Kenyan Drake is must-see TV. He spins. He jukes. He stops on a dime. He embarrasses defenders. The Alabama running back might be the most dynamic player in this year’s draft.
He also broke his leg and his arm in college. The excitement was blacked out for stretches.
There's risk and, potentially, major rewards.
“I feel I’m a top back in my own mind,” Drake said. “So wherever I get drafted, I’m all for it. I just need one team to like me and my longevity will speak for itself.”
Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry headline the 2016 draft. But Drake? He's the electric alternative in later rounds, a weapon teams could utilize in the backfield, out wide, on returns, wherever. He just needs to stay healthy. In four seasons at Alabama, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Drake had 233 carries for 1,495 yards with 18 touchdowns and another 46 receptions for 570 yards and four scores. Last fall, he also averaged 26.6 yards per kick return, supplying the 95-yard touchdown against Clemson in the national title game.
He brings 4.45 speed, sixth-sense instincts and a flair for the dramatic. No wonder some NFL evaluators view Drake as a first-round talent.
The origins of this all? The backyard. Drake found creative ways of avoiding friends in two-hand touch. And if they can't touch you, how can anyone tackle you?
"The speed is God-given," Drake said, "so you’ve got to give certain talents up to God. But you also have to work on your explosiveness on and off the field. So every time I’m in practice, I try to run at my top-end speed. And it’s my roots as a kid, always going outside, running around playing.”
Friends all lived in apartments, so they'd flood Drake's front yard for games. Nobody could catch him.
"So you move on from that," Drake said, "Tackling is a whole other monster.”
So throw some popcorn in the microwave and YouTube "Kenyan Drake." Each play is more jaw-dropping than the last.
There's the 50-yard touchdown vs. Ole Miss in which Drake made a defender miss point blank in the hole: “I made a quick move to the left and kind of spread to the right and he wasn’t in position to make a form tackle. I was by him before he could really react. From then on, it was nothing but grass and I just tried to beat the safety to the corner."
The 87-yard slant-and-go touchdown against Florida. The Clemson return. Or, hey, what about that short pass against Tennessee when Drake turned poor No. 53 into a complete, sad, illegal-in-some states 360.
“Oh, I remember that," Drake said. "It was toward the sideline. A lot of instincts and also you’ve got to work on those things off the field, too away from practice. Cone drills. Things of that sort to keep your agility up. It helps me once game time comes. It’s just natural.”
And one 23-yard touchdown against Georgia State is as good a sign of Drake's instincts as anything. He sensed a tackler storming in with his back turned when the ball arrives.
"A little dump-off," he said. "It was a move I made that surprised me and once I got free it was ‘OK, I’ve got to get into the end zone.’ It was a very instinctive play. I felt him coming."
Talk shop with Drake and it's easy for game-breaking plays to blend together, to get lost. At one point in conversation, a play was confused and Drake burst out laughing, "We're on three different plays!" The one he meant to detail was a touchdown against Arkansas when he ran into his own blocker, froze to lose a tackler and then burnt a defensive back to the corner.
"Your job as an athlete in general is to make at least one person miss," Drake said. "So I had to do my job and I was able to do that.”
You're left wanting more, like the end of a Breaking Bad episode. He's a slasher with explosion, quicks, an extra gear.
So how does he fit into an NFL offense? After all, Drake spent most of college in the shadows of Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry. He insists Alabama prepared him to be an every-down running back, one who can create mismatches against linebackers and safeties in the passing game.
Still, the injuries will give teams pause.
“It’d be a different story if I was injured and didn’t come back as the same person," Drake said. "I was just as explosive, more explosive. So people try to look for anything they can to put somebody under the rug but I’m here to stay and I’m going to prove that at the next level.”
Former NFL general manager Phil Savage tends to agree. He points out that Drake is no change-of-pace scat back, that he could fill out to 220-225. And Savage believes the two major injuries were more bad luck than anything.
Savage views Drake as a third- or fourth-round value.
"He is really a gifted player," Savage said. "A lot of quickness. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. His blocking needs some work but he can return kickoffs, cover punts, cover kicks, so he has a real role as a rookie. Almost right away. The question is where he fits with your running back group on first and second down.
"But I really thought that if Kenyan Drake could have a fully healthy year, his value would be higher in the draft. Second of all, Derrick Henry wouldn't have won the Heisman because they would've split time. I like Kenyan as a talent. I think his focus and attention to detail off the field has improved but he has to take it up another notch -- being on time, meetings, taking care of business.
"He has a chance to be a really good pro."
Drake hears the wide-ranging opinions, insisting he has his own opinion of his "own skill-set." Be it the first round or the fifth round, he's eager to prove he's a rare back who can stay on the field in all situations. Alabama groomed him for this opportunity, he says. Any down, any situation, any role. He has spoken with the Buffalo Bills through this pre-draft process. And Drake had official visits with the Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers and Indianapolis Colts.
Fully aware that LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams currently occupy Buffalo's backfield, Drake imagines, briefly, what life would be like in Western New York.
"If they drafted me," he said, "I’d try to add to the spoil of riches that they have.”
The human highlight film now takes his game to the next level. Growing up in Powder Spring, Ga., he idolized Warrick Dunn and Marshall Faulk, imagining himself as a player who can change a game in countless ways.
At Alabama, he did exactly that. In spurts. Now, Drake is out to prove he's built to last.
“I can be as great as I go out and work," he said. "I’m ready to let my work speak for itself.”
1. Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State (6 foot, 225 pounds): Combination of vision, power and acceleration is similar to Todd Gurley, the draft's best back last season; rushed for 1,821 yards and 23 touchdowns last season.
2. Derrick Henry, Alabama (6-3, 247): Heisman Trophy winner is a load to bring down and will instantly be one of the largest backs in the NFL --- and he can move, too (4.5 in the 40).
3. Devontae Booker, Utah (5-11, 219): Smooth receiver with sure hands (80 receptions last two seasons) that rushed for nearly 2,800 in two seasons; has a feel for lanes, could excel in zone scheme, complete back.
4. Jordan Howard, Indiana (6-0, 230): UAB transfer rushed for at least 145 yards in every full game he played last season with Elliott-like vision, strength in the hole but can he stay healthy?
5. Kenyan Drake, Alabama (6-1, 210): Explosive however he's used, Drake is an offensive coordinator's dream. Capable of flexing out in the slot or wide and will play on special teams.
6. Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech (5-10, 215): Briefly the FBS touchdown record-holder before Navy's Keenan Reynolds broke his mark, Dixon had 1,070 rush yards, 467 receiving yards and 26 total scores last fall. Fights for every after contact.
7. Daniel Lasco, Cal (6-0, 209): Injuries ruined his senior year, but Lasco lit up the Combine and could be the steal of the draft at RB.
8. C.J. Prosise, Notre Dame (6-0, 220): Averaged 6.6 yards per carry last season, has been compared to Fred Jackson with the type of frame to handle 20-plus carries a game.
9. Jonathan Williams, Arkansas (5-11, 220): Can escape crowded spaces as well as anyone in the draft, forcing 44 missed tackles in 2014 per NFL.com.
10. Paul Perkins, UCLA (5-10, 208): Father and uncle both played in NFL backfields; had Pac-12 best 1,575 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014 and 1,343 yards and 14 scores last season.