Curtis Samuel’s position has been a mystery ever since he was recruited out of Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn. Rivals called him a wide receiver. 247 called him a running back. Things cleared up a bit after Samuel’s commitment, as his unique combination of skills, placed in an Urban Meyer offense, inevitably led to Percy Harvin comparisons.
Samuel was featured at running back as a freshman, where he backed up Ezekiel Elliott. He showed flashes of brilliance — and there was no denying he had speed — but Samuel became an afterthought in the offense by the time conference play came around.
After being dubbed as one of Ohio State’s top-five playmakers by coach Urban Meyer prior to the 2015 season, Samuel was once again mostly relegated to a backup role after some explosive plays to start the season. Still, his hands and route-running ability had earned him more reps at H-back in addition to work at running back. The offense would lose Elliott, Braxton Miller, Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall after the season, paving the way for Samuel to emerge as the offense’s featured playmaker. He wouldn’t disappoint.
A mismatch wherever he lined up on the field, Samuel averaged 125 total yards per game and scored 15 total touchdowns this season. His immediate excellence caught the nation by surprise, but his efficiency numbers weren’t all that different from past seasons. Samuel simply took advantage of his newfound surplus of touches in the Buckeyes’ offense:
Samuel was arguably the most-explosive player in college football last season and he made the correct decision of declaring for the 2017 NFL Draft. This is where things could get tricky. Samuel may have done everything right this past season, but he’ll inevitably be nitpicked by draft experts for not having a true position.
He’s not the first athlete to declare for the draft without a true NFL position. What’s interesting is where previous hybrid players were selected in the draft:
Early mock drafts have Samuel going anywhere from the first round to the third. As is the case with most prospects, Samuel’s career will largely be shaped by which team picks him and how willing they are to utilize the First Team All-American. More and more teams have been looking for multi-dimensional running backs that can create mismatches all over the field. Look no further than the Super Bowl, where James White, Dion Lewis, Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman all excelled on both the ground and through the air.
Let’s take a look at what Samuel brings to the table and end any notion that Samuel’s position-less nature is a bad thing. Instead, let’s embrace just how electric he can be.
Curtis the Running Back
Samuel showed flashes of becoming an all-around playmaker during his first two seasons in Columbus, but he truly broke out as a Junior. Sure, plenty of his 97 rushes came on sweeps and plays that focused on getting Samuel outside (cc. Penn State and Oklahoma), but he proved over and over again that he is more than capable of rushing the ball straight up the middle of a defense.
Listed at 5’11” 200 lbs, Samuel is not big. In fact, that weight would place him outside of the top-100 running backs in the NFL terms of weight. But let’s stick with the idea that the league is trending towards smaller, more versatile running backs for a second. Plenty of smaller running backs made an impact this season, as Melvin Gordon, Devonta Freeman, James White and Theo Riddick all weighed less than 210 lbs. Jamaal Charles, Chris Johnson, Dion Lewis and Justin Forsett have all made an impact during recent years and they all weigh less than 200 pounds.
The important point here is that while Samuel’s weight isn’t ideal, he doesn’t play like he’s a small running back. He was never injured during his time at Ohio State and while he showed the ability to stretch the defense horizontally, he proved to be just as slippery between the tackles as he was in the open field:
Ohio State’s offense often schemed ways to get Samuel the ball on the second level with a one-on-one matchup against a defensive back, but he had his fair share of interactions with the front seven as well. Take the Oklahoma game, where he avoids a tackle for a loss to start the half and proceeds to outrun the defense to the edge:
This isn’t to say that Samuel should be a 20-carry back in the NFL. Frankly, there aren’t many of those backs left these days. Out of the 12 playoff teams last season, only the Texans, Dolphins, Steelers and Cowboys regularly featured just one running back in their offense. NFL offenses have continued to spread the field in recent years and players like Samuel who can attack the defense in multiple ways have become more valuable.
Whether you want to label Samuel as a running back with exceptional receiving ability, or a wide receiver with exceptional running ability, doesn’t matter. The point is that Samuel is a threat to make big plays whenever he gets his hands on the football, and his versatile skill-set makes getting him the football easy.
Curtis the Wide Receiver
Defenses will often be faced with a difficult decision when scheming for a player like Samuel. Does he count as a running back or a wide receiver? If they count him as a running back, Samuel possesses enough speed and agility to pose a massive threat out of the backfield against a slower linebacker or safety. If the defense counts Samuel as a wide receiver, he has the ability to skirt between the tackles against an undermanned box.
Ohio State would regularly take advantage of defenses who attempted to cover Samuel with a safety. He would line up as a running back and then motion out to the slot in order to create a one-on-one matchup. The below video doesn’t result in a touchdown, but it’s easy to imagine Samuel executing the same concept at the next level with a more accurate passer:
Once out wide, Samuel is a nightmare to handle. It’d be surprising if he doesn’t run the 40-yard dash in less than 4.5 seconds at this year’s NFL combine and there’s no debating the effectiveness of his fast-twitch agility. Still, he’s more than just a burner at wide receiver, as his route running improved by the season and he even showed the ability to split out wide in certain situations:
Samuel’s ability with the ball in his hands is well respected and his ability to make plays all over the field makes him a fit for any offense. Last season there were 19 different NFL players who received at least 50 carries and 50 targets. If featured in an effective NFL offense, it shouldn’t be hard for Samuel’s next offensive coordinator to add him to that list.
Curtis the Playmaker
At the end of the day, Samuel should be worthy of an early-round draft pick because he was the most-versatile and effective weapon on one of the country’s five-best teams. Ohio State played some pretty great competition this season, but one focal point remained steady on offense regardless of who lined up across the field: get Curtis Samuel the ball.
After all, when the season was on the line against a defense that was loaded with all-conference selections it was Samuel who emerged as the best player on the field:
Samuel will need to add some muscle if he hopes to have a consistent impact running the football. He’ll also need to improve his route running to consistently separate from top-NFL corners. Both of those issues are common for running backs and wide receivers alike, Samuel is just versatile enough that he qualifies for both categories and thus both rounds of criticism. We’ve seen NFL defenses, basketball and even baseball to an extent begin to embrace position-less athletes. Samuel represents the ideal athlete to plug into any system, as once you get him the ball, there really isn’t anything he can’t do.