The Top 20 College Football Running Back prospects hoping for an NFL career - Part Two

Montee Ball TD

Richard Moore examines another 10 of the top Running Backs in College Football.

In the second part of our article looking at the top 20 Running Backs in the College Football ranks, here is the final 10...

11. Montee Ball, Wisconsin

Ball set the Collegic scene alight with a scintillating 2011, by putting up 2,200 - yards of total offense, and plundering an astonishing 39 touchdowns (33 rushing) in the process.

All the more amazing when you consider the fact that prior to that season, he wasn’t even in contention for the coveted Heisman trophy. However, such was the magnitude of his success; he’d bulldozed himself into the consciousness of voters, eventually coming 4th overall.

One would naturally assume that after such a stellar campaign, Ball would declare for the 2012 draft, but he surprised many by opting to remain a Badger for the 2012 season, so far producing 1,226 - yards from 245 carries, and scored 16 touchdowns.

Though some may question the logic of returning for another collegic campaign, when considering his explosive 2011 season, he’s essentially got nothing to prove at this level.

Though it may be difficult to replicate his phenomenal 2011 season, something that’s certainly apparent when contrasting his 16 scores to the 39 of last season, according to his coach at Wisconsin, Bret Bielema, he’s still firmly in the mix for a first round pick “I’ve had several guys comment to me this year that they thought he’s the first back to go in this year’s draft,” Bielema said. “Many make the statement without a doubt.”

As we know, many coaches have a tendency to say the most positive of things about the individual or collective that they are currently coaching. However, if what he says is true, and scouts do indeed feel Ball is first round material, Bielema’s words go on to carry greater weight.

NBC sports correspondent Michael David Smith isn’t so sure, as he believes that Ball’s season represents something of a regression “Ball’s production this year has declined significantly from last year. If NFL scouts view Ball as the top running back in the draft, that may mean NFL scouts don’t think there’s much running back talent in this draft. Even if Ball is the first running back selected, it might not be in the first round”.

An interesting viewpoint, as despite the 2012 season revealing a downturn in form, there are a number of contemporaries, who like Ball, are legitimate candidates for high draft picks. I.e. North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard (11 touchdowns), Le’Veon Bell of Michigan State (10 touchdowns) and Oklahoma’s Joseph Randle (9 touchdowns), who have scored less.

Also, although Oregon’s Kenjon Barber has scored 3 more touchdowns on less carries (199, compared to 245), and is one the main reasons why Oregon are in possession of the 3 rd best rushing unit in college football, putting up on average 325.1 rush yards per game, it is worth noting that he’s part of an offense that puts the rest of the collegic landscape well and truly in the shade, and therefore productivity and point scoring becomes all the more easier.

Conversely, the sign of a truly elite runningback is the ability to penetrate superior defenses with an inferior offense, and perhaps this may be what Smith is referring to?

In any case we can only gauge the effectiveness of college prospects once they’ve made the graduation from collegic level to that most uncompromising of sporting environments - the NFL.

Anyhow, if indeed Ball does indeed make the graduation, there is a fair chance he’ll feel right at home - literally. The only difference being he’ll be on a different field, Lambeau Field. As owing to porous productivity, the Packers may need a back to reinvigorate the run game, and Ball could be the man.

All the more so when you consider that in their time at Lambeau, Alex Green and James Starks between them amassed a total of 941 - yards of offense.

The situation hardly reads any better when Cedric Benson, acquired in a trade with Cincinnati went down injured in week 5, and the only other option in the backfield was fullback John Kuhn (11 carries for 39 - yards, and 1 touchdown), thus increasing the need for a back who can effectively alleviate pressure from the passing attack. Coincidently, Ball could be equally effective as either a direct replacement, or supplementary package for the aforementioned Benson, as he’s remarkably similar from a physical standpoint, both being 5ft.11 and over 200 pounds (Benson being 227 pounds, Ball 212).

Though, this is all hypothetical, as we cannot be certain that Ball, for all his qualities, will go in the first rounds next April. If he does, and the Packers take a chance on him, he could well come to enhance an already formidable Green Bay offense, that already boasts Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley, Randall Cobb, Greg Jennings, and of course Aaron Rodgers.

12. Robbie Rouse, Fresno State

Fresno State fans were understandably concerned about waving goodbye to Ryan Matthews, his 3, 300 - yards and 39 touchdowns, a feat that’s cemented the San Diego Charger as the school's second all-time leading rusher following the 2009 season.

His heir apparent in Robbie Rouse quickly quelled any lingering concerns by stepping up to the tune of 4,040 - yards, and 33 touchdowns since he became starter in 2010. Certainly in contrast to some of the backs featured, 5ft.7, 185-pound Rouse may look fairly diminutive, but his lack of size has proven to be anything but detrimental, especially if the aforementioned statistics are any sort of indicator.

In any case, the man who many refer to as the ‘Pocket Rocket’, Maurice Jones - Drew (7,268 - yards, 63 touchdowns and counting) also 5ft. 7, has gone on to emphatically prove that size doesn’t have to be a hindrance where it concerns productivity from the backfield.

Rouse has pace, no shortage of athletic ability, thus marking him out as a genuine downfield threat.

Despite the success of Jones - Drew since he entered the league in 2006, some scouts may still look at Rouse’s lack of stature as a serious hindrance, and as a direct result overlook him. But, as with the ‘Pocket Rocket’, Rouse may go onto have an equally prosperous pro career. So to openly dismiss the Fresno State star would be mere folly.

13. Onterio McCalebb, Auburn

Following the exit of Michael Dyer, Auburn have had to rely on Onterio McCaleb, no easy task when your factor in Dyer’s 1,242 - yards and 10 scores.

So far in 2012, McCalebb has proven to be more than up to the task, garnering 469 - yards from 76 carries, and so far finding the end - zone on four occasions. Even when playing back up to his more celebrated running mate he established himself as a more than capable foil for Dyer, scoring 7 touchdowns, 5 rushing and 2 receiving.

In the season ending Chick - fil - A Bowl on the 31st of December 2011, McCalebb stepped firmly from the shadows of his illustrious team mate, rushing for 109 - yards scoring 1 rushing touchdown and finding the end – zone on one further occasion via the aerial route.

All of which contributed to his capture of Offensive M.V.P. Furthermore, his 344 - yards from 33 receptions at receiver during the aforementioned season, mark him out as a viable duel threat. Something that should go some way to enhancing his draft value, come April.

Unfortunately though, Celebb’s march towards the NFL may hit significant bumps if NFL scouts look upon his slight frame as a deficiency and therefore overlook him. However, as with Fresno’s Robbie Rouse, size should not act as a deterrent in dissuading potential suitors from taking a gamble, even more so when looking at the success of another player often described as being on the slight side, Philly’s DeSean Jackson. A player who has gone on to become one the most dangerous and dynamic play makers in the game with 23 career touchdowns as both a receiver and kick returner, chalking up 4,771 - yards in the process.

14. Curtis McNeal, USC

Much like the lauded Matt Barkley (226 of 349 for a completion percentage of 64.7, and 33 touchdowns) and his receiving corps of Robert Woods (61 receptions for 653 - yards and 10 touchdowns) and Marqise Lee (98 receptions for 1,447 - yards and 13 touchdowns) McNeal has done more than enough to establish himself as an equally important cog in the USC offensive machine, especially when you factor his 497 - yards from 83 receptions.

Even if by the seasons close, he hasn’t replicated his exploits of 2011 where he ran up 1,005 - yards on 145 carries (averaging 6.9 - yards per carry) meeting the 1000 - yard mark on fewer carries than any other back in the college game, and scoring 6 touchdowns; scouts would be well advised to take a chance on the 5ft.', 180 pound senior.

As with Maurice Jones-Drew, and potentially Robbie Rouse, McNeal can prove that physical build even at such a physically challenging position, should not be a barrier to success in the NFL.

15. Andre Ellington, Clemson

Though Andre Ellington had to bide his time and wait for his opportunity, after spending two years as understudy for older backs C.J. Spiller and Jamie Harper, when his moment finally came, he didn’t disappoint.

In 2011, Ellington stepped into the starting role and provided a graphic illustration of why he was such a highly rated prospect coming out of South Carolina's Berkeley High School,running for 1,178 - yards from 223 carries, and scoring 11 touchdowns.

5ft.10', 190 pound Ellington proved just how valuable a piece of the Tigers offense he was,displaying his devastating pace, and leaving opposing defenders chasing dust. It would appear that he’s carried on very much where he left of in 2011, by running for 835 - yards from 164 carries, and scoring 8 touchdowns to date.

Ellington, much like Montee Ball, had the opportunity to declare and put himself incontention for the 2012 draft.

Thankfully for the Tigers, Ellington decided against such a move, and if he can finish the year in the rich vein of form he’s currently in, he’ll enhance his draft prospects no end.

With a combination of quarterback Tajh Boyd (28 touchdowns) receiver DeAndre Hopkins (14 touchdowns) and fellow back Roderick McDowell (5 touchdowns), Andre Ellington is part of one the most devastating offensive forces in college football, so much so that Clemson now sit in pole position, on top of the Atlantic Coast Conference with a 6 - 1 record, 9 - 1 overall.

16. Cierre Wood, Notre Dame

Cierre Wood provided an efficient complement to Notre Dames passing attack, racking up 1,102 yards from 217 carries, and scoring 9 times. He also proved to be a valuable receiver out of the backfield, catching 27 passes for 189 yards.

Even more impressive, Wood had 37 total rushes of 10 - yards or more, demonstrating that he has the type of explosiveness to create big runs on a consistent basis.

This year, though he may have found the end - zone with less regularity, only scoring 3 times, he’s still piled up 570 yards of offense from only 91 carries, and is a major reason why, in conjunction with receivers Tyler Eifert (3 touchdowns) and TJ Jones (3 touchdowns) as well as fellow running mate, Theo Riddick (154 carries, 714 - yards, and 4 touchdowns,

Notre Dame ascended to the top of the IA Independent Standings with a perfect 10 - 0 record.

The 6ft 215-pound junior is a well-built back who possess the perfect blend of natural talent and physical prowess to contest any defensive challenge thrown his way. The visionary nature of this back is another reason why come the 2013 draft, he’ll race up the draft board.

17. Stepfan Taylor, Stanford

Despite the loss of Andrew Luck and his monumental 82 career touchdowns to the recent draft, the Cardinals offense is in good hands due in no small part to 5ft. 11, 208 pound Taylor, whose 1, 061 - yards and 9 touchdowns.

An impressive performance that’s left Stanford at an overall 8 - 2, and 6 - 1 in the Pacific 12 North Conference.

Some will point to the fact Taylor doesn't have one specific trait that sets him apart now and in the upcoming draft, but his body of work, which includes a 2011 season that brought 1,330 rushing yards (5.5 - yards per carry) from 242 carries, and 10 touchdowns, will certainly give weight to the suggestion of an all-round back that could well leave a lasting impression not only within the mind of scouts, but on NFL defenders.

Providing he closes out 2012 with the consistency that he’s shown to date, the sky is the limit.

18. Ray Graham, Pittsburgh

Despite the Panthers in 6th place, and 4 - 6 in the Big East Conference, 84th in rushing yards , 36th overall in passing yards, Ray Graham, has proved to be, well, a Ray of light by notching up 835 - yards from 173 carries, and contributing 8 scores.

All pretty impressive in a losing side, but not nearly as impressive as his efforts in 2011, as despite being restricted to 7 games due to injury, Graham still managed to score 9 touchdowns from 164 carries, churning out 958 hard fought yards in the process, making him the fourth ranked rusher in the Big East.

The 5ft.9 195-pound senior won't overwhelm any defense with his size, but then neither has 5ft. 6 Darren Sproles, but he’s done pretty well for himself, what with his 1,874 rush yards, 2,433 receiving yards, and 33 total touchdowns.

Graham possesses the speed, vision, strength and receiving skills to be a complete every-down back, and his versatility as both a runner and a receiver should only help to boost his NFL stock.

As with all other prospective draft picks, his stock very much depends on the ability to establish consistency throughout the duration of a season. If Graham achieves this, especially whilst being associated with a losing team, he could prove too good to turn down on April 25th.

19. Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michigan

Already boasting one standout potential draft pick in Offensive Lineman Taylor Lewan, Michigan may have another superstar on their hands in Toussaint. As in 2011 he had 185 carries, and located the end – zone of 9 occasions via the ground, and another through the air.

The 5ft.10 195-pound junior has established himself as one of the premier backs to watch in the Big Ten this season, by conjuring 483 - yards from just 127 carries, and engineering 5 rushing scores to supplement his 1 receiving score, thus playing an integral role in leading ‘The Wolverines’ to a 5 - 1, and 7 - 3 overall record placing them top of the Big Ten standings.

While quarterback Denard Robinson continues to be looked upon as Michigan's offensive, leader, Toussaint is slowly but surely starting to make scouts sit up and really take notice, thus putting himself squarely on the NFL's radar.

20. Rex Burkhead, Nebraska

Much like another Rex, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, Burkhead is eating his way through opponents to the tune of 405 - yards from just 47 carries, averaging 8.6 - yards per carry.

Though he’s only found the end - zone 3 times (twice on the ground, and once through the air) you’d be hard pressed to design a better back than Burkhead to run a power based run game like the one currently being utilized in Nebraska.

Burkhead is a strong, physical and tough runner who shows no fear running into traffic, and he never shies from the physicality defenses bring.

Last year, the 5ft.11, 210-pound senior had no trouble acclimatizing to the Big Ten, as he racked up 1,357 yards of offense, scoring 17 touchdowns, and in the process becoming one of a select group including Clemson’s Andre Ellington, and USC’s Curtis McNeal to have a 1,000 - yard season.

While white runningbacks, particularly white runningbacks with 1,000 - yard seasons, are very much a rare commodity in the National Football League, Burkhead has the size, speed,strength and receiving skills to potentially replicate the success of the last pro white running back to go for over 1,000 - yards in a season - Payton Hillis (1,177).

Although, one hopes that if he does make it to the NFL, the dreaded ‘Madden Curse’ doesn’t inflict itself on Burkhead…

image: © ssshupe