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2018 Big Board: Running Backs

Notre Dame has recruited the running back position quite well in recent seasons, with the exception being not landing a true back in the 2014 class.

Class of 2015 running back Josh Adams has become the lead back for Notre Dame, racking up 1,768 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns and 6.4 yards per carry during his first two seasons. Classmate Dexter Williams returns with two years of eligibility remaining.

Rising sophomore Tony Jones Jr. will look to compete for a rotation role this season, and Jones has four years of eligibility remaining. He’ll be joined in the backfield by freshman C.J. Holmes, a Rivals250 player that is a jack-of-all-trades type player.

With Adams and Williams having just two seasons of eligibility remaining – one when the 2018 class arrives on campus – and with sophomore Deon McIntosh looking to be more of a receiver/hybrid player, there was a need for Notre Dame to land one legit every down back in this class. Landing Indianapolis Cathedral back Markese Stepp gives Notre Dame just that.

Depth is not bad at running back, but it’s not great either. Notre Dame would like to add a second back to the class, but it won’t reach to do so. That means Notre Dame won't reach for a back just to land a second back.

Grading with these running backs was very tight. There was very little separating each of the backs from a points standpoint.

Below is how I rank the running backs on Notre Dame’s board, both offered players and recruits the staff is still evaluating:

1. Markese Stepp, 6-0, 205, Indianapolis (Ind.) Cathedral - Notre Dame commit
2. T.J. Pledger, 5-9, 175, Bradenton (Fla.) IMG Academy
3. Jashaun Corbin, 6-1, 186, Melbourne (Fla.) Holy Trinity
4. Christian Turner, 5-10, 180, Buford (Ga.) High School
5. Lyn-J Dixon, 5-11, 177, Taylor (Ga.) Lee County
6. Keaontay Ingram, 6-0, 190, Carthage (Texas) High School
7. Jahmir Smith, 6-0, 194, Sanford (N.C.) Lee County

PLAYER BIOS

1. MARKESE STEPP, 6-0, 205, INDIANAPOLIS (IND.) CATHEDRAL

BGI GRADE: 4.0
UPSIDE GRADE: 4.5

Top Offers: Notre Dame, Georgia, LSU, Miami (Fla.), Michigan, Michigan State, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Missouri, Duke, Iowa, Minnesota

Stepp’s grade is negatively influenced by him missing all but three games of his junior season with a hamstring injury. If he can make it through his senior injury free and get back to looking like the standout back that rushed for 1,300 yards (8.4 per rush) and 17 touchdowns as a sophomore, his grade should skyrocket. The Cathedral standout projects as an every down back, possessing the size and power to hammer defenses, and the elusiveness to get through the second level. His lack of top-end speed might knock his grade with others, but Stepp is plenty fast when his overall game is taken into account.

Stepp has top-level athletic skills, with quick feet, strong balance and a quality second gear. He has the intangibles you want in a standout back; he is fundamentally sound, shows high-level vision and is a natural when it comes to making defenders miss, either by making a quick move or dipping and ripping through arm tackles. He is not used much in the pass game, but in the limited opportunities I’ve seen, Stepp shows good hands and the ability to square up to the line and make plays.

SOPHOMORE HIGHLIGHTS

2. T.J. PLEDGER, 5-9, 175, BRADENTON (FLA.) IMG ACADEMY

BGI GRADE: 4.0
UPSIDE GRADE: 4.5

Top Offers: Notre Dame, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Penn State, Texas, USC, UCLA, Oregon, Washington

Pledger’s size and game reminds me a great deal of former Oregon standout LaMichael James. Like James, Pledger isn’t very big - checking in this summer at 5-8 - and he isn’t overly powerful despite weighing 200 pounds at The Opening Regionals in Orlando. Also like James, he’s an outstanding back and is highly productive. Pledger rushed for 1,881 yards (8.1 per carry) and 32 touchdowns as a junior while playing against an extremely demanding schedule. He shows the ability to more than make up for his lack of ideal size or girth at the prep level.

What makes Pledger so effective is his combination of top-level athleticism and vision. He’s a natural running back that possesses elite vision, which makes him hard for defenders to square up. Pledger’s balance and foot quickness allows him to make sudden moves, and his instincts allow him to anticipate openings quite well. When defenders make contact with Pledger, he is able to bounce off, keep his balance and quickly accelerate. His lack of size means he needs to go to an offense that like James at Oregon, allows him to slash opponents and gets him in space, which is what Chip Long’s offense would do at Notre Dame.

JUNIOR HIGHLIGHTS

3. JASHAUN CORBIN, 6-1, 186, MELBOURNE (FLA.) HOLY TRINITY

BGI GRADE: 4.0
UPSIDE GRADE: 4.5

Top Offers: Notre Dame, Florida, Florida State, Michigan, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Ole Miss, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina

Corbin is the most versatile running back on this board. He’s a big play runner that is built well, possessing a good sized lower half and the potential to add good weight to his frame. Corbin isn’t an overly physical runner but he can run through arm tackles, and his power should improve as he matures. He’s a really fluid runner that is more of a weaving type of back than he is a sudden back. Corbin’s movements on the football field are easy, and if he gets a crease he can turn on the jets.

The Holy Trinity standout has excellent feet and balance. He needs some work with his technique and angles as a runner, but once he gets through the first level Corbin is dangerous. His vision is impressive and he makes cuts that I didn’t see coming. He rushed for 1,022 yards (9.6 per carry) as a junior, but he added 619 yards through the air, catching passes out of the backfield and lining up outside as a receiver. He also added 47 tackles, and Corbin could be a contributor at all three positions in a way that is similar to current Notre Dame freshman C.J. Holmes.

JUNIOR HIGHLIGHTS

4. CHRISTIAN TURNER, 5-10, 180, BUFORD (GA.) HIGH SCHOOL

BGI GRADE: 4.0
UPSIDE GRADE: 4.5

Top Offers: Notre Dame, Michigan, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Miami (Fla.), Missouri, Nebraska, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, West Virginia, Louisville, NC State

Turner is one of the more underrated backs in the country, and his game is quite similar to that of Stepp. He’s a slashing runner with good vision and the instincts/anticipation needed in an every down running back. Ingram rushed for 1,128 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior despite missing much of the regular season with an ankle injury. Once he returned to close to full strength in the playoffs, Turner went off.

The Buford standout lacks elite speed and he's not overly explosive, but what Turner does possess is an overall athletic package that is a must for a top back. Turner is very light on his feet, which allows him to make quick moves, to weave in and out of traffic and to change direction with ease. Once he makes a cut he gets to top speed relatively quickly, and his anticipation skills allow him to immediately hit holes as they open. Turner has a strong lower body, and his ability to keep his pads low and quickly dip and rip through contact helps him churn out a lot of yards after contact.

JUNIOR HIGHLIGHTS

5. LYN-J DIXON, 5-11, 177, BUTLER (GA.) TAYLOR COUNTY

BGI GRADE: 4.0
UPSIDE GRADE: 4.5

Top Offers: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia Tech, Louisville, Minnesota, Missouri, South Carolina, Georgia Tech, Ole Miss (No offer from Notre Dame)

Dixon is an impressive young running back that racked up 1,914 yards (8.4 per carry) and 35 touchdowns as a junior. He’s also a dynamic punt returner and he catches the ball well out of the backfield. As good as he is at running back, it would not surprise me if defensive coaches across the country look at his film and think he could be an elite cornerback with some technical work. His lack of size might keep him from being an every down back at the next level, but Dixon is a physical runner with outstanding leg drive, and his stiff arm is a legit weapon.

Dixon has strong running backs skills, showing off good vision, anticipation and an explosive jump cut. He’s more quick and sudden than he is fast, although he gets to full speed quickly and shows a good open field burst. Dixon stays light on his feet and is a short strider behind the line, which helps him constantly be in position to quickly make a move. He doesn’t really start to long stride until he gets in the open field, which is what you want from a back. He reaches for the ball at the mesh point too much, which he needs to stop.

JUNIOR HIGHLIGHTS

6. KEAONTAY INGRAM, 6-0, 190, CARTHAGE (TEXAS) HIGH SCHOOL

BGI GRADE: 4.0
UPSIDE GRADE: 4.0

Top Offers: Notre Dame, Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Oregon, TCU, Texas A&M, Michigan, Ole Miss, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Baylor

Ingram is a smooth athlete with tremendous patience. The Carthage standout is tall and thin, and he’s not overly powerful, with a game that is built more on making defenders miss than running through tackles. It works for him thanks to elite patience and outstanding vision. Ingram has loose hips, changes direction with ease and shows good balance, although at times he gets a bit too forward with his pad level when he works in traffic and will stumble. Ingram also tends to bounce runs outside a bit too soon.

Ingram lacks elite speed, but he does have a quality second level gear, which helps him rip off long runs in high school. His second level speed combines nicely with the traits discussed above, which helped him rack up 2,225 yards and 31 touchdowns in 15 games as a junior. He would fit in nicely with Notre Dame’s zone schemes, and his jump cut is outstanding. Ingram might not be big enough right now to be an every down back, but he can slash, catch the ball out of the backfield and as a change of pace player he would be highly effective.

JUNIOR HIGHLIGHTS

7. JAHMIR SMITH, 6-0, 194, SANFORD (N.C.) LEE COUNTY

BGI GRADE: 3.5
UPSIDE GRADE: 4.0

Top Offers: Nebraska, North Carolina, NC State, Vanderbilt, Wisconsin, Georgia Tech, Purdue, Northwestern (No offer from Notre Dame)

Smith was quite productive during his junior season at Lee County, racking up 2,130 yards (6.7 per rush) and 40 touchdowns. The 6-0, 194-pound back has a good frame and should easily get to over 215 pounds in college. He is okay at making players miss at the line of scrimmage, but he’s better at running through tacklers than he is trying to make them miss. Smith plays with good leg drive, and with more physical maturity, his power should become his best physical asset.

Smith does not have any special physical traits, but he has a good all-around athletic skill set. He’s a little tight in the hips and lacks explosiveness, and he needs some time to get going, but once he gets his momentum going downhill he’s a load. Smith does show nimble feet for a bigger runner, and his running back skills are quite good. Smith also needs to be more efficient with his footwork in the backfield, which would speed up his start a bit.

JUNIOR HIGHLIGHTS

OVERALL/UPSIDE GRADE KEY

5.0 – Elite (Top 25 Caliber Player)
4.5 – Outstanding (Top 50 Caliber Player)
4.0 – Very Good (Top 200 Caliber Player)
3.5 – Above Average (Top 350 Caliber Player)
3.0 – Solid (Top 500 Caliber Player or Lower)

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