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

Joseph Randle

In part one, Richard Moore takes a detailed look at 10 of the most talented Running Backs in College Football.

During the embryonic stages of their respective NFL careers, Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin (1st round, 31st overall pick) and Washington’s Alfred Morris (6th round, 673rd overall pick) have lit up the league with some scintillating displays, none more so than Martin’s franchise record 251 - yards and 4 touchdowns against the Oakland Raiders in week 9.

As a result of their spectacular introductions, both now sit at the elite table, situated amongst a top ten of stellar campaigners in Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch, Frank Gore, Chris Johnson, Jamal Charles, LeSean McCoy, and second year sensation, Stevan Ridley of the New England Patriots.

Taking into consideration Martin’s 862 - yards from 173 carries, and 7 touchdowns, and Morris’s 793 - yards from 164 carries, and 5 scores to date (performances that have left the aforementioned 4th and 7th respectively, in the top ten most productive backs in the league),

All of this is not to mention Trent Richardson, a top 10 draft pick who at the Cleveland Browns in his rookie season has made 5 touchdowns for 670 yards.

I wanted to take a close look at the best collegic prospects at runningback, and to ascertain if they could have a similar impact if taken in next year’s draft. In no particular order, here are the first 10...

1. Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State

Oklahoma State possessed one the most explosive passing attacks in 2011, courtesy of a devastating partnership between quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon.

A combination that lead the Cowboys to a 12-1 record, first place in the Big 12 Conference with a .923 % win/loss record, and a 41 - 38 win over Andrew luck’s Stanford in the ‘Fiesta Bowl’

Fortunately, the loss of the aforementioned pairing, which combined for 18 of the 37 touchdown passes thrown by Weeden, has been offset somewhat by the performances of runningback Randle, who after only 196 carries already has 1,008 - yards, averaging 5.1 - yards per carry, and has run up 9 scores.

If he remains injury free by avoiding the same fate as South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore (more on him later), he remains well on course to supersede his efforts of last season where he totaled 1,216 - yards from 208 carries, averaged 6.2 - yards per carry, and scored 26 touchdowns.

The 6 ft.1, 191-pound Randle is a dynamic runner who possesses the perfect marriage of speed and elusiveness that only truly elite backs can offer, thus putting him not only in contention for the coverted Heisman trophy, but potentially placing him at the head of the line, come the 2013 draft.

Though, competition will be fierce, as the depth of talent at runningback is potentially the strongest at collegic level for many a year, there are no guarantees. However, as noted previously, if Randle continues to build on his imperious form, he’ll do his chances no harm…

2. Knile Davis, Arkansas

This is an interesting one, as Davis has only scored two touchdowns, (one rushing), which out of the 20 backs featured in this list, is well below the average of 7.7.

Though it must be noted that Davis is still finding his way back, following a desperately unlucky ankle injury sustained in August last year, and therefore this is no time to be making snap judgments or resorting to hyperbole, especially based on the aforementioned statistic.

However, irrespective of his modest total, if Davis can replicate his breakout 2010 season, where he rushed for 1,322 - yards and scored 14 (13 rushing, and 1 receiving), there is no doubt that he’ll once again be at the forefront of scouting consciousness and potentially go on to have a prosperous NFL career; especially when taking into consideration the fact that 6 ft.1, 226-pound junior Davis represents that rare combination of size, speed, power, agility, vision and balance.

With quarterback Tyler Wilson, receiver Cobi Hamilton, tight - end Chris Gragg, and Davis back in the fold, Arkansas have a combination that could carry them to something of real significance this season. Though if that ‘something’ is to happen, it will have to happen rather quickly, as Arkansas currently occupy 6th place in the Southeastern West Conference division, at 4 - 6, 2 - 4 overall.

3. Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina

Marcus Lattimore arrived at Carolina with huge expectations, and therefore had a lot to live up to.

He needn’t have worried as he produced a simply sublime campaign, completely dominating to the tune of 1,197 - yards and nineteen touchdowns. However, if he wasn’t feeling the pressure then, he surely would, come his sophomore year. As inevitably, following the conclusion of a standout performance, most athletes (despite Lattimore being of collegic status) are expected to replicate (Tiger Woods and Roger Federer being a case in point) or even surpass.

After bulking up and adding a considerable volume of muscle to an already impressive frame, during the offseason. The 6ft.1, 232-pound junior was in the process of fashioning a sophomore season that could, incredibly, supersede the previous one, thus casting aside any doubts about his ability to cope with the pressure. He came out and compiled 932 yards of offense and scored 10 touchdowns in the team's first six games of 2011.

Unfortunately, following the tearing of cruciate ligaments in his left knee, an injury that signaled an end to his sophomore season, the injury curse struck another blow.

On the 27th of October of this year Lattimore lay writhing in agony, his right knee ligaments nothing more than a twisted mess, following a tackle from Tennessee defensive back Eric Gordon, during Carolina’s 38 - 35 win.

Just as in 2011, Lattimore was on the verge of creating something truly magnificent, as prior to this cruel twist of fate, he was the Gamecock’s leading rusher accounting for 662 - yards of their total offense, and scoring 11 touchdowns in the process.

For his career, Lattimore has rushed for 555 times for a total of 2,677 yards, contributing 41 touchdowns, 38 rushing, and 2 through the air, establishing a school record in the process.

Lattimore is certainly a rare physical specimen, and arguably one of the finest backs to have emerged from the collegic system in years, and one hopes that following such ill - fortune, he’s afforded the chance to maximize his potential, and go onto become an NFL great.

The road ahead may be a long and challenging one, too long perhaps for this prodigiously gifted youngster and his prospects in the 2013 draft, but for all concerned, recent news makes for more encouraging reading, certainly if Daryl Slater’s (via twitter) ‘USC puts out release on Lattimore with no new info. Surgery went well. Multiple ligaments fixed…’ of the Post and Courier, (based in Charleston, South Carolina), words are anything to go by.

Though there may be many who question the wisdom of including a player on a list of 2013 draft prospects, one that isn’t even eligible given recent travails, I felt compelled to include Lattimore, because he’s a prospect that’s too talented not to complete his journey to the promised land of the NFL.

It may not happen next year, but if the rehabilitation is successful, and Lattimore can replicate the astonishing level of performance before his recent set - back, the 2014 draft may well represent the gateway to a prosperous career.

4. Le’Veon Bell, Michigan State

The first impression one gets when gazing upon Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell, is that he’s the ultimate amalgamation of intangibles that make him a defenders worst nightmare.

At 6ft.2, 237-pound Bell is, like his aforementioned contemporaries, the perfect combination of power, rapidity, and elusiveness.

Last year, the junior had to share the load with fellow backfield mate Edwin Baker, but he still ran for 948 yards and scored 13 touchdowns on a fairly modest 182 total carries.

If that wasn’t enough to spread fear throughout the Big Ten conference, his 1,249 - yards from 283 carries, resulting in 10 touchdowns, should.

Bell employs a punishing running style; much like San Francisco’s Frank Gore, a back who’s not averse to dishing out pain by, like Bell, lowering his shoulder and leveling any defender brave enough to block his path.

5. Eddie Lacy, Alabama

Much like Trent Richardson before him, Alabama may well have unearthed another potential first round pick in Eddie Lacy, presuming the later continues to progress, and build on his impressive 771 - yards, 5.7 - yards per carry, and 9 touchdowns.

Even though Trent Richardson carried the load for a significant proportion last season, as evidenced by his 1,679 - yards from 283 carries, Lacy showed that he was more than up to the task when it came to sharing responsibility for Alabama’s run game in 2011, by averaging 7.1 yards per carry on 95 carries, managing 7 touchdowns in the process.

The 6 ft1, 220-pound junior proved that he was the type of big, powerful downhill runner that's a perfect fit for Alabama's offense.

Lacy may not possess the rapid turn of pace many NFL scouts desire, but he does appear to have the durability and power to break tackles and grind a defense into submission.

6. Kenjon Barner, Oregon

The film title reads ‘The Mighty Ducks’, but it may as well just be an analogy to describe another blockbuster development - The Oregon Ducks offense, an offense that’s devouring opponents across the collegic landscape, to the tune of 54.8 points per game.

Kenjon Barner very much one of the leading men, fashioning 1,360 - yards and 19 touchdowns. All of which has left the Ducks unbeaten at the top of the Pacific North Conference at 10 - 0, and contributed mightily to cementing them as the top ranked offense at College level.

Despite the void left by the departure of LaMicheal James, and his 5,082 - yards and 53 touchdowns, the Ducks have the weapons in Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas, to compensate.

Barner and Thomas both possess the turn of pace to decimate any defense and defensive scheme encountered. In 2011, Barner ran for 939 yards on just 152 carries, averaging 6.2 yards per carry, scored 14 touchdowns (11 rushing, 3 receiving) in total, and engineered 27 runs that consisted of 10 yards or more.

The 5ft.11, 195-pound senior may be more fleet footed runner than an out and out power runner, but his acceleration and athletic ability mark him out as one of the most dangerous running backs at collegic level, significantly enhancing his value come next April.

7. Spencer Ware, LSU

LSU possess what many would describe as the most formidable backfield in college football, due to a quartet comprising of Spencer Ware (281 - yards, 74 carries, 0 touchdowns), Kenny Hilliard (76 carries, 449 - yards, and 6 touchdowns), Jeremy Hill (92 carries, 477 - yards, and 6 touchdowns) and Michael Ford (64 carries, 375 - yards, and 3 touchdowns).

However, it is Ware in particular, who’s looked upon as the linchpin of the group, despite the fact that out of the aforementioned foursome, he’s contributed the least in terms of yardage and touchdowns in 2012.

Ware was joint most productive back, along with Hilliard at LSU in 2011, with 8 rushing touchdowns and 1 receiving, chalking up 707 - yards, from just 177 carries.

5ft. 11, 223 pound Ware is a powerfully built back, very much in the Michael Turner (5ft 10, 247 pound) mould, the type of backfield runner designed to penetrate big, physical defenses found in the SEC, and potentially in the NFL.

Ware may not have the type of explosive speed to change the dynamic of a contest with powerful and swift game changing runs, like, for example, an Adrian Peterson, but his sturdy frame, balance and vision, give him the ability to infiltrate any defense and get the ball into the end - zone on a consistent basis.

8. Johnathan Franklin, UCLA

Franklin and his offense, under a coaching tenure very much in its infancy, following the arrival of former Seattle Seahawks coach Jim Mora, have gone some way to eradicate any lingering memory of past failures under the Rick Neuheisel regime. A reign that concluded with a 21 - 29 win - loss record.

One of the main factors behind the current Mora lead revival lies in the performances of 5 ft. 10, 193 pound senior, Franklin, who, along with quarterback Brett Hundley (24 touchdowns) and receiver Joseph Fauria (9 touchdowns) are why UCLA are at the summit of the Pacific 12 South Conference Division at 5 - 2, and 8 - 2 overall.

Even throughout the disappointing Neuheisel tenure, Franklin was so often the shining light, as over three full seasons as a Bruin, he’s totaled 2,669 yards, scored 19 touchdowns, running in 18.

The 5ft.10, 193 pound senior is one of the most athletic and physically skilled backs in the country, and he possesses the type of speed, agility and natural instincts to cause plenty of chaos for opposing defenses.

Last year, Franklin had 12 runs of 20 yards or more, all the more remarkable when you take into consideration he was met with some pretty ordinary blocking. If the offensive line continues to improve in conjunction with Franklin’s supporting cast throughout the current campaign, there’s a very strong possibility he’ll improve his draft stock no - end.

9. Giovani Bernard, North Carolina

Giovani Bernard has emerged as one of the most dynamic playmakers at collegic level. The lightening quick back is a genuine big-play threat who possesses the capacity to inflict major damage from the line of scrimmage, at every available opportunity.

In 2011 Bernard amassed 1,253 yards from 239 carries, averaging an impressive 5.2 yards per carry, and found the end - zone 14 times, courtesy of 13 rushing scores and one aerial reception.

Through ten games played so far, it appears Bernard has taken his performance to a whole new level and is now averaging 7.1 - yards per carry, has scored 15 touchdowns, 11 rushing and 4 receiving accounted for 10 touchdowns, and plundered 1008 - yards from 142 carries in the process.

All of which compares favorably with three of the NFL’s standout backs this season in Adrian Peterson - 195 carries, 1,128 - yards, 5.8 yards per carry, and 7 touchdowns, Arian Foster - 221 carries, 872 - yards, 3.9 - yards per carry, and 10 touchdowns, Marshawn Lynch - 212 carries, 1,005 - yards, and 5 touchdowns.

The 5ft. 10, 205-pound sophomore should, if remaining injury free, complete the metamorphosis from precocious talent to NFL stalwart, much like the aforementioned examples.

Though, given the pass happy culture that now exists in the NFL, and the standard of defenses, one would be well advised to hang fire on excessive eulogy. Colleges may be the ideal breeding ground for learning; the NFL is that most uncompromising of finishing schools. Time will tell us just how much Bernard can develop.

However, all things considered, there's no reason to suggest he can’t go on to become the number one pick for his position next April, thus beginning what could become a prosperous pro career.

10. Cameron Marshall, Arizona State

Arizona State, despite now being without 6ft. 6 starting quarterback Brock Osweiler (4036 - yards and 26 touchdowns), who’s since gone on to assume the role of Payton Manning’s back - up in Denver, the Sun Devils went into the 2012 season hoping one of the very best rushers in the Pac-12, Cameron Marshall, could have a similar campaign to the one he had in 2011.

Last season, Marshall finished joint first in terms of rushing scores, with 18 (from 230 carries, averaging 4.6 per carry) in total, and he was one of only seven runningbacks in the Pac-12 to exceed the 1,000-yard rushing mark, amassing 1, 050 himself. All the more impressive when you consider the Devils finished 2011 bottom of the Pacific 12 Conference, South Division, with a 4 - 8 overall record (3 - 3 at home, 1 - 5 on the road).

Marshall has the size, strength and durability to carry the load from now until the conclusion of the current campaign. Therefore he should have plenty of opportunities to impress NFL Scouts, significantly enhancing his burgeoning reputation, and draft opportunities.

All the more so when taking into account his intriguing speed and athleticism for his size, 5 ft. 11, 223 pounds.

Crucially his position will become all the more advantageous come next April, as he’s the physical embodiment of what NFL teams come to look for in a power back.

image: © xtrah