BEREA —Maurice Jones-Drew and Jerome Harrison aren’t tall enough to reach the top shelf.
That hasn’t stopped them from overcoming long odds to hit impressive heights as NFL running backs.
Jacksonville’s Jones-Drew is 5-foot-7, 208 pounds and was voted to his first Pro Bowl on Tuesday. Cleveland’s Harrison is listed at 5-9 (he says he’s 5-9¾) and 205 pounds and rushed for 286 yards two weeks ago, the third-highest total in NFL history.
“They are both little men that play like giants,” fullback Lawrence Vickers said Thursday. The Browns host the Jaguars on Sunday.
Jones-Drew totaled 3,941 yards from scrimmage in his first three seasons and scored 40 touchdowns. But he didn’t become a full-time starter until this year, and ranks fifth in the NFL with 1,309 rushing yards and second with 15 rushing touchdowns.
Harrison was second in the nation with 1,900 rushing yards as a senior at Washington State, but wasn’t drafted until the fifth round. Despite averaging 5.8 yards a carry in his first three years with the Browns, he received sporadic playing time until erupting against the Chiefs on Dec. 20. He carried 73 times for 434 yards the last two weeks, the fifth most yards in back-to-back games in NFL history.
No matter how many yards they pile up or accolades they attain, the questions about their size don’t go away.
“That’s just the nature of the game,” Harrison said.
“I hope it stops, but as long as it’s still there, you’ve got to answer those questions,” Jones-Drew said. “Playmakers come in all shapes and sizes.
“A lot of people should recognize that playmakers don’t have to be tall receivers or bear running backs. They can just be a playmaker. They can be short, big, tall, skinny, whatever.”
Harrison and Jones-Drew are two of the growing number of undersized backs having big impacts, including San Diego’s Darren Sproles (5-6, 185), Baltimore’s Ray Rice (5-8, 210) and Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams (5-9, 217). They tend to get lost behind the giants on the offensive line, find a seam in the defense and are off to the races.
But NFL talent evaluators will always have doubts when a player doesn’t have the prototypical size they desire at a position.
“It’s hard. You have the ideal height and weight and speed, but then you also have to look at production,” Browns coach Eric Mangini said. “There are so many exceptions to the rules. I’ve seen some big guys play small and a lot of small guys play big.”
Former Browns general manager Phil Savage liked Jones-Drew coming out of UCLA in 2006, but passed on him at No. 34 for linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. The Jaguars took Jones-Drew No. 60.
“The obvious question was: Is he going to be able to be more than a specialist,” Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said. “Anytime you’re dealing with a shorter athlete, the big question is can he block, can he pick up blitz, is he willing?
“We ended up believing that he could be more than just a specialist, more than a novelty back.”
It didn’t take long for Jones-Drew to convince the Jaguars they made a good pick.
“Within the first week of training camp, when we put the pads on, you saw the ferociousness he blocked with, the way he’d go after people, the physicality that he ran with,” Del Rio said. “You could see he was more than just a scatback. He’s an every-down back, a guy who will do all the dirty things, the tough things, inside running, blocking, whatever you ask of him.
“He’s been sensational.”
Jones-Drew burst onto the NFL scene with 16 touchdowns as a rookie. For Harrison, it took until a couple of weeks ago for him to enter the conscientiousness of the average fan. But Jones-Drew has recognized his talent since their Pac-10 days.
“He tore UCLA up for 280, 290,” Jones-Drew said. “His vision and his instincts are tremendous. He’s able to see a hole before it opens up.”
Quarterback Derek Anderson (Oregon State) is another Pac-10 guy. He remembered Harrison from college and always believed the production would translate to this level.
“He’s very versatile when you put him out in space and makes guys miss,” Anderson said. “I’ve seen it the whole time he was here and always lobbied to get him in there as much as we can.”
Harrison’s playing time was limited because he was behind Jamal Lewis and struggled to pick up the blitz. When a little guy misses blocks, it plays into the stereotype and can get him a permanent spot in the doghouse.
Harrison’s improved considerably in that department over the last month, which could be the result of better practice habits following a talk with Mangini. The next step for Harrison is to prove he can handle the physical toll of 20-plus carries a game over a 16-game season.
Harrison said he feels fine after the pounding of the last two weeks. Time in the cold tub and hot tub and on the massage table helped. He was added to the injury report Thursday as limited with a hip injury.
“I feel all right. I really do,” he said. “I have a lot of fuel left.”
Whether Harrison has done enough to convince the Browns he can be a featured back remains to be seen. He insisted he’s not worried about that, or his impending free agency. He was scheduled to be unrestricted but would be restricted if the collective-bargaining agreement isn’t extended.
“I can only control what I do on Sundays,” he said. “I can’t control who likes me and doesn’t like me.”
Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.