Some College Coaches really get lucky if they can sign a player like a Thurman Thomas, Barry Sanders, or an Emmitt Smith! By Max Emfinger

RB Thurman Thomas (#34) was one of my neighborhood heroes and then later was selected into the NFL Hall of Fame.

HOUSTON, Texas – In looking back over the years, I picked up my 1983 National High School Football Magazine. You remember that year. That was the year that I had such players as RB Ryan Knight, QB Rodney Peete, OT David Richards, LB Chris Spielman, RB Gaston Green, OT David Williams, LB Cedric Figaro, TE Martin Chesley, and RB Thurman Thomas on the Cover. So for all of you new recruiting buffs, how many of these 1983 Coverboys were running backs? The answer, of course, is three. That’s one-third and obviously every coach in America is looking for the Franchise running back, but sometimes a coach gets extremely lucky in recruiting a running back.

One of the most unique players on that list of 1983 Coverboys was Thurman Thomas. Here is what I said about him just before his senior season in 1983. “Thurman Thomas is a 5-10, 180, and 4.45 All-Purpose running back. Yes, those are the correct “vital stats” on Mr. Thomas. All of the so-called national experts that have him listed at 6-2 or 6-1 are simply full of it. Thurman is still one of the top players in the country and he can kill you in so many ways. He plays 48-minutes with no breathers and he helped lead his Fort Bend Willowridge team to a perfect 15-0 record as a junior and the Texas 4A State Championship. He rushed for 1,556-yards from his fullback position, but he also returned seven punts for a touchdown. He’s a bone-crunching cornerback and at least two SWC coaches are looking at him to play defense.”

A side note here! #1 Ryan Knight and #4 Craig Heyward were the only other running backs who were originally ranked higher than #14 Thurman Thomas in my 1983 National Top Fifty. Other running backs in my 1983 National Top Fifty included #15 Aaron Jenkins, #16 Lars Tate, #20 Kevin Morgan, #31 Gaston Green #41 Wayne Denson, #44 Cleveland Gary, and #46 Eric Ball. Former Heisman Trophy Winner Rodney Peete was #2 in the 1983 Rankings.

Oklahoma State was extremely lucky in getting Thurman Thomas, and he became an All-American running back. The Oklahoma State Cowboys were even more lucky when he graduated, because although they didn’t know it at the time, they already had another All-American running back sitting on their bench.

This little skinny kid named Sanders was not heavily recruited in high school. In fact, he had no offers and no prospects of offers going into National Signing Day. His best friend had been invited to visit Oklahoma State on the final weekend before National Signing Date and his best friend asked if he could bring his buddy along on the trip. The Cowboys really wanted his best friend, who was a big offensive lineman, but they didn’t seem to need this skinny running back.

Both Wichita North players made the trip to Stillwater and had a great visit. On Monday, the Cowboy coaches called the big offensive lineman to try to persuade him to sign with them on the following Wednesday and he said that he would if his skinny friend could also sign. A couple days later, when another running back who had been committed to the Cowboys changed his mind and signed with another school, the Cowboy coaches called back and offered the skinny running back a scholarship.

This Sanders kid had a very interesting high school career. He didn’t play much as a junior, so he never made any recruiting lists. His first attempt at running back didn’t come until the fourth game of his senior year in 1985 at Wichita North High School in Kansas, but in the final seven games of the season, he rushed for an amazing 1,322-yards, but still no school had him on their list of running backs.

Standing at just 5-8, most college coaches thought he was just too small and although Oklahoma State gave him a chance with his buddy; Sanders spent his first two years at Oklahoma State as a backup for All-American running back Thurman Thomas.

“It was a great learning experience,” said Sanders, ”I could study the great approach to the game that Thurman had.” In his junior year, after Thomas went to the NFL, Barry Sanders became the starting running back for the Cowboys and won the Heisman Trophy.

In winning the 1988 Heisman Trophy, Barry Sanders set 25 NCAA records and averaged 200-yards per game. In addition, he shattered several NCAA single season and career marks, including leading the nation in rushing yards with 2,628-yards; all purpose yards with 3,249-yards; touchdowns scored at 39;and posting an all-time rushing record. Do you think that the Oklahoma State coaches were lucky to have two different All-American running backs in two straight years?

Those two lucky players for Oklahoma State will be in the NFL Hall of Fame. Barry Sanders was selected this year and Thurman Thomas was selected later, but what about some current running backs?

Back in 1986, a young running back from Pensacola Escambia, Florida was being recruited by every team in the country and the Nebraska Cornhuskers thought that they were the perfect fit for him, because he was a sensational tailback. He decided to stay in the State of Florida and he signed with the Florida Gators.

The Gators were running a two-back offense at the start of the season in 1987, but after a few games, they felt that they should change their offense to utilize the running skills of this young freshman named Emmitt Smith and he was one of my 1986 Coverboys.

Smith was born to run for 100-yards and a touchdown. As one of the hottest recruits in the history of the State of Florida, Smith lived up to his promise and much, much more turning in a stellar career in Gainesville before leaving early to become the NFL’s all-time greatest rusher. 

Also, don’t forget that Emmitt Smith was a Gator before the Coach Steve Spurrier era began when Florida was just an average program more known for being on probation than for winning football games. Smith was the superstar on some average teams and he still was sensational. 

As a freshman Smith made the statement that he thought he could win three Heisman trophies. He wasn’t being cocky when he said it, because he really believed it and he certainly showed the talent to be the best player in the nation. If he hadn’t left for the NFL, a year early, he would have broken most of the SEC and all of the Florida rushing records.

Smith never really got the credit as a superstar back playing on a passing team, and there were questions even before the NFL draft about his speed, size and durability. He was never flashy, but he simply became one of the best running backs in NFL history. He was also one of the best running backs to ever play the college game. I think that what made Emmitt Smith the great back that he still was at age 36 in the NFL was his unbelievable quickness in hitting the hole. He was already through the hole before most linebackers even knew that he had the football.

As a freshman, Smith was named national Freshman Player of the Year and he finished ninth in the Heisman Trophy as he finished with 1,341-yards and a 121.9 yard per game average. After being injured for most of his sophomore season, running for only 988-yards and nine touchdowns,  Smith exploded as a junior, running for 1,599-yards, a 145.4-yards per game average, and 14 touchdowns. In the 1988 All-American Bowl, Smith carried the ball 28 times for 159-yards in a win over Illinois. In the 1987 Aloha Bowl, he had 17 carries for 128-yards in a loss to UCLA.

The Universityof Florida coaches were extremely lucky to get this kid named Emmitt Smith and he saved their jobs for the three years while he played in Gainesville. Smith joined Sanders and Thomas in the NFL Hall of Fame.

A few years later in 1993, some strange things took place in the Texas recruiting wars. My good friend, Spike Dykes, had his best recruiting year ever for his Texas Tech Red Raiders. The Red Raiders usually have a hard time getting Blue Chip players to visit the Lubbock campus during dust and rain storms. You do know that a dust and rain storm is a messy mud storm. I lived in the Lubbock area (Midland) for two years, so I know what I’m talking about, because I have been in some mud storms.

But this year, was a little different. The Red Raiders had a great running back in 1993 by the name of Bam Morris, but he was so good, he decided to go to the NFL one year early, as a junior, leaving a huge void at running back. The best running back in the State of Texas in 1993 was Byron Hanspard of Desoto so Coach Dykes started working on him.

Hanspard was the best running back that I saw all season and I drove to Dallas from Houston to see him play against Dallas Carter when they both were undefeated in the 5A playoffs. In that game, Hanspard rushed for 218-yards and Dallas Carter was ranked the #1 defense in the State of Texas. Hanspard finished his senior season with 2,084-yards and he also scored 34 touchdowns.

During that season, Hanspard was leaning toward Baylor. Then after the season, he was leaning heavily toward Texas A&M. The Aggies actually thought that they were going to get him.

The shock of the recruiting season came one morning when at 5:35 A.M., I went to get the local newspaper stand, so I could get my hot recruiting info and to my shock, the headlines read HANSPARD TO TEXAS TECH.

He played his senior season in 1993 and he then signed with Texas Tech and Coach Dykes on National Signing Date in 1994. All of this was a miracle and obviously some huge luck for Coach Dykes, but now the fun was to begin.

If any college coach can ever sign a running back either knowing or unbeknowing that he may turn-out to become a Thurman Thomas or a Barry Sanders or an Emmitt Smith, then he has got to be the luckiest coach in the world in that recruiting season. The thing that I will never forget about Coach Dykes was that he knew he had a really Special Player and then when he did not make his grades and it didn’t look like he was going to get into school in the fall, he never gave up on trying to keep him.

Various Junior Colleges tried to persuade Hanspard all spring and all summer to sign with them, play two years, and then re-sign with the Red Raiders. Coach Dykes knew that if he lost him to Junior College, then he might not ever get him back again, so he persuaded Hanspard not to sign with the Junior Colleges, but continue to try to get his grades in order and still enter Texas Tech in the fall. It worked, because he was able to get into school just before the fall classes started, and it really paid off for everyone!

In 1996, Byron Hanspard was the winner of the Dr Pepper Doak Walker Running Back Award as the best Running Back in the country. 

He was the sixth running back in NCAA history to rush for over 2,000-yards in a single season. He also set the all-time career and single season rushing record for Texas Tech, rushing for over 100-yards in 16 straight games and for more than 200-yards in 5 games in 1996 alone.

Hanspard was also an ordained Pentecostal minister who was actively involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and routinely spoke to church groups and to school kids about the importance of education, faith and avoiding drugs. 

Byron Hanspard cemented his place as the greatest running back in Texas Tech history and one of the best to ever play college football by reaching the lofty 2,000-yard rushing plateau square on the nose Saturday in the Red Raiders’ 56-21 victory over Southwestern Louisiana.

This junior running back from DeSoto became only the sixth NCAA Division I runner to reach the coveted milestone, joining Marcus Allen of Southern Cal, Mike Rozier of Nebraska, Barry Sanders of Oklahoma State, Rashaan Salaam of Colorado and Troy Davis of Iowa State.

None of the six, however, could have taken less credit for the accomplishment than Hanspard, whose 257-yard, four-touchdown effort against the Ragin’ Cajuns made him Tech’s single-season and career yardage leader with 4,140-yards, surpassing the 4,066 of James Gray.

“Two thousand yards was a goal I set this year that God blessed me to accomplish,” Hanspard said in his usual soft, unassuming tone. “I have to give God all the praise for giving me the teammates he’s surrounded me with and mainly my offensive line, because they’ve done a wonderful job of working so hard.”

A lot of people, including Coach Spike Dykes were extremely lucky to get this kid from Desoto and he certainly helped Coach Dykes win SWC games for Texas Tech for the three years that he played for them. 

Then in 2000, I drove to Napoleonville, Louisiana to see a huge running back and here is what I wrote about him.

Brandon Jacobs (6-5, 235, 4.5) of Assumption High School in Napoleonville, Louisiana has been a real phenom this season. In his first two football games of the season, Jacobs served notice of becoming a true super-star, as he rushed for a whooping 612-yards on 56 carries and averaged a first down (10.93-yards) on ever carry while scoring seven touchdowns.

It’s eleven games later and Jacobs now has rushed for an incredible 2,870 yards, scored 38 touchdowns, and 18 two-point conversions. I believe that makes 264 points scored for the season as he has led his team to a 13-0 record and a spot in the 4A Semi-finals on Friday night against four-time defending State Champ John Curtis. I will be there!

As a junior, Brandon Jacobs rushed for 1,175-yards and scored 10 touchdowns on 160 carries for a nifty 7.3-yards per carry average. This should have gotten him on every single recruiting list in the country, but it didn’t, for some strange reason.

Jacobs has obviously not gotten the great publicity that both Marcus Spears and Michael Clayton have gotten in the state of Louisiana this year, but there are very few tailbacks in the country who can match his senior stats.  Jacobs also plays in 4A whereas Spears plays in 1A and Clayton plays in 2A. Also, Brandon Jacobs plays on a pretty good 4A team. Assumption is currently carrying a 22 game District 9-4A win streak.

When you go to see Jacobs play, it’s not very hard trying to find out which player he is. At 6-5, he is at least a head taller than anyone else in his huddle. Against Plaquemine, who plays a pretty tough defense, his team got the opening kickoff and they started their first drive from the twenty-yard line. Six plays later, and in the mud, Jacobs had 80-yards rushing and a touchdown.

He pulled a cramp to start the fourth quarter and came out, not to return. Before he left the game, he had carried the football on every single play except for three and he had rushed for 286-yards and four touchdowns.

As a junior, Jacobs was the starting fullback, but his team started out with a 2-3 record and at that point, he was switched to tailback. As the starting tailback, his team supports an 18-1 record and in the only loss, Brandon got hurt on the first play and never returned to the game.

If his grades were in order, every team in America would know exactly how to get to Napoleonville, Louisiana, but Brandon had a slight learning disability and he had not taken the proper core courses, forcing him to have to go to Junior College.

Jacobs signed with Auburn coming out of high school, but he did not have his grades and so he went to Coffeyville Community College in Kansas where he was a two-time JUCO All-American. After his sophomore year at Coffeyville, he considered LSU and Auburn again, after considering both coming out of high school, but both were loaded at running back. LSU had Justin Vincent, Shyrone Carey, Joseph Addai, and a commitment from Alley Broussard. Auburn already had Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown, but Jacobs decided to again cast his lot with the Tigers of Auburn.

Jacobs was probably the best third team running back in the country in 2003, but not much playing time. In 2003, as a junior, Jacobs rushed for 446-yards on 72 carries, averaging 6.2 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns. Even after having a sensational spring training in 2004, it was still apparent that he would remain on the third team as a senior and with this in mind, he decided to transfer for his senior season and so the Head Coach at Southern Illinois just got himself a potential NFL #1 Draft Choice.    

In December 2001, I watched film on a running back from Dallas Bishop Lynch. I thought he was fabulous, but he had not made any recruiting lists and there was only about 45 days until National Signing Date. I tried to get at least three Big-12 teams to look at him, but I could not get any of them to give him an offer.

I lost track of this kid until a couple of years later when he appeared in his first game for Louisiana Tech. Coach Jack Bicknell and his staff had gone to Dallas and snatched him away from the rest of the world without too much fanfare.

Here was a Dallas kid named Ryan Moats who was chosen as the inaugural winner of  The Texas Private School Player of the Year Award. I told everyone who would listen that this kid was Special, but they all had their preconceived ideas. He ended his senior season in high school with 2,646-yards and 33 touchdowns on just 287 carries, for an impressive 9.22 yards per carry. He also ended his career as the school’s all-time leading rusher with 4,782-yards in three seasons. He scored 56 touchdowns and averaged an uncanny 9.7 yards per carry.

As a freshman for Louisiana Tech, Moats only carried the ball 12 times for 38-yards, but his sophomore and junior years were a lot different, because the honors just kept on rolling in.  In game #5, Moats and  his Bulldogs beat #17 ranked Fresno State by a 28-21 score and this All-American candidate rushed for 236-yards and a career-high four touchdowns. This was his third 200-plus yard performance of this young junior season. Moats scored on runs of 6, 83, 1 and 8 yards with his 83-yard score late in the third quarter being the third longest run in Louisiana Tech history.

For his efforts, Moats was named the Western Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Week, College footballnews.com WAC Player of the Week and SI.com National Player of the Week. He was also “mind-boggling” in front of 109,000 screaming Volunteer fans against Tennessee the week before in game #4 before the Fresno State game. I personally think he was a larger version of another Barry Sanders and he was getting better in each game.

This Doak Walker Award candidate now had 928-yards rushing on the season after five games or an average of 185.6 yards per game and he trailed only Texas’ Cedric Benson (186.5 ypg). Moats had 928 total rushing yards and this is by far the most of any Division I player in the country, 176 yards more than Memphis running back DeAngelo Williams. Moats, without a doubt, helped Coach Jack Bicknell and the Bulldog coaches keep their job for a couple years.

In 2002, I saw another running back that I thought could play for any team in America. Here is his incredible story:

Jacob Gutierrez (5-8, 170, 4.4) of San Antonio Madison, Texas is one of the most phenomenal recruiting stories of the year or any year. He is one of the best little running backs that I have ever seen play, but a lot of schools had backed off of recruiting him, because of the perception that he was “just too small” to play Division I football.

It made absolutely no difference to most schools that an Oklahoma All-American running back by the name of Quentin Griffin was not even as big as Guierrez was when he came out of high school four years before. All of the “big-time” college coaches were using their patented “tunnel-vision” recruiting methods of recruiting Gutierrez and other super players just like him.

Gutierrez should have turned some recruiting heads with his senior season when he rushed for 1,815-yards, had a nice 9.2 yards per carry average, and scored 25 touchdowns. He already had 2,692 career rushing yards before his senior season so he finished with 4,507 career yards and 54 touchdowns.

The San Antonio Quarterback Club sure did not use the same “tunnel-vision” when they made their selection of the Area’s finest player. Gutierrez accepted the San Antonio Quarterback Club Area MVP Trophy.

One of the reasons that the Oklahoma Sooners are at the top of the College football world is their ability to judge talent and not be afraid to make a decision based on what they see on film.

Everyone knows about Quentin Griffin now, but another one was Josh Heupel, who was an obscure Junior College quarterback who eventually was a Heisman Trophy runner-up. The recruiting world did not have Griffin or Heupel rated very high, but the Sooner coaches saw something in them that told them to recruit them. It was basically the intangibles that surrounded them.

On Thursday, a week before National Signing Date, Sooner Super recruiter Bobby Jack Wright was getting ready to board a plane when he got a call from Head Coach Bob Stoops on his cell phone. The conversation went something like this: “Have you seen the latest highlight on the Madison running back,” said Coach Stoops. “Yeah, I’ve been telling you about him all year,” said Coach Wright.

“Cancel your flight and go see Coach Jim Streety and Jacob Gutierrez at Madison High School,” said Stoops.

Wright cancelled his flight to Houston and went straight to San Antonio Madison and offered Gutierrez a scholarship and he accepted. Within the next six hours, and after the coaching world started to buzz about the verbal, Gutierrez had six more scholarship offers, including Kansas, Notre Dame, Texas A&M, and Wisconsin.

Gutierrez could become another Sooner All-American running back before he is through. He will also play against a lot of teams that thought that he was “just too-small” to play for their team.

With true freshman running back Adrian Peterson running wild this year, we might forget this other kid named Gutierrez, who is a red-shirt freshman right now until some game in the future when he gets his big break and gets a chance to play. Gutierrez bench pressed over 400-pounds last spring.

Then in 2003, I saw film early on this East Texas running back. I rated this Longview Spring Hill player extremely high, but he never did make the major recruiting lists and he finally signed with North Texas. Patrick Cobbs was an All-American running back for the Mean Green in 2003, so there did not seem to be a chance for this true freshman to get much playing time in 2004.

A couple of weeks into the 2004 season, Cobbs was injured and so this true freshman named Jamario Thomas was not only given a chance to play, but he was given a chance to play most of the game against Big-12 power, Colorado.

Thomas responded by rushing for 247-yards and he scored two touchdowns, but the Mean Green were still unable to hold off the Buffs in a 52-21 loss at Folsom Field in Colorado.

In that game, Thomas set a North Texas record with the top performance by a freshman running back with 247-yards in the game, including 12 carries for 115 yards in the first quarter. Bernard Jackson previously held that freshman record with 207 rushing yards against UT-Arlington on September 16, 1978. Thomas was two yards shy of tying the North Texas single-game rushing record of 249, set by Patrick Cobbs the year before against Idaho.

In the next game, Cobbs played, but he got hurt again and then the very next game, as Thomas got the start again, he rushed for 179-yards and two touchdowns and they beat Middle Tennessee by a 30-21 score. A few days later, Cobbs applied for a medical red-shirt, leaving his running back spot to an All-American freshman running back who got his break and took full advantage of it.

So I would say that Coach Darrell Dicky of North Texas was a lucky coach in 2003 and who will be the lucky coach next? I would find out real soon.

In 2005, where would the 7-4 Rutgers Team be without their true-freshman All-American running back Ray Rice. And then in 2006, sporting a 9-0 record and ranked #7 in the country, where would they be without the heroics of Rice?

In 2006, Rice was ranked third nationally in rushing (148.2 ypc) and was tied for third in the nation in scoring (10.0 ppg). He had 1,334 yards and averages 5.4 yards per carry.

Rice saved his best football in 2006 for the biggest games of the season and in the fourth quarter of play. Rice had rushed for 379 yards on 60 carries in the fourth quarter in that season, including two touchdowns. He was averaging 6.3 yards per carry in the fourth quarter of play and he had recorded five runs of 20-yards or longer in the final period.

Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano built a fabulous defensive unit in the last two years for the Scarlet Knights, but where would Rutgers be with Ray Rice? The Walter Camp Football Foundation announced Rice as one of the 10 “Players to Watch” for its 2006 Player of the Year award.

Rice, a lightly recruited running back out of New York, was also announced as a semi-finalist for the Doak Walker Award as the Top running Back in the country.

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About maxemfingerrecruiting

My mission and goal is to search for that hidden high school football talent that has not been found yet. I then evaluate him and try to help him to get some publicity. In 2003, 2004, 2005. and 2006, I hosted my Annual 7on7 National Championship. My goal was to get great athletes to one area where I could evaluate them and then help them with college coaches. The only drawback was that college coaches wanted to see the hidden gems in a game-type highlight film and so the college coaches suggested to me that I host a real All-American Bowl Game so that they could view these talented players in a highlight film, playing against other talented players. It's noted that the NCAA doesn't allow the college coaches to attend All-American Games or practices and so the Game Film is a great tool for the college coaches. In 2005, I hosted my 1st Annual All-American Bowl Game. In nine games in nine years, my wife and I have helped 549 HS football players to get a scholarship that came to our first Bowl Game practice without a single scholarship offer. This also does not count over 1,000 players who we have helped that did not play in our game, including over 100 players in the 2010 Recruiting Season. My Super Elite Top Gun Camp idealogy, is of course, to get as many Top Football Players to a Top Gun Camp so that all of my coaches and I can evaluate them, rate them, rank them, and promote them. There will always be "Diamonds in the Rough" to be found. My First Annual Max Emfinger's Super Elite Top Gun Camp was in July of 2010. The Camp was amazing and loaded with unknown and known talent. Many of them were invited to play in our 2011 All-American Bowl Game Classic. In 2007, in my 3rd Annual All-American Bowl Game, a player by the name of Kareem Jackson came to our first Monday practice, without a single scholarship offer. Jackson decided to come out early and he became a #1 Draft Choice in the 2010 NFL Draft for the Houston Texans.
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