Quince Orchard Coach John Kelley recognizes running backs have shorter careers than players at other positions, and even though that is most glaring at the professional level, he tries to limit the hits Cooper takes.
For years, high school teams have depended on their running games by giving their star backs a large number of carries, and many still do. But as the short shelf life of NFL running backs has become more apparent, some coaches have taken precautions to try to prolong their running backs’ seasons and careers.
“When you’re in the moment, you’re not thinking about, ‘Oh, I need to preserve my body,’ ” said Cooper, a Kent State commit. “It’s: ‘I want to ball. I want to score my touchdowns. I want to get more yards.’ But my coaches are always thinking about that, and I appreciate them for that.”
In the modern NFL, running backs are often viewed as replaceable and specialized. Aaron Schatz, the founder of analytics website Football Outsiders, said running backs’ production often dwindles when they are about 28 years old.
Last year, Pro Football Focus reported only NFL kickers and punters are paid less on average than running backs. And a common story line of NFL offseasons is a running back holding out for a bigger contract.
And coaches are adapting. When Bill McGregor coached DeMatha from 1982 to 2011, his star running back would get between 25 and 30 carries almost every week. McGregor, who returned to DeMatha in January, now aims to give star running back MarShawn Lloyd fewer than 20 carries per game.
“As a running back, you always want to run the ball as much as possible,” said Lloyd, a South Carolina commit. “But sometimes you can’t always get what you want. I have to let my teammates get the rest of them.”
Through five games at Quince Orchard (5-0), Cooper has rushed for 812 yards while taking an average of 14 carries per game. Kelley leans on Cooper more in close games, such as when the senior took 31 carries in a 21-7 win against Damascus last month, but Kelley would prefer to be more cautious going forward.
“Having a guy carry it 35 times a game in high school football, I’m not really a big fan of that,” Kelley, whose Cougars visit Richard Montgomery on Friday night, said last year. “It’s just so much on their body. … If we kept [Cooper] in the whole entire time, he’d probably have 300 rushing yards a game.”
Coaches are careful outside the Washington area, too. During practices at Salpointe Catholic in Tucson, Coach Dennis Bene forbids his players from tackling running back Bijan Robinson, a Texas commit and one of the country’s top recruits.
One way coaches have given their running backs more responsibility while exposing them to fewer hits is by making them more involved in the passing game. That is especially true as spread offenses, which are pass-heavy, have become more common.
That change is similar to the NFL, in which there are fewer workhorse running backs than in eras past and teams use different backs for various roles. This season, Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler is third in the NFL in receptions. Coaches believe seven-on-seven football, an all-passing game that has rapidly grown in popularity as an offseason exercise, has developed more versatile running backs across all levels.
Lloyd’s dual-threat ability in DeMatha’s spread offense has helped make him one of the Class of 2020’s top running back recruits.
“You need that hybrid type of back,” McGregor said. “Before, I didn’t ask them to do all that. If you caught the ball, fine. But their job was to be a downhill, breakaway, tough kind of kid.”
Though the job is tough on the body, it brings a lot of glory. Cooper has loved to run and score since youth football. So has Lloyd, who enjoys the physicality of the position — even as his coach has reduced his hits.