“How’s the air up there?” isn’t a question typically asked of a 5’ 7” college running back. Then again, Bobby Rainey isn’t your typical 5’ 7” college running back. And, if you check the NCAA record book, you’ll find that this Western Kentucky Hilltopper does in fact live in rarefied air. As one of only a handful of rushers in FBS history with back to back 1500 yard seasons, Rainey was named both first team All Sun Belt Conference and two time offensive player of the year, while leading the Hilltoppers to a 7-1 conference record in 2011, only two years after WKU made the full-time move up to the FBS level. As a self described “blue collar guy, who loves to work hard,” Rainey emphasizes that he’s ready to do whatever NFL coaches ask of him. At Western Kentucky, his coaches routinely asked him to, metaphorically, push a rock up a mountain. No back in the country was asked to carry the rock more than Rainey in both 2010 and 2011. And yet, whereas his yards/carry through the first three quarters was a respectable 4.2, in the fourth quarter it jumped to 5.7 yards/carry. Rather than wear down, Rainey bears down and ratchets up his production during the game’s most crucial period. He also finished the fourth quarter of his career on a tear, first gaining 85 tough yards against LSU, running behind an overmatched offensive line, then ripping off consecutive 200+ yard efforts against N. Texas and Troy.
But Bobby Rainey, who’s a smart kid who eventually wants to get into coaching, is just getting started. At the East-West Shrine Game, scouts noted Rainey’s solid, muscular build, with 207 pounds packed on that 5’ 7” frame. Though short by NFL standards and too slight to be a 25 carry feature back, Rainey uses his low center of gravity, foot quickness, and natural bend in the knees when changing direction to maximize production. He’s not a burner with top flight speed (he was timed at WKU’s pro day at 4.51), but he does effectively bounce runs to the outside, outflanking edge defenders. Though not an explosive runner, either at the point of attack or in the open field, Rainey displays good short area burst, changing direction without losing momentum, and sinking his hips to accelerate out of breaks.
Rainey consistently shows good pre-snap recognition, then diagnoses the play in front of him, patiently setting up his blocks while waiting for the play to develop. When pressing the line of scrimmage, he displays good acceleration, though he tends to run high in traffic exposing too much of his body to contact. He keeps his head up, with eyes downfield, giving him excellent blocker and defender reads, then naturally lowers his pad level into contact, consistently working for extra yardage. Rainey is an effective inside runner, who patiently cuts his way through traffic, possessing what I like to call “blue collar quickness.” He’s neither a rocket piercing the line and exiting the other side, nor a jitterbug darting at right angles on a dime; rather, he simply has a knack for moving agilely laterally and changing speeds at the right time to elude tacklers. There’s no “wow” factor. It’s lunch pail quickness, and, as he walks back to the huddle, you’re surprised to see that again he gained four yards on a run that appeared to be destined for little gain. He’s by no means a “power” back and won’t pile up yards after contact, but he runs through more tackles than you’d expect, setting up defenders, getting them reaching, then slipping the arm tackles.
Rainey catches the ball well out of the backfield, though he wasn’t used in this capacity excessively, and opportunities were generally limited to screens, swings, and wheel routes. In pass protection and blitz pickup he has struggled, relying primarily on less than effective cut blocks rather than squaring the shoulders and meeting the rusher upright with good pad level. Since Rainey may be asked to begin his pro career as a third down back to utilize his strengths on the edge and open field, this is definitely an area that needs to be stabilized and developed.
Overall, Bobby Rainey has the potential to be a significant contributor at the next level. Most likely, he’ll begin his career as a kick returner, then work his way into the running back rotation, sharing carries in a two back system. And, he catches the ball well enough and is elusive enough in space to be an effective third down back if the pass blocking improves. Rainey may be one of the most undervalued running backs in the draft, an early fourth round talent who’s likely to slide to round 6 or 7 because of small school level of competition and a lack of physical stature. It’s tough to get the attention of NFL scouts and general managers when you’re a small running back from Western Kentucky, but Rainey just keeps pushing that rock right up the mountain. It’s rare air up there, but if you want to know what the view looks like from the top of the hill, just wait till the fourth week in April, then ask Bobby Rainey.