Back in July of 2019, I did a deep dive into a productive small school RB no one was really discussing: James Robinson of Illinois State. He flashed the same ability I saw when I watched David Johnson at Northern Iowa all the way back in 2014. A smooth athlete with excellent vision and good hands who didn’t need elite speed to win. This is exactly how I have felt watching Pierre Strong Jr. out of South Dakota State.
Last year, I desperately wanted to find another (and tried to push JaQuan Hardy of Tiffin) but there wasn’t anyone who matched up.
For the 2022 NFL Draft though, there is a RB who will be my highest graded non-FBS RB since David Johnson. Pierre Strong Jr. out of South Dakota State is that guy and he is better than 90% of the FBS RBs I have watched so far.
Strong came from 5A McClellan High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. He made the All-Arkansas state team for 3 years and was a finalist for the best football player in Arkansas his senior year. The stats were eye-popping rushing for 4,268 yards and 57 touchdowns throughout High School and he carried his team’s offense.
Unfortunately, Arkansas isn’t a hotbed of football and Strong was a 0-star athlete who was offered by FCS powerhouse South Dakota State. After a redshirt year in 2017 and playing as a back-up for half of 2018, Strong got his chance and never looked back. He ended up with 1,116 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns averaging 9.5 yards per carry.
It was more of the same for his Sophomore season hitting 1,000 yards again for the 2nd straight season. In the 9 games of the 20-21 season, he split carries and was still productive. He even threw a pass in the semifinal of the 2021 FCS playoffs against Delaware.
Now, as a Senior, Strong is putting on a show again. He is back over 8 yards a carry and has had over 100 rushing yards in 5 of his 6 games so far. He is showcasing NFL prowess that is evident in each game.
The first two noticeable traits with Strong is his burst and power. Strong has an explosive burst off the snap and can get to the line very quickly. When a hole opens as called, Strong is already in his second gear by the time he hits that hole and is rarely caught by defenders on the line. When the hole isn’t there yet, Strong shows enough power to break arm tackles and fall forward to extra yardage even when stopped. These 2 traits are critical for NFL success in any scheme.
When dealing with non-FBS RBs, it is rare to have high end speed. Strong certainly doesn’t have that and is likely in that 4.5-4.55 range for his 40 time. But just as Robinson ran a 4.64, the deep speed isn’t the most important trait for an NFL RB. An explosive burst and quickness in short spaces can yield productive results.
Vision is next on my list as pluses for Strong. He will almost always see the hole and cut back to find the best space to run. This shows elite vision traits to identify the most productive space and get there quickly. He is also excellent at keeping his eyes on the second level and using that to guide his lean and movement to try and make those defenders miss.
Strong’s contact balance is solid, but not quite to the NFL level yet. There are plays where he showcases good foot movement to stay balanced and upright through contact while others his feet can move too quickly after contact causing him to go down. It has been an improvement year to year for Strong, so if that trend continues, it means good things.
Pass blocking will be the way that Strong sees the field early in the NFL. He is a stalwart blocker who isn’t afraid of contact and will force pass rushers to change their path. He is rarely overpowered though more athletic rushers can dip around him at times.
Finally, receiving ability is a tough evaluation. One of the worst things an evaluator can do is assume that if a RB doesn’t catch the ball that they are not good at it. SDSU rarely uses Strong (or any RB) in the passing game. When the defense does force their hand, they will move to that though, and Strong has showcased solid hands and ability to gain yardage in space against Southern Illinois with 4 receptions in that game. It may be an area that needs improved, but is far from a negative.
Overall, Strong has NFL RB traits. Though he is unlikely to be an elite top tier NFL RB, the explosiveness and vision are there to set him up for good YPC. Add in his pass blocking ability, and he could see a role early. The biggest difficulty may be adjusting from a Spread/Pistol offense to the NFL. His best fit is likely a power run scheme, but has shown prowess to a one-cut scheme.
Film Review (vs. 8th ranked Southern Illinois)
Credit to “Wally The Bronco Too” Youtube Channel
Strong’s first touchdown run against Southern Illinois this year is a great example of what he does well. The hole shifts to the left and he has to adjust his cut to lean into the hole while not sacrificing explosion. His eyes stay on the second level to read blocks and adjust to the best path toward the end zone. Even when contacted, Strong keeps his balance and powers for the TD.
On this play, Strong show his cutback ability again and his eyes downfield to the second level. He gets caught from behind looking to make the next move, which can be an issue for him. Strong does need to sometimes take what is given and get the extra few yards.
Here is a good example of Strong finding the hole (slightly late) and showcasing his power through contact to add additional yardage. This is what players like James Robinson do to make an NFL impact, and Strong will do it too.
Here is a pass catching rep that shows Strong’s ability despite the low numbers. He has good arm extension, cleanly catching the ball and getting it into his body. He takes a bit to get up to his top gear turning and running, but that can be cleaned up.
Strong’s best play of the game here. He gets the carry and attempts to hit where the hole should be, but his blocker has been moved into the hole. He moves to his left and immediately identifies where defenders are to cut into past the lineman and take an angle to make the linebacker reach. Then you can see the final burst for the TD.
Another pass catching rep, this time out wide. Good technique and he turns into a runner in the open field for a big gain.
Overall, Strong will be my highest rated non-FBS RB since David Johnson and he is a starter in the NFL. If you haven’t checked out his game yet, give it a watch and hope your team drafts him late in Day 2 or early in Day 3.
Follow Shane on Twitter: @ShanePHallam and see his other work here