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2/04/2008

The Case for Jacob Hester

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.



Stacking Up

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.

25 comments:

mwcfootball said...

excellent post

Eric said...

I disagree to some extent with one thing. I think NFL coaches are going to do anything to win football games, regardless of race. This is why I don't buy the black coaches crisis, at least at the college game. ADs are going to hire whomever they feel has the best chance to keep them their job.

I won't argue that a stereotype (like something Brad Smith of Missouri, Sylvester Croom or other African-American coaches, or Jacob Hester of LSU would have to go through) might set a player/coach back as far as the league sees them, but if they do find potential in an athlete/coach, they'll take him.

Steeler Fan said...

Jacob Hester=Rocky Blier

White Lighting said...

Coach made me play fullback when I ran a faster 40 time that our black starter.. I'm white and play in a inner city school.

Tommy said...

great article, everything he touched upon is so true. enough with double standards!

Ace said...

The ironic thing is that the vast majority of coaches and scouts are white; thus, most of the time, they're the ones who are dictating who plays what position. So the whites coaches, more often than not, are the ones telling the Jacob Hesters and Brian Leonards that they should be playing fullback and not tailback. Also, the vast majority of sportswriters are white; thus, they're the ones writing the "yeah but" phrases such as "lacks ideal speed" or "good locker room guy." What does that say about white coaches and writers, and how much they buy into stereotypes?

Loser Coach Senior Bowl said...

I Totally agree. I was so pissed that they played Jacob Hester at Fullback in the Senior Bowl ...I just couldn't believe that the guy who made over a 1,000 rushing yards and 13 tds against the toughest conference, The guy who knocked other players on their butts only gotten a total of one carry which he managed a 5 yards gain. Go figure that the two head coaches coaching in the Senior Bowl would be the coaches with losing records...They need to start letting the winning coaches coach the Senior Bowl, you know the ones who knows what they are doing...Coaches who know what the players are capable of doing...I mean Everyone knows LSU was a great 4th down team (making 12 out 14 attempts..I think) and part of that was because of Jacob Hester, Always going forward... But this South team coach apparently didn't know Hester was really good in converting 3rd downs. For the sake of the conversation is why the south only converted 2 out of 12 attempts....Maybe Jacob Hester would have gotten more carries if he would have smeared some Black or Brown shoe polish all over his skin and shaved his head bald because these coaches didn't know who Hester was or was capable of doing...The only thing I can say is that I hope the scouts saw what Hester can do in practice and that he really does great at the combines...Because he didn't get a chance to justify himself at the "Loser Coach Senior Bowl"

Anonymous said...

Great post

People assume that coaches in the NFL will take a player regardless of race but what they dont realize is that player evaluation is subjective. That is why racial stereotypes come into play. It is hard to know if player A will outperfrom player B in similar situations.

Even Tony Dungy had said in the past that he believes whites are funneled to certain positions like LB and FB. Don Beebe who is now a high school coach has also commented on race and recruiting.

deceptive speed said...

Excellent piece. This stereotype -casting, none of it based on facts has gone on for way too long. The publics eyes need to be wide opened. There is a Jacob Hester every year on every level...multiple ones in fact...most notabley being Doak Walker Award winner from BYU- Luke Staley. And it also happens with wide receivers and cornebacks. It's OK to discrminate againt the white man. So henceforth mirnorities (blacks especially) DO NOT want equal treatment in this world. They want special treatment. Just admit it and then we can move on and stop the bull.

Anonymous said...

Wrong. NFL coaches are as brainwashed and in fact cowardly as the rest of the country when it comes to race. You can be white, have a faster 40, a better vertical, play better on the field and 99 out of a hundred times the black player who is not quite as good as you will be put ahead of you. Not only out of stereotypical beliefs, but also because the coaches don't want to rock the boat. It's also true that in some cases the black players will resent a white in certain positions. The NFL flat out does not want whites in certain positions, especially fast whites at QB. They'd rather have a poor to mediocre fast black at QB than a decent or good fast white at that position. Take a look at what's happened with fast white QB's coming out of college the last few years.

Eric said...

I agree with you guys for the most part. I think Hester is being discriminated to some extent. I'll be the first to tell you guys that guys like Jacob Hester and Brad Smith are being overlooked due to stereotypes. It cuts both ways, I think, for white running backs and black QBs.

Anonymous said...

One fact that this article failed to point out is that Hester has not put the ball on the turf since his freshman year. This is an amazing statistic considering the touches he's had and his bruising running style. The SEC is famous for their defenses and the ability to create turnovers. Show me another running back that has shown this consistency without turnovers. There aren't many. Even as an LSU fan, I fell into the same trap. When I heard at the beginning of the 07 season that Hester was gonna be our #1 back, I was very skeptical. After all, we had Willams (5 star recruit), Scott and Murphy (4 star recruits) whose "40 times" were so outstanding. And Hester (a 2 star recruit) was getting the starting nod? I bow to Les Miles because he didn't fall into the hype, and ended up letting the "slower white guy" get the start. Watching Hester play, I come to realize that Les knows More. And that's something that NFL scouts and coaches should consider on draft day. I pray that the Saints pick him up...

Big and fast dude said...

There is no doubt that there is racial bias in football. For my part, I was a victim of size discrimination. At 6'1" and 280lb.s I was fast enough to play fullback or linebacker and I had a stronger and MUCH more accurate arm than our two starting quarterbacks in high school. Coach took one look at me, literally, and I was relegated to defensive tackle.

Anonymous said...

I just checked ESPN and they have him listed as a FB. Let me grab some quotes for you.

"He is vastly undersized as a fullback and he lacks the elite speed/elusiveness of a premier tailback. He runs unbelievably hard and seems to be an injury waiting to happen"



The last time i checked you wanted your RB to run hard. I guess its different when the RB is white. This is just insane how the white RB gets overlooked because of his race. ESPN runs video tributes about how black QBs were overlooked and how black qbs that changed the game once they were allowed to play but they neglect the fact that whites are being overlooked at the RB, WR and CB positions. I just feel bad for Hester and in a few years i will feel bad for Sam McGuffie because they will somehow say his 4.3 speed is too slow and that hes a FB. Thats the NFL today for you.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about Jacob Hester or what you say in general but I will say this. If a player who for whatever reason slips to a lower round when he is first round material, like Terrell Davis of the Broncos did to the sixth, he will have to work that much harder to overcome that stigma regardless of talent. Why? Because the scouts, coaches and GM's who let the player slip will try to cover their own ass at first at least until they can sound intelligent again by saying that talent can be found in any round. This is espeically true if the player picked later plays the same position as the first round pick.We all know about Terell Davis and Shannon Sharpe (7th round pick) but I wonder how many fell through the cracks because someone had to cover their ass. Probably more than you think of all races. Here's one move that took guts;David Garrard over Byron Leftwich. A low round black over a high round one. The coaches, scouts and GM all had to eat their hats over all the time and money they wasted on Leftwich. Also their was Gus Ferotte over Heath Schuler. I wonder what will happen if in the next couple of years it's Kevin Kolb over Donavan McNabb. That will probably be an issue of money as much as anything with the salary cap. Even so if it happens there will be a big black boo hoo on ESPN.

Anonymous said...

While I don't necessarily agree with how this website is choosing to operate, I do think you recognize that we need to stop using race as a stereotype in every situation. If you can play then you should play. Race should never matter. We all can provide statistics that can prove our points. I'm black and I've always been judged by race, sometimes beneficial other times not. I wish America could focus on attributes that don't include race. I wish the best for Hester even though he beat my Bucks in the big game.

Anonymous said...

in the last preseason game hester was stood up on the goal line by one averaged sized 3rd team linebacker. so much for your great white hope. note michigan with the next great white hope, little mcguffie, that couldn't, lost at home

Anonymous said...

by the way hester is going to be a third teamer, his supposed strength on the goal line is an illusion in the nfl. in a nationally televised game didn't hester get stopped twice within the the three yard line and a 5'8" 190 runner who replaced him scored. mcguffie the next great white hope was on losing team.
what happened to matt jones

Anonymous said...

what you all need to do is create an all white college and field an all white team and settle this argument.
oops i forgot they all reaady tried that and the all white teams were crushed. remember bear bryant sacrificed his all white team, at home, to usc and sam cuningham, in the deep south, so that he could recruit blacks. the reason all white teams dissapeared is because they could no longer compete.
nothing more,nothing less

Eric said...

Oh, right, anon. You convinced me.

Your bellicose posting style dismisses your arguments and it would be more fun to have a debate if you weren't so attacking in your presentation. Hester will be fine in the pros and McGuffie is a true freshman. Give them breaks.

Who's Utah's running back? Matt Asiata? There was another non-black RB in that game who played pretty well and started.

Anonymous said...

Hester's results for the San Diego Chargers in the 2008 pre-season were respectable by NFL standards: 44 carries for 173 yards and 3 TDs for a 3.93 ypc average. Many black starters have a lower ypc this season. LaDainian Tomlinson, the superstar on the same Chargers, so far has a 3.77 ypc average (182 carries for 686 yards after 10 games).

Kevin said...

this is beyond being a good article. This is a complete compilation of every bit of info and arguing fuel you need to go against people who say whites can't play the position.

But I fear it's a lost cause.

Just like the star white NBA player (american), the white running back or star white receiver is dead in pro football, and is unlikely to ever come back.

When you see guys like Hester waste at the wrong position, Peyton Hillis turned away after a successful rookie season, and Toby Gerhart barely accepted as a running back prospect, you know we are light years away from this thing ever turning around.

Eric Dickerson is a jackass. And a racist.

Host PPH said...

I don't know why people undermine Hester. he is a great player and more people should support him.

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