California, Stanford have most running backs in NFL

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Fifth in a series

The University of Southern California used to carry the “Tailback U” torch with its rich history of running backs.

Of USC’s seven Heisman Trophy winners, five played running back — Mike Garrett (1965), O.J. Simpson (1968), Charles White (1979), Marcus Allen (1981) and Reggie Bush (2005).

Nowadays that title can’t be claimed by any one college, according to Detroit News research. In fact, NFL-caliber running backs come from programs across the nation, whether it's a dynamic Division I school or a little-known Division II college.

California and Stanford tied for the most running backs on NFL rosters and injured reserved lists at the end of the 2015 season with four apiece.

Ten colleges followed with three, including USC, Alabama and Oklahoma. Michigan was among the 19 schools that had two tailbacks and 51 other colleges had one, including Michigan State, Central Michigan, Wayne State, Morningside College, Abilene Christian and Coe College.

Big Ten Network college football analyst Gerry DiNardo said most NFL teams will search anywhere to find a downhill runner.

“(NFL teams) want somebody in a downhill offensive attack, meaning the running back gets the ball when his shoulder is parallel to the line of scrimmage,” DiNardo said.

An example: Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott, who shined in a power-based spread offense to attract Dallas as the fourth overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft.

“(Elliott) received the ball when his shoulders were parallel to the line of scrimmage and he made a cut either right before the line of scrimmage or right after the line of scrimmage, and that's the running game of the NFL,” DiNardo said.

DiNardo said the NFL-quality talent is so widespread at the position because running backs are more apt to go to a college where they can play right away.

“If you're an offensive lineman, you got five chances to play. If you're a secondary player, you got four chances to play,” DiNardo said. “So quarterbacks tend to transfer when they get beat out. Running backs tend to study rosters and if they're stacked up like club sandwiches, they're not going to that school.

“They all want the touches. They all want to be the man and that's totally understandable. So if someone has a good tailback, I'm not going to that school, so I have to go somewhere else.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins

Football recruiters hit paydirt in three states

About this series

To find out which states and conferences produced the most football talent, The Detroit News created a database of the season-ending 2015 rosters for every NFL team.

Detroit News series

Southern Cal earns title of 'Quarterback U'

Big Ten producing O-linemen for NFL, but SEC sends more

NFL WRs mostly come from California, Florida and Texas

Penn State upholds linebacker tradition

California, Stanford have most running backs in NFL 

Alabama top producer of NFL defensive backs

SEC dominates in sending defensive linemen to NFL