INDIANAPOLIS — Javon Leake arrived in Indianapolis this week in much the same way he arrived at Maryland over three years ago: with Anthony McFarland Jr. by his side, and a suspicion that, of the two running backs, he’s the faster one.
McFarland disagrees. Of course he does. The NFL scouting combine is a proving ground for the Terps stars, not just for their professional futures but also for a personal wager. McFarland and Leake haven’t talked much about who might get drafted first; they’re more interested in who covers 40 yards faster in Friday’s on-field workouts.
“We never raced,” Leake said Wednesday. “Everybody always asks, like, 'Who's faster? Who's faster?' And so me and him, we always joke about it. It's a competition to see who's going faster. I love that guy to death, so it's really exciting that he's here with me and I'm here with him. So we're just going to see what happens.”
They also know that a test of straight-line speed will not determine their NFL future. With the running back position’s evolution in recent years, high-gear velocity matters less than all-around value.
The 6-foot, 215-pound Leake led Maryland with 7.2 yards per carry, 736 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns as a junior last season. During each of his first two seasons in College Park, he averaged at least 11 yards per carry.
Maybe more notable, though, was his special teams acumen: He was named Big Ten Return Specialist of the Year after returning two kickoffs for touchdowns. And with rocket-legged kickers such as Justin Tucker giving returners only so many chances — the Ravens’ De’Anthony Thomas, Justice Hill, Chris Moore and Willie Snead IV combined for 34 kickoff returns last year, just over two per game — suggested changes to the league’s rule book could boost Leake’s worth.
Under XFL rules, in an effort to revive interest in kickoffs and limit concussions, kickoffs are set 5 yards back from the NFL's point, and the blocking team lines up 5 yards from the kicking team's coverage unit. Only the kicker and returner can move until the ball is caught.
“Bro, I love watching that,” said Leake, who added that he’d already met with Ravens special teams coach Chris Horton — recently promoted to special teams coordinator — in Indianapolis. “I think they need to add that to the NFL, probably, but I think it’s really cool and an opportunity for a returner to get a couple of kicks in.”
McFarland averaged nearly 8 yards per carry as a redshirt freshman in 2018, when he was healthy and the Terps had a better offensive line. But injuries have led to concerns about his durability and viability as a between-the-tackles runner.
McFarland sat out the 2017 season while recovering from a broken leg. In September, he suffered a high-ankle sprain that “hindered me a lot” through 11 games. “I wasn’t able to move like I wanted to,” he said of a season in which he finished with 614 rushing yards (5.4 per carry), 127 receiving yards and nine total touchdowns.
McFarland said a lot of teams “see me as a speed guy.” Perhaps that’s because he’s 5-8. But he’s also 208 pounds now, 10 pounds heavier than what he was listed at Maryland. According to the NFL, some teams have requested McFarland to work out as a wide receiver.
“I never really let one man bring me down,” he said. “When people look at me, I just don’t want people to look at me being explosive. I mean, that is a thing, a No. 1 thing when you think about me as a running back. … But at the end of the day, I got a lot of stuff to my game, and I feel like one of those things is toughness.”