This article is part of a series in which I evaluate current college running backs solely on their ability to run the ball. I previously did the same sort of analysis focused on the 2022 rookie running back class, and you can find those articles, as well as explanations of my methodology, here and here. Otherwise, feel free to skip to the player-focused analysis below.
The University of Mississippi’s Zach Evans will compete in the SEC for the first time in 2022. He spent the first two years of his career at TCU, only playing in 15 games as a Horned Frog. But he posted per-game Dominator Ratings in the 53rd and 81st percentiles, respectively, for first- and second-year college backs.
He also flashed in the receiving game while already weighing in at 212-pounds. The transition to the best conference in college football gives Evans much to prove in 2022. But let’s see where his rushing numbers as an underclassman stack up.
On just under 10 carries per game and relative to teammates who averaged a collective 2.45-star rating as high school recruits, Zach Evans posted an incredible 1.80 Yards per Carry+ mark at Texas Christian. That star rating makes those backfield mates just a 21st-percentile group. Though his performance was impressive regardless. Based on historical data, a running back in his situation (given volume and surrounding backfield talent) would be expected to outproduce his teammates by 0.66 yards per carry. The actual number is nearly three times better and lands in the 91st-percentile.
A key part of his game is his ability to produce big plays. He ripped off 10-yard chunk gains at a 6.6-percent greater rate than other TCU backs. He converted those into breakaway runs of 20 yards or more at a 44.8-percent clip. Those marks rank in the 90th and 96th-percentiles, respectively.
It would be reasonable to assume that Evans’ high overall efficiency is largely fueled by those splash plays. Or that maybe he’s running against lighter fronts than his teammates are given. Or that he also contributes as a receiver and plays on passing downs. The average box count he saw was lighter than those his teammates faced, but only barely, by 0.01 defenders. The big play assumption, on the other hand, is just not true.
According to Relative Success Rate, which measures how often a running back produces a positive outcome on his carries, given down-and-distance, relative to his teammates, and adjusted for the box counts he runs against, Evans has been awesome. His career mark there is currently a positive 5.4-percent, which lands in the 76th-percentile.
Given the box counts he’s seen, the average carry for Evans has been worth 141.5-percent the output of the average carry for all non-Evans backs at TCU. That Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating is in the 90th-percentile.
Rushing Efficiency Score and Comps
My process combines percentile scores in the above metrics (in addition to adjustments for overall team quality and strength of opponent) to generate composite scores that quantify a player’s overall rushing efficiency profile. In my process’ main composite that, Zach Evans earns a 73.0 out of 100.
Using the same metrics that go into those rushing efficiency composites (in addition to physical measurables), I am also able to generate similarity scores between current and past prospects as a way of formulating comps. Using historical college height and weight data for eventual NFL running backs, I project Evans to be 5-11 and 215-pounds at his eventual Combine weigh-in. If he runs a 4.50 at that size, the following players will be his ten closest comps from a “pure runner” perspective:
That’s about as stacked a comps list as you’ll find for a guy who hasn’t seen a ton of volume and wasn’t playing at a powerhouse program.
As it stands, Zach Evans is the guy at the top of the 2023 running back class who offers the best blend of workhorse size, pass-catching utility, and efficiency on the ground. Bijan Robinson can’t touch these rushing numbers. Sean Tucker isn’t nearly the receiver Evans is. And the guys who could match the three-down skillset (Devon Achane and Deuce Vaughn) are at least 25-pounds lighter.
It’s a small sample so far, but early returns on Evans living up to the hype are very good.