As college football coaches are crisscrossing the country hoping to land the next batch of great recruits, the one thing they are always looking for is players with game-changing speed. It's the one trait that makes young players stand out from the crowd.
Head down to a local high school game and it won't take more than a couple minutes to figure out who the stars are. They are the ones running past defenders with ease, using their athleticism to make plays others simply can't make.
Those standouts are also the ones getting scouted by college teams. The reason is simple. Coaching staffs can teach players proper technique, the finer points of a position and ultimately give them the best opportunity to succeed through game planning.
What they can't teach, however, is how to run fast. That's something that comes naturally. Just like great size will always earn players a chance to play basketball, blazing speed will ensure college football coaches are watching.
It's why when Alabama's Nick Saban, LSU's Les Miles or Oregon's Chip Kelly are introducing their new recruiting classes each year, they have linebackers who can run like wide receivers despite having enough size to plug rushing lanes.
Oregon in particular has done a terrific job of identifying and signing players with top-notch quickness, which has allowed the program to develop into a national powerhouse. The Ducks are the No. 2 team in the nation right now thanks to a speed-based offense.
The unit is led by De'Anthony Thomas, who epitomizes the speed approach. He's listed as a running back, but is averaging fewer than seven carries per game. In reality, he doesn't have an actual position, yet is one of the most important players in the country.
Perhaps the best way to describe him would be to call him exactly what he is—a playmaker. Whether it's running the ball, catching the ball or playing special teams, he finds ways to make an impact on the game every week.
Kelly has built an amazing system in Eugene. Since it's built entirely on being faster than the opponent, it's easy to replace players from year to year. LaMichael James leaves for the NFL? No problem, Thomas and Kenjon Barner step up to fill the void.
It's not just at running back, either. It happens at every position. At quarterback, Darron Thomas decided to take a chance at going to the next level, and Marcus Mariota has replaced him without missing a single beat.
Give credit to Kelly for seeing the future of college football and beating most other coaches to the punch. His team is now a premier destination for speedy recruits, which makes his job a lot easier when he hits the recruiting trail.
Other teams are now trying to play catch up. For example, former perennial contender Miami (FL) has started targeting more players with elite speed, such as freshman running back Duke Johnson, who is already tearing defenses apart to the tune of eight yards per carry.
For teams, especially those in power conferences, to keep up they will need to continue to place a heavy emphasis on speed at every position from defensive end to wide receiver.
Even players with tremendous size and strength are now running eye-popping 40-yard dash times in the mid-fours. And with modern workout and dietary plans, the size-to-speed ratio will only continue improve moving forward.
All told, it all comes down to the old saying speed kills. Power conference teams that have an excess of it will be fighting for national titles while those that don't will quickly fall behind. It's a trend that's unlikely to change.
Oh look, there goes De'Anthony Thomas again.