Scouting Combine Running Backs: Terrific Taylor and Aptly Named Bulldog
There will be 30 running backs at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Get to know them in this three-part feature. Part 3 includes D’Andre Swift and Jonathan Taylor.
Sewo Olonilua, TCU (6-3, 240): In four seasons, Olonilua rushed for 1,624 yards and 18 touchdowns. As a senior, he rushed for 537 yards (4.0 average) and eight scores, and 24 of his 60 receptions came during that final year. He capped the 2018 season with 194 rushing yards in the Cheez-It Bowl.
His path to the NFL took off as a junior at Kingwood (Texas) High School. Olonilua was the team’s starting safety but, with an 0-2 start, he moved to running back and ran roughshod. The big man is a powerhouse and he made it to Bruce Feldman’s annual “Freaks” list. He ran roughshod. He was arrested in May and suspended for the first half of the 2019 opener.
Lamical Perine, Florida (5-11, 218): Perine’s four-year total was 2,485 rushing yards (5.0 average) and 22 touchdowns and 72 receptions for 674 yards and eight more scores. As a junior, he rushed for a career-high 826 yards with a 6.2 average; as a senior, he rushed for 676 yards and caught 40 passes with five scores.
Perine grew up in Theodore, Ala. His home-state team, Auburn – the school where his father played – wasn’t interested because he was deemed too slow. So, he hopped on a Greyhound and traveled 7 hours by bus to Gainesville to attend a camp. “It wasn’t the best experience but I made it for what it was. At the end of the day, I got what I wanted. I went to the camp, did good there and I got exposure, for real.” He almost transferred due to lack of playing time and coaching upheaval. “I’m not going to lie to you. I thought about leaving a few times. I was just thinking I was lost. I lost my head coach and my running back coach. I’ve had three running backs coaches since I’ve been here. That was kind of hard for me to take in at the time.” He was picked for the Senior Bowl. That game is played at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, the site of some of his best high school games. "If you had to tell me back then that I would be playing in this game today, I wouldn't believe it. Maybe it was a lack of trust in myself, but over time I believe I started gaining trust as I was in college.” Perine is related to Washington Redskins running back Samaje Perine and Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack.
Scottie Phillips, Mississippi (5-8, 212): In two seasons, Phillips rushed for 1,470 yards (5.3 average) and 17 touchdowns and caught 18 passes. The junior-college transfer was more productive as a junior (928 yards, 6.1 average, 12 touchdowns) than a senior (542 yards, 4.3 average, five touchdowns).
He played in a timeshare with freshman Jerrion Ealy. Ealy was happy to pick the veteran’s brain and Phillips was a willing mentor. In his Ole Miss debut in 2018, he rushed for 204 yards against Texas Tech. “The word I’ve been using is 'cautiously' optimistic,” Ole Miss coach Matt Luke told the Clarion Ledger after that game, “because I’ve seen a lot of really, really good things in the spring and in fall camp, but it was good to see him (in a game). He has short, quick bursts, but he also has the breakaway speed that he can finish it when he breaks the line. So, really, really pleased for him to have some success.” The player nicknamed “Scottie Toddy” had high hopes entering the 2019 season. “One personal goal I’ve set for myself is that 1,000-yard mark,” he told the Leader Call before the season. “With me being so close to it last year, I really want to come back and get it this time around. Besides that I just want to win, to be honest. With me having a bigger role this year, I know the team goes as I go, and I just want to leave it all on the field and help win some games.” In hopes of landing a big-school scholarship, the Ellisville, Miss., spent two years at Jones Community College. This time, Ole Miss came calling. “Ever since I was in high school, Ole Miss has always been one of my favorite schools,” he told the Oxford Eagle. “So when they came calling, there was no question about where I was going to be.”
James Robinson, Illinois State (5-10, 220): Robinson was a consensus first-team FCS All-American as a senior. He led the Missouri Valley Football Conference in rushing yards (1,899), yards per game (126.6) and touchdowns (18). The rushing total ranked second in FCS. A two-time finalist for Walter Payton Award, which goes to the best player in FCS, Robinson recorded eight 100-plus yard rushing efforts, including a pair of 200-plus yard efforts in the first and second round of the FCS playoffs that included a school-record breaking 297-yard effort in the first-round with at Southeast Missouri. In the East-West Shrine Bowl, he accumulated 136 total yards (80 rushing, 56 passing) and scored the longest touchdown in the history of the prestigious game with a 63-yard rushing score.
Robinson took it all in stride. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it, but I don’t really pay attention to it,” Robinson told the Pantagraph. “It’s more for my family. They like to see those things.” He rushed for 4,444 yards and 44 touchdowns with 5,218 all-purpose yards in his career. “James has had a great career here. He’s capable of so much I don’t really get surprised,” coach Brock Spack told the Pantagraph. “I’m happy for him. He’s a really good kid. Sometimes he’s misunderstood because he’s so quiet. He’s physical, explosive, tough, smart and he loves to play.” Football is everything to Robinson. “I wouldn't be in college, honestly, if it wasn't for football,” he told WIFR.com. “My plan even after football has nothing to do with school or anything. I'm not a school guy, but I mean football is for me. I know there's still a lot for me to improve on so I'm glad I've got the whole season to do that, but I think I'm ready for it and it's going to be pretty exciting when it comes. I think I have a good talent to go to the next level. I've played against guys that are in the NFL and I think if those guys can make it, I can make it too.”
D’Andre Swift, Georgia (5-9, 215)*: Swift earned first-team all-SEC honors with 1,218 rushing yards (6.2 average) and seven touchdowns and 24 receptions for 316 yards and one more score. In three seasons, his 2,885 rushing yards rank seventh in school history. He also posted an impressive 73 career receptions. According to Pro Football Focus, he had only two drops. He averaged a school-record 6.56 yards per carry for his career, even though he battled some injury issues early in his career.
His high school coach called him a once-in-a-lifetime kid, let alone a once-in-a-lifetime player. “God got up one morning and decided to make a great running back,” said Gabe Infante, who coached Swift at St. Joseph's Prep in Philadlephia. "And then he gave him this great name, too. D'Andre is the best player I've seen – not just coached – in 22 years of coaching.” He learned well after sitting behind Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. “Those two guys — I can't say enough about them. They're amazing role models and big-brother figures. They told me to be patient and to seize every opportunity. They tell me all the time that I'm next up, and that's how I work. They would do anything for me, and I would do anything for them.” The Philadelphia native fell in love with the Georgia campus after his junior year in high school when he took a service trip to Athens. Swift helped paint, built paths in the community garden, ran Meals on Wheels routes and visited with clients in a senior center.
J.J. Taylor, Arizona (5-6, 185)*: Taylor rushed for 3,263 yards in four seasons, a career headlined by a banner year of 1,434 yards (5.6 average) and six touchdowns in 2018 to earn third-team All-American honors. In 2019, he rushed for 721 yards (4.9 average) and five touchdowns but caught a career-high 32 passes. He added a 24.1-yard average and one touchdown while returning kickoffs his final two seasons. He averaged 6.9 yards per carry as a true freshman in 2016 but suffered a broken ankle in the fourth game. He returned in 2017 to rush for 847 yards and win Pac-12 Newcomer of the Year.
“He’s one of a kind,” DeMarco Murray, the former NFL running back and Arizona’s position coach, told Tucson.com. “Pound for pound, one of the strongest guys on the team. He has a burst of energy. He’s a guy that works hard every single day. Very smart guy. Very selfless guy. When you have that much success, it usually doesn’t go that way. But J.J. is a remarkable guy, loved by his teammates — more importantly, respected by his teammates.” A black mark on his huge 2018 campaign was fumbling. He coughed it up six times, most among running backs in the nation. “One of the biggest points of emphasis this year,” he told Tucson.com before the season. “Just holding the ball high and tight, not letting it go. Prized possession.” While he was California’s Mr. Football as a senior, his 5-foot-6, 155-pound frame made him a three-star recruit who was ignored by the big schools. “When he was here, he returned kicks, he returned punts, he blocked kicks, he was a defensive end for us and led our team in sacks for a little while,” his high school coach told the Athletic. “He can do anything, so his success does not surprise any one of us. And we love it, especially when he’s successful against all the teams that decided not to recruit him because of his size.”
Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin (5-11, 219)*: Taylor had one of the great careers in college football history with a three-year total of 6,174 rushing yards (6.7 average) and 50 touchdowns. As a junior, he rushed for 2,003 yards (6.3 average) and 21 touchdowns and added career highs of 26 catches, 252 yards and five scores to be a unanimous first-team All-American. His 26 total touchdowns led the nation. He twice won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back. His three-year rushing total is almost 600 more yards than Herschel Walker, who previously topped that list, and he’s the only player with three seasons of 1,900 rushing yards. Two red flags are wear and tear and ball security. Taylor led the Big Ten in carries all three seasons. Between rushes and receptions, he had 968 touches. He fumbled throughout his career, with six in 2019 – five in the last eight games – and 18 in three seasons.
Taylor is more than just a star football player. When Taylor was a senior in high school, he received a special graduation present from his family: a telescope. Pressed to his eye and pointed to the heavens, the high-tech gadget became an extra appendage. Says Taylor's father, Jonathan James, “That's when I knew he was different.” He considered going to Harvard. "I had to find a place that was going to put me in the best position to maximize everything," Taylor says. "I wanted to have a great athletic experience. I wanted to challenge myself and play against the best. Wisconsin did that—and had a top-20 academic institution on top of it. That was it for me.” During the summer, he interned at Merrill Lynch. "The financial world is something that a lot of average people, they don't understand until you really go behind the scenes and learn exactly what is going on," Taylor said. "That's one of the biggest reasons why I wanted to go behind the scenes - so I could build my financial literacy, just because if I'm in that situation, I want to be prepared.” He majored in philosophy and carried at 3.3 GPA. “Philosophy is the study of, how do we know what we know?” said Taylor. “There’s also the study of reality. Like, what’s real? And there’s also a study of ethics. You study different historians and philosophers. You look at what they studied and learned and try to apply it to today’s world; that’s applied philosophy. You have the philosophy of the mind.”
Patrick Taylor, Memphis (6-3, 227): Taylor got off to a rumbling start with 546 rushing yards as a freshman, 866 yards and 13 touchdowns as a sophomore and 1,122 yards and 16 touchdowns as a junior. However, in six games as a senior he rushed for only 350 yards with a career-low 4.5 average and five scores. His four-season totals were 2,884 yards (5.4 average), 36 touchdowns and 55 receptions.
His final season was derailed by an ankle injury. To stay motivated and positive, he recalled Dr. Martin Luther King. “Life is what it is. It’s full of tests, trials and challenges,” Taylor told the Daily Memphian. “Something I like to read upon is (King's quote): ‘You don’t judge the character of a person when they stand in comfort and convenience. You judge the character of a person where they stand in challenge and controversy.’” Taylor was born in New Orleans but moved to Texas. When Hurricane Katrina struck, the family opened the door to their house. At one point, nearly 50 family members lived in the house, according to the Commercial Appeal. That giving attitude left an impact, with Taylor frequently volunteering at children’s hospitals. “They don’t know that they’re making my day better when I make their day better,” Taylor said. “It’s just a humbling experience and it’s bigger than myself.”
Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Vanderbilt (5-10, 218): Vaughn rushed for 1,024 yards in two seasons at Illinois and 2,272 yards in two years with Vanderbilt. His best season came in 2018, when the junior rushed for 1,244 yards, averaged 7.9 yards per carry and scored 14 total touchdowns. He rushed for 1,028 yards and had a career-high 28 catches as a senior. He’s one of only three players in Vandy history with a pair of 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
Vaughn grew up just a few miles from the Vanderbilt campus, so his transfer was one part getting more playing time and another part returning home. “I knew I wanted to get back home. I felt I had my college experience enough. Coming back home would be great for me, being able to play at an SEC school, get a great degree from an outstanding university. You’ve got to work for everything you get here, in the classroom and on the field. It’s what you make it.” He led the SEC with 7.9 yards per carry in 2018. "Ke'Shawn proved when he stepped on the field a year ago that he's one of the best backs in the country," coach Derek Mason said. "He's a three-dimensional running back who can run, block and catch. I mean, he can do it all." He could have entered the draft last year, with his size and breakaway speed making him a potential top pick. “It's hard to scout me, because I'm able to run you over, run past you and also juke you. Those are three things that every running back can't do. I'm able to gain speed the more I run," he continues. "I'm able to get through holes quick. That's why my linemen know they don't have to block three or four seconds for me. You can block a second, maybe a second-and-a-half, and it's a touchdown." He started his football career on the offensive line. In high school, a documentary about Vaughn was produced. He worked the McDonald’s drive-through window. “I work here to earn extra money for my family, to help my mother pay the bills.”
Mike Warren, Cincinnati (5-11, 222)*: In three seasons, Warren rushed for 2,918 yards with a 5.2-yard average. Most of the damage came as a sophomore (1,329 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns, plus 25 receptions) and junior (1,265 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns, plus 21 receptions).
At Central Catholic in Toledo, Ohio, he rushed for 7,619 yards and 105 touchdowns – fifth- and sixth-most in school history. Still, Ohio State and Michigan and other big schools ignored him. “There’s a big chip on my shoulder,” he told the Toledo Blade. “I feel like all my life I've been doubted. I didn’t have a lot of offers. I didn't know what else I had to do, how many more touchdowns I had to get, how many yards I had to get. Schools never called. I just thank coach (Luke) Fickell for recruiting me and giving me the chance of a lifetime. I always play with a chip on my shoulder knowing that no matter how much work you do, people still doubt you. That’s cool, but it makes me better.” He was “Magic Mike” in high school but “The Truck” in college. “I’m a powerful runner,” he told the Blade. “I was the best player in the state of Ohio coming out of high school. People came up with every excuse for why I couldn't play in Division I. I've stayed humble and worked hard with my teammates.”