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XFL 2023 Draft Preview: 5 Running Back Hidden Gems to Watch out for

Next up in the XFL draft review we have the running backs. This one is tougher to predict, mainly because past college stats aren’t a good litmus for XFL success. Of the top 10 rushing leaders, only two (Abram Hope & Brian Hill) rushed for more than 1,000 yards in their final college year. Over half didn’t log 500 yards and the 7th most successful runner, Brian Hill, barely topped 100 yards at Ohio State. Much of what makes a running back successful in the XFL relies not so much on past success, rather the fire to take any chance that is given.

Wildcard) Titus Swen, Wyoming

Kicking off the wildcard spot is a man described as a “bruising back” and, thanks to some senior year issues, has left him on the outside looking in. Titus Swen played football in Texas prior to making his way to the most empty state in the nation. His play got him named by the Austin American-Statesman as one of the top 55 recruits in Texas. 

He would sit out the Covid Season, but on his return he’d be the full time starter for the rest of his time at Wyoming. In his senior year he rushed for 1,039 yards and netted 8 touchdowns. However, between the end of the season and the Arizona Bowl, things fell apart between Titus at the Wyoming coaching staff. 

Details were kept from the press, but Titus was kicked off the team for violation of team rules. The closest information as to what happened comes from the rumor mill on the college football sub-Reddit. Allegedly Titus told the coaching staff that he hated the offensive game plan and that at the end of the season he’d be transferring. If true, then the level that Titus expressed his displeasure had to be high or the coaching staff was particularly thin skinned. 

Instead of transferring, Titus would enter the 2023 Draft, but went unselected. He would be signed by the Colts, but after one week he was released. This is a very common event in the NFL post-draft/pre-preseason time period, but when matched with his sudden expulsion from Wyoming, it isn’t the best of looks. It could be a risk to bring him in, but if there’s a team that can match his play style and wants, then it just might work out.

5) Marcus Cooper, Incarnate Word

Usually speedsters get snatched up after the draft, but every once in a while they end up slipping through the cracks. Marcus Cooper started his career with the Southeastern Louisiana Lions and seemed to be poised to start all four years. In his freshman year, Marcus led the team with 646 yards and averaged a little over 10 yards a run. He would set the school record for the longest touchdown run and was in the running for the Jerry Rice Award. 

Following the season, Marcus would suffer an injury that required surgery. Suddenly, he was relegated to backup and would never rise return to starter. In 2021, he entered the transfer portal as a grad student and made his way to Incarnate Word. His first year would mimic his freshman year, but 2022 would be a showcase of his true talents. The Cardinals would rely on Marcus to run the ball 212 times, resulting in 1,436 yards and 12 touchdowns. 

Marcus would button up his breakout season at his Pro Day where he ran a sub 4.3 40-yard dash. It is important to say that Marcus had the wind at his back, but that kind of speed is typically enough to turn the heads of a few scouts. The San Antonio Express-News would state that Marcus got a UDFA contract from the Seahawks, but the team’s roster & transaction page doesn’t reflect that. What seems to have thrown so many scouts is that at 5’8”/184 pounds, Marcus is a bit small for the ideal NFL back. Which is really just the XFL’s gain. With his blistering speed as a baseline, Marcus would be a great mid-round choice.

4) Wayne Taulapapa, Washington

Like a number of other XFL hopefuls, Wayne Taulapapa had quite the journeyman career post-high school. However, his story is one of the more unique tales. While attending high school in Hawai’i, he notched three straight 1,000 yard seasons and caught the eye of BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall. Wayne would commit to BYU, but when Bronco left to coach Virginia, Wayne went with him. First though, he’d go to Nicaragua for two years to fulfill his Mormon mission. 

He would get to Virginia, but due to an increasing use of the Air Raid offense Wayne’s opportunities would become less and less. By graduation, he would not top 500 yards a season, and had gone from 12 touchdowns in his sophomore year to 2 in his senior year. He would use his extra year of Covid eligibility to transfer to Washington where he was finally able to be a proper part of the offense. He racked up 887 yards, 11 touchdowns, and an average of 6.3 yards per carry.

The issue for Wayne coming out of college is that he isn’t viewed as a very exciting option. He would get an invite to the Jets’ minicamp, but that would be all. He’s consistent, reliable, middle of the road on height and speed, and is best used in short yardage situations. If he is to be drafted, it would be by a team that values the hard working reliability that Wayne has to offer and needs to improve their success in the red zone. 

3) TJ Cole, Ouachita Baptist

Looking into the small-schools for a breakout back can be a Sisyphean task. There’s plenty of people who can rack up yards against their level of competition, but few with the technique to rise to the professional level. If there is one back that can ball out in the XFL from Division II, it’s TJ Cole. 

In high school, TJ was a 2017 Texas 1st Team All-State running back and capped off his season by winning the MVP in the state championship. For his first two seasons at Ouachita Baptist, TJ was the backup, but once getting the starting role in his Junior year, he excelled. His Junior year he would gain 1,530 yards, score 17 touchdowns, and was showered with a multitude of accolades. Then he topped that in his senior year collecting 1,649 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns. He’d finish out the year by ranking 5th in voting for the Harlon Hill Trophy, winning the Darren McFadden Award (given to the best running back in Arkansas), and earning a pair of minicamp tryouts with the Eagles and Vikings.

The thing that makes TJ so uniquely valuable for the XFL is that not only is he a shifty runner, but he also has experience at quarterback. In high school he would switch from quarterback to running back, but did so after he was named 2nd Team All-State. At Ouachita Baptist he threw the ball 8 times and 3 of those passes were for touchdowns. Which immediately brings to mind the Houston Roughneck’s double forward pass touchdown from the last season.

With a guy like TJ, a team has the ability to expand from using the double forward pass as a rare trick play to a regular part of the weekly game plan. Plus, TJ has a degree in kinesiology, and I can’t think of a better major for a running back.

2) Aidan Borguet, Harvard

Can you already hear the announcers eagerly filling time by saying, “oh, did you know Aidan Borguet is a graduate of Harvard?” Which, yes, he is, but an Ivy League degree does not a draft pick make. What makes Aidan such an intriguing pick is his consistent ability to overcome the expectations of his capabilities. 

Coming out of high school he wasn’t offered a single FBS scholarship, but viewed getting a Harvard degree as the best backup plan in case football didn’t work out. The biggest moment of his freshman year would come when he set the single game rushing record of the hallowed Harvard-Yale game. At the end of the year he would be honored with Ivy League Rookie of the Year. After being named 2022 Preseason Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year, Aidan would gain 1,182 yards, score 10 touchdowns, and average 118 yards a game. He would be a finalist for the Walter Payton Award and get some hype as a potential 7th round pick in the NFL draft. He would go undrafted, but did get a pair of minicamp invites from the Chiefs and the Dolphins.

While Aidan’s film does show a fast and dexterous runner, what stands out most is his patience. The good side of that patience is that he is able to discern alternate routes if his first opening falls apart. The bad is that he spends slightly too much time behind the line before committing to the run. The upside though is that even when he is hit, he always pushes for extra yardage. This strength was shown off at his Pro Day where he benched 35 reps, 10 more than the leading running back at the NFL Combine.

While he would be a benefit to any team that selects him, I could see Jimmie Johnson coaching him up to fill the Jacques Patrick shaped hole in the San Antonio roster.

1) Brad Roberts, Air Force

Being the FBS leader in rushing yards is seldom a predictor of professional success. For every Derrick Henry or LaDainian Tomlinson you get a pile of Donnell Pumpheys, Ka’Deem Careys, and Toby Gerharts. This year, with 1,728 rushing yards, the rushing champ is the Air Force Academy’s Brad Roberts. He has the highest ceiling of the available running backs as well as some equally big concerns.

Before getting to his strengths it’s best to address the two issues that more than likely made teams skittish to sign Brad. For one, he was the featured tailback in a triple option offense. While that did give him plenty of opportunity to boost his run stats, in three seasons he only had one pass thrown his way. He caught it, but his receiving skills are still a big question mark. Second, Brad is considered more of a fullback: the most endangered species of pro football. Even in the XFL only the Houston Roughnecks carry a dedicated fullback.

As for his strengths, well, the dude is fullback strong. At the Air Force, Brad’s role centered on him being a quicker-that-expected truck of a man. His highlights show a player who makes immediate decisions on where to go and runs over anyone in his way. His stiff arm and sheer force allow him to keep going after contact and was integral to scoring 17 touchdowns in his senior season. Recall Peyton Hillis at his peak and you’ll get a solid idea of what Brad has to offer.

Where Brad is selected in the Rookie Draft is dependent on his commitment to the Air Force. After meeting personally with President Joe Biden, Brad was able to get a deferment to play for the NFL, but it’s not clear whether that deferment extends to spring league football. If it does, then Brad would be an excellent first round bruiser. If not, he may be worth a late round pick just to secure his rights. Teams would just have to be prepared for Brad to choose the Air Force long term over the XFL.

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