It’s time for Heismanpundit’s annual Fastest Players in College Football List.
There are few subjects in sports more debated — and more misunderstood — than speed. While almost every major sport puts a premium on it, they seem to be unable to settle on a standard by which to accurately measure it.
Football programs at all levels and the media that cover them rely mostly on the 40-yard dash to quantify who is, and who is not, fast. In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with the idea that speed over 40 yards is a valuable asset. The problem is that it is not measured with any semblance of accuracy.
You know the old saying: “To err is human?” That definitely applies to the timing of the 40-yard dash. Almost every 40-yard dash time you’ve heard attributed to a player was timed by hand, meaning a human digit had a significant influence on its outcome. Even so-called electronically-timed 40-yard dashes require a human to start the clock once the runner begins the race on his own accord.
Studies have shown that such hand-based methods are prone to error and wipe away, on average, at least .24 seconds off the real time of a race. So that “official” 4.35 you think your favorite player ran at the combine? Yeah, it was probably more like a 4.69.
What’s more, 40-yard dashes are run under widely disparate conditions. For instance, wind gauges are not used. Some 40s are run on a track, others on grass and still others on artificial turf. Some runners use spikes, while others run in sneakers. This extra bit of unrecorded variation adds even more unreliability to 40 times. Nonetheless, this is rarely taken into account when 40 times are discussed.
Luckily, we have an accurate standard by which to measure speed. It’s called Fully Automatic Time, or FAT. This electronic timing method has been required in track for record purposes since 1977. No track time is officially counted as a record — whether on a personal or world level — that is not recorded with FAT. Furthermore, the governing bodies of track and field require wind readings and standardized running surfaces at sanctioned track events. The goal is to create uniform conditions so that times all over the world can be compared and contrasted with confidence.
So why doesn’t football use FAT for the 40-yard dash? As Rob Rang reported last year, the NFL tried it at the 2012 scouting combine. But the results were kept secret and the FAT timing was dumped in 2013 in favor of a combination of hand and electronic times. Clearly, marketing and hype takes precedent over accuracy at the NFL combine. No one wants to rave about a running back who just ran a 4.7, right?
Forget the NFL. We still have the ability to reliably quantify the fastest players in college football because scores of football players also ran track in high school and continue to do so in college, giving us quality data with which we can rank their speed.
And so we get to the 2013 edition of college football’s fastest players, which we first started back in 2005. To make this list, I weighed a variety of track marks, including the indoor 55 and 60-meter dashes, the outdoor 100, 200 and 400-meter dashes, the 110-meter and 400-meter hurdles and the long jump (for those wondering, it usually requires a good bit of foot speed — or turnover, as it’s called — to jump a certain distance). I also take into account when the races were run, whether a player has been injured and how often they competed. Wind-legal marks took precedent over windy ones and such factors as times run in cold-weather states were considered. When push came to shove, the 100 meters served as the most leaned-upon standard. The sources for these marks were TrackandField News.com, Dyestat.com and the US Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association, which puts out its own annual list of top football/track participants.
So this is really a list of the players in college football who are quantifiably the fastest. Could there be players not on this list who are faster in reality? Sure, but without valid track marks you won’t be able to make that case, save with anecdotal evidence.
Before we get to the players, keep in mind that this list does not measure football ability, but merely one vital facet of athleticism. It’s no different than measuring height or wingspan on a basketball player. The players who make this list are really, really fast — the cream of the crop in this category — but that doesn’t mean players who didn’t aren’t fast, too.
Finally, let’s dispense with the notion that there is ‘football’ speed and ‘track’ speed. The ability to start and stop and change direction are attributes unto themselves and not elements of being fast. Nor is the unique ability to maintain one’s speed in full football regalia. Face it, what most people see as speed on the track not translating to football is really just a matter of a player not being very good.
On to the 2013 list which, as usual, is filled with fresh legged freshmen:
1. Levonte Whitfield, WR, Freshman, Florida State – 6.32 (55m), 6.64 (60m), 10.28 (100m), 20.96 (200m)
This year’s fastest man in college football is the cousin of former Noles wide receiverMarvin Bracy, who took last year’s speed crown. His 10.28 100-meter personal best was second nationally in the prep ranks this year while his 6.64 60 was third. The four-star recruit says he probably won’t run track at FSU.
2. Thurgood Dennis, CB, Junior, Wisconsin Eau-Claire — 6.52 (55m) 6.76 (60m), 10.30 (100m), 20.86 (200m), 47.10 (400m)
The Allouez, Wisc., native had 58 tackles and three pass breakups last year while playing cornerback for Division III Wisconsin Eau-Claire. He’s the fastest returning football player from 2012 and, at 6-foot-0, 175-pounds, he has the kind of speed/size combination that usually gets looks from the NFL. .
3. Khalfani Muhammad, RB, Freshman, California – 6.86 (60m), 10.33 (100m), 20.74 (200m)
The California state 100- and 200-meter champion is a three-star all-purpose backcoming out of Notre Dame High in Sherman Oaks, Calif. He’s headed to Berkeley to play football and run track. Though diminutive at 5-foot-8, he did rush for 1,420 yards and 18 touchdowns his senior season.
4. Jeryl Brazil, CB, Freshman, LSU — 6.22 (55m), 6.70 (60m), 10.36 (100m)
The four-star athlete out of Loranger, La., will play cornerback for LSU. He ran just one 100-meter race as a senior, which means makes his 10.36 run as a junior all the more impressive. There’s certainly a chance that, given his trajectory, he’d prove to be as fast as anyone on this list if he had run more races his senior season.
5. Kyle Fulks, CB/WR, Freshman, Baylor – 6.84 (60m), 10.38 (100m), 20.86 (200m)
The three-star recruit out of Katy (Texas) High will suit up for Baylor this fall. He ran his best 100 meter race as a junior, which points to a lot of untapped speed potential. Although most think he’ll be a cornerback, he might be the kind of guy Art Briles wants to get into space with the ball in his hands.
I put Burroughs behind Fulks and Brazil despite his slightly-faster 100-meter time simply because it’s been three years since he ran that fast and the physical nature of football tends to wear players down a bit. Also, they ran their fastest times as high school juniors. Nonetheless, Burroughs is about as fast as they come. He caught four passes for 100 yards for the Broncos last season and also added 61 yards on two kick returns.
Evans has emerged as a potential starter at cornerback for the Longhorns thanks to his blistering speed. He also showed his versatility on the track by running 50.55 in the 400 hurdles as a senior in high school. The 6-foot-0, 185-pound Evans had five tackles for the Longhorns in 2012. With his size and speed, he should emerge as an NFL prospect once his production catches up a bit to his physical talents.
Shuler caught five passes for 71 yards and had one carry for 25 yards for the Scarlet Knights in 2012, but the lightning-quick junior could get more opportunities this fall.
The second Seminole on this list was also the ACC’s Defensive Rookie of the Year last season. He had 18 tackles, broke up eight passes and forced a fumble while playing in all 14 games. His track marks are even more impressive because they were run mostly as a junior in high school.
Byrd emerged as a bit of a playmaker for the Gamecocks in 2012, catching 14 passes for 366 yards (26.14 per catch) and three touchdowns. He’s run a bit of track in college, too, and his 6.66 in the 60 meters shows he’s got one of the best bursts around.
Just missed the cut …
His often-cited 100 mark was barely wind-aided, so his best legal mark of 10.57 holds him back a bit on this list.
Davis will inject some much-needed speed into the Bulldogs receiving corps.
Devon Allen, WR, Freshman, Oregon — 10.49 (100m) 20.98 (200m), 13.48 (110m HH)
The trackster from Arizona competes at a high level in several events and he’s also a four-star receiver.
Thomas Tyner, RB, Freshman, Oregon — 10.43 (100m), 21.41 (200m)
The nation’s top running back recruit ran his marks as a sophomore.
Artie Burns, DB, Freshman, Miami — 13.35 (110m HH)
For comparison’s sake, Robert Griffin III ran a 13.46 as a senior in high school.
Dior Mathis, CB, Junior, Oregon — 10.49 (100m)
Mathis is the fourth Duck on this list, which means Oregon might have the fastest team in college football.
George Atkinson, RB, Junior, Notre Dame — 10.36w (100m)
His 100 mark was wind-aided, but to run that fast at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds is pretty impressive.
Robbie Rhodes, WR, Freshman, Baylor — 21.06 (200m)
The soon-to-be freshman phenom ran his 21.06 as a junior … against the wind.
Did I miss anyone? Probably. So feel free to make your case for another player who deserves to be on this list. Remember: Verified track marks only, please.