Thunder and Lightning: From TCU to the NFL Draft
In 2016, the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs brought in two players that would play as true freshmen. By their sophomore seasons, they were two key parts of TCU’s offense. One was listed as the top recruit in TCU’s class: a four-star athlete that played running back and linebacker named Sewo Olonilua. The other? A three-star running back who moves so well he’s compared to a vehicle: Darius “Jet” Anderson. This tandem would become arguably the best 1-2 punch in college football by the end of the 2019 college football season. In the style of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, Sewo Olonilua and Darius Anderson would become a true thunder and lightning combination.
Quick, name one player that’s 6’3”, 235 pounds, runs a 4.47 40-yard dash, has a vertical of 40 inches, and can squat 650 pounds for multiple reps. Can’t do it? Meet Thunder, also known as Sewo Olonilua.
Once a four-star recruit out of Kingwood High School in Humble, Texas that only received seven offers, albeit from schools like LSU and Oklahoma, Sewo Olonilua at one point was considering going to LSU as a linebacker before he started playing running back and fell in love with the position. On December 6th, 2014, Sewo Olonilua made his official commitment to TCU to play running back for the Horned Frogs. Olonilua would go on to take both official and unofficial visits after committing to TCU, but he ultimately decided to stay with the Horned Frogs.
During his freshman season, Olonilua saw little playing time in a crowded Horned Frogs backfield. On his limited touches, Olonilua established that he was going to be a force to reckon with in the Big XII, as he had 17 touches for 139 yards and a touchdown. Seeing more time during his sophomore season at TCU, Olonilua was significantly more productive as a pass-catcher. Olonilua had 83 touches for 496 yards and 7 touchdowns.
For Olonilua, his junior season was his true breakout season. He would then split the backfield almost exclusively with Darius Anderson. Olonilua was bigger than most running backs in college football and had the drive to plow through entire defenses at will. While playing in one of the least creative offenses, Olonilua would be the one true wrinkle added on a consistent basis: in the wildcat.
While the TCU game script would make it difficult for Sewo to get into a rhythm, he would constantly be picking up yards after contact and churning through defenders at an impressive rate. In the one game where Olonilua was truly trusted to be the bell cow back and was fed the ball for a full four quarters and overtime, he put up 194 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries, good for 6.1 yards per carry against California in the Cheez-It Bowl.
After ending the 2018 season on a high note, Olonilua would start his senior season converting each carry at a high clip, but again was unable to get into a rhythm. Olonilua would only eclipse the 15 yard mark three times in the season, with two of them coming in victories and the third coming in a triple overtime thriller against (at the time) undefeated Baylor.
When you see a back of Sewo Olonilua’s size, you usually think that he is a one-trick pony that can just run in a straight line for 3-5 yards at a time. You couldn’t be more wrong when talking about Olonilua. According to Bruce Feldman’s 2019 College Football Freaks List, Olonilua ran a 4.47 in April 2019 while weighing 238 pounds. To put it into perspective, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott ran a 4.47 at 225 pounds, Le’Veon Bell ran a 4.6 at 230 pounds, and Nick Chubb ran a 4.52 at 227 pounds. As Feldman reports, “He squats 770 pounds and can do 705 for a double. He benches 470 and cleans 475. In addition, he vertical jumps 40 inches.”
More than just a workout warrior and power back, Olonilua has shown his ability to be a reliable contributor on passing downs. This past season, Olonilua had 24 receptions, which doesn’t sound like much, but was good for third on the TCU roster. One of his most underappreciated skills is his pass-blocking, which is better than most backs in the class. A lost art amongst modern-day running backs, Olonilua understands the importance of a back being able to pass protect.
Coming out of George Ranch High School in Richmond, Texas, Darius Anderson was a highly sought after running back with offers from Alabama, Texas, Texas A&M, Missouri, Utah, and Iowa State. Playing in Texas’ largest classification, Anderson won Offensive Player of the Year en route to a 16-0 state championship, a game in which he won MVP. Over his final two high school seasons, Anderson had 536 touches from scrimmage for 4,744 yards and 49 touchdowns. Anderson committed to TCU on January 20th, 2016 and would join the team in June of that year.
During his first season as a TCU Horned Frog, Anderson touched the ball 30 times for 249 yards and one touchdown. It was evident during his freshman season that Anderson could be a home run hitter, including a 70-yard touchdown run in a win against Texas.
It was in his sophomore season that Darius Anderson broke onto the scene with what was arguably his best season. Anderson would get 137 touches from scrimmage and averaged six yards per touch. Splitting carries with Kyle Hicks, Kenny Hill, and Sewo Olonilua held Anderson back from truly exploding in the Big XII, but Anderson led the team in yardage by over 100 yards while not leading the team in touches.
During his junior season in 2018, Anderson was out-touched in total by Sewo Olonilua, but Anderson missed the final two games while Olonilua had 46 carries to give him the season lead. In 2018, Darius Anderson showcased his ability as a runner when he faced off against Ohio State and broke the TCU record for longest rushing play on a 93-yard touchdown run (as seen above), which was previously set by Pro and College Football Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson. Anderson would be the lead back for the rest of the 2018 season until he got injured.
This past year, Darius Anderson would once again hold onto the lead back role in Fort Worth. On top of seeing a career high in carries, yards, receptions, and receiving yards, Anderson would also take over as the lead kick returner for the Horned Frogs. In mid-September, Anderson went on a scorching hot streak where he totaled 53 carries for 455 yards and 5 rushing touchdowns. If the team had been more successful overall, Anderson would have likely received enough carries to break that 1,000 yard mark.
Athletically, Anderson isn’t the physical specimen that Olonilua is, but he’s still an exceptional athlete. Where Anderson is practically unmatched is acceleration. Anderson doesn’t look to have top of the line speed, but he’s got such great burst that he can reach top speed early and usually maintain that speed where most defenses won’t be able to catch him. Like Olonilua, Anderson offers plenty of ability and upside as a receiver, like you can see in the tweet above.
Now that we’ve gone through the two players during their TCU careers as Horned Frogs, it’s time to look at the soon-to-be NFL careers as prospects. We spoke about the thunder in Sewo Olonilua first last time so this time we’ll start off with the lightning in Darius Anderson.
Starting with his strengths: Anderson has excellent athleticism and as I’ve mentioned before, his nickname is “Jet.” You don’t get to keep that nickname unless you deserve it. Acceleration is Anderson’s top-trait, but as a runner, he offers so much more than that. Jet has good vision and excellent cutback ability, capable of finding a lane, stopping on a dime, and getting up field.
Anderson may not look it, but his contact balance is great for his size. While he doesn’t offer elite bulldozing talent, he does bring pinball ability to the game. His ability to slip out of tackles, shrug off arm tackles, and just bounce off of defenders is second-to-none in that second tier of running backs in the 2020 NFL Draft.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows for Anderson as a prospect however: he leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to pass protecting. That’s the biggest negative that I have on Anderson as a prospect and from what I’ve heard from others in the industry, it’s easily his biggest flaw. It may not sound like a major flaw but the ability to pass-protect has never been more important in today’s NFL. As an example, the inability to pass-protect has New York Giants fans calling for a passing-down replacement for Saquon Barkley, even though his receiving upside is ridiculous.
The other worry I have with Darius Anderson is how recklessly he can carry the ball. Throughout his career, Anderson has four fumbles on 487 touches; which isn’t terrible. The worry is that Anderson drops the ball way too often and carries the ball out wide sometimes which hasn’t killed him in college but NFL defenders are going to attack the ball like he has never seen before.
When it comes to Sewo Olonilua, you’re taking someone who is arguably the strongest running back in this 2020 NFL Draft class. Olonilua is someone who is a near lock to absolutely blow up the 2020 NFL Combine in a couple of days. With size that you don’t typically see in running backs and athleticism that you don’t typically see in humans the size of Olonilua, he’s scheduled to be a big-time riser after Indianapolis. I spoke to Rischad Whitfield, more popularly known as Footwork King, who has been training Olonilua since he was in high school and Whitfield possibly summed up Olonilua’s athleticism best, “At that size, you’re not supposed to be that fast, that nimble, or accelerate that fast.”
The sheer power that Olonilua presents as a runner is unmatched in this (or most) drafts. With the leg strength to plow through defenders, along with the contact balance to remain in rhythm, Olonilua should see early work as a between-the-tackles runner at the very worst. Patience is a major plus in Sewo Olonilua’s game, as he has no problem waiting for the hole to open before accelerating. “Sewo is so patient because he knows he can break that first tackle.” Whitfield told me, “I train Sewo the same way I train Le’Veon Bell because they’re both so patient.”
With how common a running back by committee approach is in today’s NFL, we see most backs take on the specialist role of speed, power, or passing-down contributor. What makes Olonilua special is that he’s “an every-down back that can do anything and everything other running backs can do”, as Whitfield puts it. As I expressed before, Olonilua offers an ability to pass-protect like no other running back in this class. The threat of having someone who can take on rushers as well as leak out as a reliable check-down will be invaluable to NFL teams.
It’s hard to find a negative in Olonilua’s game, seeing that he’s an athletic freak at an unbelievable running back size. Of course when you’re that size, there’s going to be some downside. While Olonilua has phenomenal speed for a 6’3 238 pound running back, he lacks the top speed of some of these lighter backs. Olonilua faced some off-field problems in May of 2019 but it ultimately led to him only being suspended for the first half of the game against Arkansas Pine-Bluff, which leads me to think that it was an isolated incident nobody should have to worry about.
Unfortunately for both of these running backs, their production ceiling was limited by the game plan (or lack thereof) of the TCU Horned Frogs. Inability to establish a consistent game plan and get either of these running backs into a solid rhythm limited their production, which keeps them both from getting the attention they deserve. Following strong workouts, testing, and interviews, however, the NFL should finally take notice of the duo.