Johnathan Franklin is starting to gain traction. (USAT Sports Images)
MOBILE, Ala. -- The three primary running backs on the North team for this year's Senior Bowl come to the party with different skill sets, but they have one thing in common -- they're not bruisers in the traditional sense. Oregon's Kenjon Barner (5-foot-9, 188 pounds), UCLA's Johnathan Franklin (5-foot-10, 201), and Fresno State's Robbie Rouse (5-foot-6, 186) don't pass the eye test if you're an NFL team looking for a bigger back, but each player is trying to prove that he can be more than a rotational conceit in any running back pool. "Situational back" is the ultimate pejorative term for these guys -- especially the ones who don't bring the traditional measurables you'd expect to see of an every-down runner -- and the ability to play in two- and three-down situations is the ultimate goal.
Kenjon Barner seems to have the best shot in the right offense. With the potential to be tremendously productive at any level in the right offense, Barner was training for the Senior Bowl at Travelle Gaines' West Hollywood gym with the specific idea that he wanted to show NFL teams that he was more than a waterbug helped by Chip Kelly's spread offense. That starts with pass-blocking, which Barner told me last week that he did in Oregon's practices, though game situations didn't generally demand it. Through the week of practices so far at Mobile's Ladd-Peebles Stadium, Barner has consistently shown that he will block with conviction, if not always ideal technique. It's a process, like anything else.
As a runner and pass-catcher from all different angles. Barner certainly sets himself apart. The most intriguing aspect of his rushing style through this week is that he appears to be "looking for a fight" -- not in a specifically violent way, but he's initiating contact and doing his best to push the pile when he's stopped inside. He's a pretty decent grappler in blocking drills, reminding me a bit of current San Francisco 49ers and former Oklahoma State back Kendall Hunter, who impressed with these same traits and a similar frame at the 2012 Senior Bowl.
On Wednesday, Barner took that contentious mindset and matched it with his own attributes. While pushing the line with pure power at times, and blocking with new-found authority, he also made gains outside the line and proved his value as a receiver, catching a bucket pass downfield from quarterback Zac Dysert. As a receiver, Barner's primary attribute is that he gets free from coverage and contact very well in space. He runs harder and lower through contact than I remember from his Oregon tape -- again, power is a priority for him at this point -- and he's determined to run inside even when the results don't always bear out. One advantage is that he's probably quicker to and through the hole than any running back on either team's roster. All in all, and with Barner intending to hit 200 functional pounds by the scouting combine in mid-February, he could find his stock rising precipitously in the next month or so.
Barner had to keep the pressure on, because Johnathan Franklin proved to be every bit the back Barner was at times, with his own distinct palette. Slightly bigger than Barner and with perhaps more every-down tools at this point, Franklin has impressed in just about every way through the week of Senior Bowl practice. He runs low and hard, refuses to get taken down by arm tackles, and shows excellent speed and elusiveness in space. He also proved to be an interesting receiver on a number of routes in drills today -- he gets free from coverage and contact consistently. Franklin isn't a pure power guy inside, but his footwork allows him to stay alive after contact in tight spaces, and he's just one gap from a home-run play. One more note as a receiver -- he doesn't fear contact on shorter routes.
Robbie Rouse is a confounding prospect. His size would lead you to believe that he's a pure speed guy, but there is a delay from the point where he gets the ball to the point where he's at the line that prevents him from taking advantage of smaller gaps and windows. While I'm not always convinced that Rouse has the extra gear to elude potential tacklers, three things stand out in a positive sense -- he has tremendous lateral agility (his foot-fakes will juke defenders out of their socks at times), he's a very good receiver, and he is a willing and talented blocker for his size. Not only did he repeatedly cut outside rushers in college, but he also proved very adept in mirror drills this week -- he won't get lost against the foot movement of an opponent. The question for Rouse is, which NFL team will have a specific role for him? He's a potential square peg, but not necessarily in a bad way.
One more note: If you're running a lot of I-formation and in need of an outstanding inline blocker, you'll want to take a good look at Harvard's Kyle Juszczyk. Over and over, Juszczyk squared up and blew defenders away with his blocks. He also made several contested catches with defenders right on him in short areas.
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- Kenjon Barner