Charles Sims left the University of Houston for West Virginia to prove he could succeed at a high level of football. At the Senior Bowl, the running back is now doing it again as one of the top overall prospects in the game.
Mission accomplished, even if there's more work to be done.
At Senior Bowl practices, Sims stood out among the running back prospects on the North team. Even though some thought Toledo's David Fluellen excelled as a receiver (debatable) during the week or that Wisconsin's James White did great work as a pass-blocker (true), it was Sims who was the week's best overall back and certainly the most dynamic runner.
During Monday's scouting report of the practices, I told readers to take a long look at Sims if they weren't familiar with his work. West Virginia hasn't spent a ton of time in the national spotlight in the post-Geno Smith era, and I'm sure most college football fans didn't spend a ton of time watching Sims at Houston.
They'll get a chance to see him on Sundays next year.
This is, frankly, a subpar running back class without an elite prospect, and most of the senior backs in this class aren't going to be much more than afterthoughts on draft day. Some are big fans of Carlos Hyde (RB Ohio State) or junior Tre Mason (RB Auburn), but Sims is making some pretty big statements in Mobile, Ala., and scouts should give him a second look.
He's drawn numerous comparisons to Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte (including from our own Matt Miller), and Sims agrees. The comparison is apt, as Sims has shown dynamic play as both a running back and a receiver over his college career.
As a runner, Sims also compares favorably to Forte, as both are strong, physical backs who excel in traffic and flash better athleticism and speed than a casual fan might expect just from looking at them.
A 6-foot, 213-pound senior, Sims is the most versatile running back in the college game, with a set of skills that should make him a nightmare to defend at the next level. He is a smooth, fluid runner on the edges but possesses the size and strength to grind effectively between the tackles. Those traits are enough to make him an effective player in any offense, but it is his superb receiving skills that will make him an offensive coordinator's dream at the next level.
When I scout running backs—a position I coached at the college level—the first trait I look for is balance (what some will call agility, though there are some nuanced differences). Most backs are no longer bigger, faster and stronger than the people trying to tackle them. In the past 20 years, linebackers and safeties have evened those odds considerably.
Thus, a back who can continue to run well and be successful even when he's running through the traffic of a bunch of freakishly athletic defenders usually comes out on top. It's a subjective term, but I've also called this trait "natural" running—when a back looks like cutting, planting, changing direction, etc., come naturally to him.
Yes, it takes agility and lateral quickness more than straight-line speed, but it also includes a hefty dose of vision and loads of intangible qualities that tell a back to go left when his senses scream, "Right!"
Sims, from everything I've seen from college tape and in-person practices, exudes plenty of those qualities.
As much as Sims brings to the table as a runner, Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen believes it's his receiving and route-running ability that will make him most attractive to NFL teams:
The first thing that jumps out with Sims is his route-running ability. He is smooth at the top of the stem and showed some speed coming out of his cuts to work away from the defender’s leverage. Think of the basic option route out of the backfield, angle, quick flat, etc. to set up linebackers and safeties at the next level.
The Washington Post's Mike Jones talked to Sims in Mobile and learned the source of that receiving ability:
[Sims] attributes his versatility to a strong work ethic and his high school roots. After playing running back all the way up until getting to Westbury High School in Houston, Sims made the switch to wide receiver, where he developed his pass-catching skills for three seasons, before a new coach came in and moved him back to running back.
In short, whatever teams are looking for in a running back this spring, Sims is sure to be one prospect who will make them take a second look. In a league where specialization is at an all-time high at almost every position, it's refreshing to see one player who can do it all.
Sims graduated in May of 2013 with a bachelor's degree in health. Because of that, NCAA rules allowed him to transfer to a school of his choosing. Astute fans will remember that's the same rule that sent former North Carolina State quarterback Russell Wilson to Wisconsin.
In Conference USA at Houston, Sims was a dominant player both on the ground and in the air. Houston's Air Raid-inspired offense gave Sims lots of leeway to contribute in the passing game but also kept teams from stacking the box against him.
For West Virginia, Dana Holgorsen's offense functions in much the same way, but the Big 12 competition is supposedly better.
All Sims did at the higher level of competition was rack up 1,095 yards (5.3 average) on the ground and 401 yards through the air. He was the team's leading rusher and tied for the lead in receptions.
In an ESPN Q&A, Sims explained that one of the reasons he picked West Virginia is because the offense is so similar to Houston's: "Everything is similar, it’s a similar offense. It’s just different terminology and stuff. I didn’t really have to learn as much coming in, just the terminology."
That is also why Sims' No. 2 choice was California, where Air Raid aficionados Sonny Dykes and Tony Franklin run the offense. In that system, as I've explained before, running backs have a bit of an advantage, as a lot of the running they do is set up by a spread-out, receiver-heavy offense.
In the NFL, things will likely be much the same for Sims. Air Raid and spread concepts have been in the NFL for a long time, and defenses spend just as much time in nickel and dime sub-packages these days as in their base sets.
Bleacher Report's Big 12 writer, Ben Kercheval, called Sims one of the best running backs in the conference this season:
For an offense that has taken a major step back from a year ago, Sims is about the only consistent bright spot from week to week.
Not surprisingly, his two best games of the season have come in the past two weeks against TCU and Texas, two of the better defenses in the conference. Sims had 189 total yards and two touchdowns against the Frogs and 135 total yards and three touchdowns against the 'Horns.
It seems that no spotlight is too big for Sims, who gets better as the level of competition increases. Against some of the best senior defenders in the college ranks in Mobile, Sims showed he can still pick his way through traffic, pass-block and win through the air as well as any of the running back prospects who chose to compete at the Senior Bowl.
Where Sims goes in this spring's NFL draft is still up for debate, mostly because there's still work to do. While many in the media decry the concept of "stock," NFL teams use the term frequently. Heck, it was last year's Senior Bowl that made teams comfortable with players such as the Kansas City Chiefs' Eric Fisher, the draft's No. 1 overall pick, and the Buffalo Bills' EJ Manuel, who was the first quarterback taken.
Draft placement doesn't only depend on where Sims falls in his class but also on how teams value running backs. Recently, it seems like running backs have taken a hit in terms of draft position, the idea being that a decent back can be found in the middle rounds just as easily as in the first round. Because of that, even if Sims solidifies himself as a top-five back in the class, he could go anywhere from the third to sixth round.
The team that gets Sims, though, is sure to get a fierce competitor with plenty of natural tools and a desire to get better. Not only can he complement another back as a third-down/receiving option, but it's also more than feasible that he could become a featured runner in any variety of schemes.
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