'Numbers don't lie:' UB's Jaret Patterson believes he is head of class at RB

Every year, NFL teams debate production vs. projection. Forever counted out, Patterson is statistically the most dominant running back this draft. Do you believe?

He’s far too nice of a guy to sit here and take aim at anyone when, of course, he could treat this conversation as an airing of grievances.

All Jaret Patterson does is obliterate every defense in his path, yet nobody seems to really care. Not one Power 5 conference team offered him a scholarship after a 2,045-yard, 23-touchdown senior year of high school. And nobody right now dares put his name in the same conversation as the (perceived) top running backs in this 2021 draft.

Despite unparalleled production.

Despite putting up numbers that are so absurd they seem fake.

Alabama’s Najee Harris and Clemson’s Travis Etienne and both of North Carolina’s backs are head of class, we’re told. Certainly not some 197-pound block of granite from the Mid-American Conference that stands 5 feet, 6 ½ inches tall. The draft industrial complex — a cyclone that’ll suck you in and spit you out with irreparable damage — decided long ago that Patterson isn’t anywhere near this tier. Patterson himself doesn’t politick, doesn’t come close to veering into a poll-tested stump speech to win your support.

But he must be honest.

Jaret Patterson absolutely believes his name deserves to be right there with Harris, with Etienne, with anyone touted as the best back this spring.

“I feel like I have the best production in this class,” he says. “Numbers don’t lie. People knock the conference and I can’t control that. I did what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to dominate the MAC conference and I think that’s why I should definitely be up there. But it’s not how you get in. It’s how you stay in.”

So right here, ladies ‘n gents, is the ultimate Production-vs-Projection case study of a prospect.

All NFL evaluators lean one way or the other. You can trust the domination you see on tape. Or you can pan a microscope over specific elements of that player’s game to decrypt — via your own calculation — that player’s NFL readiness and decide that player won’t replicate his success. That’s projection and that’s how it sure appears most all are viewing Patterson. Peruse any of the 8.9 billion seven-round mock drafts puked onto the Internet and you’ll probably see Patterson’s name listed in Rounds 5 or 6 because he’s 5-6, because he played in the MAC, because of how most all project him in the NFL.

Quite possibly, that consensus is proven correct.

Yet it’s also true that absolutely nothing to this point suggests Patterson won’t cut it in the pros.

He’s not slow. At his pro day, scouts clocked him at 4.52 and 4.53.

He’s not soft. Patterson can bench press 385 pounds.

And on the field, no running back in America was better last fall. Patterson led the nation with 178.7 yards per game and his 710 yards vs. Kent State and Bowling Green shattered Ricky Williams’ 1998 record (668) for the most yards in back-to-back games. He scored eight touchdowns… in a game. He averaged 7.6 yards per carry… for the season.

He finished as the No. 2 rusher in UB history, a mere 161 yards behind Branden Oliver who played in nine more games.  

Sadly, the general public simply did not get to witness such greatness. In this Covid-riddled season, UB played six games. And unless you’re a degenerate gambler who cannot get enough of that MACtion, there’s a good chance you missed Patterson. To most of America, he was nothing more than a faraway name at a faraway school as SEC and ACC games were seared into our brains every weekend. We all see guys like Harris and Etienne more often so, we assume, they are on a different stratosphere.

“It’s crazy,” Patterson says, “because if I did go to one of schools — Alabama or Clemson — there wouldn’t be a conversation. I’d already be up there.”

Because everything he did at UB? Patterson believes he would’ve done the same exact thing at either of these schools.

“I’d be the same guy.”

There’s a chance one NFL GM out there agrees, too. One GM who’s all in on production. No one should be surprised if Patterson ends up getting drafted earlier than anyone expects. And if he isn’t? That’d just continue the story of his football life.

First, Patterson points to his mentality. He insists this is what’ll separate him because all of this predraft shade is not new. Hardly. From eighth grade on, Patterson devoted every summer to training with current Washington edge rusher Chase Young, current Penn State wideout Cam Sullivan-Brown and his twin brother, James. This was his crew. Together, they worked out relentlessly.

The result was one narrow mentality for Jaret: “I never get complacent. I always find ways to better myself.”

And all along, he was genuinely counted out. It’s strange to think that anyone who played high school ball 20 miles from the nation’s capital could slip through the cracks but that’s precisely what happened. Patterson put up arcade numbers at St. Vincent Pallotti (Md.), yet scholarship offers were scarce. His first offer (Kent State) didn’t come until his junior year and, no, the University of Maryland didn’t express a blink of interest.

The Patterson twins wanted to play college ball together. Both were labeled two-star recruits.

“You dream of getting those Power 5 conference offers,” Patterson says. “They weren’t knocking at my door. So I just knew, whatever college would take a chance on me, they were going to get everything I could offer and that was Buffalo. I made the best of it. Me and my brother wanted to go to the same university.”

Patterson thought a Power 5 school would wise up after that senior season. No one did.

The twins were first introduced to UB by a coach on their high school staff, Justin Winters, who starred at linebacker for UB from 2007-10. Winters told them all about winning the MAC in ’08 and all about alums like James Starks and Khalil Mack and Branden Oliver. Very quickly, the Patterson twins fell in love with this budding tradition, visited the campus and the decision was a slam dunk. Even then, Jaret needed to “grayshirt,” which meant not reporting to UB until the following January. James (a linebacker) could’ve enrolled right away but both decided to stay together and helped coach at Pallotti until then.

Which all is not quite the path Harris took to Tuscaloosa, no.

Patterson’s confidence did not waver.

“I knew I was a Power 5 player,” Patterson says. “I knew I could play in whatever conference in college football. People came through. But they weren’t willing. They’d say, ‘He’s a good player but not an ideal back.’ Just stuff like that. You’d think watching my film that senior season, it’d be a no-brainer. But I didn’t take it to heart. It just made me work harder.”

Everyone else’s loss turned out to be UB’s gain with Patterson turning into the most dominant player in the school’s 21-year FBS history.

There wasn’t much of an on-ramp. Patterson lit up defenses — instantly — and that quiet confidence soared after he rushed for 104 yards on 14 carries against a Big Ten school (Rutgers). The next year, he opened with a 298-yard, six-touchdown explosion vs. Bowling Green. And the year after that, in 2020, he had the 409- and 301-yard games.

It’s a shock nobody on the Kent State sideline waved a white flag. Those players have families.

UB head coach Lance Leipold saw firsthand everything that went into Patterson’s staggering numbers — he calls him one of the best practice players he’s ever coached.

“How he goes about practice, how he takes care of himself, how he finishes plays,” Leipold says. “Even on Mondays, after a heavy Saturday game, he’s back there because he’s passionate about the game. When you’re trying to build a successful program like we are, when your best players are your best practice players and positive influences throughout your program, it really says so much. And he and his brother have done that for our program.

“He’s been someone that nobody fully believed in. You’re always trying to find reasons to take someone or not take someone and, I think, people were always looking at the height and other things. That chip on the shoulder really helped us.”

It is true that surreal college production does not guarantee pro production. The No. 1 (Ron Dayne) and No. 3 (Donnel Pumphrey) all-time leading rushers never amounted to much in the NFL.

On the other hand, you also don’t need to look far for MAC success stories. For starters, there’s the back Winters played with. The 2010 Green Bay Packers do not win a Super Bowl without Starks. His violent running is the reason that team knocked off the Eagles in the Wild Card round and gritted out a 21-14 win at Chicago in the NFC Championship. Through so many injuries, the Niagara Falls, N.Y. native still managed to rush for 2,506 yards in his Packers career.

And Patterson doesn’t stop at Starks. He cites Mack and Antonio Brown and Julian Edelman as MAC stars who blossomed into true NFL stars.

He believes we’ll use his name in that same breath.

“That’s definitely something I think about constantly,” Patterson says. “To be one of those MAC greats who’s successful in the NFL. I definitely believe I can do that.”

Fair enough. We all have goals. But how will he do it? What about his game… pops?

Pose this question and Patterson describes what’s essentially a “make you miss” sixth sense. One cut, one stiff-arm, one extra gear and, peace, he’s gone. Growing up, he watched all the Barry Sanders film he could which is somewhat surprising considering he was born a year after Sanders retired from the sport. Once Patterson saw Sanders on YouTube, though, he could not stop.

He tried to directly model his game after the Hall of Famer. (“That was my guy,” he says.)

Arguably no player in the history of the sport was more thrilling to watch than Sanders because no player even thinks about attempting what he did — 99.99 percent of backs get lassoed to the ground for an eight-yard loss if they hit the brakes to completely reverse field. As humble as Sanders was, much like Patterson here, he sure played with an on-field cockiness his contemporaries could only dream to possess.

There’s good field vision and, then, there’s Barry Sanders field vision.

We won’t see a back like Sanders in our lifetime, but Patterson is not shy.

One way or another he knows he, too, can escape any jam.

“I feel like in today’s game,” Patterson says, “a great running back needs to be able to make something happen. Everybody’s going to be good on Sundays. If you can’t make something happen and create space, I don’t think you’re going to be a very successful back at the next level. And that’s what Barry Sanders did. He created space. He made something happen when there weren’t the ideal holes. I feel I definitely can do that. Because that’s what I’m striving for. I’m trying to be the most entertaining running back, like he was, and I feel like I have the ability to be.”

“You definitely have to have some type of confidence to say, ‘This first guy is not going to tackle me.’”

The more realistic comp is probably Maurice Jones-Drew, who played with a near-identical build at 5-6 and rushed for 8,000-plus yards in eight seasons with Jacksonville. Like Patterson, he was exceptionally compact. And with the two sharing the same agency, they’ve gotten close through this predraft process. Patterson says MJD has been telling him that he’s got what it takes, that it’s more about your “will” and your “heart” than anything else.

“If he can do it,” Patterson says, “I can do it.”

Defenders don’t want to hit a back this compact, he adds.

When Patterson weighed in at his pro day, one scout for the Atlanta Falcons even told him that he’s “built like a fire hydrant.” Asked if he took this metaphor as a compliment or slight and he shrugs. He’s not sure what to make of it, nor is he overthinking anything anybody says about him right now. Patterson believes the running back position is being “reinvented” and kindly points out that LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire, a back taken 32nd overall last year, is 5-foot-7.

Being so short has major advantages.

In the hole, linebackers aren’t sure where in the hell to hit a guy like him.

“Because,” Patterson says, “you have that low center of gravity. You’re so low to the ground, they’re going to have to try to ankle-bite you. But you’re already low to the ground. If you’re a big back, they can blow out your knees. But a little back, you don’t really know what to do because he’s so little. And you have big offensive linemen so you’re going to be hiding behind them. So, it’s harder.

“Just with how they try to tackle me. I bounce right off. I keep my balance.”

The wiggle. The stop ‘n start. The balance. The acceleration. Leipold lists each trait off one by one. It all synchronized so beautifully in UB’s inside- and outside-zone rushing scheme and Leipold adds that Patterson was also patient. Patterson knew precisely when to hit the seam. It was hard for anyone to get a hand on him because, pound for pound, you’d be hard-pressed to find a stronger offensive player in this draft.

Patterson can hang and power clean 365 pounds. His squat? Well over 500 pounds.

As a result, Patterson helped bring UB notoriety it hasn’t seen since Mack. And he sees no reason why he, too, can’t dominate in the pros. In seven seasons, Mack has 70.5 sacks, 129 QB hits and 23 forced fumbles. Obviously this UB star won’t be drafted anywhere near the fifth overall pick, like Mack, but Patterson is setting such pro production as the bar.

Why not?

“I’m chasing Khalil Mack,” Patterson says. “That’s my mindset. … Just seeing a guy who came from my school — and to see what he did at the next level — I can definitely see I can do this. I can perform at the next level.”

Adds Leipold: “I would not bet against him.”

If you’re still full of skepticism, it’s understandable. It’s not easy to generate original draft takes this time of year. Most are recycled and redistributed in the same echo chamber.

Unless you witnessed “409” live, it may be difficult to believe Patterson. Most people have to take his word for it right now. He promises to be “electric” and “explosive” and “a highlight reel” and the best way Patterson can describe the effect he’ll have on a team is this: You’ll want to carve out time on a Sunday to watch him play.

One reason Patterson is so upbeat this day is that he’s back into training for what actually matters. Football. When we chatted, Patterson had just finished up his pro day and couldn’t wait to throw weights around at Pete Bommarito’s renowned facility in Miami. Of course, this complex turns into Bills South in the offseason with Stefon Diggs, Jordan Poyer and so many others making this home.

Patterson sure wouldn’t mind joining them back in Buffalo, too.

There would be no need for fans to skewer this rookie for a bad wing take. He already knows who’s No. 1 — it’s Elmo’s, of course. His UB campus was a short 1.2-mile drive from the home of the best wings in WNY. He’s had Bar Bill. He’s had Duffs. And, Patterson assures “nobody can compare” to Elmo’s Cajun double-dip honey wings. Such knowledge should at least slide Patterson up the Bills’ draft board, and he sure would love it if he was able to stay in Buffalo. At his pro day, Patterson even told one of the Bills’ scouts to tell Sean McDermott to draft him.

The Bills certainly regret passing on the last UB star, choosing wide receiver Sammy Watkins instead of Mack at No. 4 overall in 2014.

At a much lower price, maybe they atone for that mistake.

“If that happens,” Patterson says, “that’d be very special for sure.”

Leipold fully expects an NFL team to fall in love with Patterson’s work ethic and, unprompted, cites the Bills as a perfect fit culturally. They’ve done their homework on the hometown back.

Granted, the Bills know projection can be a magical thing, too. Not too long ago, Josh Allen’s numbers at Wyoming weren’t anything special but they believed in his powerful right arm over Josh Rosen’s numbers at UCLA, and that bet paid off. That bet is the reason the Bills are now a Super Bowl contender. Where to draw the line is what every scout, every GM agonizes over every draft. It’s also true that teams do overthink and overanalyze and try to find flaws in prospects when it’s OK to simply believe their eyes.

We’ll find out soon enough how much Patterson’s production means to the people that matter.

He isn’t going to grow four inches taller overnight. So, Patterson does the only thing he can do at this point. He leans into the camera on Zoom and offers one simple request for teams with a smile.

“Whatever team decides to get me is getting a guy who’ll be ready Day 1, who’s ready to work.

“I just feel like you should have an open mind.”

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