It’s time for my often-imitated, never-duplicated annual list of the fastest players in college football.
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 4.59.
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?
College football strength coaches don’t use FAT times when they time their players, either, though all it would take is a walk over to the track offices to pick up the equipment. Hand times may be for your mama, but FAT is still apparently too accurate for the hype-filled world of strength and conditioning. Bigger, stronger and faster is the mantra in those circles. A better one would be bigger, stronger, faster and not accurate.
Forget the NFL and strength coaches. 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 2014 edition of college football’s fastest players, which first started at HeismanPundit.com 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. It’s important to note that some of these players were not full-time track competitors when they ran their marks, or did so while cross-training with football (a very difficult thing to do). Also, I assume that the wear and tear of football dilutes the importance of times more than a couple years old. Wind-legal marks took precedent over windy ones and such factors as times run in cold-weather states and altitude were considered. When push came to shove, the 100 meters served as the most leaned-upon standard, though a phenomenal mark in another event certainly carries a lot of weight. 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? 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 make it 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. Neither 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 2014 list:
1. Tyreek Hill, RB/WR, Junior, Oklahoma State — Hill, a native of Douglas, Ga., signed with the Cowboys out of Garden City Community College and enrolled in the spring. He’s already been tabbed the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. He ran his marks as a 2012 senior in high school, with his 200 meter time coming up just shy of the nearly 30-year-old prep record. You can’t run 20.1 in the 200 meters at any time without being a phenomenal physical talent. For those who disagree with Hill being on top of this list, think of the fastest current football player you know and ask yourself: Could he run 20.1 in the 200m? The answer is probably no. So, despite being a couple years old, his times are elite enough to carry over and make him this year’s fastest player in college football.
10.19 (100m), 20.14 (200m)
2. Raheem Mostert, RB, Senior, Purdue — Mostert had an excellent track season this past spring, winning Big Ten titles in the indoor 60-meter dash and the 100 and 200 meter dashes. He ran a wind-aided (+2.6) 10.15 in the 100 at the NCAA East Regional Championships before going on to finish 13th in that event at the NCAA Championships. On the gridiron, he had 11 carries for 37 yards and averaged 23.5 yards on kickoff returns, including one touchdown, in 2014.
6.63 (60m), 10.28 (100m), 20.65 (200m)
3. Devon Allen, WR, Redshirt Freshman, Oregon — Figuring out where exactly to put Allen on this list was difficult as he’s an elite hurdler who only dabbles in the sprints. Ignorance of track and field in the modern college football media is a sad fact, which means few fully appreciated Allen’s recent accomplishments. Here’s the thing, folks: It’s one thing to be a college football player who runs track — there’s a slew of those players every year and only a handful do so at a high level. But it’s another thing to have the physical capability to train for football in the fall (and take all the physical punishment that comes with it) then come out in the spring and switch one’s body to an entirely different discipline and still perform at a world-class level. The Oregon freshman not only won the NCAA title in the 110-meter high hurdles, he did so in a meet-record time of 13.16, beating out runners who spent the fall preparing for track, not getting hit on the football field. He then went on to win the same event at the U.S. Championships. To give you an idea of how fast 13.16 is, consider that it would’ve been among the top 10 times in the world in 2013. He’s rare. You can’t run that time without being very, very fast. However, given that there is also an element of precision and timing to the hurdles that has less to do with raw speed than technique, I’ve placed him in a very respectable third on this list. But he could very well be the fastest. Look for Allen, who redshirted last season, to be one of Marcus Mariota’s main weapons this fall.
6.85 (60m), 10.56 (100m), 20.98 (200m), 13.16 (110m HH)
4. Kolby Listenbee, WR, Junior, TCU — Listenbee ran some blazing times this past track season, posting a best of 10.23 in the 100 meters (though he went as low as 10.12 with a heavy wind). He caught two passes for 23 yards for the Horned Frogs in 2013.
6.70 (60m), 10.23 (100m), 20.92 (200m)
5. Levonte Whitfield, WR, Sophomore, Florida State — Whitfield was No. 1 on last year’s list and his drop to No. 5 this year is less about him and more about what others have done since then. He still has an argument for being the fastest of the bunch and he certainly has made the greatest impact on the football field thus far. Whitfield caught five passes for 89 yards, rushed three times for 110 yards and averaged an astounding 36.41 yards (with two touchdowns) on 17 kickoff returns. Of course, his touchdown return against Auburn in the national title game with under five minutes to go was one of the biggest plays of the season and sparked the Seminoles to a win in that contest (watch him destroy the pursuit angles in the tape). His best speed marks came as a senior in high school and he did not run track in the spring, so I’m docking him ever-so-slightly here. The rigors of football are not to be underestimated and undergoing a training regimen that isn’t focused solely on speed is a factor. But being fifth on this list is no shame. He’s still amazingly fast.
6.64 (60m), 10.28 (100m), 20.98 (200m)
6. Thurgood Dennis, CB, Senior, Wisconsin Eau-Claire — Dennis makes his second appearance on this list after a fine season on the track. He blazed to personal bests of 6.68, 10.28 and 20.86 to cap off an athletic year that saw him notch 34 tackles and six pass breakup for the Division III Blugolds in the fall.
6.69 (60m), 10.28 (100m), 20.86 (200m)
7. Broderick Snoddy, RB, Junior, Georgia Tech — Snoddy rushed for 150 yards on 24 carries in the fall for the Yellow Jackets and then showed off his track skills in the spring by blazing to times of 6.67, 10.28 and 21.07.
6.67 (60m), 10.28 (100m), 21.07 (200m)
8. Khalfani Muhammad, RB, Sophomore, California — Muhammad led the Bears with 445 rushing yards and four touchdowns as a true freshman. He also caught 14 passes for 184 yards and a score. The true sophomore was the California state champion in the 100 meters and 200 meters as a senior in high school.
10.33 (100m), 20.73 (200m)
9. Damiere Byrd, WR, Senior, South Carolina — Byrd caught 33 passes for 575 yards and four touchdowns last season for the Gamecocks. He didn’t run track in the winter or spring, but he did run a 6.66 in the 60m the previous track season, which is a really fast mark to go with his best high school and college times.
6.66 (60m), 10.41 (100m), 21.21 (200m)
10. Kailo Moore, RB, Sophomore, Mississippi — Moore rushed for 69 yards and caught three passes as a true freshman last fall for the Rebels. He then posted a fine season on the track, notching personal bests in all three sprint disciplines.
6.79 (60m), 10.43 (100m), 21.14 (200m)
Just missed the cut
Dallas Burroughs, WR, Junior, Boise State — 10.34 (100m), 21.07 (200m)
Sheroid Evans, CB, Senior, Texas — 10.39 (100m), 20.82 (200m)
Miles Shuler, WR, Junior, Northwestern — 6.85 (60m), 10.39 (100m), 21.31 (200m)
Ronald Darby, CB, Junior, Florida State — 6.77 (60m), 10.41 (100m), 21.05 (200m)
Isaiah Brandt-Sims, Athlete, Freshman, Stanford — 6.64, 10.59, 21.38
Kenrick Young, WR, Freshman, Utah — 10.76 (100m), 20.81 (200m)
Please feel free to make your case in the comments section for who should be on this list. There’s a lot of information out there that isn’t always easy to find. So, I’ll be glad to adjust accordingly.