Through the Seattle Seahawks' 2010 training camp, we'll be following running back Justin Forsett(notes) as he tries to take that next step from offensive cog to feature back in his third NFL season. In this second installment (you can read Part 1 here), Forsett recalls his days at Cal, and his current running backs coach outlines how 2010 just might look for a very competitive running back rotation.
"You can just tell by his game play that he's one of the toughest guys on the field. He has a chip on his shoulder because everybody said that he was too small. But, I mean -- if you just turn on his game film from last year, he's the toughest guy out there. He's going to take a hit. He's going to give a hit. One man's not going to take him down, and he's willing to stand in against anybody. That's what makes Forsett Forsett." -- Seattle Seahawks linebacker Aaron Curry(notes), who was knocked out of a week's practice by a Forsett block.
RENTON, Wash. -- If you listened to Justin Forsett's naysayers along the way, this kid never had a chance in football. At any level. After starring at Grace Prep Academy in Arlington, Texas, and appearing in the Dallas Morning News' All-Area Top 100 team, Forsett received exactly one initial scholarship offer from a major college -- and even then, the circumstances were unusual. "I was supposed to go to Notre Dame, but a week before signing day, they told me they didn't need me anymore," Forsett told me at Seahawks training camp on Tuesday. "So I had to start the recruiting process all over again -- sending out tapes. The few smaller schools that were interested in me, they took their scholarships back. So I sent out to Cal, West Virginia and Boise State. Some of those schools offered me late, like after the spring games. I went out to Cal first for the visit, and loved it, and committed there."
As it turned out, going to Cal was a great move for the 5-foot-8, 194-pound back. Head coach Jeff Tedford has a long history of productive offenses featuring different types of backs in full-scale roles. Whether you were bigger like Marshawn Lynch(notes), or more compact like Forsett, versatility was expected. "The work ethic -- we worked hard every day," Forsett said. "It was full pads [in practice] most of the time, and he used us a lot. As far as running me, Marshawn [Lynch], J.J. Arrington(notes), Jahvid Best(notes) -- he'd use us in screens, just like here. Putting us out wide, and blocking. We knew that we needed all those aspects to be great backs. I carry that over to this level."
Forsett finished his Cal career with the fifth-highest rushing yardage total in Pac-10 history despite the fact that he started just one full season -- he had to begin behind Lynch, and then run in tandem until Lynch left for the NFL in 2007 and Forsett finally got a chance to be the main man. His 2008 season was an emphatic response to any questions about his ability (and durability); Forsett gained 1,547 yards on a school-record 305 carries. His 3,220 career rushing yards placed him third in school history, and just 10 total yards behind Lynch. Forsett also caught 41 passes for 386 yards and a touchdown, and rushed for over 100 yards in 15 different games despite only 17 career starts.
And yet, while Lynch was taken in the first round (12th overall) by the Buffalo Bills in 2007, Forsett had to wait until the seventh round -- the 233rd overall pick -- to hear his name in 2008. He was the 21st back taken in that draft, behind such "dynamos" as Ryan Torain(notes), Brian Johnston(notes) and Chauncey Washington(notes). And even after the Seahawks selected him, and Forsett responded with a great preseason, Seattle waived him in September. He was picked up by the Colts, waived again soon after, and finally stuck on with the Seahawks' practice squad.
The NFL is full of hidden gems, but this was ridiculous. Why was it so hard to see what Forsett could bring to the table? "Forsett was a bit under the radar coming out of Cal," Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com told me. "His production in the Pac-10 speaks for itself, as did his strong performance at the Senior Bowl. Forsett slipping to the seventh round could nonetheless hardly be considered a surprise, considering his lack of ideal size and speed. Not only were scouts turned off by Forsett's small frame and the 4.62 40-yard dash he ran at his Pro Day, they were also disappointed by his lack of explosiveness shown in the vertical jump [31 inches] and broad jump [9 feet, 9 inches]."
The only reason Forsett got a better look in 2009 was an injury to starter Julius Jones(notes). In the four games Forsett saw at least 10 carries, he never averaged less than 5 yards per run. He finished fourth in Football Outsiders' DVOA metrics among qualifying running backs despite his initial status as a prominent afterthought. (Jones ranked 35th behind the same porous and injury-depleted offensive line). And all the way through, Forsett's philosophy was very much like his running style -- elude the obstacles, and when it's time to hit back, surprise with your toughness. "Just like out of high school, I wasn't highly sought after," he said. "I knew that God had a plan for me; it was a blessing to even get drafted -- a lot of people don't even get their name called. I was a little down at first, just like, ‘Man, I gotta go through this all over again," but I picked my head up and [realized that] everything happens for a reason. And it's working out. A lot of people want to try and put you in a box -- ‘Oh, he's only a returner' or 'He's only a third-down back' just because of the size. That's why I go out every day and show that I can do everything on a football field."
Current Seahawks running backs coach Sherman Smith, the first offensive player drafted in the history of the Seattle franchise and a longtime coach under Jeff Fisher in Tennessee, was one of those people who had to be convinced. Fortunately, by the time Smith saw Forsett from a coaching standpoint, he had already learned his lesson. "Well, I've learned not to count guys out because of their height," Smith said. "Maurice Jones-Drew is my prime example -- when he came out of college, I said, ‘Eh ... I don't like him because he's too short.' And then when I was in Tennessee, we had to play Jacksonville twice a year, and he made me regret it every time. So, when it comes to Justin, I don't think his size is a detriment at all. I think he can be an every-down back. But the way we're going to do it is that an ‘every-down back' doesn't mean he'll play every down. He'll play a lot, and as long as he's not getting a lot of clean shots [direct hits], I think he can carry the ball 20 times a game."
The question is whether he will. Jones is looking faster and stronger as training camp progresses, and offseason acquisition Leon Washington(notes) has fully recovered from the fractured fibula that stole much of his 2009 season with the New York Jets. When you see Washington's size/speed combination, it's easy to understand why the Seahawks saw him as a potential weapon. It's a brutal competition, and coach Smith has to look at the big picture. The NFL is moving away from the feature-back concept because of overuse issues and offensive specialization, and the Seahawks have to move with the times.
"We're very fortunate here in that we have Justin, Julius and Leon. It's like I told the guys last night -- ‘The strength of the group is the group,' and each guy makes the group stronger. That day is over [the workhorse era], and I think some guys actually like it, because it prolongs their careers, and they can specialize. I tell our guys that they can't be selfish -- they can't be upset if on one Sunday, another guy has a big game and they don't. Because the next Sunday, they may have the big game and the other guy doesn't. So that's how it's going to have to work."
In the end, Forsett understands. He cited the "strength of the group" message verbatim when he spoke with me, and Seattle's new coaching staff is finding new ways to get all the backs on the field. You may see Forsett motion out from the backfield and become a deep receiving threat on certain plays. "Oh, definitely. Just the way [head coach] Pete [Carroll] uses running backs. Going back to USC with Reggie Bush(notes) and those guys. He likes to get the ball in running backs' hands, whether that's split wide or handing off. Passes and screens -- there's a lot more opportunity."
Seattle's preseason starts Saturday, against Sherman Smith's old team, the Tennessee Titans. If Smith sees something like he saw in all those Jacksonville games from his "undersized" running back, don't be surprised.