The Seattle Seahawks could have one of the best 1-2 combinations at running back in the NFL next season. That sounds a little insane because last year the Seahawks had perhaps the worst 1-2 duo in modern league history, but also is it that insane? Because when it gets that bad, the coaches and personnel folks know how much it has to shift in the other direction. Seattle gets a little lucky by having the return of Chris Carson mean that they didn’t have to go out and get half of that duo — he was already on the roster and he was really, really good in his short stint last season — but then they also used a first round pick on Rashaad Penny.
Between Carson and Penny, plus the emphasis on increasing the quality of run blocking at tight end, D.J. Fluker at guard (it should be a positive in the run game, not in pass protection), and Mike Solari doing no less than at least bringing a different voice to the offensive line, the Seahawks could return to being an above-average rushing offense. And yet one player who is often ignored in that conversation, as he has been throughout most of his football career, is J.D. McKissic.
Because Carson was not the only back on the roster last season who managed to find success when handed the ball, and the other guy to do it was not Mike Davis.
Playing for Central High in Phenix City, Alabama, McKissic once said that maybe he got no major D-1 offers because of a lack of exposure. He was productive as a receiver, runner, and kick returner, but couldn’t even get an offer from his dream school Troy, where his brother Bryant had played. Instead, McKissic went to play for Hugh Freeze at Arkansas State. McKissic says he was a little overwhelmed by the playbook and so he took a redshirt during his freshman year.
Then Freeze was gone — he did too good and left for the job at Ole Miss — and McKissic found himself playing for Gus Malzahn. What could have been a disaster for a player who was already having a hard time adjusting to the first playbook instead turned into a monster season: 103 catches, 1,022 yards, five touchdowns on his way to Sun Belt Freshman of the Year honors. In a big test against Nebraska that year, McKissic managed to be productive with eight catches for 73 yards.
In the GoDaddy.com Bowl against 25th-ranked Kent State, McKissic had 11 catches for 113 yards and a touchdown in a 17-13 upset win.
Of course, as you should have guessed by now, that’s too good for an Arkansas State coach, so Malzahn left for the job at Auburn. McKissic now had a third coach in three years: Bryan Harsin, a former disciple of Chris Petersen at Boise State. Harsin coached Arkansas State to a 7-5 record, at which point ... he left to take over for Petersen after he left the Broncos for the job at the University of Washington.
McKissic’s season resulted in 83 catches for 662 yards and four touchdowns, plus 139 yards rushing, while also handling just about all of the kick and punt returning duties. McKissic averaged 30 yards per kick return with a touchdown and 8.5 yards per punt. Here’s his highlights from those first two seasons, playing for four coaches during his college career at that point (including John Thompson, who had to twice fill in for the bowl games).
His fifth coach at Arkansas State was Blake Anderson, who remains the head coach for the Red Wolves today. Still, that is a lot of change for McKissic, the team’s best player. His production went down and we’ll never really know what four years of McKissic under Freeze, Malzahn, or Harsin would’ve been. It’s not hard to imagine him breaking a lot of records in a Malzahn offense, though he is still the Sun Belt’s all-time leader in receptions.
Said Malzahn a few years ago:
“J.D.’s a phenomenal player,” Malzahn said. “He’s great with the ball in his hands. He’s a receiver who has running back skills. A big-time playmaker.”
At his pro day, McKissic ran a fine-not-great 4.59 in the 40-yard dash. (Arkansas State’s SB Nation blog is called Underdog Dynasty, a fitting title for the school that produced McKissic.) As a receiver, he was about 5’11, 187 lbs, without elite speed. It’s a hard sell coming from a school that is not a college powerhouse. He did have a 37” vertical, 17 reps on the bench, and a 10’2 broad jump, and we did see explosive plays from him time and time again in college. It was still not surprising to see him go undrafted in 2016, but teams could still view him as a potential kick returner, though that job has been quickly disappearing in recent years.
The Atlanta Falcons signed him as an undrafted free agent and literally his first touch as an NFL football player was a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the preseason. Doesn’t look like a 4.59, does it? (It’s been said that maybe he was working through a broken foot during his pro day and that Pete Carroll had timed him as being faster than 4.59.)
He was of course a fan favorite but Dan Quinn did not keep him on the final 53-man roster. It was a disappointment for many but also the Falcons were pretty set at running back, receiver, and returner, and it resulted in one of the best offensive seasons in NFL history anyway. There was not a lot of room for McKissic unless they wanted to take a chance on an undrafted rookie at returner instead of Eric Weems, a former Pro Bowler for Atlanta at that position.
He hung around on the practice squad until being waived in December and getting picked up by the Seahawks. McKissic played a little in Week 17 and the playoffs, but of course was not seen as much more than a body to help fill in for a pretty depleted backfield. Last season, McKissic not only made the roster (you could essentially say he made it at receiver over Kasen Williams or running back over Alex Collins), he was also much more than just a body.
In his debut last year, he was explosive in a two-touchdown performance against the Indianapolis Colts.
He would score just one more time over the rest of the season, but it was a critical score in a 24-10 win over the eventual-champion Philadelphia Eagles.
McKissic is under team control for three more seasons and he was stuffed on 23.9% of his runs, the best rate for any Seattle back last year. (Low bar of course, but still.) McKissic finished with 46 runs for 187 yards (4.07 per carry) and 34 catches for 266 more. If C.J. Prosise put up those numbers, I think you’d probably be a little disappointed, but also if Prosise could stay healthy for longer than the time it takes to read an article about C.J. Prosise’s latest injury then he’d probably also get more than 80 touches.
Because yes, Prosise is an exceptional athlete and former NFL Draft prospect who warranted a fairly early selection for a running back, but also is some of that inherent bias of “Arkansas State” holding back McKissic from getting more opportunities and more attention for what he could do if he did move up the depth chart?
“I’m the type of guy that likes to come from the bottom and make it to the top,” McKissic said in that piece linked above from his time with the Red Wolves. “So that motivated me a lot, just thinking about why these teams didn’t take a chance on me. It’s a loss for them, but I’m glad to be here at Arkansas State.”
McKissic sees all 31 teams besides the Seahawks as being losers in the J.D. McKissic sweepstakes too, but he may also see Seattle that way if they favor someone like Prosise over him for touches next season. (If Prosise is even available.) Not only could McKissic compete for carries though, but he could also be the beneficiary of some of those departed targets that left with Jimmy Graham and Paul Richardson. He could also be the one, not Penny, to alleviate Tyler Lockett of kick and punt return duties.
There’s a lot that McKissic could do. The question is: Will 2018 be the year that a coach finally finds out what that is?