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Certain running backs don’t just know how to gain yards after contact; they’re actually emboldened in their playing style by the first attempted tackle. Walter Payton would go out of his way to initiate first contact with defenders — to beat the opponent to the punch. Jim Brown made those tackling attempts look comical more often than enemy defenses would prefer. Marshawn Lynch appeared to gain speed and power with every attempted stop.
It’s a valuable skill, and in the 2021 draft class, North Carolina’s Javonte Williams is unquestionably the most gifted in this area. In the 2020 season, Williams gained 1,140 yards and scored 19 touchdowns on just 157 carries as part of a loaded backfield that also included Michael Carter and his 156 carries for 1,245 yards and nine touchdowns. But Williams was the king of the splash play in that offense, and his ability to work his way out of contact was the primary reason.
Per Pro Football Focus, Williams forced 85 missed tackles in 2020 — 76 as a runner (the highest total in the country), and nine more as a receiver. And of all NCAA running backs in 2020, only Michael Carter — Williams’ backfield partner — had more rushing attempts of 15 or more yards than Williams’ 27 for 660 yards. There are other great backs in this class without question, but there may not be one who has combined Williams’ power, contact balance, and second-level explosiveness. And that makes him a highly attractive prospect. Mix in his development as a receiver (25 catches for 305 yards and three touchdowns), and you have an every-down back who seems poised to embarrass NFL defenses as he did to his collegiate rivals.
Perhaps the only universal concern expressed about Williams is that he “disappeared” in the Tar Heels’ game against Notre Dame on November 27, gaining just 28 yards on 11 carries. It’s a valid concern in the abstract, but the tape shows that the Fighting Irish were out for Williams whenever it looked as if he was going to get the ball — Notre Dame had a defense that allowed just 2.6 yards after contact per carry and just 30 broken tackles on the season, and set run blitzes in which the extra defenders were on Williams very quickly against an overmatched offensive line. When Notre Dame’s defense backed off, and Williams had any free space to run, he was still able to create positive plays.
North Carolina’s offensive line is a related matter to consider. Pro Football Focus graded that line 80th in the nation in run-blocking, and there are more than enough examples on tape in which Williams either creates on his own, or he gets very little.
Williams’ next marquee game — and his last as a college player — came on December 12, when North Carolina faced Miami. The Hurricanes did not come into that game with a great run defense, and both Carter and Williams exploited that for all it was worth. Carter gained 308 yards and scored two rushing touchdowns on 24 carries, and Williams gained 236 yards and scored three rushing touchdowns on 23 carries. Williams was able to go off in all possible ways.
Javonte Williams' contact balance, low center of gravity, agility, and overall fantastic athleticism is one of the many reasons why I love his RB draft class so much. pic.twitter.com/ObNSQRjr3j
— Sam (@samcrnic) January 31, 2021
— Brennan Sokowoski (@SokoNFL) January 29, 2021
As for his blocking? You could say that Williams gets fired up to lay the wood.
Javonte Williams doesn't even have the ball and he's still out there flattening people. pic.twitter.com/erIhU1SPvT
— Daniel Valente (@StatsGuyDaniel) January 30, 2021
Williams will invariably be compared to Alabama’s Najee Harris, the other top-flight power back in this class. Harris also brings great short-area elusiveness to his game, and he may be a bit more well-rounded in the passing game, but he doesn’t present the same kind of home-run threat with deep speed — he’s more of a sustainer than that. Harris had 18 carries of 15 yards or more on 252 carries last season.
Where Harris reigned supreme was as an overall tackle-breaker — he forced 71 tackles as a runner and 22 tackles as a receiver. No other back in the nation came anywhere near Harris’ total in the passing game; Hawaii’s Calvin Turner and Toledo’s Bryant Koback tied for second with 13. But Harris also had far more open gaps to run through behind Alabama’s offensive line than Williams or Carter did behind their front five. PFF ranked Alabama 15th in run-blocking grade to North Carolina’s 80th.
That’s not to denigrate Harris, or any other back in this class. But when you merge the stats and the tape, you might just come away with the conclusion that there’s no running back in the 2021 draft class with more explosive potential than Javonte Williams.