Michigan fans frantically scouring the Internet for updates on running back Najee Harris are doing so for good reason.
Harris is rated the No. 1 player in the country by the 247Sports composite rankings. He is the fourth running back to earn that distinction in the past 15 years, joining Adrian Peterson, Joe McKnight and Leonard Fournette.
When Peterson joined the Oklahoma Sooners in 2004, it was a landscape-changing moment for college football. Peterson ran for 1,925 yards, 15 touchdowns and should have won the Heisman Trophy. He didn’t but future freshmen did, in part because Peterson helped erode the narrative that players one year removed from high school didn’t deserve to win the award.
There have been 56 5-star running backs since the Class of 2004. Many have wanted to be the next Peterson, but none have reached his level of production. Many have become immediate impact players though, and Harris has been called the best running back prospect since Fournette.
Michigan has a clear need at running back. The Wolverines will lose De’Veon Smith, who led the team with 846 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. They will return Chris Evans and Karan Higdon, the second- and third-leading rushers, and Kareem Walker, the No. 4 running back in the Class of 2016, will be available after missing the season because of academic issues.
There are also two running backs committed for 2017, including 4-star prospect O’Maury Samuels from Los Lunas, N.M.
Jim Harbaugh’s quest to lure him to Ann Arbor and away from Nick Saban’s Alabama machine would be one of his greatest victories at any level of coaching.
If Harris does decide to join Michigan and not Alabama, he could help make the Wolverines a College Football Playoff contender in 2017. It might seem a little absurd to think a true freshman could have that type of impact at a place like Michigan, but the Wolverines are losing a ton of talent.
Harris could play right away, maybe in a rotation at first, but he has the ability to be the best back on the roster next season. It’s one position where Michigan has lacked elite, game-breaking type talent during Harbaugh’s tenure.
While no 5-star running back has approached Peterson’s level of production, there have been plenty that made an immediate impact. Seven of the 56 5-star prospects have rushed for more than 1,000 yards as true freshman. Seventeen of them had at least 700 yards.
Here’s a look at the best true freshman seasons by a 5-star running back:
|Marcus Lattimore||South Carolina||2010||249||1,197||17|
|Dalvin Cook||Florida State||2014||170||1,008||8|
Some have joined very crowded backfields and just didn’t get the opportunity to carry the ball a lot. Guys like Darren McFadden and Dalvin Cook shared carries, but displayed the potential that made them future Heisman candidates.
Harris could be in that situation if he chooses the Crimson Tide, with former 5-star recruits Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris, along with B.J. Emmons and Joshua Jacobs, among the players he could be competing with for playing time. He’d almost certainly get more carries as a freshman with the Wolverines, but the Crimson Tide’s NFL assembly line at the position would be hard to pass up.
His arrival at the Detroit airport would not just be a huge victory for Michigan, but an important win for the Big Ten as well. If it looks like there is a heavy SEC influence on that list above, it’s because that conference has dominated when it comes to collecting 5-star running backs.
Counting Peterson’s 2004 class and the three 2017 5-star prospects (Harris, Florida State commit Cam Akers and Southern Cal commit Stephen Carr), there have been 62 5-star prospects at the position in the past 15 recruiting classes.
Harris would be the 21st to choose an SEC school if he ends up at Alabama. If Akers ends up at Florida State and Carr at Southern Cal, the ACC and Pac-12 would remain tied for second with 12 5-star backs in the past 15 years.
Here’s the conference breakdown:
The Big Ten has lagged behind in recruiting for years for a number of reasons, but to lure so few 5-star running backs is pretty startling. Ohio State has landed one, Beanie Wells, and none in the past decade.
If Harris chooses Alabama, he’d be the sixth 5-star running back to end up with the Crimson Tide since 2009. Carr would be Southern Cal’s sixth in the past 15 years. Oklahoma also has six, which is as many as the entire Big Ten.
Michigan has landed two, Kevin Grady in 2005 and Derrick Green in 2013. Both were disappointments, relative to their recruiting status. Two of the six went to schools before they joined the Big Ten — Marlon Lucky to Nebraska in 2005 and Savon Huggins to Rutgers in 2011.
The conference did land the No. 1 running back in the nation in 2016, when Miles Sanders chose Penn State. It’s got a chance to do so for the second straight year, and it would be huge for both Michigan and the conference if it happens.