Who was the Big 12’s second-best running back this season?
Kansas running back Devin Neal was omitted Nov. 21 from the list of semifinalists for the Doak Walker Award, given to the best running back in the country, much to the dismay of his teammates and fans. That list of 10 featured four other Big 12 Conference running backs.
One of those four contenders, Oklahoma State’s Ollie Gordon II, has been the consensus top rusher in the league this year, possibly even the best in the country, and has since been named a Walker finalist.
But there remained one potential spot available alongside him on the all-conference first team, voted on by Big 12 coaches, and the KU community became even more aggrieved Wednesday after Texas Tech’s Tahj Brooks beat out Neal for that spot.
That development really shouldn’t have come as a surprise after the Walker semifinalist snub, but by singling him out for comparison with Brooks — rather than all three of Brooks, Texas’ Jonathon Brooks and UCF’s RJ Harvey, who were on the Walker list — it rendered rather stark the contrasts between the two.
At the conclusion of the regular season, Tahj Brooks had the third-most rushing yards in the nation at 1,443. Neal was down in a tie for 13th at 1,209. But he accomplished it with a whopping 85 fewer carries, meaning his yards-per-carry average was substantially better at 6.6 versus 5.4, and got six more touchdowns along the way. Brooks had three games (in the span of a month) in which he carried the ball at least 30 times. Neal only carried the ball more than 20 times twice all year.
Texas Tech and Kansas ran the ball, in total, about the same amount (437 total carries for Tech compared to 460 for KU). The difference, of course, is that KU gave 116 carries to Daniel Hishaw Jr. The Red Raiders’ backup running back Cam’Ron Valdez had fewer carries on the year than the Jayhawks’ third-stringer Dylan McDuffie.
Of course, it’s not Brooks’ fault — and it actually speaks rather well of him — that he could serve as an every-down back. He forced the most missed tackles (92) of any running back in the nation according to Pro Football Focus, and it wasn’t particularly close. He did what he did with worse run blocking upfront than Neal had (an overall PFF grade of 64.9 as opposed to 72.0 for KU).
photo by: Annie Rice/Lubbock Avalanche-Journal via AP
There are other metrics, though, that don’t favor the senior Red Raider from Manor, Texas, over the junior Jayhawk from Lawrence. Neal was more successful working through contact (3.72 yards as opposed to 3.40 after first getting touched). He had a vastly greater knack for creating big plays. Brooks got 31.2% of his total yardage from runs of 15 yards or longer; Neal got 49.1%. And of course, there’s that glaring yards-per-carry disparity.
Giving so much weight to yards per carry requires some element of projection. If Neal had actually gotten 268 carries like Brooks — the most for any Power Five running back — there’s no guarantee he would have had the stamina to keep up that 6.6 average, nor that opposing defenses wouldn’t key in on him to a greater extent than they already did. The variety of playmakers and the bells and whistles in KU’s offense is part of the reason why straight-up inside zone handoffs to Neal are often so successful.
And yet 268 carries really is a lot. If Brooks had had Neal’s average he would have been the leading rusher in the nation by nearly 200 yards. If Neal had had Brooks’ average, he would have had a sub-1,000-yard rushing season. The level of production Neal wrung from a relatively small workload should be enough to give him the edge over Brooks.
Of course, Brooks isn’t the only running back in the equation. While West Virginia’s freshman back Jahiem White was unbelievable down the stretch and Cincinnati’s Corey Kiner had a perfectly solid season, I’ll focus on the other Walker semifinalists.
photo by: AP Photo/Julio Cortez
The other Brooks over at Texas is an interesting case because he tore his ACL late against TCU on Nov. 11 and got knocked out for the remainder of the year. Up until then, he was doing as well as anyone with, again, worse run blocking than Kansas’ (a 64.5 grade on PFF) and in his case, a pretty clear sense that he was going to be the one running the ball for Texas (he was on the field for 203 running plays and got 187 carries).
He had the best yards-after-contact-per-attempt figure of anyone in the conference with at least 100 attempts (3.91, even better than Gordon) and could get it done out of the backfield too; even by the end of the season, he had the second-most receiving yards (286) of any running back in the Big 12. He made more players miss than Neal on a similar number of carries.
In one particularly memorable game, Brooks shredded KU for 218 yards and two touchdowns on just 21 rushes.
His season-ending stats end up looking a lot like Neal’s (187 carries, 1,135 yards, 10 touchdowns) and if he had been able to play two more regular-season games, he certainly could have gotten more. CJ Baxter had 117 yards for Texas against Iowa State and then the Longhorns had success with basically every running back when they beat Texas Tech by 50. If Brooks ends up with nearly 1,400 yards and 11 or 12 touchdowns then he’s certainly above Tahj Brooks and probably Neal too.
Of course, he didn’t actually reach those numbers, so whether you consider Jonathon Brooks an all-conference-caliber back sort of comes down to the role you think injuries should play in awards consideration. The Big 12 coaches apparently thought it was a sufficiently large role to kick him down to the second team with Neal.
photo by: AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack
Harvey probably got the worst draw of anyone in the Big 12’s all-conference picks as he was reduced to an honorable mention (news he reacted to on X with a pair of sleeping emojis). Did he deserve better?
Harvey was probably hurt by his (and his team’s) fairly unassuming start to the season as he had 71 carries for 390 yards and four touchdowns in the first five weeks — not too shabby but not nationally prominent. He then proceeded to run off five 100-yard performances in a row, and was particularly exceptional the last few weeks of the season as he ran for 576 yards and 10 touchdowns on 75 carries in the final four games. He did this despite poor blocking; his best game, against Oklahoma State, was the UCF O-line’s worst-graded run-blocking performance of the year.
Needless to say, a dramatic improvement for Harvey and one that helped get the Knights a bowl bid.
Much like injuries, recency bias plays a pretty substantial role in how awards get decided. Late in the year, Harvey was pretty much unparalleled; on the whole, though, he ended up with very similar numbers to Neal on virtually all fronts — 209 carries, 1,300 yards, 16 touchdowns, half his yardage on 15-plus-yard runs, missed tackles forced in the 50s. Also like Neal, he had to split carries with a fellow running back in Johnny Richardson (though not quite to the same extent) and in his case also had a starting quarterback in John Rhys Plumlee who frequently took designed runs.
Neal still has the edge in yards per carry (6.6 versus 6.2) and yards after contact per attempt (3.72 vs. 3.48) although those numbers start to become pretty marginal.
Tahj Brooks has had an excellent season and to some extent trying to separate these elite players becomes like splitting hairs. But beyond the gaudy total yardage number and an uncanny ability to force missed tackles, the metrics don’t favor him as the second-best runner this year behind Gordon.
Jonathon Brooks was the second-best running back in the Big 12 when he was healthy. Whether you hold a two-game absence against him is subjective; who knows how he would have done in those final matchups. Harvey and Neal played extremely similar seasons; one was on a worse team, which tends to hurt perception among voters (it should not; honestly, it should be more of a credit that he did as well as he did) and likely did him no favors in the all-conference voting.
I would give Neal the ultimate, very slight edge because he did the most with the fewest touches — even fewer than Jonathon Brooks’ by a narrow margin. All throughout the season, he was the most consistently effective runner in the somewhat atypically sparse opportunities he was given.