now that that’s out of the way, let me tell you why Hester’s being white is a problem, at least as far as his NFL future is concerned anyways. First things first, I probably don’t need to tell you that of 32 teams in the NFL there are no starting white tailbacks, and aside from Brian Leonard and some hybrid guys, I’m not sure if there are even any backup white running backs. Once more, there are just a handful of white feature backs at the Division I-A level, most notably guys like Luke Lippincott at Nevada and Chad Hall at the Air Force Academy.
I could spend several pages going into why this is, and maybe I will sometime down the road, but to get to the heart of the matter all you need to do is revisit a 1980 quote by Eric Dickerson in which he simply says “they [white running backs] can't compete with us [black running backs.]” Since the early 1980s this has been the prevailing view, and it has reached a point where we don’t even question it, instead letting ourselves - on the few occasions someone may dare to ask - fall victim to pseudo-explanations of “fast twitch” muscle fibers and “it just is” explanations like Dickerson gave. Sure enough, since 1985 there has been only one white NFL back to rush for more than 1000 yards in a season (Criag James), with very few getting the opportunity since.
Enter Jacob Hester. A product of a new, highly specialized age where the progression from high school through the NFL has become a business, and the pool of available players has expanded dramatically. If you know anything about high school football in Louisiana, you know Hester was a freaking stud at Evangel Christian in Shreveport, and was named the 5A Offensive Player of the Year in 2002. A highly recruited running back, Hester committed to his hometown Tigers in early 2004, but did not see any significant action until the 2006 season. It was however his 2007 season which really alerted people to his potential, as he led the national championship LSU Tigers to a National Championship.
One of the things that constantly amazes me about the perception regarding Hester is the inability of the so called “experts” to even consider his attributes as a runner. I mean, here is a guy who ran for more than 1100 yards on 4.9 yards per carry in a conference which has been all but unanimously crowned the most difficult in the country, gaining yards not out of gimmicky spread offense (and I say that with the utmost respect and understanding), but a no-BS we’re-gonna-line-it-up-and-run formation. Here is a guy who flat out runs the hell over people, including those who can’t think of anything better to say then “you still ain’t nothing Vanilla Ice” after they’ve just been shellacked into the turf of Baton Rouge:
(obligatory Major Wright film reference)
It may be an overly simplistic question, but tell me how many fullbacks play with that kind of ability. That run with such explosion and quickness, such vision and fluidity? I am of course not just referring to the video above, but of Hester’s entire 2007 resume. If Hester is a fullback, would you please name the NFL fullback he is most comparable too? Ok, so Brian Leonard, but if you’re an astute observer of the game you may remember that we were having this same discussion with Leonard last season, with even some big names like Mike Golic arguing publicly that Leonard was getting pushed into the fullback “camp” because of his race.
Despite running for more than 100 yards in his first NFL start, the jury is still out on Leonard, although by season’s end it did appear that he was being used almost exclusively in the fullback mold. The question now becomes whether or not the same fate awaits Hester, who was utilized almost exclusively at the fullback position in the Senior Bowl, and whether or not he’ll even get the opportunity to play the running back position at the next level.
People really don't know how fast he is. You see him pulling away from people. I watched one defensive back get an interception, and Hester hawked the DB down. So he's not just a tough guy....If I could play running back, I'd definitely want to be him.
-OSU linebacker James Laurinaitis
Speed is everywhere. On our TV’s, on the blogs, and definitely in the “war rooms” of the scouting departments. It seems like no serious college football analysis can be done anymore without throwing in a 40 time or some guys high school track record, and it definitely seems like we’re being constantly subjected to one too many “he’s not the fastest guy in the world” comments from the so-called experts who are supposed to be employed based off precision analysis. But my own pet-peeves aside, one of the most worn-out arguments regarding Hester is that he lacks the speed to play on the NFL level. Never mind the ambiguous nature of speed in anything other than a track meet, but Hester’s 40 time (listed anywhere between a 4.49-4.60) seems comparable to a number of running backs currently in the league. Jamaal Lewis, who was fifth in the NFL in rushing during the 2007 season, ran a 4.58 out of college, while Lendale White, who rushed for over 1000 yards in 2007, ran a 4.65 coming out of college in 2005. But that’s not all. Frank Gore, depending on what you read, ran anywhere from a 4.55 to 4.62, Brandon Jacobs ran in the high 4.5s, and Larry Johnson ran in the low 4.6s. The list goes on, and while it’s true that some of the leagues best back have timed in the 4.4s and even 4.3s, one can’t dispute the fact that there are a number of very good starting backs in the NFL who are just as fast, if not altogether slower, than Hester.
You may say speed isn’t everything though, and in that regard I’d say you’re certainly right. The proliferation of 40 times in all levels of the game has become a ridiculous abstraction of fans and scouts, and often proves meaningless if you’re dealing with a player who’s not blatantly in the open field or matched up in some one-on-one situation.
Another widely accepted claim about Hester is that he lacks the ‘athleticism’ to make it on the next level. Once again, never mind that the very definition of athleticism is self fulfilling- that is to say being athletic in the true sense of the word just means you’re good at athletics- but even if we are to take this view into account we’d find Hester more than “athletic” enough to play in the NFL. How do I know this? Well because the NFL, for all its credentials, is not major college football, and does not rely on the same offensive principles that we increasingly highlight in the college game. There are no read-based spread option offenses in the NFL, and despite the frequency of three and four wide sets the game is far less horizontal than it has become in college. Translation? Running becomes more of a downhill practice, an exercise in vision, a quick first step, and explosion. In a league where the disparity between offensive and defensive “talent” is not as great as it is in major college football, there is still value placed on getting a consistent four yards a pop up the middle, and anyone who tells you otherwise has a mistaken understanding of the game. People say that Hester is a throwback, somehow implying that his style of aggressive downhill running (I refuse to characterize it as exclusively “in between the tackles”) is inconsistent with today’s NFL game. Last I checked though, guys like Jamaal Lewis and Lendale White were still running hard and with success up the middle, and if I’m not completely mistaken most teams are still calling run plays designed to hit the interior gaps. It’s this clear double standard which continually perplexes me. I mean, the way you hear some of these commentators describe athleticism and speed you’d think we were playing two-hand touch ultimate Frisbee, not football. So what if Hester is a throwback, a “one cut” guy who hits the hole and explodes. I still don’t see the difference between that and what a guy like Lendale White does.
We can talk about quickness and vision and first steps all you want (and if there is any dispute I will gladly defend my points) but in the end it all comes back to production, and in that regard there is no disputing Jacob Hester’s senior year numbers. As we’ve previously mentioned, Hester’s 1100 yards on 4.9 yards per carry are certainly impressive to begin with, but when taken in the context they jump out at you even more. For starters, Hester did this all while sharing time with two other running backs. He also still managed to crank out 4.9 per carry even in obvious short yard situations when the defense knew he was getting the ball right up the gut. We talk about his versatility a lot, but in the wrong regard. Versatility is not meant to imply a team uses separate personnel packages for separate situations, rather that one guy –who can run, block, catch at a high level- can do all of that at any given time on the field. Hester is that guy, and rather than letting our understanding of ‘versatility’ inhibit a player’s projection as an every-down type guy, we should rather let it enhance that projection.
I am not arguing that Hester is among the elite backs in this year’s draft class (although I think he may be among the top 3-4 complete backs). There are at least some half a dozen backs I would draft ahead of him, with the very first one of those being the guy whose team nearly knocked LSU out of a national title. But round projection aside, there’s still no good reason to slap the stereotypical label of fullback on him, even in a day and age where fullbacks are increasingly being utilized sans lead blocker in the NFL. I have set out the facts in regards to Hester, showing that both his on-the field performance and so-called “measurable” are consistent, if not better, with a decent number of starting NFL running backs. I’ve also diagnosed the differences in the pro and college game, and made a correlation between Hester’s aggressive downhill running style and the fundamental principle of gaining yardage. Based on this information alone, it is absolutely dumbfounding to me that Hester wouldn’t at least get a chance to be a feature NFL running back. Regardless of whether or not Jacob Hester gets this chance or even if he were to make the best of it, one simply cannot ignore the increasingly irrational stigma associated with the Caucasian running backs, and why all to often some are inexplicably asked to change positions at the high school level, while others are consistently downgraded by the so-called “experts.” We have set a dangerous precedent for all players of all races by sizing them up with these so called “looks” tests, and done the ultimate disservice to many more by basing their ability off of archaic and stereotypical criteria. That’s why when it comes to the playing running back in the NFL, I’m all for Hester.
Adam Nettina hosts the college football-centric Under Center Show every Tuesday night from 8-10 PM. Join him this week as he talks recruiting with guests from around the blogosphere.