Meet the 5’8 running back ready to be the 2019 NFL Draft’s biggest bargain

Don’t call Darwin Thompson a small running back.

A 5’8, he’s not one of the taller offensive prospects who will hear their names called at the 2019 NFL Draft, but lumping him in with situational backs like Tarik Cohen and Darren Sproles sells him, well, short.

“I’m not gonna grow anymore,” Thompson told me over the phone one week before the draft. “I’m 23 years old. 5’8 is what you’re gonna get out of me, but when I come to your team, I will carve out my role to be a one-, two-, three-down back. I’ll initially start off as a three-down back — that’s what a lot of people see me as — but Ray Rice stood 5’8, 199 [pounds] coming out of college. Jerick McKinnon is 5’8, 5’9.

“There’s a lot of great backs who stand 5’8 who can play all three downs.”

Thompson, who garnered zero Division I scholarship offers out of high school, took some winding backroads to the NFL’s doorstep, but he knows he can be the next one on that list.

He spent two years building his game at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M before earning a scholarship offer to Utah State. He made the most of his lone year in the FBS, helping power the Aggies to an 11-win campaign last fall — only the second in school history. Thompson turned in a 1,044-yard, 14-touchdown season on just 153 carries, crashing through unprepared defenses with a blend of speed and power that erased any presumptions that came with his stature.

His advanced stats profile was even better, painting him as one of the most successful draft-eligible backs out there. And now, despite a limited college football resume, he’s ready to be one team’s mid-round steal at the 2019 NFL Draft.

Thompson shined in his Division I debut thanks to a mountain of hard work

Thompson doesn’t look like a third-down specialist on tape, and the Aggies didn’t treat him like one. At 200 pounds and with the weight room bonafides that approach (and maybe exceed) Saquon Barkley’s, he’s got the power to blast his own tunnels through the line of scrimmage.

(That tweet is from 10 months ago, and he’s only gotten stronger since.)

While it’s easy to typecast him as a Cohen or Dave Meggett-style situational weapon, Thompson’s aggressive style and power at the line of scrimmage showcase a player who can turn a sliver of opportunity into a tsunami of big gains.

Thompson’s approach with the ball is simple. He’s here to look for holes and create the angles that push would-be tacklers slightly off his line. Then once he’s unbalanced a linebacker or defensive lineman’s center mass, he runs right the hell through them.

That made Thompson Utah State’s top option on both outside and inside zone runs. When Utah State faced goal-line situations in its biggest non-conference game of the year against Michigan State, it was Thompson, playing in his first FBS game, who got the call in two of the team’s plays from inside the two-yard line. He scored on both carries.

While he was useful in short-yardage situations, he absolutely thrived when his Utah State blockers cleared enough room for him to roast linebackers at the second level.

“It’s two things: vision and weight room,” Thompson said about his ability to turn three-yard gains into first downs. “The foundation really starts in the weight room for me. I’m not tall, so I have to make up for the height somewhere. That’s in the weight room.

“Once I hit the second level I know it’s go time. I should be able to beat any safety’s angles if I’m running fast enough. They’re going to throw an arm out there and I’m gonna run right through that arm.”

“My pops always taught me ‘never let an arm tackle bring you down, never let the first guy bring you down.’ That’s my intention when I run the ball.”

Thompson’s receiving chops add to his draft credentials

Thompson gashed defenses for 6.8 yards per carry in his lone season in the Mountain West, but he was even more dangerous as a screen pass safety valve who ran through opposing secondaries, especially as he added to his FBS resume. Over the final half of the season, he averaged more than 22 yards per catch.

As SB Nation’s Bill Connelly wrote while breaking down this year’s crop of running backs, Thompson’s receiving prowess was the cherry on top of a stacked sundae of NFL-caliber skills.

He rushed for more than 1,000 yards in barely 150 carries. He rushed more than 20 times per game just once but had seven games with 90-plus yards all the same. His 50.3 percent success rate was fifth among the prospects we’re tracking here.

His explosiveness was better than that of everyone but the two most explosive college backs in this batch (Memphis’ Darrell Henderson and Stanford’s Bryce Love), too.

… his receiving numbers were also among the class’s best, too. After a slow start (9 yards per catch through seven games), he caught 11 balls for 243 yards and two scores over the second half of the season.

“That goes with me being more comfortable as the season went on. When I got the ball in space, I knew exactly what I was gonna do just due to preparation throughout the week and practice,” said Thompson.

“I’m not sure if [Utah State] gameplanned around me … maybe they knew what plays to call when I was out there. I just like to make people miss in open space. That’s where my bread and butter is, open space.“

Thompson is both overlooked and a stat nerd’s darling

Thompson’s year in Logan pushed the Aggies to one of the best seasons in program history, but it failed to put him on the NFL’s radar. He was one of the biggest snubs from this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, depriving the event of one the nation’s top athletes.

Instead, he was left to show out at Utah State’s pro day, where he put together a 4.50- second 40-yard dash, ripped off a 39-inch vertical leap (which would have been third-best among tailbacks at the combine), a 10’6 broad jump (fifth-best), and put his blocking potential on display by cranking out 28 reps on the bench press at 225 pounds (second-best).

This was, objectively, an impressive showing. Just not for Thompson.

“Throughout my training I put up better numbers as far as my vertical, my broad jump, and my bench,” Thompson opined. “Those are the three main workouts where I put up better numbers in training. I would say the RB drills in general were my best workout of the day. My footwork and being able to show how quick I am in and out of cuts, catching the ball, running routes — that was probably the best [exercise] at my pro day.

“If I could go back and do it all over again, I would go eat my heart out. I don’t know what it was about being back in Logan, Utah, but everything was a little off. It was a good day, but not my best day.”

Those numbers, even if Thompson wasn’t thrilled with them, back up the advanced stats profile that has made the Utah State back’s name synonymous with “late-round steal” leading up to the 2019 NFL Draft.

Pro Football Focus rates him as a top-10 draft-eligible tailback and paints him as the most dangerous receiving threat out of the backfield to come out of college football this spring. Connelly’s profile is even more glowing, suggesting the Aggie “might be the most valuable back here” and dubbing him a Rudi Johnson All-Star, invoking the former Bengals back who also played only one year of FBS football after a star-building turn in junior college.

With his blend of explosive running and the ability to carve defenses up as a receiving threat, Thompson looks like a perfect fit for an NFL that trends harder and harder toward college-style spread offenses each year. That’s an assessment with which the All-Mountain West honoree agrees.

“On the couple of visits I’ve gone on, that’s my main question. What separates rookie from rookie,” Thompson told me. “And they always say the playbook. My biggest thing is growth. I want to grow my mind as a student-athlete and a student of life. Growing from JUCO to Utah State, there really wasn’t much change. I always carried my business in junior college. I wasn’t your average JUCO kid … I was always about my business as far as learning plays.

“When I got to Utah State, it was the same offense that the league is really transitioning into — the spread. I think you’ll see a lot more value in the running back position as that gives running backs more running lanes; even more in the NFL with the hashes being so close. Just imagine Barry Sanders in today’s offense. He would kill the game.

“That’s what I plan on doing.”

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