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Super Bowl LII: Black running backs who could lead their teams to victory

by Gabe Salgado /
Image: Super Bowl running backs
From left, running backs Corey Clement of the Philadelphia Eagles, James White of the New England Patriots and Jay Ajayi of the Eagles.EPA; Getty Images

Super Bowl Sunday, the one day out of a year, where we can all agree on what to watch on television – or mobile device — for roughly a four hour stretch. We all have a reason to watch the big game, whether it’s for the commercials, the halftime show or the game itself. The Super Bowl has also been a showcase for the NFL’s African-American players. When Super Bowl LII kicks off Sunday on NBC, the rosters of the NFC Champion Philadelphia Eagles and the defending champion New England Patriots will have plenty of black running backs on hand.

The Patriots will rotate James White, Brandon Bolden, Dion Lewis and Mike Gillislee. The Eagles, on the other hand, will counter with Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, Kenjon Barner, Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement and Donell Pumphrey. Running backs have a history of stealing the show at the Super Bowl and they’ll play a significant role on the field Sunday despite all of the hype surrounding the starting quarterbacks.

This will be the second time that these teams have faced each other in the Super Bowl. The Patriots won the first meeting 24-21 in Super Bowl XXXIX. The Eagles will no doubt have revenge on their mind.

To get you ready for kickoff, here are some facts to consider about these groups of players.

White, Bolden and Lewis have now played in eight Super Bowls combined

Image: New England Patriots running backs
New England Patriots running backs, from left, James White, Brandon Bolden and Dion Lewis.AP; Getty Images

These men know first hand what it’s like to contend for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. In addition to Sunday’s game, all three men played a role in last year’s victory over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. White and Bolden were also on the roster in the win over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. All three players have combined for 21 total touches (combined carries and receptions), 258 total yards and three total touchdowns on the NFL’s biggest stage.

LaGarrette Blount is a former New England Patriot

NFC Championship - Minnesota Vikings v Philadelphia Eagles
LeGarrette Blount scores a second quarter rushing touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings during their NFC Championship game on Jan. 21.Al Bello / Getty Images

The eight year veteran out of Oregon was the face of the Patriots rushing attack from 2013 to 2016 (with a stint in a Pittsburgh Steelers uniform in between). In 49 games with the Pats, Blount ran the ball 677 times for 2,917 yards and 34 touchdowns. When New England beat Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX at the conclusion of the 2014 season, Blount led the Patriots in rushing with 40 yards on 14 carries. Now he leads the Eagles ground game, which will need all of his abilities if they are to win the first Super Bowl in franchise history.

Jay Ajayi is also familiar with the Patriots

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Jay Ajayi runs the ball during practice at the Eagles' training facility on Jan. 26.Matt Rourke / AP

In just his third pro season, Ajayi knows the Patriots defense all too well. He played for the Miami Dolphins in 2015, 2016 and the early half of 2017. As division rivals, Miami plays New England twice a year. Unfortunately, the Boise State alum hasn’t had much success against the Pats, as they’ve held him to just 75 rushing yards and 51 receiving yards with no touchdowns. As the No. 2 behind Blount, the Eagles will need a stronger effort from Ajayi on Sunday.

Kenjon Barner could be the wild card in this game

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Kenjon Barner catches a pass during practice at the Eagles training facility on Jan. 26.Matt Rourke / AP

Barner’s biggest impact has been as a ‘return man’ during the course of his career. Since 2013, Barner has collected 540 kick return yards and 269 punt return yards. Only 10 kicks have ever been returned for a touchdown during the first 51 Super Bowls but a punt return touchdown has yet to happen. If Barner can score with either method, and perhaps make history in the process, it could decide the outcome of this game.

Smallwood, Clement and Pumphrey are the youngest players in this group

Image: Philadelphia Eagles running back
Philadelphia Eagles running backs, from left, Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement and Donell Pumphrey.AP; Getty Images

At 24-years-old, Smallwood is just in his second NFL season, while Clement (23) and Pumphrey (23) are rookies. Although they’ve contributed in small samples, Clement leads this trio with 321 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Smallwood has made his impact on special teams so far with 354 career kick return yards and one touchdown. Pumphrey, however, has seen limited playing time despite being the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision’s all-time leading rusher. It’ll be interesting to see how these players are used on Sunday.

Mike Gillislee reaches the Super Bowl in his first postseason appearance

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots
Mike Gillislee carries the ball against the Buffalo Bills on Dec. 24, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.Maddie Meyer / Getty Images

From 2013 to 2016, the 27-year-old former fifth round draft pick played for the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills but never reached the playoffs. Perhaps he’s finally chosen the right AFC East franchise, as he finally tasted playoff glory in 2017. The Patriots won their 20th division crown and their 10th AFC title this year. Now they look to tie the Pittsburgh Steelers with a record six Lombardi Trophies.

Gillislee’s efforts in this endeavor included 383 rushing yards and five touchdowns so far this season. He’ll look to add to those numbers on Sunday.

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