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2008 NFL RB Draft Class
Version 1.0

It’s never too soon to start thinking about the next group of future NFL stars. Here’s an early look at running back, classifying the top senior prospects and then talking about some of the underclassmen likely to consider declaring early.

Blue Chips | Best Achievement, Questionable Potential | Best Potential, Limited Achievement
Looking To Rebound | The Backups | Small School | Underclassmen

Key: Name (School - Class) Height Weight

Blue Chips
I usually lead off my RB review with the senior cream of the crop heading into this college season. They would combine both NFL measurables and significant collegiate success that have them on the path to being the top RBs selected in the 2008 draft. However this year, there are none in the senior class. I have enough questions about every RB in this senior class to not see one as a first round lock. The underclassmen, which we’ll review later, are a different story. Depending on who declares, we could see a number of underclassmen off the board before the first senior RB is chosen.

Best Achievement, Questionable Potential
This group includes those who lack ideal measurables: too small and/or too slow, by the perceived NFL standard. Despite their tremendous collegiate success, many teams may see them as limited to situational roles, lowering their draft value.

Mike Hart (Michigan – 4SR) 5’9” 193
The 2004 Freshman All-American rebounded well last season after an injury-plagued 2005. He missed four games in 2005 due to hamstring and ankle problems, as well as only being able to finish five of the eight games he played in. Healthy again in 2006, Hart helped lead Michigan to the brink of a chance to play for the National Championship against their arch-rival. While they ultimately lost to the Buckeyes, it wasn't for lack of anything Hart did. Never a player to shrink in the spotlight, Hart was at the top of his game as he rushed for 142 yards on 23 carries (6.2 ypc) and three TDs at Ohio State. He sat out this spring recovering from minor surgery to clean up his left shoulder. Hart is expected to be ready for the season.

While a bit smaller than ideal for a feature back at the next level, Hart runs with good power and can carry the load. He is a workhorse who can handle 30 carries a game, if needed. He did so four times in 2006 and was over 90 rushing yards in every regular season game last year. The team is 20-3 in Hart's career when he carries the ball at least 20 times. Hart lacks breakaway speed (he has just three runs over 35 yards in his career) and won't break your ankles with his moves, but he is a patient runner who allows his blocks to be set up, then has good burst through the hole and finishes strong. He is an ideal fit for a one-cut zone blocking scheme. Hart not only had a strong desire to return for his senior year, but was a leader in recruiting others to do so. With fellow key offensive players LT Jake Long and QB Chad Henne both returning, Hart is well-placed for individual and team accolades that will help his draft value. The absence of top backup Kevin Grady, who tore his ACL in April, guarantees Hart won’t see any less of a workload this season. Despite all those things lining him up to produce tremendous numbers, I expect he'll ultimately be hurt when it comes time for measurements and testing at the Combine and their Pro Day.

Justin Forsett (California – 4SR) 5’8” 180
Stuck behind J.J. Arrington and Marshawn Lynch in one of the most talented backfields in the country his first three years, Forsett could have started on many teams sooner. Instead, he has thrived as a backup and demonstrated his ability to be a feature back in limited opportunities to carry the load when Lynch was out with injuries. Despite being second on the depth chart, he has run for over 600 yards each of the last two seasons, including falling one yard short of 1K in 2005. The 6.39 career ypc he enters this season with is the highest for any D-I FBS RB with over 250 career carries. His work in the final scrimmage was limited as a precaution, but he is healthy and at the top of the depth chart when the season begins.

With the Bears’ explosive offense returning eight starters, including three linemen, QB Nate Longshore, and playmaking WR DeSean Jackson, Forsett is well placed to have an extremely productive season and further his draft value. While offensive guru HC Jeff Tedford is confident Forsett can carry the load, 2FR James Montgomery will be worked in as Forsett was with Lynch the last two years. Forsett is undersized and while his rushing average is indicative of his ability to get to the second level, he isn’t truly a home run hitter. His longest run last year was 48 yards. His strength as a runner is his quickness and agility, able to stop on a dime and cut like a poor man’s Barry Sanders. As a backup most of his career, he adds value with significant experience on special teams. Although he has not worked as the primary returner, he also has worked as one on kickoffs. Forsett was a bit difficult to classify because as never being a starter, he doesn’t have the single-season stats of some others in this category. However, if he remains healthy, the production will come in Tedford’s offense. The bigger concern is his measurables.

Dantrell Savage (Oklahoma State – 4SR) 5’9” 190
The Cowboys began the season with Mike Hamilton as their starting RB. Hamilton appeared to be the next great OSU back coming off being named 2005 Big 12 Newcomer of the Year as a freshman. When Hamilton went down with a knee injury, JUCO transfer Savage took over and burst on the scene. He went over 100 yards when he was featured in five of their last seven games, including as Offensive MVP in their Independence Bowl victory. Hamilton has since transferred, but 2SO Keith Toston will dip in to Savage’s carries. Toston also leapfrogged Hamilton last year and was almost as productive as Savage on 20 less carries.

Savage has breakaway speed and is a home run hitter. Two runs over 50 yards contributed to his 6.5 ypc last year, while he rushed for 72 yards on just 8 carries (9.0 ypc) in helping the White to a victory in their spring game. However, he doesn’t appear to have the size to be a workhorse back and the success of Toston as a true freshman will help limit Savage’s carries. While Savage hasn’t been used in the role at OSU, he excelled as a returner in JUCO. He is an exciting prospect, but probably limited to a change of pace role at the next level.

Yvenson Bernard (Oregon State – 5SR) 5’9” 202
Bernard remains relatively overlooked despite posting back-to-back 1K seasons. Incredibly consistent, he rushed for 299-1321-13 in 2005 and 296-1307-12 in 2006. A very good receiver, he also has 80 receptions the last two years. He sat out their spring game as a precaution.

Bernard never seriously flirted with declaring, despite being one of the most productive backs in the country the last two years. He is a bit undersized for a feature back, but has the receiving skills that make him an appealing change of pace back, at a minimum.

Kalvin McRae (Ohio – 4SR) 5’11” 208
McRae moved in on the starting role as a true freshman in 2004 before back-to-back 1K seasons and first-team All-MAC performances the last two years. He had just nine yards on five carries in the spring game as he was held out of the second half as a precaution.

McRae is the best collegiate senior RB many people haven’t heard of. Despite the recent NFL success of MAC and other mid-major players, McRae will face some skepticism about the level of his competition. Ohio hasn’t played a particularly challenging non-conference schedule, but his performance significantly dips against non-MAC competition. He hasn’t rushed for 100+ yards against an opponent from a major conference and his ypc is lower against them, as well.

Hugh Charles (Colorado – 4SR) 5’8” 190
Began his Buffalo career in the tumultuous 2004 season when scandals, instead of victories, got the football headlines. Charles took over as the starter in 2005 and remained the feature back in 2006. His numbers dipped a bit last season (139-779-1) as mobile QB Bernard Jackson became the leading rusher. He has been healthy and featured all spring.

Charles is undersized and has never carried the load in college, so won’t at the next level. He has home run speed, but little experience as a returner and is a marginal receiver, so he has work to add value as a change of pace back. With a run-first QB in Jackson (who may be a better NFL prospect at RB), Charles is unlikely to develop much more as a receiver this season. However, he has seen significant work returning kick-offs this spring with promising results.

Anthony Alridge (Houston – 5SR) 5’9” 175
Converted after being primarily a backup WR in 2005, Alridge was the home run hitter in Houston’s 2006 RBBC. He had 959 yards on just 95 carries for an incredible 10.1 ypc, the best in D-I BCS. His average was bolstered by seven runs over 30 yards, including two 77-yard TD runs at SMU and an 87-yard TD run against Tulane. Although Jackie Battle is gone, Alridge appears once again likely to be in a RBBC. Larger 2FR Randall Antoine looked like a back capable of being a workhorse when he led the team in rushing (18-98-1) and receiving (5-27-0) in their spring game. Alridge had 56 yards on just 8 carries as he was limited to keep him healthy.

Alridge is undersized, but an explosive playmaker. He is an elusive runner and danger in space. He is able to exploit defenses in particular with this as a receiver in generating YAC. He led the Cougars in 2005 with an outstanding 22.7 average as a receiver on 13 catches, including three over 50 yards. In 2006, he had 14.4 ypc, impressive for working primarily out of the backfield. He also proved to be a top kick returner when moved to that role last season. Alridge doesn’t really fit this category as far as achievement, but he doesn’t really belong anywhere else and his potential is definitely limited by his size. He needs to pack his resume more this year to be anything more than an undrafted free agent, but his big play ability and his position flexibility are intriguing.

Best Potential, Limited Achievement
While this group has ideal measurables and/or flashed the skills that could make them Day One picks, unlike those looking to rebound, their production either hasn’t been significant or consistent enough to be considered a top prospect. Whether it's transferring, crowded backfield situations, injuries, just one big season, or a combination, they have to fully capitalize on their potential this season to be an early pick.

Tashard Choice (Georgia Tech – 5SR) 6’0” 205
The Oklahoma transfer wisely packed up after Adrian Peterson arrived in Norman and blew up as a true freshman in 2004. An unusual waiver of residency by the NCAA (he claimed his transfer was necessitated by a family situation) allowed him to not be required to sit out 2005 after transferring. Thanks to that, he got his feet wet in HC Chan Gailey's offense as the back-up to P.J. Daniels that year. Then in WR Calvin Johnson's shadow last season, Choice quietly emerged to lead the ACC in rushing, with over 1,400 yards and 12 TDs. After easing in to the starter role, he caught fire as they began conference play and in to the post-season. Choice went over 100 rushing yards in a school-record nine games, including a career-high 169 rushing yards in a near-upset of West Virginia in the Gator Bowl.

With a new QB and four returning starters on the offensive line, who the Yellow Jackets will feature on offense is not a choice, it is Choice. However, he was fourth in D-I FBS with 297 carries last season (a school record), so his durability will be put to a test and it is hard to imagine a much better season statistically. Improving on his 12 receptions to show he can be a complete back would be one area. A rookie QB will likely be looking for his dump-off option a lot early. It will also give him a chance to show if he can handle pass blocking. He has also indicated he hopes to show he can be a home run threat this year (his career long is 46 yards). With good size, if he can continue to be a workhorse and show development in those areas, he could be the top-rated senior back coming out of the season.

Amir Pinnix (Minnesota – 5SR) 6’0” 205
After Gary Russell’s exit last season due to academic problems, everyone in the backfield moved up a spot and Pinnix was the biggest beneficiary. As the feature back last season, he rushed for 10 TDs and over 1,000 yards, including three consecutive 100-yard games at the end of the season.

He is slated to carry the load again this season, with redshirt sophomore Jay Thomas likely to see a bigger role as the Gophers return to using more of the two-back system they’ve successfully employed in the recent past. Pinnix doesn’t have the size or power of Barber, Maroney, or even Russell, but he is an elusive one-cut runner who is a perfect fit for the zone blocking scheme new HC Tim Brewster is looking to install. The success of recent Gopher backs in the NFL will help the perception of Pinnix if he has another productive season, as well.

Allen Patrick (Oklahoma – 5SR) 6’0” 191
2005 JUCO transfer was a DB recruit who converted to RB early in his first season. However, most of his time was spent on special teams. Last season, he stepped up when Adrian Peterson went down and was outstanding in Peterson’s place. Patrick looked to be in the lead to replace Peterson this year. However, 2FR DeMarco Murray has stolen the show this spring, while 2FR Mossis Madu and 2SO Chris Brown are in the picture, as well. Patrick’s production this year is likely to be limited in a RBBC. However, if he has the speed and is as good an athlete as advertised, Patrick should help himself at the Combine and during his Pro Day.

Ryan Torain (Arizona State – 4SR) 6’0” 213
2006 JUCO transfer immediately solidified a backfield that had not had a 1K rusher since 2001. His 1,229 rushing yards were the most by a Sun Devil since 1975. Torain picked up where he left off last season in the spring game. He led all rushers with 68 yards on just 9 carries and two scores, all in the first half.

While he caught only 18 passes last season, it was good for third on the team. He runs good routes and has excellent hands. Torain is overlooked nationally playing in the PAC-10 and for an ASU program that hasn’t had a noteworthy rusher in years. However, he is on the radar now and brings legit NFL measurables. While he needs to learn a new offense under new HC Dennis Erickson, his position is locked in and the offense is in good shape returning ten starters, including the entire offensive line. Similar production this fall and will be climbing up draft boards by the end of the season.

Peyton Hillis (Arkansas – 4SR) 6’1” 243
His breakout true freshman season in 2004 as both a fullback and running back was interrupted by a serious lower back injury. He suffered fractures of the transverse processes in three vertebrates (Keith Brooking and Dante Culpepper are a couple notable NFL players who resumed their careers after the same injury). He was expected to miss several weeks, possibly the season, but showed some outstanding toughness in returning just three weeks later. With the addition of blue chip prospects 3JR Darren McFadden and 3JR Felix Jones in 2005, Hillis’ rushing duties took a back seat. However, Hillis stepped up his game in other areas, leading the team in receptions (38) and taking over as their primary punt returner, while developing as a blocker playing almost exclusively at fullback. His production fell significantly last season. After talk of converting him to LB, new OC Gus Malzahn never figured out how to properly utilize his talents. It didn’t help that Hillis had some leg injuries early in the season that plagued him the whole year and cost him a few games. This year, Malzahn is gone and Hillis should be back in the offensive game plan more. He led the team in receiving in the spring game.

Hillis is a true multi-purpose threat who can line up at any skill position, as well as being a productive returner. Fullback or H-Back seems his likely NFL calling. While comparisons to Mike Alstott and Brian Leonard seem obvious, his strengths and weaknesses differ significantly. He lacks the speed of either, but unlike both, Hillis is an outstanding blocker. Like both, Hillis is an outstanding receiver for a big man, but like Leonard, he can do it running routes and not just out of the backfield. Hillis has Alstott’s size, bigger than Leonard, but isn’t the short-yardage hammer as a runner that Alstott was. Durability has been a bit of a problem and in the best backfield in the nation he isn’t going to produce much as a runner, but he size and variety of talents make him an intriguing prospect.

Cory Boyd (South Carolina – 4SR) 6’1” 214
After two seasons backing up Demetris Summers, Boyd was suspended for the 2005 season. The suspension was non-academic, the only official statement was it was for a violation of athletic department policies. After being part of a group that frequently missed off-season workouts and meetings under former HC Lou Holtz, Boyd was one of several suspensions by HC Steve Spurrier to clean house. Boyd got on board with the program, returning with his best season in 2006. Splitting carries with 3JR Mike Davis, Boyd led the team in rushing and touchdowns. Boyd also was third on his team and led SEC RBs with 35 receptions. He picked up where he left off in their spring game, rushing for 58 yards on 8 carries, including both the Black team’s TDs, in victory.

Boyd is a bit under the radar after being out of sight for a year and in a RBBC last year, but he is an exciting prospect with ideal size and usefulness in the passing game to be a feature back. He runs a little high, but squares his shoulders to deliver the blow to defenders at the end of a run. His balance and cut-back ability are very good, as well. However, he still carries the stigma of his questionable work ethic. Another productive season under Spurrier will go a long way to proving it was just youthful indiscretions and that Boyd’s maturity has caught up to his talent.

Chris Markey (UCLA – 4SR) 5’11” 204
Living in the shadow of Maurice Jones-Drew his first two years, Markey’s breakout came in their Sun Bowl victory following the 2005 season. After an injury to Jones-Drew, Markey came off the bench to rush for 161 yards on 24 carries. The co-MVP of the game had a 51-yard run to set up a game-tying score against Northwestern after the Bruins went down 22-0 in the first quarter. After Jones-Drew left, Markey took over the reigns in 2006 and drove the offense as their feature weapon. He led the team in rushing (227-1,163-2) and receiving (35 receptions) last season. Markey suffered a stress fracture in his right foot in spring practice after coming down awkwardly after a reception. He missed the spring game, but is expected to be fine by the start of camp.

Markey is a textbook example of a star-in-waiting who emerges after the departure to the NFL of the player in front of him. He is decent size and outstanding game speed, a breakaway threat who had at least one run over 50 yards each of his three seasons. His productivity wasn’t impacted with the increased work last year, as he kept his ypc right around a 5.0 average. While he was relieved of kick return duties as the feature runner last year, he was an excellent returner his first two years. He has never been used much as a punt returner, but has a 41-yarder among his five career returns. I expect Markey’s draft stock to climb quickly this season in a senior class that lacks stars at the top.

Jehuu Caulcrick (Michigan State – 5SR) 6’0” 258
Originally recruited as a RB, he was converted to LB and played there on the scout team during his redshirt season in 2003. He returned to RB in spring 2004 and has been the power running option in their backfield since. The last two years he has combined with 3JR Javon Ringer to form a thunder and lightning combination. Last year Ringer missed several games and was limited in a few others by a knee sprain. Without a home run threat in the backfield and with the passing game struggling at times, teams loaded up to stop the power running game. Caulcrick’s average suffered, down a yard and a half over his career ypc. His productivity has dropped each year since his breakout 2004 season. This spring, Caulcrick saw just seven carries for ten yards in their spring game. His action was limited as a precaution. Ringer, who had reportedly has had an excellent spring, was also limited to ten carries, but turned them in to 60 yards.

As the complimentary back most of his career, Caulcrick has never had more than 113 carries or 619 yards in a season. He is the latest in a series of recent super-sized runners trying to prove they are more than candidates for conversion to FB. He follows in the footsteps of Greg Jones, Brandon Jacobs, and Michael Bush, but is not the same level of prospect. Caulcrick is still an intriguing size/speed combination and that unique combination keeps him on the draft radar.

Kregg Lumpkin (Georgia – 5SR) 6’1” 222
After being the more productive runner while splitting carries as a true freshman in 2003, Lumpkin looked ready to take over Georgia’s running game. A torn ACL in camp ended his 2004 season before it began. While he sat out, 4SR Thomas Brown and Danny Ware exploded as true freshmen. In 2005, Lumpkin still struggled with the knee and spent most of the season as RB. Last year he regained form and a knee injury to Brown helped pave the way for Lumpkin to the head of the RBBC. Lumpkin had twice as many carries (162) as the next leading rusher (Ware) and led the team with 798 yards for a team-high 4.9 ypc. Lumpkin had 53 yards and a score in their G-Day Game, but all the buzz has been about 2FR Knowshon Moreno (11-68-2 in game) this spring.

Lumpkin has ideal size and runs with good power, but has not recovered the unspectacular speed he had pre-injury (he’s never had a run over 35 yards). He is stuck once again in a deep RBBC. While Ware declared early to be an undrafted free agent, Brown is expected to be ready for the beginning of the season and Moreno should earn his share of work. Lumpkin is unlikely to produce the numbers to garner more attention and unlikely to impress in physical tests after the season.

Lennox “L.V.” Whitworth (Boston College – 5SR) 5’11” 216
L.V. started all 25 games the last two years, but holds only a slight advantage in carries over fellow 5SR Andre Callender. He led the team in attempts (174) and rushing yards (837) again last season. Whitworth has good size and adds value as a receiver. He has been a steady, but unspectacular performer and is a marginal NFL prospect without a stellar resume because he’s shared the ball his whole career.

Looking to Rebound
Whether it was injuries or a down year that didn’t match potential and/or previous achievement, the stock for this group has dropped. However, the table is set for a comeback year in their final season of eligibility, and they could rise quickly up draft boards if they produce.

Rafael Little (Kentucky – 4SR) 5’10” 195
One of the top all-purpose HS runners in 2004, Little found no takers at a better program because of his size. Knee surgery the summer before his freshman year had him miss his the first game and limited him early in the season. By the end of the year, he finished as the starter and led the team in rushing despite just posting 265 yards. He broke out in his second year, leading the team in rushing (1,045), receiving (46 receptions), and the SEC in punt return average (16.9) on his way to setting the school’s single-season all-purpose yardage record (1,982). However, injury problems returned again last year. He injured his left knee the second game of the season, but after a MRI showed no damage. He struggled through the next several games, missing one, as he battled recurring swelling in the knee. He finally had arthroscopic surgery in early October to try to properly diagnosis the problem. A tear in the lateral cartilage was found and repaired. He missed the next three games while the knee healed and when he returned at the end of the season, he finally looked like himself. Little rushed for over 100 yards in two of the final four games and was over 100 all-purpose yards in all of them, including an 84-yard punt return TD. Little had another procedure on the knee in the off-season, but he was healthy enough to play in the spring game. He rushed for 31 yards on seven carries and had a 48-yard TD reception.

Critics who doubted Little could handle the rigors of being a feature back in the SEC were proven correct, although when healthy he has proven that he has more than enough talent to succeed. While not too short, he has a thin frame that seems unlikely to be capable of carrying more weight without hampering his outstanding agility. His draft prospects are as a change of pace back and returner, for which he has the ideal skill set. Little is an outstanding punt returner, and while not used much on kick-offs, he has a 99-yard TD on one of the seven he has taken. His excellent hands extend to the receiving game, where he also excels at running after the catch. This is quantified by his nearly 11 yards per catch, outstanding for a RB. The value he adds receiving and as a returner give him desirable mid-to-late round value, if his durability holds up this year.

Albert Young (Iowa – 5SR) 5’9” 209
Injury plagued start to his career featured a prep knee injury, redshirting his first season in 2003 after a broken fibula in camp, and a torn right ACL his second game of the 2004 season. It all turned around in 2005 when went over 1,300 yards rushing for the season and led the Big Ten (125.2 ypg) in conference play. The second team all-conference RB had a school-record eight 100-yard games rushing in 2005, double the previous high in Hawkeye history. Young headed in to the 2006 season as one of the top young RBs in the country and a possible candidate to declare early. However, injury problems returned last year. He missed time with a leg strain and later a knee sprain, finishing the season with just 779 yards rushing on 178 carries.

Young never had breakaway speed, his longest career run is 36 yards, but succeeded as an elusive slasher with good vision and surprising power for his size. However, last year he struggled to showcase those skills as he battled injuries. His ypc were down almost a full yard and his longest run of the season, 26 yards, came in their last game after almost a month of rest. Even if he’s fully healthy this year, he will have a hard time producing big numbers. Home run hitting 4SR Damian Simms has progressed well and the two should be a full-blown RBBC this fall. Both were limited in the spring game as a precaution. Regardless of how well Young bounces back, his draft value is limited by his durability and measurables. He does add value as a very good receiver and kick returner, but lacks elite speed to project as being special as either a change of pace back or returner.

Austin Scott (Penn State – 5SR) 5’11” 222
An afterthought in most rankings, Scott looks to salvage his draft value as he returns after taking a redshirt last year. The Pennsylvania native came to State College in 2003 as a record-breaking blue chip recruit looking to take the mantle from Larry Johnson as the next great Nittany Lion RB. Now Scott must hope to finally emerge as a fifth-year senior the same way Johnson did. Scott was more touted than Tony Hunt when both came in the same recruiting class, but after Scott failed to impress as a true freshman, Hunt began to see more work and separated himself from Scott more and more each year. Scott rushed for a game-high 53 yards on the losing side in their spring game behind the second-string offensive line.

Injuries have played their part in stalling Scott’s career, as he has been hit with mononucleosis, multiple ankle problems since breaking one in March 2005, and a left knee injury in the spring of 2006. However, all acknowledging the role those issues have played in preventing his development is point out the problem durability is for him. His decision to redshirt last season also brings to question his dedication. After a knee injury last spring and aggravating his ankle in the summer, Scott wasn’t fully healed until their second game. HC Joe Paterno left the decision to Scott as to whether or not he wanted to redshirt. Scott chose to skip the season, explaining in an interview with The Patriot-News that, “I just saw the line needed another year…”, or he was not confident running behind their offensive line last year. Obviously this wasn’t a problem for Tony Hunt. Regardless, he seems back in the good graces of Paterno and the team so far this year, as he is competing with fellow 5SR Rodney Kinlaw to be the feature back this season. A best case scenario is probably the two forming a thunder (Scott) and Lightning (Kinlaw) combination. Scott has put on almost 15 pounds (up over 220 after being under 210 last year) to prepare to take the pounding of a full Big 10 season. While I don’t remotely expect déjà vu of Larry Johnson’s final season, Scott and his prototype size make an intriguing prospect if he can put it together in his final year.

Chauncey Washington (Southern California – 5SR) 6’0” 216
He came to USC in the highly-regarded class of 2003 with Reggie Bush and LenDale White. While the thunder and lightning combination of White and Bush ran wild at USC for three years, Washington was academically ineligible after seeing just a handful of carries as a freshman. His disappointment ended in May 2006, when his passing spring grades allow him to be eligible in fall. His return was a mixed bag. With a 2006 recruiting class stacked with multiple blue chip RB recruits, his place was uncertain to start the season. True freshman C.J. Gable and Emmanuel Moody got starts in the first six games as Washington played through hamstring and knee problems. However, he saw significant carries and was productive with them. Washington would break through against Arizona State. In his first career start, he posted his first 100-yard game. Washington would start a few more before his knee problems were revealed as a torn MCL that finally derailed his season late in the year. While he struggled through the end of the season, the knee was apparently better by the time the Rose Bowl rolled around, but he saw just two carries in the victory. He finished the season as the leading rusher for the Trojans and considered declaring for the draft after the disappointment of his limited use in their last game. However, he eventually decided to return for his last year of eligibility. Another recruiting class saw several more blue chip recruits join the backfield and academic problems have resurfaced. Reports are he is struggling in classes again. In the spring game, he had a strong showing with 48 rushing yards and two touchdown runs. Washington remains in the mix to be the nominal starter, but USC will once again be spreading the ball around.

Washington took the first step last year in beginning to prove himself against elite competition. He is still a long way from being considered a top prospect. Durability and dedication, largely related to his inability to retain academic eligibility, are major question marks. It is unlikely he’ll see enough touches to provide impressive statistical production. He is also unlikely to show exceptional speed or athleticism at the Combine. Other than the advantage of the exposure and credibility of the program he plays for, Washington faces many challenges in climbing draft boards this fall.

Lynell Hamilton (San Diego State – 5SR) 6’0” 225
One of the most highly-regarded recruits in SDSU history did not disappoint as a true freshman in 2003, evoking memories of former Aztec Marshall Faulk. The soon-to-be 2003 MWC Freshman of the Year went over 1K on his third carry in the tenth game of the season. He joined Faulk as the only other Aztec freshman in history to run for 1,000 yards. In the fourth quarter of the same game he would suffer a horrific broken right ankle and fibula. He missed the final two games that year. After three surgeries and ten screws the leg was not ready for 2004. His return in 2005 started solid, but was unspectacular. He finally broke through in the fifth game of the season, rushing for 161 yards and 2 scores. However, in the next game at UNLV, injury problems would haunt him again at Sam Boyd Stadium. Hamilton had to leave in the first quarter with a strained hamstring and would miss the next game. The injury would hamper him for a couple more games before he broke out to end season, finishing with three consecutive 100-yard games. After that, expectations were again high for him in 2006. However, he started slow and in their third game suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee and missed three games after surgery. He returned to a reserve role, as 3SO Atiyyah Henderson played well in his absence. Hamilton’s return was just a cameo, as in his second game back, swelling in the knee began to be a problem. It was drained twice and didn’t improve, so he missed the rest of the season.

The same knee problem continues to be a problem this year. After deciding with the team against another surgery due to the accumulation of scar tissue, Hamilton will miss all of spring practice and continue rehab on the knee and to try to keep him as healthy as possible for his final season of eligibility. If he returns this fall, it is unlikely to be in a feature role. Henderson, last season’s leading rusher, and 5SR Brandon Bornes are currently the top two backs, with some other younger players also figuring in. HC Chuck Long has indicated at this point the thinking may be to move Hamilton to fullback. Regardless, Hamilton’s NFL aspirations are on life support at this time. He has missed almost a third (10 of 36) of the games in the three seasons he has played.

The Backups
This group has the physical attributes and potential to succeed at the next level, but don’t stand out or get as much recognition because of a RBBC or being stuck behind a more prominent runner. They are an injury (or two) away from huge seasons that could shoot them up draft boards.

Clinton Polk (Oregon State – 4SR) 6’1” 214
A standout HS athlete from Arizona, Polk was a 2003 ASU recruit, but DNQ. After a relatively quiet JUCO stint, he was in obscurity behind Yvenson Bernard until the team met USC last fall. With Bernard out with a sprained ankle, Polk rushed for 100 yards on 22 carries in his first D-I FBS start, contributing to a surprising upset over USC. He pounded out 46 of those yards in 10 fourth quarter carries to help protect the lead.

Polk basically has one game on his resume. His own ankle problems prevented him from seeing more work after his big game, as he missed much of the remainder of the season after USC. He won’t see much work again this year behind Bernard. However, if Bernard goes down, he is positioned to make a name for himself. Polk’s playing time has previously been limited because of being a liability in blocking, as well.

Rashaun Grant (Georgia Tech – 5SR) 5’10” 200
A Freshman All-ACC selection in 2004 as the team’s second-leading rusher, he appeared to be the successor to P.J. Daniels. However, when Tashard Choice transferred in 2005, Grant immediately fell to RB3 and remained behind Choice last year.

While not a burner, Grant is an elusive runner in space, which has gotten him work as a returner. He also is a good receiver and route runner, although his production catching doesn’t show it. Grant has worked in as a slot receiver to try and get him more opportunities to get the ball. After one of the biggest workloads in D-I FBS last season for Tashard Choice, if durability becomes a problem, Grant could finally get a chance to show his skills regularly.

Thomas Brown (Georgia – 4SR) 5’8” 200
After a breakout year as a true freshman in 2004 (172-875-8) in a RBBC, he has regressed every year since. Despite starting all 12 games in 2005, his numbers were down across the board. Last year his ypc was down a yard from his freshman average before he suffered a season-ending torn ACL in October. A bit short but well built, quickness and speed was the key to his game, which becomes a concern with the knee injury. He is expected to be ready for the beginning of the season, but it will be less than a year of healing and he will be behind 5SR Kregg Lumpkin with 2FR Knowshon Moreno forcing his way in the scene.

Andre Callender (Boston College – 5SR) 5’10” 204
While not a starter, he has nearly split carries and put up similar stats in a RBBC with 5SR L.V. Whitworth. Smaller and quicker than Whitworth, Callender is still not a home run hitter. An injury to Whitworth would give him an opportunity to elevate his stock if he can produce when given the chance to have a significant workload.

Alley Broussard (LSU – 5SR) 6’0” 250
After emerging in 2004, leading the team in rushing and scoring, he was slated in 2005 to be the feature runner in a crowded backfield that included Joseph Addai. A torn right ACL in August 2005 ended his season before it started. What should have been a big year for Broussard ended with Addai taking over and ending up a first round pick. It was a challenge for Broussard to recover. The knee swelled up unusually a few weeks after his surgery and an infection was found that required additional work, slowing the rehab. He was not ready for spring practice last season and there were reports he was ready to quit football over the challenging rehab. He did return in 2006, but was about 20 pounds overweight and continued to battle problems with his knee. He missed three games and as part of a four-headed RBBC, never saw more than ten carries in a game. He has been fully involved in spring practice this year and had a good showing in the spring game, rushing for 32 yards and a score on eight carries.

Broussard is a big back built to move the pile, but he lacked top speed and elusiveness prior to the injury and weight problems. He has shown flashes in the past, he holds the single-game school rushing record after a 250 yard day against Ole Miss as sophomore in 2004. However, his durability and motivation are major concerns. While he can no longer be considered a feature back, but offers some intrigue as a short yardage and goal-line specialist. With two career receptions, he is a non-factor in the passing game. Broussard starts the season buried on the depth chart and will need injuries or some exceptional showings to move up. FB tweener 4SR Jacob Hester, who led the team in rushing last year, was passed by blue chip 2SO Keiland Williams by the end of the season and looks to lead the RBBC this year. 2SO Charles Scott, who showed flashes between injuries last year, and 2FR Richard Murphy, coming off a strong spring, both look to also be ahead of Broussard, as well.

Small School
These lower division players have the talent and measurables, but their achievement is always looked at as relative to the competition. It is a much harder road to the NFL for sub-Division I FBS players, but every year there are a few small school surprises. These are the most likely candidates at RB.

John Randle (Southern Illinois – 5SR) 6’0” 185
Versatile player won Honorable Mention Big 12 honors as a true freshman at Kansas in 2003, but multiple legal problems derailed his Jayhawk career. Randle was dismissed in March 2005 after the latest of four arrests in a year and a half. He was second in rushing yards to Arkee Whitlock, the school’s all-time all-purpose yardage leader, and averaged 5.1 ypc. He was limited by a shoulder injury this spring and did not participate in their spring game, but appears likely to lead their RBBC this fall. Randle is a talented athlete who is a quick runner with outstanding cut-back ability and has very soft hands. He doesn’t have the build to be a workhorse, but has potential as a change of pace back at the next level. The success of recent Salukis runners, and the program, will help keep Randle on the radar, but his baggage is likely to keep him out of the draft even he has a breakout season in 2007.

Jamar Brittingham (Bloomsburg – 4SR) 6’0” 203
After rushing for over 2,500 yards and 30 TDs to lead Neshaminy to the Class AAAA state championship with a 15-0 record in 2001, the Pennsylvania HS legend was set to attend Rutgers. His grades were not good enough to qualify in 2002, so he spent a year at Kiski Prep. A year later, he was still academically ineligible, and his football future seemed in doubt. He found a home at Division II Bloomsburg in the spring of 2004. Brittingham teamed with Mike Ceroli to give the Huskies a pair of 1K rushers that fall. As the feature back in 2005, Brittingham looked like he was back in HS again. He ran for 2,260 yards (188.3 ypg) and 32 TDs, breaking multiple school and conference records, leading the Huskies to their first undefeated regular season since 1985. The First Team AP Little All-American took a step back in 2006. Injury problems plagued him through the season, starting with a knee injury before the season started. He missed three games and was limited in a number of others. Still, he finished the season leading the team in rushing with 213-1,003-12. His measurables are good enough for the next level, so the only question is if his talent will be, which is challenging to evaluate against DII competition.

Xavier Omon (Northwest Missouri State – 5SR) 5’11” 200
The school’s all-time leading rusher chases his fourth 1,500 rushing yard season and a first National Championship. The Bearcats have lost to Grand Valley State in the final game the last two years. He has a lot of wear on his tires with 899 carries in his first three years and likely to see around 300 again this year. His ypc has gone down a yard each season.

Bobby Washington (Eastern Kentucky – 4SR) 6’0” 219
A 2004 Miami recruit, Washington was not admitted over ACT scandal. NC State took the talented recruit and injuries gave him an opportunity to contribute immediately as a true freshman. He was passed by talented youth in 2005, which led him to want to transfer back to Miami. However, then-HC Chuck Amato allegedly would only release him from scholarship if he would not transfer to another ACC school or Florida. He transferred to the DI FCS Colonels in 2006 and finished second in the team in rushing. Washington is intriguing only as far as his size and being a former blue chip recruit. He will have to make significant strides this year, as he couldn’t even take the feature role on his own team last year.

Danny Woodhead (Chadron State – 4SR) 5’8” 195
After rushing for over 1,700 yards as a true freshman and over 1,800 in 2005, Woodhead became the all-time all-division single season rushing leader with 2,756 yards and won the Harlon Hill Trophy (top DII player) last year. The Nebraska high school legend was overlooked by big school programs because of his size and the same is likely to happen by the NFL, but the former track star has legitimate NFL speed.

Lamar Lewis (Georgia Southern – 4SR) 5’9” 200
Florida State transfer joined the Eagles in late spring 2006 and was the second-leading rusher last year. He had 66 yards on 5 carries in their spring game this year, including a 6-yard TD, and looks to be their top runner this year.

AAll have at least a year of eligibility left after the 2007 season, but have the talent and/or situation making them the most likely to declare early for next April’s draft.

Darren McFadden (Arkansas – 3JR) 6’2” 205
Last year's Heisman runner-up enters the season as the favorite to be the first RB selected in 2006. Size, speed, individual achievements, and team success...there isn't much to question about his credentials. However, the Razorback offense, not to mention team, faces some challenges this year. The Hogs lose three starting linemen, including All-SEC performers C Jonathan Luigs and LT Tony Ugoh. There has also been plenty of drama in Fayetteville surrounding the football program the last few months. Gus Malzahn, with no college experience when he was hired as OC in December 2005, seemed a curious choice for a top assistant slot. His credentials appeared to be largely based on being part of a package deal for a handful of prized recruits from his Springdale (Ark.) High team, especially QB Mitch Mustain. However, Mustain struggled after becoming the starter last season, eventually losing the job despite an 8-0 record, and there were philosophical differences between Malzahn and HC Houston Nutt. The result was Nutt winning an apparent power struggle that resulted in AD Frank Broyles resigning, Malzahn leaving in January, and Mustain asking to be released from his scholarship a day later. Former Razorback assistant David Lee returns as OC and while none of that directly involves McFadden, the fallout of that mess and the additional pressure on Houston Nutt could snowball in to a lot of negativity around the team if they struggle early in the season. Regardless, he and teammate Felix Jones should again be wildly productive as the top backfield combination in the country. Reminiscent of Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown, the Hogs dynamic duo, if both declare, offers arguably the top RB prospect and another Day One pick in Jones.

Steve Slaton (West Virginia – 3JR) 5’10” 190
After exploding on the scene as a true freshman, the 2005 Big East Rookie of the Year was a first team AP All-American for an encore in 2006. He has over 3,000 rushing yards and 37 total TDs in just two seasons. A big time home run threat, he averaged 7 ypc overall and almost 30 ypc on his 16 scores last year. This spring, he has participated in drills, but no contact or scrimmages as he recovers from off-season surgery on his right wrist. The injury actually occurred in 2005 and plagued him the last third of the season. There isn’t much more for Slaton to achieve individually at the collegiate level. A slasher with elite speed and good hands, he needs to add some more bulk to be a workhorse back at the next level, but clearly has special ability.

Jamaal Charles (Texas – 3JR) 6’1” 203
As a freshman in 2005, Charles ran for 878 years (7.4) ypc and 11 TDs for the BCS champion. Then he went on to win the Big 12 100m in 10.13 seconds and help UT to a third-place finish at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. He finished fifth the 100-meter and took seventh place in 200-meter. Charles completed his first collegiate track season as a four-time All-American (60m indoor, 100m outdoor, 200m outdoor, 4x100m relay outdoor). The demands of being a two-sport star as a freshman took a toll come last fall. The sophomore failed to improve on his previous season, rushing for 831 yards and catching 18 passes in spot duty. He has given up indoor track this spring to focus on football and put on 10 pounds this off-season (up to 203). Although Charles didn’t participate much in their spring game after tweaking his ankle a week earlier, he has gone through the entire spring program.

His focus and dedication on football make him an excellent breakout candidate this year. While Texas should continue to spread the ball around in the backfield, Charles should see the bulk of the work. However, he’ll have to work behind an offensive line that lost three stalwarts in T Justin Blalock, G Kasey Studdard, and C Lyle Sendlein. Texas usually does a good job of selling players on staying four years, but if Charles lives up to his potential this season, he is a strong candidate to declare early.

Felix Jones (Arkansas – 3JR) 5’11” 195
In the shadow of McFadden and the institutional controversy at Arkansas last year, Felix Jones probably had the quietest 1K rushing season in the nation. The duo had the most rushing yards of any tandem in college football last year. A home run hitter, the yards piled up quickly despite limited touches because of his big play ability. Jones had three runs over 50 yards and a robust 7.6 average on 154 carries. He has tremendous upside as an elite kick returner, finishing second in the nation last season after being an All-American at return specialist as a true freshman in 2005. He had a 100-yard KO return each of his first two season. Both Jones and McFadden were held out of contact drills and the spring game as a precaution.

Ian Johnson (Boise State – 4JR) 5’11” 194
After redshirting in 2004, Johnson was a relatively anonymous part of a crowded RBBC in 2005. However, he separated himself from the pack last season and excelled as the feature runner on his way to posting 277-1,713-25, the greatest season by a RB in school history. The AP Third Team All-American led DI-A in scoring and was second in rushing as a key part of the Broncos fairy tale season that ended with striking a major blow for all mid-majors in their defeat of Oklahoma.

Although he plays on a fast track on Boise State’s infamous blue turf and has decent speed, Johnson’s running style is classic mudder. He grounds out the tough yards, bouncing off arm tackles and dragging defenders downfield despite unexceptional size. Johnson runs with an outstanding natural forward lean complimented with excellent balance and vision. The passing game is about the only area he really needs to show improvement in to help his draft stock. In the limited times he caught a pass, he catches the ball with his body too much. Up front, the team only lost C Jadon Dailey, so he should benefit from running behind mostly the same OLine again this year. The surprising success of Johnson and the team last season means he will not be overlooked this season.

Raymell “Ray” Rice (Rutgers – 3JR) 5’9” 200
All he has done in his first two years is push NFL second round pick Brian Leonard out as the feature runner and rush for almost 3,000 yards, including a Big East single-season record 1,794. Rice sat out the spring game as he had surgery to remove a loose bone from his right ankle in April. It is expected to take 4-6 weeks for him to be back at 100%. HC Greg Schiano does not seem concerned, indicating Rice played with the bone chip last year and most of the spring.

After breaking out as a true freshman, Rice took his draft value a huge step further by showing he can be a workhorse back. He had 335 carries last year and was extremely consistent with them. Rice rushed for over 100 yards in 10 of 13 games and only rushed under 75 in one of those other three. Although undersized, Rice is built well with thick upper legs. His pad level is excellent, running and cutting at full speed with a low center of gravity. One area that he needs development in is the passing game. Leonard, with his reliable hands and better blocking were preferred in passing situations, while Rice has 12 career receptions. The Second Team AP All-American will be a Heisman candidate this fall and should have an excellent resume next spring if he decides to declare.

Jonathan Stewart (Oregon – 3JR) 5’11” 232
The nation’s top RB recruit in the 2005 class has made solid, but relatively unspectacular progress, in his first two seasons. His development has been hampered by injuries. Ankle problems have plagued him both years and a neck strain slowed him last year, as well. As a true freshman, Stewart saw just 53 carries as RB2. Last year he lead the team in rushing (183-981-10, 5.4 ypc), but fellow 05 RB recruit Jeremiah Johnson saw significant carries (103) again too. Injuries have played a role in impeding his development. Pass-happy OC Gary Crowton left for LSU in the off-season and new OC Chip Kelly is known for running a spread offense as well, but the buzz from both Kelly and HC Mike Bellotti seems to be a commitment to feature Stewart in 2007. Stewart has ideal measurables with a thick, solid build, ideal for a workhorse back. He has track speed and it translates well in the return game, where he has been one of top kick returners in the country, but not always out of the backfield. He is a smart player and selfless to a fault, perhaps lacking the desirable borderline arrogance of a RB who demands the ball with the game on the line. Stewart was fully healthy and looking good in the spring game, where he posted 41 yards on just 5 carries and caught two passes. If durability is no longer a problem and the team commits to featuring him, a breakthrough season seems inevitable this year.

Rashard Mendenhall (Illinois – 3JR) 5’11” 205
Mendenhall has the talent to emerge as one of the best RBs in the country this year, but has a lot to do to prove it. A blue chip 2005 recruit, he stayed in-state with a struggling Illinois program to play with his older brother (Walter, a reserve FB). Rashard has been behind Pierre Thomas and E.B. Halsey the last two years, but both are gone now and he should be the feature attraction this season. Second on the team in rushing with 640 yards last year, he averaged 8.2 ypc thanks to his big play ability (two runs over 75 yards, as well as one catch). While he was featured in a few games and clearly more talented than any other RB on the roster, he was unable to hang on to the role due to ball security. He had four fumbles on just 78 carries. Mendenhall got off to a slow start while other junior runners raced out of the blocks and have risen to prominence to create a buzz about the underclassmen potential in this RB class. However, he should catch them this year and be among the crowd with the credentials to declare early.

Branden Ore (Virginia Tech – 4JR) 5’11” 202
As a redshirt freshman in 2005, Ore quickly flashed his potential filling in for Cedric Humes when he was hurt. However, after off-season shoulder surgery, his career as a Hokie was in doubt. Ore was falling behind in class and not showing dedication to the football program in the off-season. At the time, the company line was Ore took the spring 2006 semester off to rehabilitate his shoulder. However, both RB coach Billy Hite and Ore have since confirmed he was told to take the time off and either show improvement in his maturity or move on. The reality check of working in a 7-Eleven warehouse for a few months quickly had him wanting to return to football and college life. He re-enrolled in July and worked hard through a breakout season in 2006. Despite basically missing the last two ACC games with an ankle sprain, he was named an All-ACC First Team RB, finishing the year with over 1,000 rushing yards and 17 total TDs (16 rushing).

Ore has excellent lateral movement and agility, a solid cutback runner with good vision. However, he can dance behind the line too much and runs very upright through the hole despite being under 6’ tall. He breaks tackles well with a solid stiff arm and great leg drive, although he’ll need to bulk up to succeed doing it at the next level. While he broke a few big plays last year, he does not appear to have breakaway speed.

James Davis (Clemson – 3JR) 5’11” 208
Burst on the scene as a true freshman in 2005 and quickly took over the starting role from Reggie Merriweather, rushing for almost 1K despite starting just half their games. He started every game in 2006 and improved on his production, but the arrival of blue chip RB recruit C.J. Spiller meant Davis still shared the ball. Davis staked his claim to remain RB1a will 100 yards on just six carries in their spring game, including a 65-yard TD.

While he lacks the home run speed of backfield partner Spiller, he has decent speed. Davis hits the hole with authority and breaks arm tackles well, but runs far too upright for the next level. He is a cut-and-go runner, a good fit for a zone blocking scheme, but may not have the quickness to get the corner in the NFL. Along with the fact he faces the perfect storm building against his draft value, a stacked RB class and a blue chip recruit taking away touches, I’m a bit more conservative on his outlook despite his seemingly inevitable decision to declare early.

Marlon Lucky (Nebraska – 3JR) 6’0” 210
Lucky was unproductive as a true freshman in 2005 while the Cornhuskers were still airing it out too much. He was significantly more productive in 2006 as the number two rusher behind Brandon Jackson. With Jackson departing early for the draft, Lucky will compete to be the I-Back this season. That looked in jeopardy after a strange incident in February where he was hospitalized for a few days for “undisclosed medical reasons”. Neither Lucky nor anyone associated with the program has commented on what happened, but Lucky was fully read for spring practice. His odds of being featured this season improved as the Cornhusker backfield has been hit with injuries. Kenny Wilson, a top RB JUCO transfer in 2005, was expected to be out for the spring recovering from a staph infection in his knee. However, Wilson is now likely to miss the season after breaking his leg moving a TV in late March. Also clearing the path is the lingering right foot injury of fellow junior Cody Glenn that has been a problem since November. It has limited Glenn throughout spring. Lucky had another scare in the spring game. After 94 yards on 16 carries, he went down awkwardly on his left knee during a tackle in the fourth quarter. However, it was apparently just a MCL sprain and he is expected to be fine.

The Cornhuskers had visions of Lucky and Glenn being a version of Reggie Bush and LenDale White, respectively, when the two arrived in 2005. Both improved significantly last year as the Nebraska running game finally got back on track under HC Bill Callahan, but expectations have been recalibrated. However, with an opportunity to be featured in the revitalized Cornhusker running game this year, Lucky could have a breakout season and the former blue chip recruit could look to make the jump.

Maurice Wells (Ohio State – 3JR) 5’10” 192
A blue chip recruit out of Florida, Wells looked in great position to have an immediate impact as the Ohio State running game struggled in 2004 after the abrupt departure of Maurice Clarett before the season. However, Antonio Pittman grabbed the feature role in 2005 and left little work for Wells as RB2. An even bluer chip, Chris Wells, signed in 2006 and quickly leapfrogged Maurice behind Pittman last year.

As has been his modus operandi, Maurice had another productive spring, but his outlook for the fall remains dim. He was the leading rusher in the spring game with 48 yards on 14 carries (3.4 ypc), but Chris Wells was sidelined with an ankle injury. Maurice should be RB2, but Chris should be featured. Maurice has home run speed, but has failed to display it in his limited touches. His longest career run is 32 yards and he has a sub-3.5 career ypc. He also hasn’t added value elsewhere, with just four career receptions and one kick-off return. Without displaying those skills to be worth a roster spot as a change of pace back, he doesn’t hold much promise for the next level. However, he is an injury away from the opportunity for a breakout season, in which case he would be a likely early draft entrant instead of sticking around to be passed again.

Andre Brown (North Carolina State – 3JR) 6’0” 232 and Toney Baker (North Carolina State – 3JR) 5’10” 225
State’s dynamic duo have split carries nearly down the middle and taken turns leading the team in rushing their first two seasons. The smaller Baker is supposed to bring better timed speed, but Brown has come up with more breakaway runs. Baker is the more productive receiver. In the spring game, Baker was featured for the White team and dominated with 23-163-2. Brown split time with both teams, finishing with 11-112-2. With a potentially stacked underclass declaring this year, it seems unlikely either would declare, barring injury and one capitalizing on the opportunity to standout.