On the field, they have so much in common, the three Gen-Z college running backs whose bodies seem straight out of a coach’s dream—or maybe an engineer’s research lab.
Georgia’s Nick Chubb, Oregon’s Royce Freeman and Alabama’s Bo Scarbrough are built like Roman sculptures—they have muscles bursting in places where most don’t even have places. They possess the straight-line speed of wide receivers. And heaven help those poor 185-pound defensive backs who try to take down one of these human 18-wheelers in the open field.
Yet it is off the field where these players share their most salient characteristic: a commitment to working out. It isn’t just lifting weights or running sprints; this trio pushed their bodies all summer with the singular purpose of preparing for the cruel physical punishment that awaits them this fall in stadiums across the country.
“It’s the work you do in the summer that makes the difference in games,” Scarbrough says. “Injuries are part of college football, but the best way to avoid them is to get your body in peak condition. That’s why my life this summer has been all about making my body ready for game time.”
Chubb, Freeman and Scarbrough gave B/R Mag a behind-the-scenes look this summer at their daily workout grind. These backs are not indestructible. Chubb is only now feeling 100 percent after suffering a horrific knee injury two years ago. Scarbrough broke his right leg in the national title game against Clemson in January. Freeman’s 2016 season was marred by a couple of injuries as well. But each one is now healthy and poised to make a run at the Heisman Trophy.
Let the record reflect that this trio represents the latest evolution of the running back position in college football. So let’s pull back the curtain on how each player prepared for the 2017 season.
Nick Chubb, Georgia
On many nights this summer, alone in the bedroom of his off-campus townhouse in Athens, Georgia, Nick Chubb would crawl beneath his sheets and flip on his iPad. Face pressed close to the glow of the screen, he’d watch film of himself running during the 2016 season for hours on end, entranced by the action, searching for clues to what he could have done better.
“I saw a player who was giving it his all, but who wasn’t the player he can be,” Chubb says. “I wasn’t myself—still battling the injury—and that’s really why I came back to play my senior season. I have a lot to prove.”
And that’s also why his internal motor rarely stopped redlining this summer. Each morning, the 5’10’’, 228-pound Chubb rose at 6 o’clock and promptly ate a spoonful of peanut butter—his fuel for his morning workout session. He then would hop in his white 2016 Dodge Charger and drive eight minutes to the Bulldogs’ on-campus football facility.
Inside the team weight room, Chubb would stretch for about 20 minutes and then perform various speed drills, paying close attention to getting in and out of his cuts. Last season Chubb led the Bulldogs in rushing with 1,130 yards, but he lacked the explosiveness and lateral quickness he flashed when he gained 1,547 yards as a freshman in 2014 and was named SEC Freshman of the Year.
The gruesome left knee injury he suffered on the first play from scrimmage against Tennessee in October 2015—he shredded three ligaments and damaged cartilage—had robbed him of the traits that had made him look like a future first-round NFL draft pick as a freshman.
To rebuild the strength in his knee—and, just as important, to rebuild the confidence he had in his knee—Chubb started taking taekwondo lessons last year.
“I began just by kicking a bag and then we moved to hopping on one leg,” Chubb says. “Then I’d have other guys trying to hit my legs, which was kind of like simulating a game situation. It helped build my trust up in my knee.”
But Chubb still didn’t feel his knee was as flexible and sturdy in 2016 as it had been before his injury. So the focus for him this summer was to further strengthen the knee.
After he finished his speed drills in the mornings, he’d spend about an hour just working on his knees, performing exercises such as one-leg squats and one-leg presses. Near the end of these sessions, a trainer would help Chubb stretch and shake his knee, to increase flexibility.
On days when he wasn’t building his knee strength, Chubb lifted weights, which the running back has turned into an art form. In high school Chubb set the Georgia state power clean record by lifting 395 pounds. Tales of his lifting prowess have circulated in weight rooms across the SEC ever since, and in July an Instagram video leaked out of Athens of Chubb squatting 600 pounds, the equivalent of a large vending machine. The clip spread across social media like a gasoline-fueled prairie fire.
“I didn’t get low enough on that squat,” Chubb says, smiling. “I really didn’t want that video to get out, because I like to work behind the scenes.” This wasn’t even Chubb’s personal best: As a senior at Cedartown (Georgia) High, Chubb squatted 650 pounds.
This summer Chubb also benched 405 pounds and did a power clean of 390—numbers that are more in line with dumpster-sized nose tackles, not running backs. But his main concern was always his knees.
This was why, late on many nights, long after most of the Georgia players had slipped into bed, he’d often drive back to the Bulldog football facility. There he’d run more speed drills alone, sometimes cutting and spinning and churning his legs until 11 p.m.
Once finished, he’d steer his car back to the townhouse he shares with four other players, including senior running back Sony Michel. Chubb and Michel had many late-night talks this summer about NFL dreams and the frailties of the human body.
“If you get hurt again, then it will just be one of those things that is meant to be,” Michel told Chubb one evening. “You just have to go out and play with no fear. There’s nothing else you can do.”
“I’m ready to go,” Chubb replied. “I’m ready to start being me again.” –Lars Anderson
Royce Freeman, Oregon
Royce Freeman insists there’s nothing special about his offseason training. “Mostly by the book,” he says over the phone from Eugene, Oregon. “Nothing extraordinary.”
Extraordinary, though, is the exact word that comes to mind when you think of a 6’0”, 238-pound running back who “moves like a guy that's 200 pounds,” according to his new position coach, Donte Pimpleton, who arrived with new head coach Willie Taggart from the University of South Florida.
Extraordinary is the word for squatting 600 pounds to prepare for a season he’ll start 936 yards and nine touchdowns away from Oregon’s all-time rushing records, marks he met handily even last season, when he was hampered by injury.
That’s the only part of last season Freeman would like to repeat, though. What began as a dark-horse Heisman campaign turned into a couple of injuries (leg and chest) and underwhelming numbers that brought Freeman back to the Pac-12 for one more year.
This after he set the Oregon single-season rushing record his sophomore year, a performance that, ideally, would have lit the path to a top NFL draft slot. “Injuries had slowed him down and dampened his confidence a little bit,” says Pimpleton.
The season was a wake-up call for Freeman, who has started to prepare for his senior year like the NFL player he already resembles. He’s stood out physically since he was in Pop Warner, which he eventually quit because he was too big to play with kids his own age.
By the time Freeman got to high school, he had to start sneaking out of the stadium after games in his hometown of Imperial, California, about a half-hour from the Mexican border, because of the fans clamoring to meet him. He scored 111 touchdowns during his high school career.
Now, Freeman’s trying to regain his upward trajectory. “I've been through three college seasons and hope to play in the NFL afterwards, so taking care of my body is the top priority in general,” he says. “Running backs’ longevity is short, and everybody knows that.”
It’s a process that starts with nutrition, long before he gets to the gym. “Being young, you can kind of eat whatever until you get older—but I’m trying not to go overboard with junk food and things like that,” Freeman says, adding that he’s building good eating habits in the offseason so that “by Week 8, when things start to catch up to you, I’m accustomed to it.”
(When asked about health regimens like juicing, Freeman says, “I'm not a fan of all that crazy stuff.”)
His increased strength training—those viral squats—is part of a program-wide effort to up the ante for the team, led (sometimes controversially) by the new coaching staff. “They want the best for us because they want to do well in their first year,” says Freeman. “There's just a different vibe around here; the team's been very hungry and work-oriented this offseason, making a lot of changes. Everybody's pushing one another, which is something that's going to work to our advantage going into the season.”
Pimpleton says technique is what’s going to enable Freeman to avoid injuries. “He should be destroying defenders,” the running backs coach says, echoing Taggart’s wish that Freeman would become more physical. “I tell him, ‘They don't want to tackle you anyway because of your size.’ Royce will say, ‘Coach, they jumped out of the way,’ and I'm like, ‘Yeah, they're gonna jump out of your way!’”
In case the sheer intimidation of having someone faster and stronger coming at you head-on isn’t enough, Pimpleton is trying to make sure Freeman has the proper techniques to protect his best assets.
“The thing he needs to work on is getting his pad level down,” he says. “People are going to hit him low—we've got to keep people off his legs, teach him how to use the stiff arm, add a couple more tools to his game. I just want him to be healthy and be able to play a long time.”
Freeman insists he doesn’t care about the potential records or honors, saying: “It's just a goal to be better than I was last week. All that will come as a domino effect if I succeed out there on the field and do what I'm supposed to do.”
What he does care about is making it to the NFL, which he calls a “hope” and Pimpleton treats as a foregone conclusion. His big league doppelganger? “David Johnson,” says the coach, citing the 6’1”, 224-pound Arizona Cardinals back as an indicator of Freeman’s potential.
“He's versatile … he's big, and he can figure into the passing game.” [Freeman has four career receiving touchdowns and even threw one to Marcus Mariota his freshman year.]
The biggest takeaway from Freeman’s offseason grind, as he gets to know new coaches and rallies with a team determined to defy the odds, is that Oregon fans have a lot to look forward to this year. Fittingly, the reserved running back’s parting words are straightforward.
“This should be fun.” –Natalie Weiner
Bo Scarbrough, Alabama
Bo Scarbrough will never forget that long bus ride back to the team hotel, sitting alone next to a window and staring out into the warm South Florida night. “The worst bus ride of my life,” he says.
A bulky black walking boot on his right foot, Scarbrough stepped off the team bus two hours after Alabama lost the national championship game to Clemson 35-31 in January and limped into his Miami hotel room. Once inside, he shut his eyes and replayed it all again.
For nearly three quarters against the Tigers, Scarbrough had been the engine powering the Crimson Tide offense, rushing for 93 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries. With Scarbrough tearing through the Clemson defense, Alabama built a 14-point lead.
But then he was dragged down from behind by a Tiger defender late in the third quarter and never returned to the game, his right fibula broken.
Late that night in his hotel room, where he sat by himself on the bed for two hours with the lights and television off, Scarbrough made a silent promise to himself: No one will outperform me in the offseason.
Now here he comes on a recent summer afternoon, striding into the Alabama football offices in Tuscaloosa, his gait as strong as ever, his right leg fully healed. This is a 21-year-old who takes your breath away with his startling size: At 6’2’’ and 235 pounds, he routinely towers over linebackers and even defensive linemen.
Though he says he never lifted a weight until he was a freshman at Northridge High in Tuscaloosa—he immediately benched 245 pounds as a 15-year-old—he now has comic book-sized muscles to go with his 4.45 40 speed.
“This offseason has been all about getting 100 percent healthy, which I now am, and getting my body ready to be hit,” Scarbrough says. “Right now I feel as good as I ever have, and it’s because of what I’ve been doing since we lost the national championship game.”
This summer, a typical day for Scarbrough has gone like this:
His alarm buzzes at 6 o’clock every morning. After eating precisely six blackberries and two strawberries—“I don’t want to feel full before I work out, but I need a little energy,” he says—he drives over to the Alabama practice facility. At 6:30, he starts speed drills.
“We’d have eight stations, ranging from agility work to sprints,” he says. “I don’t waste time when I work out. It’s all business to me. I want to get it done.”
“Bo is an absolute workhorse in the weight room,” says Bradley Bozeman, Alabama’s starting center. “He likes to lift with the offensive linemen. He could probably play the O-line if we needed him to.”
“Guys see Bo going hard in the weight room and that sets the tone for the entire team,” says Jalen Hurts, Alabama’s starting quarterback. “You push yourself because you see what Bo is doing. He’s really something to watch.”
By 8 a.m., Scarbrough begins his second workout session of the day, often concentrating on what he views as his most lethal weapons: his shoulders. “I take so many hits on shoulders that I have to make sure they are ready for the pounding,” he says. “I always want them strong enough to be able to give hits as well.”
By 9:45, Scarbrough has showered and is eating his standard breakfast: a ham-and-turkey omelet, scrambled eggs, bacon, spinach and two bottles of water. He has eliminated all sweets from his diet. “I feel lighter and cleaner now,” he says.
From 10 a.m. to 11:45, Scarbrough—a criminal justice major who one day hopes to become an FBI agent—sits in his Math 110 class. Afterward he retreats to the off-campus apartment he shares with his cousin and naps in the front of the TV, which is always tuned to Lifetime, feeding Scarbrough’s weakness for tawdry daytime drama.
In the late afternoon, he returns to the football complex for position meetings and player-run, seven-on-seven sessions. By 8 p.m. he’s back in his apartment, where his roommate often cooks him a late dinner of smothered pork chops or creamy chicken.
Then, around 10 p.m., Scarbrough makes one final trip to the football facility, where on most nights he spends an hour alone alternating between a hot tub and a cold tub filled with ice.
“Being in the tubs allows me time to think and visualize,” Scarbrough says. “I’ll be in there all alone and I’ll concentrate on what’s next for me, what I have to do in the following day to be successful. I never think about what’s behind me. There’s nothing I can do about that. But I can control what’s coming next, and the time in the tubs allows me to figure out exactly what I need to do.”
By 11 p.m., Scarbrough is driving through the dark streets of Tuscaloosa, rolling back to his apartment. Behind the wheel, he imagines he is lining up in the backfield, the crowd thundering and his team in need of a few yards for a first down.
Scarbrough plows forward for the first down, the result coming only because of the hours he spent in the summer sculpting his body and shaping his mind to win each play—always to win. –Lars Anderson
Lars Anderson is a senior writer at B/R Mag. A 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated, Anderson is the New York Times best-selling author of eight books, most recently The Quarterback Whisperer. Follow him on Twitter: @LarsAnderson71.
Natalie Weiner is a staff writer for B/R Mag.