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2009 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. With the talent thin among the seniors and a surprising number of extremely talented third-year sophomores or true sophomores who will be three years removed from their high school class (because of a year at prep school), there could be a shocking influx of sophomore runners declaring for the 2009 draft.

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. While I don’t consider either player I list here as an elite prospect, and don’t grade as a first round pick, two backs stand apart for me from the rest of this weak senior class, so they get the nod here. Depending on who declares, a few underclassmen could be off the board before the first senior RB is chosen.

James Davis (Clemson – 4SR) 5’11” 208
Burst on the scene as a true freshman in 2005, starting his first collegiate game and going for 100 yards in an upset of Texas A&M. Despite splitting carries with Reggie Merriweather, Davis led the team in all rushing categories with 165-879-9 on his way to being ACC Freshman of the Year and MVP of the Champs Sports Bowl. He played the last four games with a cast after breaking his wrist but missing just one game and most of another. Despite the addition of blue chip recruit C.J. Spiller in 2006, Davis started all 13 games rushing for over 1,000 yards and led the ACC with 17 rushing TDs, tying a school record and gaining first-team All-ACC honors. The highlight was a career-high 216 yards rushing in a big win over then-13th ranked GaTech. A 54-yard run set up a 5-yard TD run for Davis, his second of the day. On the season, he had just three 100-yard rushing games during the season, but five others with 90 or more yards (as well as another with 87 yards), so Spiller’s impact was marginal on Davis’ individual numbers. Davis remained the nominal starter ahead of Spiller in 2007, although both would start or play together in the same backfield, at times. Despite continuing to share touches, Davis put up his second 1K and double-digit TD rushing season on his way to first-team All-ACC recognition again. Davis now needs less than 900 yards to become the school’s all-time leading rusher and is also second in school history with 38 total TDs. He has the fourth-highest career rushing total among active running backs in FBS.

Davis was held out of the Spring Game when his camp ended early after having shoulder surgery in early April. He is expected to be fine for the season and expectations of the split in workload with 3JR C.J. Spiller should be about the same. Spiller remains a candidate to declare as an underclassman, so look for both players to continue to push each other to exciting individual achievements on a squad with pro prospects at all the skill positions. The offensive line will be a bit of a concern, as four starters depart, but that was the same concern a year ago. Clemson started 2007 with four new starters on the line and that worked out pretty well for Davis and Spiller. Both Davis and Spiller have eight 100-yard rushing games since they began playing together and half of those instances are shared. As opposed to cannibalizing the other’s touches, Davis and Spiller seem to feed off each other. In addition to Spiller, the offense is loaded with more talent at the skill positions. QB Cullen Harper emerged last year with two great targets in first-team All-ACC WR Aaron Kelly and explosive slot Jacoby Ford. Clemson and Tennessee are the only two teams in the FBS with a returning 1K rusher and receiver. If the offensive line can quickly mesh, this should be one of the best units in the country and open up plenty of opportunities for each other.

Davis originally declared for the 2008 draft, but didn’t hire an agent and as a slew of other talented underclassmen runners declared, Davis changed his mind and withdrew before the deadline to return for his senior season. The NFL College Advisory Committee reportedly gave him a generous third-round rank, which seems unlikely in hindsight, but should be his floor for this year. He and Spiller bring on the clichéd “Thunder and Lightning” label as a duo, but it is a misnomer. Davis has good size, runs hard, and easily breaks arm tackles, but he isn’t a classic between-the-tackles pounder. He lowers his pads to deliver the blow when the contact is eminent in front of him, but generally runs too tall for a player under six foot. His weight looks overstated by Clemson on paper. Davis needs to bulk up and doesn’t look like he’s been playing at 210 pounds. He is more of a slashing one-cut runner and with good speed, than a grinder. Although he is a bit limited laterally and keeping speed in his cuts. He will be challenged in getting the corner and reversing field at the next level. He isn’t involved much as a receiver, but has good hands, catching the ball naturally away from his body. Davis also brings excellent intangibles that will help his draft value. He is natural leader who exudes confidence without arrogance when he speaks and is a great team player. Consistency and determination are positive attributes he is frequently associated with. He should do well in interviews. A play that sticks in my mind about the type of effort he gives was after an interception in Clemson territory on a screen play against South Carolina in 2006, Davis caught the defender from behind and stripped the ball from behind before the defender crossed the goal-line, forcing it out of bounds for a touchback instead of a touchdown. I don’t consider him an elite prospect, but he is solid across the board and his production has been consistently outstanding, so he sets himself apart from a weak senior class.

Marlon Lucky (Nebraska – 4SR) 6’0” 210
The five-star recruit was unproductive as a true freshman in 2005 while the Cornhuskers were still airing it out too much and he struggled to learn their complex West Coast offense. He played mostly on special teams. Lucky was significantly more productive in 2006. He was the most productive runner out of a four-man committee early in the season, but when he returned home to Southern California to face the Trojans in the third game of the season, he struggled. He bounced back against Troy the following week, but from that point on, Brandon Jackson asserted himself as the primary rushing threat. Lucky finished the season as the second-leading rusher behind Brandon Jackson. When Jackson departed early for the NFL, Lucky was set to compete to be the featured I-Back in 2007. That looked in jeopardy after a strange incident in February 2007 where he was hospitalized for a few days for “undisclosed medical reasons” after he was found unconscious in his apartment. Neither Lucky nor anyone associated with the program has officially commented on what happened, but insinuations have been it was related to stress and/or depression. Based on his comments since, the event seems to have been an epiphany for Lucky, because he rededicated himself to football. He was ready for spring practice and his path to a feature role was cleared by injuries in the Cornhusker backfield. 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. Then Wilson broke his leg moving a TV in late March and missed the season. A right foot injury to fellow junior Cody Glenn that had been lingering since November limited Glenn throughout spring. Lucky was in good shape to be the primary ground threat heading in to the Spring Game. After 94 yards on 16 carries, Lucky had a scare in that game. He went down awkwardly on his left knee during a tackle in the fourth quarter. However, it was just a MCL sprain and he was ready when the season began. It would be a breakthrough season for Lucky that started with career highs of 30 carries, 233 yards, and three TDs rushing in a season-opening blowout of Nevada and end with second-team All-Big XII honors. He finished with his first 1K rushing season and set a school record with an amazing 75 receptions.

The Bill Callahan Era is over at Nebraska and new defensive-minded HC Bo Pelini likely brings a more conservative approach to offense. However, he retained Shawn Watson as the OC, so don’t expect any drastic changes this year. It seems inevitable Lucky will catch fewer receptions this year, but his carries should also go up, although it will still be a deep committee seeing touches out of the backfield. One interesting area will be how Lucky relates to Pelini, especially if he faces a rough stretch. On the surface, Callahan seems more of a 21st century coach in his attitude than the old-school Pelini. The touchy-feely side of dealing with a recurrence of the possible emotional or mental health issues Lucky may have had previously could be problematic. Lucky submitted his name to the NFL college advisory committee, so he flirted with leaving early, but never seemed a serious threat to depart as an underclassman. He started this season with 37 yards and a TD in limited action in the Spring Game. Wilson returns to the picture, but he will battle sophomores Quentin Castille and Roy Helu Jr. for carries behind Lucky. Both saw work as true freshmen behind Lucky last year with Wilson out and Glenn injured. Glenn has switched to defense and will be playing linebacker.

The Cornhuskers had visions of Lucky and Glenn being a Midwestern version of Reggie Bush and LenDale White, respectively, when the two arrived in 2005. After a long and winding road, Lucky finally found success last season and is flying under the radar heading in to 2008. He has decent size, but doesn’t know how to use it and needs to add more bulk. Lucky needs to show he can consistently succeed between the tackles and get more yards after contact. He runs hard, but not always with authority. Lucky will need opportunities to do it, however, because most of the lunch pail work will go to the big back, Castille. Effort appears to have been the problem at times earlier in his career, but he started to change that perception last year, although he still shies away from contact near a sideline. In space is where Lucky will impress with good vision and speed. He hits the next gear quickly once he’s in the second level. Ball security is a bit of a concern as he is not a very natural ball carrier. Lucky looks like he struggles to shift the ball between arms when moving through traffic or preparing to take a hit. In addition to his receiving skills, he is advanced as a blocker in the passing game for a college RB. An excellent physical specimen who broke out as a well-rounded RB last year, Lucky has a lot of question marks, but also the size and talent to move to the front of this senior RB class in 2008.

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.

Ian Johnson (Boise State – 5SR) 5’11” 202
After redshirting in 2004, Johnson was a relatively anonymous part of a crowded RBBC in 2005. However, he separated himself from the pack in 2006 and excelled as the feature runner on his way to rushing for 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 in a BCS bowl. He rushed for 101 yards and a score in the Fiesta Bowl victory. Despite his huge start to 2007 with the Fiesta Bowl victory and coming off his record-breaking season, Johnson received little publicity when he didn’t get off to a big start. He was quickly dismissed as a Heisman contender, outside of Idaho, and Boise State quickly forgotten about, despite an eventual 10-3 season, after a loss to Washington in their second game of the season. Johnson had set the bar too high and was off the grid when his production declined. He finished with 203-1,030-16 on the ground, although he missed two games. His average was down over a yard from 6.18 ypc in 2006 to 5.07 ypc in 2007. However, he did improve in one phase of the game he needed to, as a receiver. He caught a career-high 25 passes in 2007, almost doubling his career total before the season. Although it may have been a down year in comparison to 2006, he was still recognized with first-team All-WAC honors. He enters 2008 as the career FBS leader at running back in rushing (second to WVU QB Patrick White overall) and all-purpose yards, as well as rushing and all-purpose TDs.

Johnson participated in all of spring practice this year, after missing it in 2007 and much of 2006 due to injuries. He had a team-high nine carries in their Spring Game. Durability has been a bit of a problem for him, although not with the classic football-type injuries. He suffered a partially collapsed lung in a win at San Jose State in 2006. It occurred in the second quarter, but he stayed in the game to finish the game rushing for 29-149-2. He missed their game the following week before returning after a bye. In 2007, he missed two games with a bruised kidney. To address preventing those internal organ type of injuries, he bulked up this off-season by actually adding body fat. He was just over 200 this spring, while running a 4.51 40, and plans to play around 210 to start the season. 3SO Jeremy Avery and 2SO D.J. Harper stepped up as freshmen in 2007 when Johnson was out and their roles should only increase in 2008. With two talented youngsters available, the Broncos are expected to spread the carries around even more this year, which will hurt Johnson’s numbers, but protect his health. He will also take on some return duties this year, which could help add to his value. The running game faces the lose of four starters on the offensive line, including the huge hole at tackle left by the departure of first-round NFL draft pick Ryan Clady. Although Johnson plays on a fast track on Boise State’s infamous blue turf and has decent speed, he wasn’t a burner even before fattening up. His running style is classic mudder. He grounds out the tough yards, bouncing off arm tackles and dragging defenders downfield despite unexceptional size, with an exceptional nose for the end zone. Johnson runs with an outstanding natural forward lean complimented with excellent balance and vision. I think Johnson is extremely underrated, but between his expected decline in workload and questionable speed, he won’t be viewed as a top prospect. He will be a steal on Day Two.

Javon Ringer (Michigan State – 4SR) 5’9” 200
A torn right ACL in HS scared some teams away, but he was an impact player as a true freshman in 2005. He led the Spartans with 817 rushing yards on an impressive 6.7 ypc. The small, but explosive Ringer formed a true Thunder and Lightning combo with the massive Jehuu Caulcrick. An injury plagued his 2006 season, as he suffered a torn MCL in the fifth game of the season. He missed all of October (four games) and pushed himself to return early, but he wasn’t the same player the last three games of the season. He still edged out Caulcrick and QB Drew Stanton to finish as the team’s leading rusher with 497 yards on a 5.8 ypc average. He returned healthy in 2007 and had a breakthrough season, as new HC Mark Dantonio scrapped the pass-first mentality the team had under Stanton to feature a smash-mouth running game. Ringer rushed for 1,447 yards and six scores despite splitting carries almost evenly with Caulcrick. He became more of a weapon in the passing game, as well, finishing second on the team with 35 receptions. Ringer was recognized with unanimous second-team All-Big Ten honors.

Ringer never considered leaving early despite his huge year. Even he recognized he needs to prove his durability, as he was quoted as saying in the Detroit News in December, after some injury issues early in his career. With Caulcrick moving on to the NFL, Ringer could put up even better numbers in 2008, particularly in scoring. Back-ups 3JR A.J. Jimmerson and 2FR Andre Anderson are similarly-sized scat back types with limited to no experience. Ringer sat out the Spring Game as a precaution. It didn’t matter much because the team focused on the passing game due to the loss of their top WR (Devin Thomas) and TE (Kellen Davis) to the NFL. The inexperience among receivers gives more reason to expect Ringer to be the workhorse in all facets of the offense this year.

His explosion is his greatest asset and he is a home-run threat every time he touches the ball, with at least one run of 59 yards or more every year of his career. He can run both inside and out at the college level, but the interior running is unlikely to translate at the next level as he is limited by size. He has had success as a kick returner, but has been used sparingly in the role. Mel Kiper’s early take has Ringer at the top of the RB class of 2009 (not including underclassmen), but he will likely be considered more as a change of pace back come draft day so I don’t see how he can get the nod over Davis.

Arian Foster (Tennessee – 5SR) 6’0” 215
As a redshirt freshman in 2005, Foster moved in to the starting lineup after a season-ending injury to Gerald Riggs Jr. in the sixth game of the season. In his five starts, Foster averaged nearly 30 carries, over 150 rushing yards, and a TD per game. The workload took a toll, as he had surgery for a torn meniscus and shoulder problem after the season. A sophomore slump hit in 2006 after a sprained his ankle in the second game of the season against Air Force. He would miss the rest of that game, most of the next, and all of two more games. An underage drinking arrest would also cost him a suspension for half of the Arkansas game. Foster bounced back big in 2007, finishing with 1,650 all-purpose yards, the second highest single-season total in school history. He needs less than 700 yards in 2008 to finish passing a prestigious list to become Tennessee’s all-time leading rusher.

This year, the team has a new RB coach in Stan Drayton, who comes from Florida, and a new OC in Dave Clawson, who comes from FCS Richmond. However, there shouldn’t be drastic changes to an offense that averaged over 32 ppg last year. The expectation is Clawson’s offense will add some West Coast flavor, but also use more I-formation sets, which Tennessee hasn’t featured recently. This sounds like the ideal opportunity for Foster to work in two staples of pro schemes. With all five starters returning on the offensive line and a new QB, which should have the team looking to lean on the running game while he gets his feet wet, all the pieces are in place for Foster to produce big numbers again this year. In the Spring Game, Foster had only one carry for eight yards, but it was precautionary, as the team looked to protect him this spring, coming off having his left knee cleaned out in January. While Foster should be locked in as the feature back, he’ll be pushed by 4JR Montario Hardesty and 2SO Lennon Creer. Hardesty brings starting experience, as he and LaMarcus Coker split the workload when Foster was injured or struggled in 2006. Coker was dismissed in November, reportedly for multiple failed drug tests. Creer was a blue chip recruit who impressed in limited opportunities as a true freshman last year. Foster has little margin for error, especially with a lot of new coaches, who he has no history with to protect him if he struggles or doesn’t respond well to them. However, playing with an urgency of having to keep his job each week is nothing new for the underappreciated runner. Whether it has been injuries, off-field incidents, or the constant string of talented new recruits at RB, Foster is used to battling all those challenges.

Foster reportedly got a second-round grade from the NFL College Advisory Committee, which I find a bit hard to believe. Regardless, he made the right decision in not coming out, despite possibly having had a career season last year. Looking at it after the fact, Foster would have been a fourth-round pick, at best, in the 2008 draft. Coker, who was the most naturally talented RB on the roster, is gone and Foster should see the majority of work over Hardesty and Creer, while recruit Taurean Poole takes a redshirt. Foster brings excellent size, but pedestrian timed speed. However, he can hit the occasional home run, taking two runs and two catches over 40 yards last year, as well as a couple long KO returns. He is a tough interior runner with quick feet and good vision that give him some shake to make a man miss, an ability frequently lacking in most power runners in college. With soft hands for a big man, he grabbed 39 receptions last season. Fumbling has been an issue more for the timing (three times in their last two bowl games, including costing them the game in 2007, and once against Florida) than the number (five in his career). Consistency and durability are also significant concerns. After remaining healthy all of last season, it will be important for him to do the same this year to erase durability concerns. Foster is a good for a big back in college, but benefits from playing for a strong program and probably lacks the speed to succeed as a feature runner at the next level. However, it is a weak RB class and Foster adds value as a receiver and returner, which should help find a home on Day Two if he can have another productive year.

Tyrell Sutton (Northwestern – 4SR) 5’8” 190
Ohio’s 2004 Mr. Football was spurned by OSU and most other big programs due to his size. With Illinois and NU the only Big Ten teams even offering him a scholarship, he went with the first major-conference school to do so. He wasted no time making the rest of the Big Ten realize there mistake. As a true freshman in 2005, he reached 1,000 yards rushing by the eighth game of the season, one of the fastest freshmen in NCAA history to do so. The highlight was a 244 rushing yards and four all-purpose TDs in an overtime upset of then-14th ranked Wisconsin. He finished the season with 250-1,474-16 on the ground and 44-396-2 through the air, receiving multiple conference and national honors. He started much slower in 2006, failing to reach 100-yards rushing until their eighth game of the year. He also suffered a separated shoulder in the second half of the season, although he played in every game. Despite the sophomore slump, Sutton finished the season with exactly 1,000 yards rushing and caught another 40 passes. After an easy 100 yards rushing in a blowout of Northeastern to open the year, an injury impeded much of his 2007 season. He left their second game of the year against Nevada early with an ankle sprain in the second quarter and missed the next five games due to the injury. He returned to rush for exactly 400 yards, as well as catch 21 passes, in the final four games to end his season on a high note. He is fifth among active FBS player in career rushing yards.

Sutton saw limited work in the Spring Game as a precaution, but did break off a 22-yard cutback run and should resume his feature role this fall. I find Sutton extremely comparable to former WVU RB Steve Slaton, who went in the third round this year. Both are undersized playmakers who benefit from gimmick offenses and are explosive on the ground or through the air. Todd McShay of Scout Inc. and ESPN called Sutton the best receiver among all college running backs last year. Sutton’s 114 receptions in less than three full seasons help support that statement. Despite his size, he isn’t afraid to take on blocking assignments and is effective at chipping rushers to buy his QB some extra time. Sutton has the ideal skill set for a change of pace back at the next level, except for experience as any kind of returner. As the main weapon of the Wildcats’ offense since his first game there, he has not been used in the return game. However, it seems he could quickly learn the role. He should be a mid- to late-round pick and find a niche as third RB on Sundays.

Tyrell Fenroy (Louisiana-Lafayette – 4SR) 5’9” 186
It didn’t take him long to become the best running back in school history, as he became the first to rush for 1,000 yards in a season as a true freshman in 2005. He matched the feat in 2006 and 2007, becoming the first player in conference history, and only active FBS RB, to have three consecutive 1K seasons. He has rushed for 100 yards in half of his 34 career games, but never in his rare appearances against BCS conference opponents. Fenroy has missed only one game in three years, skipping a game at Central Florida last year due to an ankle sprain.

The three-time All-Sun Belt conference performer needs less than 100 yards to pass Brian Mitchell for the school rushing record and less than 900 to pass former North Texas RB Patrick Cobbs for the conference record. He is third among active FBS players in career rushing yards and looking to join a handful of runners in FBS history to have four 1K rushing seasons. The quiet and confident Rajun’ Cajun has been extremely productive workhorse in college, but lacks the measurables to project well as more than a third RB at the next level. He is a darting back with more quickness than straight-line speed, but his quickness is remarkable. He isn’t involved much in the passing game and has not worked as a returner, which hurt his value as a potential change of pace back, but he does have decent hands. Fenroy also saw his workload decrease last year as multi-talented 5SR QB Michael Desormeaux actually led the team in rushing and speedy back-up 4JR Deon Wallace saw more work. Fenroy led the team with 49 yards rushing in the Spring Game, as Wallace sat out to straighten out his academics. The team also expects to have a top JUCO transfer in Louis Beal III available this fall. The offense should have a lot of options in the backfield this fall and while it should help the Ragin’ Cajun offense, it will impact Fenroy’s production, although the coaching staff will make sure he gets his 1,000 yards if he’s healthy.

Rodney Ferguson (UNLV – 5SR) 6’0” 229
After all-time leading rusher DonTrell Moore left, the school didn’t miss a beat when Ferguson stepped in and went for over 1,000 yards in 2006 to lead the MWC in rushing. He went over 1,000 yards and received first team All-MWC honors again in 2007, but missed their New Mexico Bowl win over Nevada. Ferguson was academically ineligible for the game, and for spring practice, but expects to have his studies in order for the fall.

Ferguson is a workhorse and a pounder, but doesn’t have breakaway speed (no career runs over 50 yards). His involvement in the passing game decreased last year, but he is a good weapon as a receiver with very good hands. Ball security has been a problem in the past. He had two key fumbles in their 2006 New Mexico Bowl loss to San Jose State, including one at the goalline. As he auditions for an NFL job this fall, he’ll face the addition challenges of keeping up his academic standing and running behind a revamped offensive line with four of five new starters. Ferguson isn’t the talent DonTrell Moore was, but he has good size for the next level with potential to be converted to a multi-purpose FB.

Best Potential, Limited Achievement
While this group has ideal measurables and/or flashed the skills that could make them appealing, 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 help their draft value.

Keegan Herring (Arizona State – 4SR) 5’9” 192
The Sun Devils’ backfield was in disarray when Herring joined the team in 2005. The RB depth chart was shaken up when Hakim Hill and Loren Wade were dismissed. Herring rose through a crowd of contingency plans and despite starting just two games, broke the team’s freshman rushing record and led the team with 870 yards rushing. A sophomore slump struck in 2006 as injuries, including a hamstring pull, limited his effectiveness. Herring lost his starting role after four games to JUCO-transfer Ryan Torain. Torain would start the remaining eight games, rushing for over 1,200 yards, while Herring would finish with just 94 carries for 549 yards. Torain remained the starter in 2007, but suffered a season-ending ankle injury halfway through the season. Herring took advantage of the opportunity and played well while starting the next five games before suffering an ankle sprain in the regular season finale. He didn’t start in their Holiday Bowl loss and was limited to two carries. Herring dealt with an incomprehensible series of tragedies in 2007, including the shooting deaths of his best friend and father three days apart in February, then the loss of his sister in a car accident in June and death of his aunt by a heart attack three days later. Somehow he kept his focus on the field and worked his way back on to the NFL radar.

Herring began 2008 with just 14 yards on ten carries, but looks to be the starter of another deep committee come fall. 4JR Shaun Dewitty, who was the more-heralded recruit in the same 2005 class with Herring, had another strong spring. However, Dewitty has failed to show his high upside due to battling injuries. He was a redshirt in 2007 due to a back injury and the team is hoping to release his potential this year. 3JR Dmitri Nance stepped up as RB2 behind Herring after Torain went down and, like Dewitty, Nance offers a nice power compliment to Herring speed. 2007 JUCO-transfer 4JR Jarrell Woods is another bruising option in the backfield. If he can remain healthy, Herring should lead this committee, but won’t be a workhorse back.

Herring’s best attribute is his explosive speed. A former track star, he is gone if he finds a crack of daylight. Last year he had three scoring runs of 70 yards or more. He has had at least one run of 65 yards each of his three years and has averaged 5.5 ypc for his career. However, he lacks experience in the passing game or as a returner, which don’t help his stock as a change of pace back at the next level. While he hasn’t missed a game in his career, Herring has frequently been limited by an assortment of nicks or dings, so his durability is a bit of a concern. Herring has the one thing you can’t teach, speed, and plenty of it, which will ensure he’ll be an appealing mid- to late-round selection next year’s draft.

Brad Lester (Auburn – 5SR) 5’11” 194
Lester flashed his big play ability in the third game of his career as a redshirt freshman in 2005 when returned a kick-off for a 93-yard TD after Ball State’s only score in a blowout. Later in the game, he broke off a 70-yard run and followed it up with a 3-yard TD run during mop-up duty. He actually was given the start over Kenny Irons in their second SEC game of the season at Arkansas. However, Lester suffered a strained right groin seven carries in to the game. Irons would take over again, rush for 182 yards in the game, and go on to lead the SEC in rushing. Lester would miss most of the remainder of the season. He was out the next three games and then missed his first Iron Bowl after returning prematurely the week before. Lester returned to see back-up work in their Capital One Bowl loss to Wisconsin. In all, he had just nine carries after the injury. Coming off the huge year by Irons, Lester looked firmly entrenched as a back-up when the 2006 season began. However, Irons would go through a disappointing season battling lingering injuries. Lester took advantage and rushed for over 500 yards on the season at a clip of 4.9 ypc. He led the team in rushing (9) and all-purpose (10) touchdowns. He also remained an effective secondary option as a kick returner. His breakout season ended with disappointment as he was suspended for their Cotton Bowl victory. It was reported, at the time, as an undisclosed violation of team rules. With the departure of Irons, Lester was slated to be the starting tailback entering the 2007 season. Despite practicing in the spring and leading up to the season, rumors began to speculate that Lester was still in trouble and perhaps his career at Auburn was over. HC Tommy Tuberville finally announced he was suspended for the season opener, but didn’t elaborate on the length. Finally, the bizarre saga ended when the nature of his suspension would be revealed as an academic-related issue and it was for a total of six games. It dated back to the Cotton Bowl, so he would also miss the first five games of the season. As usual, due to privacy laws, no specifics were given. The buzz was it was an academic integrity issue, involvement in plagiarism on a school project. Ben Tate, who also impressed as a true freshman the previous season when Irons struggled, and redshirt freshman Mario Fannin worked in place of Lester to start the season. While they posted solid numbers, the offense struggled and the team got off to a disappointing 3-2 start. Lester returned against Vanderbilt in October and while he didn’t start, he would rush for 77 yards and two scores in an easy win. He would return to the starting lineup the following week and while Fannin was phased out, Tate would continue to see significant carries and finish the season leading the team across the board in rushing. Lester remained the starter the rest of the way, expect when he sat out a game against FCS Tennessee Tech due to a mild groin strain. He finished the season with 530 rushing yards, just 20 more than in 2006, and just three TDs.

As a precaution, Lester played just a series in the Spring Game, catching a pass for eight yards. He enters the 2008 season as the nominal starter, but should split carries fairly evenly with 3JR Tate and 3SO Fannin waiting in the wings for more opportunities. Fate hasn’t been kind to Lester, although much of it was apparently his own doing. With a stronger groin in Fayetteville or some better choices in his academic career, he may already be in an NFL camp this spring. However, he is where he is now and still has a good chance to still punch his ticket to play on Sundays with a solid season. He’ll have to stand up to the grilling in interviews about it, but if his transgression that led to his suspension was a one-time incident related to cheating, it won’t be a major concern. More worrisome will be his history of groin problems, which became a “history” when they resurfaced last year. While he was a solid performer after returning from suspension last year, he failed to be the big-play performer he has shown he can be and will need to show his speed is still there. His long run in 2007 was 30 yards and his long kick return just 22 yards. Lester will need to come up with more highlight-reel plays in 2008 to generate buzz and show he has the ability to make a difference at the next level. He will benefit running behind another stellar offensive line that returns all five starters with at least two future NFL linemen on the left side, T Lee Ziemba and G Tyronne Green. Like Kenny Irons, he has a bit of a slight frame, the 198 pounds he’s listed at is likely exaggerated. Despite this, he is a physical runner and effective between the tackles. He’ll need to add more bulk to do the same at the next level. He has shown good ability as a kick returner, but his opportunities have been limited by the presence of 5SR Tristan Davis, one of the top kick returners in the country. With just 19 career receptions, that is one area he needs to show improvement on, especially as he is likely looking at a change of pace role at the next level. New OC Tony Franklin is installing a spread offense that should give Lester the opportunity to see more passes this year. Lester is a solid prospect as a third RB, but needs to stay healthy and make some big plays this season.

Tarrion Adams (Tulsa – 5SR) 6’1” 204
After sitting out his first year due academic challenges, Adams jumped in to a crowded backfield lacking a star as a redshirt freshman in 2005 and emerged as their most effective option and only one capable of hitting a home run. He rushed for 574 yards and scored 8 TDs on just 89 carries (6.4 ypc), highlighted by three TDs in a C-USA Championship win over UCF and his first 100-yard game in a Liberty Bowl win over Fresno State. He broke a 63-yard TD run in the second quarter of the game, his second run of 60+ on the season, and helped seal the victory with a 32-yard run with two minutes left after the defense had grabbed their second interception in the fourth quarter. The departure of leading rusher Uril Parrish, as well as TE Garrett Mills and WR Ashlan Davis, left Adams as the top returning rusher and receiver in 2006. Despite this, the team was looking at Brandon Diles to do the heavy lifting and had big plans for talented Oklahoma-transfer Courtney Tennial, who sat out 2005 due to transferring. Adams was the nominal starter when the 2006 season began, but he split carries evenly with Diles while Tennial was significantly involved, as well. Mobile QB Paul Smith further diluted the available touches and stole goal-line carries. The season took a bad turn for Adams in the third game. He suffered a knee sprain that would cost him four games and limit him through two others. In his absence, Tennial stepped in and stepped up, as Diles would also go down. Adams returned at full strength late in the season, logging his first, and only, 100-yard rushing game in a loss to Rice. He would start two of their three final games, including an Armed Forces Bowl loss to Utah, but split carries with Tennial, who was more effective. Adams finished the season second in rushing yards with 329 to Tennial’s 845. Adams had just two TDs rushing, while Tennial led the team with 14. Adams was still a key contributor in the passing game, finishing with 31 receptions. It appeared that Adams was headed for another RBBC in 2007, likely deferring the feature role to Tennial. However, Tennial would go down with a torn Achilles’ tendon during camp in August and miss the season. Behind an offensive line that returned just one starter and a hurry-up, no-huddle offense brought in after mixed results in Arkansas by new OC Gus Malzahn, Adams had a breakout season. Running lanes were opened up by a pass-happy offense that put the ball in the air over 500 times and had three 1,000-yard receivers. Adams finished the season with 219-1,225-8 on the ground and 30-301-3 through the air, including his sixth 100-yard game of the season and a rushing TD, as well as season highs of four receptions for 57 yards and a TD receiving, in their GMAC Bowl destruction of Bowling Green. He was limited at Tulane in early November by an ankle sprain that also rendered him ineffective against Houston the following week. QB Paul Smith and Adams combined to become just the second 5K passing and 1K running duo on a team in NCAA history.

To start 2008, Adams has been limited this spring by an injured right foot and was held out of the Spring Game. He is expected to take the starting role this fall, but will be back in a crowded RBBC. Not only has Tennial returned from injury, but 3SO Jamad Williams stepped up while Tennial was out last year and all 2SO Charles Clay did was have a 1,000-yard receiving season as a true freshman FB/H-Back. Flanker A.J. Whitmore is also used in a lot of running plays. He had far more rushes (25) than receptions (3) last year and was the leading rusher in the Spring Game. The former HS QB also gives them a throwing option with the ball in his hands. Adams will be competing with touches with this diverse cast of characters, but he should still have substantial opportunities in what was the top-rated offense in FBS last year at 544 ypg. However, if any OC is up to the task of spreading the ball around, it is Malzahn, who juggled a much more talented cast at Arkansas. The team must also replace Smith at QB this season, which will be pivotal to the ongoing success of the offense.

Adams is built more like a WR than a RB, and could eventually see a position change at the next level due to his skills as a receiver. He has excellent hands and has worked hard to improve his route running. He’ll need to add some bulk to his lanky frame to handle the pounding of a significant workload of carries at the next level. Adams has had some durability problems, but I think he had been underrated and short-changed in opportunities by former HC Steve Kragthorpe. Although the loss of Tennial for the season was the primary driver around the opportunity for Adams last year, I don’t underestimate the fact it also happened under a new regime. Even if his numbers go down a bit this season, I expect Adams to be a late riser when teams catch his talent and measurables in an all-star game and at the Combine.

Aaron Brown (TCU – 4SR) 6’1” 196
The 2005 Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year came back in 2006 splitting carries with Lonta Hobbs. Brown suffered an ankle sprain in the fourth game of the season against BYU and would not play the following week at Utah. Despite the injury and sharing touches, he finished the season leading the team in rushing with 154-801-9 and was second on the team with 34 receptions. Brown was primed for a big 2007 when he suffered a knee injury in the first quarter of their season opening win against Baylor. He would miss the next two games, including a game at Texas, a rare opportunity to demonstrate his skills against a major program. He would come back and run off a few nice games before the knee would limit him again later in the season. 3SO Joseph Turner would emerge with Brown limited and Brown’s season would end for good when he broke his right ankle in their third-to-last game of the season. He finished second on the team, to Turner, in rushing with just 490 yards.

When healthy, Brown is an explosive player combining decent power with excellent speed and quickness. He is an outstanding receiver and his lean build is more like a WR than RB. He needs to add some bulk to run at the next level. He runs with good pad level for a taller run, displaying good balance and agility. He has never been a workhorse runner and his lack of durability won’t convince anyone he can be. Brown is once again primed for a huge season behind a talented and deep veteran offensive line. If he can stay healthy the whole season, he should shoot up draft boards this fall.

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.

Jeremiah Johnson (Oregon – 4SR) 5’9” 210
Overshadowed by Jonathan Stewart since the two came to school as true freshmen in 2005 and Stewart was regarded as one of the top blue chips in the country. He didn’t see much action as a runner his first year, but moved asserted himself as a kick returner. In 2006, Johnson emerged as an outstanding back-up to Stewart and a similar all-purpose contributor. He got more than mop-up work and stepped in when Stewart was dinged. Johnson had 103 carries to Stewart’s 183 and was more productive with them. Johnson averaged 6.3 ypc, almost a yard more than Stewart, and equaled his ten rushing TDs. Johnson was paired with Stewart on kick returns, though less productive, caught 17 passes and even saw work on kick returns. In 2007, Johnson continued to be highly involved in the running game to start the season, more of a co-starter than a back-up, and continued to produce. In the fifth game of the season against Washington State, he took the first play from scrimmage for the Ducks 42 yards for a score. Later in the first quarter, he would score on an 18-yard run to tie Stewart for the team lead with five rushing TDs on the season. On his next carry in the second quarter, he went down with a torn ACL in his right knee and his season was over. Stewart went on to put up huge numbers no longer splitting carries and was drafted in the first round this April.

Johnson continues to rehab his knee to start 2008 and did not participate in the Spring Game where JUCO transfer LeGarrette Blount blew up. Johnson is expected to be ready for the fall, but will have to compete with juniors Andre Crenshaw and Blount to try to lead a likely RBBC. Blount was one of the top JUCO players, heavily recruited by SEC and ACC powers closer to his native Florida. Johnson is an elusive runner with quickness to the hole with a low center of gravity and then burst in to the second level. He had decent speed and very good agility before the injury, so he needs to regain that to get back on the draft radar. Although considered more of the change of pace to Stewart’s punishing running style, Johnson is not afraid to deliver the blow, packing a powerful stiff arm and avoiding the sideline for extra yards. Assuming he comes back strong, Johnson is a nice all-purpose prospect who could climb draft boards if he can win the feature role. I was very high on him before the knee injury, so I’m anxious to see how he bounces back.

Andre Brown (North Carolina State – 4SR) 6’0” 228
Brown did not qualify academically as a highly-touted recruit in 2004 and spent a year at Hargrave Military prep school before renewing his commitment to NCST in 2005. Toney Baker was the blue chip RB right out of HS that year and seemed to have the early edge as both immediately had an opportunity as true freshman. After a slow start, Brown exploded in the second half of the season rushing for 248 yards against Southern Mississippi and 179 yards in a big upset at Florida State. He would go on to finish the season as the team’s leading rusher, while splitting carries with Baker. In 2006, the Wolfpack would regularly employ both Brown and Baker in the same backfield. While Baker was listed as the FB, and despite Brown’s strong end to 2005, Baker came to be viewed as the more consistent and dependable of the duo. Brown put up almost the exact same numbers in 2006, despite more playing time. However, he remained the more explosive of the two, capable of hitting the home run and averaging almost a yard per carry more than Baker. After a great spring for both players in 2007, the season got off to a rough start. Baker went down in the season opener and what could have been an opportunity for Brown to shine as the feature back, became a disappointment. First the Wolfpack was completely overmatched in early games against BC, Clemson, Louisville and FSU. The team suffered some bad losses to those teams with Brown struggling to produce as the focus of opposing defenses. They lost five of their first six games, with their only win at home over FCS small school Wofford, the only game Brown rushed for over 100 yards for the season. Injury was added to insult when Brown fractured his left foot in the first of their sixth game at Florida State on 10/6/07. He was expected to miss the entire season, but did return to see just a couple passes and three carries in their last two games.

So far, Brown has had a rough start to 2008. He reinjured his left foot during after their first scrimmage of the spring and has sat out since, missing the Red-White Game. 4JR Jamelle Eugene, who stepped up when Baker and Brown were injured last year, is building an argument to be RB1a in the committee at the start of the season while both Baker and Brown remain down this spring. When healthy, Brown is a tremendous size/speed package and explosive runner, but consistency and durability are huge question marks. It’s not just the foot injury, but aggravating it in the spring and a history of inconsistency, usually related to a seemingly minor injury (for example, he removed himself for the Clemson game in 2006 because of a neck strain), that raise questions. He is an asset as a blocker, but has not shown to be much of a weapon as a receiver. If he can return healthy and consistent, he has the ability to be a dominant runner who can take over a game and the measurables to be an extremely appealing prospect at the next level.

Courtney Tennial (Tulsa – 6SR) 5’9” 238
After setting the state’s single-season HS rushing record, Tennial enrolled at Oklahoma in 2003 with dreams of being the next great RB at the school he grew up a fan of. He took a redshirt his first year and then his future plans were shattered when Adrian Peterson committed the following year. Tennial didn’t play at all in 2004 and watched Peterson rush for almost 2,000 yards and almost become the first freshman ever to win the Heisman Trophy. The writing was on the wall, in large font and bold, that touches would be impossible to come by any time soon. Tennial enrolled at Tulsa in 2005 and sat out the season due to transferring to another D-IA/FCS school. Three years in to his college career, Tennial had yet to touch a football in an actual game. That would all change in 2006. Although the Golden Hurricane had Tarrion Adams coming off an impressive true freshman season and plans for Brandon Diles, Tennial quickly showed in spring he needed to be part of the rotation. The team started the 2006 season with Adams as the starter, splitting carries with Diles. Despite just two carries and a fumble in the third game of the season, Tennial’s first break came when Adams went down with a knee injury in the victory over North Texas that game. The following week, Diles got the first shot as a starter in an OT win over Navy. Another break came when Diles suffered an ankle injury, opening the door for Tennial to start and carry the load against Southern Mississippi. After just 19 carries through his first four games, Tennial had 21 for 120 yards and a score in the victory, although he did lose a fumble deep in Golden Eagle territory to kill a drive in the first quarter. He would start the next three games and get over 20 carries in each of those, all victories. As Diles and Adams began to return from injury, the carries became diluted again. Tennial would start his fifth and final game of the season in an OT loss to Rice, where he rushed for 23-109-2 and caught a 36-yard TD reception. He finished 2006 with leading the team with 171 carries, 845 rushing yards and, most impressively, 14 rushing TDs. Most unimpressively, he lost four fumbles on that relatively low number of carries. He added another two TDs among his 15 receptions. Finally his career was on track. Entering the 2007, although Adams was still in the picture, it appeared Tennial was set to be the workhorse back. called him the best pro prospect on the Golden Hurricane. Unfortunately, fate dealt him another tough hand that August. Tennial tore his Achilles’ tendon during camp and was done for the season before it began. As he already burned his redshirt with Oklahoma in 2003, he had to appeal to the NCAA for a rare sixth year of eligibility. Considering his career consisted of just one season of actual participation against opponents, it was granted and he was back on the field this spring ahead of schedule on his rehab. After being eased back in to full practice, he saw a team-high 10 carries, for 33 yards, in the Spring Game, although he wore a green jersey to warn defenders against “full” contact.

It has been a tough road for Tennial, who has not caught the type of breaks a player with potential NFL talent needs to get drafted. The latest challenge is to see if he can pick up where he left off in 2006 after recovering from a devastating injury. While not having breakaway speed before blowing his Achilles’, he had quick feet and explosion through the line. If he lost that, his football career is over after this season. The first order of business may be getting back in shape. I have not seen him this spring, but if the 238 he is listed as is correct, that seems awfully big for a player at his height. He is a bowling ball through the line, playing at great pad level to shed defenders and make him hard to get a clean hit on. He generates tremendous power to move the pile from a couple tree trunks of thighs, but had the agility to nimbly move through holes, as well. Tennial has unexpectedly decent hands for a stout big man, although he wasn’t used much in the passing game. Ball security has been a big problem in his limited sample set of carries. Even if he is back to 100% this year, he will struggle to produce numbers sharing touches with not only Adams, but a handful of other promising young backs who filled the void he left in 2007. He would defy odds to join the ranks of Jerome Bettis and Craig Heyward as runners of similar stature who found not just the opportunity, but success, as featured runners in the NFL. A conversion to fullback may be his most likely path to a chance at the next level.

Cedric Peerman (Virginia – 5SR) 5’10” 208
After redshirting in 2004, he was lost in a crowded backfield in 2005, but emerged as a solid kick returner. In 2006, he improved as a kick returner, but disappointed as a runner, failing to show the talent to be a featured runner and forcing the team to use FB Jason Snelling as their primary runner. After a strong spring in 2007, he earned the starting role. He had just 18 yards on seven carries as the Cowboys killed them in the season opener and it looked like the same unspectacular Peerman. However, a light went on as they opened the ACC season against Duke in the next game, specifically on the second series. Peerman ran untouched for a 58-yard TD to make it 14-0. Mistakes on special teams almost cost them the game, but Peerman’s effort helped the offense hang on. In total, he rushed for 137 yards on 19 carries and it looked like the Cavs might have a RB. His encore was career bests of 30 carries and 186 yards in a win at North Carolina. He broke off a 38-yard run, scored on a short TD plunge, and caught three passes for 37 yards in the game. Peerman had his third-straight 100-yard game as he was the workhorse with 28-138-1 and 2-14-0 in a win over Georgia Tech. He fell just short of 100 as their strong start to the ACC season continued with a win over Pitt. Peerman rushed for 87 yard on 24 carries with two TDs. He also caught four passes for 44 yards. He was the surprise leader in rushing of the ACC heading in to what should have been an easy contest at Middle Tennessee State on 10/6/07. In the second quarter of that game, Peerman went down with a foot injury. An MRI revealed a torn Lisfranc ligament in the foot, and a partially dislocated bone behind the big toe. He had surgery on the foot in November and his season was over. He still finished the season as the team’s leading rusher with 585 yards on 113 carries.

The foot has made a remarkable recovery, as Peerman has been working at full speed this spring just six months after the injury. He reportedly has added some upper body strength while rehabbing and has been impressive in practices and scrimmages. Although he might not even be even be the most talented RB on the roster, that is probably 4JR Mikell Simpson, Peerman was named a team and will at least split carries with Simpson. He adds value as a receiver and is a better than average kick returner. Peerman ran behind an excellent OLine last season, which I think contributed to his breakout. They have a lost a few starters there, including first-round pick Branden Albert. With the loss of QB Jameel Sewell to academic issues, the offense will be relying on the running game even more. I suspect Peerman’s return will disappoint a bit this year and Simpson will be more productive. If Peerman proves his start to last year wasn’t a fluke and picks up where he left off against ACC competition, his draft stock will climb.

The Backups
This group has the physical attributes and/or 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.

Maurice Wells (Ohio State – 4SR) 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. Maurice had another productive spring in 2007 and 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. Once the season started, Chris took over and had a breakout year. Maurice had career highs across the board rushing for 103-367-3, but it was fairly empty production in terms of the importance to the team. To start out 2008, Maurice saw only three touches in the Spring Game. His outlook for this fall looks even dimmer, as 2SO Brandon Saine should see an increased workload as a multi-purpose threat. 2FR Daniel “Boom” Herron might even pass Maurice for the 3RB role, as he has good potential and impressed on the scout team last year.

For a player who allegedly has sub-4.5 speed, Maurice has failed to display it on the field with his limited touches. His longest career run is 32 yards and he has a 3.5 career ypc. He caught a few more passes last year (ten) and took a few kick returns (four), but doesn’t really add value elsewhere. Without displaying complimentary skills to be worth a roster spot as a change of pace back, he doesn’t hold much promise for the next level. If he were on almost any other team, he wouldn’t even be worth discussing as far as any sort of NFL aspiration. Now that he is likely no longer an injury away from opportunity on his team, he probably isn’t at all.

Derron Thomas (Miami – 5SR) 5’9” 204
Consistently overshadowed by his peers and new recruits at The U, Thomas hasn’t risen higher than third on the depth chart most of his career. Barring injury, his prospects look no better this year. However, Thomas is worth a brief mention because (1) he is a Miami running back, even their back-ups are still good enough to find opportunities at the next level, (2) he has NFL speed, (3) he was a highly-recruited prep player, which still is factored into analysis even after a body of work in college, and (4) although lacking experience as a returner, he adds value as an outstanding special teams player. Thomas injured his right ankle in spring practice at the end of March and missed the Spring Game. For now he looks like a UDFA, but could surprise if given the opportunity.

Omar Conteh (Northwestern – 4SR) 6’0” 208
Overshadowed by fellow class of 2005 recruit Tyrell Sutton through their three years together, Conteh has also been held back by proving extremely injury prone. However, when Sutton went down early in 2007, Conteh stepped up with some impressive performances in the heart of their Big Ten schedule. He logged the first 100-yard game of his career against Michigan when the Wolverines were bouncing back strong from a disappointing start to 2007. He rushed for 70 yards and 2 TDs, as well as catching five passes for 79 yards and a TD in a win at Michigan State in the next game. The following week, he had 80 rushing and 68 receiving in another win over Minnesota. Unfortunately, he suffered an ankle sprain right after Sutton returned and Conteh didn’t see a carry in their final three games.

After missing part of spring practice in 2008 due to an injury, Conteh was the leading rusher in the Spring Game with 111 yards and a TD on the ground. Conteh is an appealing physical prospect and good special teams player who could have been a feature back at Northwestern if Tyrell Sutton wasn’t there, but his lack of durability likely would have derailed his opportunity even under different circumstances. He should still see increased work this fall even with Sutton back. If Sutton were to go down, he would likely be an extremely productive back as long as he stayed healthy.

Small School
These lower division players have the talent and measurables, but their achievement is always looked at as relative to the competition. Some frequently transfer from FCS programs because of crowded depth charts or off-field problems. 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.

Corey Lewis (Northern Iowa – 5SR) 6’0” 198
After posting good numbers in mop-up duty as the third RB behind David Horne and Terrance Freeney in 2005, Lewis was poised for a feature role in 2006. He started the season with three consecutive 100-yard games, Lewis was on his way to a fourth in a near upset of FBS Iowa State when he suffered a high ankle sprain in his left foot. He would miss the next two games and be limited in two more before ending the season with three more consecutive 100-yard games. Lewis took over in 2007 and had a breakout season as the Panthers went 12-1 finishing 4th in FCS. He rushed for over 100 yards in 8 of 13 games, highlighted by 130 yards rushing and 44 receiving in an upset of FBS Iowa State and a career best 32-220-3 in a first round playoff win over New Hampshire. Lewis earned first-team All-Gateway Conference honors, finishing with 258-1,513-16 on the ground and 54-642-0 through the air.

Lewis sat out the Spring Game with a handful of other key players as a precaution. One major challenge for 2008 is Lewis will be running behind a rebuilt offensive line. The team lost three Little All-American linemen to graduation. This season will prove if he was a product of the system or has the instincts and vision to compliment his outstanding quickness and speed. With NFL size and measurables, Lewis is definitely on the radar and could be a mid-round pick if he is similarly productive this year.

Herb Donaldson (Western Illinois – 5SR) 5’11” 225
After playing mostly special teams as a redshirt freshman in 2005, Donaldson exploded his first year as a starter in 2006. He finished the season 233-1,417-18 and was second-team All-Gateway Conference. The highlight was rushing for 328 yards and six TDs in a close win over Indiana State. He broke a FCS (then D-IAA) record with 282 rushing yards and four TDs in the second half. Donaldson provided a consistent encore in 2007, rushing just shy of 1,500 yards at a 6.1 ypc clip. He had his second 300-yard game of his career in a win over Missouri State. His 149.1 ypg were fifth in FCS and he was recognized with first-team All-Gateway Conference honors.

Having also played defense in HS, Donaldson brings a linebacker’s body and attitude to the offense. He is a big workhorse back who thrives on contact that earned him the nickname “The Beast” with teammates, which opposing defenders in the Gateway Conference wouldn’t disagree with. He probably lacks the speed to project as a feature runner at the next level and seems to be a good candidate to convert to FB.

Branden Ore (formerly Virginia Tech – 5SR) 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 for a torn labrum, Ore’s career as a Hokie was in doubt for the first time. 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 Ore and RB coach Billy Hite later confirmed Ore 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 Ore 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 three ACC games with an ankle sprain, he had a breakthrough season. Ore finished the year with over 1,100 rushing yards, including back-to-back 200-yard games, and 17 total TDs (16 rushing). He was recognized with first-team All-ACC honors. The lessons he supposedly learned a year earlier didn’t seem to last. Instead of staying in Blacksburg for the summer to work with teammates and participate in the voluntary conditioning program, Ore went home for the summer and showed up out of shape to camp before the 2007 season. Despite starting 13 and playing in all 14 games, his production dropped as he battled a variety of minor injuries. Ore rushed for 992 yards and nine TDs on a 3.7 ypc average and only went over 100 yards rushing twice. Prior to 2007, he averaged 5.3 ypc. He was suspended the first quarter of their Orange Bowl loss in January for disciplinary reasons, he was late to a practice. 2008 got no better for him after the season ended. Five days after their bowl loss to Kansas, Ore testified in a federal drug case involving a friend. Ore was not charged, but was in his friend’s car when he pulled over and arrested for possession with intent to distribute. The incident was in June 2006, weeks before he was accepted back at VaTech after his first signs of trouble. Days after his court appearance, Ore filed paperwork with the NFL to enter the 2008 Draft, but didn’t hire an agent and withdrew his name before the deadline. In March, HC Frank Beamer announced via an email press release that Ore was no longer with the team. He stated, "during recent meetings with Branden Ore, we have decided that it would be best for Branden to pursue other opportunities" and refused to comment beyond that. Once his production fell off, Beamer had no reason to deal with his attitude and lack of commitment. The negative publicity surrounding the trial and flirting with the NFL seemed to drive home the decision to cut ties with Ore.

It has been reported that Ore intends to join the D-II West Liberty State in West Virginia this fall. With just a redshirt season of eligibility left, he has few options to finish his college career. 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. 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 occasionally breaks off a long run, he does not appear to have breakaway speed. Ore has squandered his excellent potential repeatedly and it is no lock he has the commitment to football that he’ll play this fall. Even if does and has an outstanding season at a small college, it seems a UDFA opportunity is his best hope.

George Bell (Catawba – 5SR) 5’10” 215
The second of two former VaTech runners on the list, Bell has been on a long, hard journey to keep his NFL aspirations alive. Unlike Ore, he didn’t bring his problems on himself that drove him out of a major FBS program. Already a freakish combination of size and speed as a sophomore in HS, he was on the radar of most major college programs when he suffered the “terrible triad” (tearing all three ligaments) early in his junior year. He played in just three games as a senior after missing more than a year recovering and rehabbing. Despite this, his promise still made him a coveted recruit when he enrolled early at VaTech in January 2004 after completing HS early. Pound-for-pound, he was already one of the strongest Hokies as a freshman. He took a redshirt in 2004 to continue rehab on his knee and then had breakout spring in 2005. During the season, he worked as the fourth tailback, getting just 42 carries, but posting a 4.6 average and scoring two TDS. In 2006, it looked like he would have his opportunity to be the punishing compliment to Branden Ore. However, the season started off poorly. Both knees bothered him and he was ineffective on his touches, including having ball security problems. Just a few weeks in to the season, it looked like his football career was over. Running backs coach Billy Hite had recommended he give up football to save his knees, telling Bell he’d never pass an NFL physical. Bell took a month off to consider his options, but returned in October to give it another shot. When Ore was sidelined with a sprained ankle, Bell saw some work back in the rotation and gradually saw his workload increase the last few games. A rejuvenated Bell was ready to play again, but as spring practice started in 2007, it appeared he’d have opportunity for little more than mop-up work if he remained a Hokie. Instead, Bell transferred to D-II Catawba. He would need to drop a level to not have to sit out a season. Bell could have gone to an FBS school and had an opportunity for slightly more exposure, but he choose DII Catawba College in his home state of North Carolina because of ties he had there back to a camp he attended in HS. Catawba already had two solid RB options, but Bell meshed in seamlessly. He set school records in rushing TDs (18) and all-purpose TDs (20) as the team’s second-leading rusher with 715 yards on 129 carries (5.5 ypc). After dropping about 15 pounds, Bell showed some burst again in 2007, breaking off a 70-yard TD run in his first game and adding a 69-yard kick return during the season. Bell was recognized with second-team All-SAC (South Atlantic Conference) honors and the team made a run to the second round of the DII playoffs.

Bell didn’t play in the spring game, but neither did Jamelle Cuthbertson, their other top returning RB. Both were held out as a precaution and will share carries this fall. It’s hard not to root for Bell, who has gained every inch in college through perseverance and hard work in the face of adversity. He has shown some incredible maturity on his path, having to go from a phenomenal physical specimen for whom everything came easy to a player who needed a tremendous work ethic and dedication to continue playing just for the love of the game. However, the reality for his NFL chances is dim. If his left knee somehow passes an NFL physical, his best-case scenario is probably getting an opportunity as a UDFA to be FB and special teams player.

All have at least a year of eligibility left after the 2008 season, but have the talent and/or situation making them the most likely to declare early for next April’s draft. Interestingly this year we could be looking at the rare event of not just one, but a few third-year sophomores declaring in this thin class. There are some extremely talented redshirt sophomores who could have the seasons and motivation to declare early.

DeMarco Murray (Oklahoma – 3SO) 6’0” 198
One of the top RB recruits in the country in 2006, he wasn’t immediately needed with the best RB in the country, Adrian Peterson, set to chase the Heisman. When Peterson broke his collarbone, there was some thought Murray’s redshirt would be pulled, but Allen Patrick and Chris Brown stepped up instead and Murray sat out the year. In the spring of 2007, Murray quickly established his credentials. He was electrifying as a runner, receiver, and returner, frequently breaking off long runs. In the Spring Game, he carried the ball four times for 103 yards, including a 68-yard run and an 18-yard TD run. However, the Sooners backfield was stacked despite the loss of Peterson. Patrick and Brown returned, while another talented redshirt freshman, Mossis Madu, joined the mix. Patrick was set to retain the starting job, but he sprained his ankle prior to the season opener and Brown was suspended for that first game. So Murray got the start against North Texas and wasted no time making an impression. He scored from 44-yard on his third touch of the game and would finished with five rushing TDS, a record for a debut by a Sooner, on just 17 carries. Patrick and Brown returned the following as the Sooners trounced Miami, but the running game never got on track as Oklahoma did it through the air. Murray finished as the leading rusher with just 64 yards on 15 carries. The Sooners demolished their third consecutive opponent in facing less competition than a scrimmage against Utah State. Patrick led the team with 113 rushing yards, including a 69-yard TD run in the second quarter, but Murray bested that in the third quarter. Deep in Oklahoma territory, Murray took the handoff left on a stretch play out of a single-back set and burst through a hole a truck could have driven through and raced 92 yards untouched for the TD. He finished with exactly 100 yards on just four carries. At Tulsa the next week, Murray was got his first two touches as a kick returner and took one back 81 yards for a TD. He also scored two short rushing TDs as Oklahoma blew out another opponent. The following week at Colorado, the Sooners got caught looking ahead to Texas, as the CU pulled off a huge upset. Murray struggled, finishing with just 19 yards on six carries. In his first Red River Shootout, Murray would raise his profile even more. The running game was struggling when Patrick left with an ankle injury on their first play from scrimmage of the third quarter. With Patrick out of the way, Murray took over and struggled a bit on the first drive of the second half, including a fumble that the Sooners recovered. On the first play of the next drive, the Sooner ran the exact same play Murray ran for a 92-yard TD against Utah State. This time as he headed through left side of the line, he shed one defender in the backfield, then found one of his teammates on the ground in his path. Without breaking stride, he hurdled the player and raced past the rest of the Longhorn defense 65 yards down the sideline to give Oklahoma a 21-14 lead. The Sooners would go to win and Murray finished with 128 yards on 17 carries. He also three kick returns for 67 yards, including a 40-yard return to midfield in the second quarter. However, he also showed his youth on a bad decision to pick up a ball at the two-yard line on a kickoff that appeared headed out of bounds. In the game he suffered a left ankle sprain that hampered him the next game, a win over Missouri. Murray ran sparingly, just two yards on four carries, although he returned two kicks for 56 yards. He was a little better the next game where he put up 59 yards on nine carries in a win at Iowa State, then was back to full strength after their bye week. Murray rolled up four rushing TDs in easy wins over Texas A&M and Baylor the next two weeks, as the Sooners climbed to a #3 ranking and found their national championship dreams weren’t yet dashed by their early loss in a hectic season of upsets. However, their hopes were squashed at Texas Tech on 11/17/08. After emerging star QB, and fellow redshirt freshman, Sam Bradford left in the first quarter with a concussion, the offense struggled to find the end zone. Murray did his part, carrying the load after Patrick fumbled on his first carry and only saw one more in the game. Murray rushed for 94 yards on 19 carries and returning four kicks for 76 yards, but the Sooners still found themselves seven with less than a minute left. Oklahoma attempted an onside kick, and in the flurry to try to recover it, of which Murray was a part of, he was hurt despite not being hit on the play. Murray suffered a dislocated right kneecap and was done for the season. He finished with 15 all-purpose TDs, tying Adrian Peterson’s record by an Oklahoma freshman.

Last year, Murray was buried in a RBBC and overshadowed by the story of redshirt freshman Sam Bradford. If his knee recovers fully by the fall, he will be getting headlines. He didn’t participate in spring drills and expects to be back to full speed by June. Murray is a phenomenal athlete and explosive runner. He gets to full speed quickly and runs away from defenders once in the open field. His agility and ability to cut at full speed also makes him a dangerous kick returner. He has worked hard to bulk up after showing up at Norman around 180 pounds. He’ll need to add some more size for the next level, especially his upper body, but he drags collegiate defenders he doesn’t run by and always seems to be falling forward, running with an outstanding forward lean without compromising his agility. He is also outstanding in the passing game, both as a receiver and in blocking, although he can be overaggressive in always lunging at the legs of blitzers, a move that will get him beat and eventually hurt on Sundays. Due to his redshirt season, he will be three years removed from his HS class and so eligible for the 2009 draft. I think he’s a long shot to leave after this season, but if he returns to form from his knee injury, he will be the best RB in the nation next year and could declare early.

Clifford “C.J.” Spiller Jr. (Clemson – 3JR) 5’11” 190
One of the top recruits in the country coming in to the 2006 season, the Florida native passed on the in-state powerhouse schools to be one of the rare prep stars to leave the state. He kept in touch with his roots when he took number 28 in honor of his favorite RB, fellow Floridian Warrick Dunn. It didn’t take Spiller long to live up to the hype, as he rushed for 7.4 ypc his first season, a school record and the best by any ACC player since Dunn averaged 7.5 in 1995. Spiller’s average was bolstered by big play ability the likes of which haven’t been seen at Clemson before. He first flashed his explosive talents in a game at Boston College during their second contest of the season. Two plays after the defense forced a fumble at the goal line in the second quarter, QB Will Proctor found Spiller for a dump-off pass in the right flat. Spiller juked the first defender at the line, then broke a few tackles while cutting across the field and eventually racing down the left sideline for an 82-yard TD reception. The team would eventually lose the double-OT thriller, but Spiller had shown why the team needed to find ways to get the ball in his hands. Overall, he got off to a slow start the first four games, including losing a fumble in his first game, as the team worked to mesh Spiller’s talent with starting RB James Davis (although both technically started the opener and would be in the same backfield together, at times). Spiller had two short TD runs in an easy victory against North Carolina in the fourth game of the season, but the real turning point would be the next game against Louisiana Tech on 9/30/06. After jumping out to a big lead early with Davis carrying the load, he would be rested for the duration of the game beginning late in the second quarter. On his first drive after Davis took a seat, Spiller would carry the ball on four of five plays, ripping off a 20-yard TD run on his last carry. He would finish the game with 127 rushing yards on 15 carries, although he did lose two fumbles, as three Clemson runners ran up 100 rushing yards for the day. Piling numbers on an outmatched LaTech is one thing, but Spiller would be the hero in his encore at Wake Forest the following week. With the team down in the fourth quarter, he took a pitch to the right and, after breaking a tackle, flew 72-yards down the sideline for the eventual game-winning score. After rushing for 73 yards and two scores, he would be rested in another easy win over Temple the next game, ending his back-to-back 100-yard rushing games. He was back over 100 rushing yards the next week in a win against then-13th ranked GaTech, including a 52-yard TD run. He also had a 50-yard TD reception. The offense sputtered the next two weeks in a loss at VaTech and an upset by Maryland. He had almost identical games, rushing for 41 yards (on 10, than 9 carries) and catching two receptions for negligible yards in each. Spiller ended the regular season strong with two more almost identical games. He rushed for 154 yards and a score in a win over NC State, then 155 yards in a loss to South Carolina. He compiled his yards against the Gamecocks on just ten carries, including an 80-yard TD run and a 31-yard TD run to keep the Tigers in a game where Davis was struggling. An early deficit to Kentucky in the Music City Bowl forced the Tigers to the air, giving Spiller just five carries in the loss. He fell 62 yards short of 1,000 yards rushing, just missing combining with Davis to give the Tigers their first 1K rushing tandem in school history. He was named a second-team All-ACC RB (Davis was first-team) with numerous outstanding statistical totals and averages. The most impressive may have been his school-record six TDs over 50 yards, including both a run and reception of 80 yards or more.

Shortly after their Music City Bowl loss, rumors began to surface that Spiller was considering transferring for the 2007 season. After originally resisting the allure of playing for one of the elite Florida programs, the talk was he may be headed to the National Champion Gators. Spiller struggled with homesickness during the season, especially because he had an infant daughter born earlier in 2006. However, he quickly issued a statement confirming he intended to remain at Clemson and about a week after the drama started, spoke publicly about missing his child, but intending to honor his commitment to the school. The rumors lingered through the spring, forcing him to address them up through the end of camp, but he was back starting in the same backfield with Davis for their season opening victory over FSU. Once again, he started the season slow. He had a 52-yard kick return in the season opener, a 68-yard TD reception in a win over Louisiana-Monroe in the second game of the season, and then put up 21-117-1 and 3-34-1 at NC State the fourth game of the season, but he disappeared in back-to-back losses at GaTech and against VaTech the next two weeks. Despite the team trying to the ball in his hands a number of ways, the big plays weren’t happening nearly often enough in the first half of the season. Davis was marginally better, although he was also a non-factor in their disappointing loss at VaTech. After a bye week, things changed for both runners in the second half of the season. In a blowout of Central Michigan, Spiller had a workman effort of 96 yards and a TD on 15 carries and added another three receptions. In another win at Maryland the next game, the home run still wasn’t there, but Spiller had another strong all-around effort with 106 yards rushing on 17 carries and a career-high five passes for 37 yards. He would have incredibly similar efforts as the winning streak continued with easy victories at Duke and against Wake Forest. He had 56 yards on eight carries and returned a kickoff 84 yards for his first return TD vs. the Blue Devils, then 54 yards on eight carries and a 90-yard kickoff-return TD vs. the Demon Deacons. Spiller saved his best game for the last day of 2007, unfortunately it wasn’t enough to beat Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl as Clemson went down in OT. Spiller gave the team their first lead in the second quarter with an 83-yard TD run and would finish with over 100 yards rushing and over 100 yards in kick returns for a career best 218 all-purpose yards in the game. On the TD run, he took a handoff up the middle and was wrangled around the legs after running in to his own man. Somehow, he spun out of the tackle and raced down the left sideline, increasing his lead on defenders with an angle on him, for the TD. While his carries were up from his freshman season, he finished with less rushing yards with his average down to 5.3 ypc. However, he caught almost twice as many receptions and saw his kick return yardage and average significantly jump as he established himself as one of the top return men in the FBS.

There is big play ability, and then there is Spiller. In two years he has amassed ten plays of over 50 yards (a school record), including four of 80. He is the most electrifying player with the ball in his hands since Reggie Bush. Pure dazzle as he weaves his way through defenders and then explodes away from pursuing defenders with his elite speed when he finds daylight. Not surprisingly, he is also an All-American track star for Clemson, with a career-best time of 10.41 in 100m. He fell in love a bit too much with his own speed in 2007 and tended to dance behind the line trying to bounce everything outside for the home run. He almost doubled his yards lost on carries from his freshman season. However, it’s hard to blame him. It is what the team expects from him since 4SR James Davis is there to be the workhorse. RB coach Andre Powell has commented on the significant improvement by Spiller in his execution and running between the tackles this spring, noting he thinks the absence of Davis (shoulder surgery) this spring has helped Spiller focus on being a workhorse runner. Spiller also has been working on picking up the blitz, something he hasn’t been asked to do much of in the past. He had eight carries for 20 yards and added two receptions in limited work in the Spring Game. OSU’s Chris Wells is the consensus favorite and probably will be the first RB selected in the 2008 draft, but C.J. Spiller has the highest upside. If he can show some consistency this year, I’d take him over Wells.

Chris “Beanie” Wells (Ohio State – 3JR) 6’1’ 237
The Akron native was recognized as the top HS RB by many recruiting sources when he came to Columbus in 2006. He wasted no time climbing the depth chart and was the back-up to Antonio Pittman to start his true freshman season. HC Jim Tressel worked him in the game plan, not just using him in mop-up work, but ball security was a problem that limited Wells. He lost four fumbles during the season. However, his talent outweighed his problems and Wells continued to see opportunities in key situations. In the second quarter of their thrilling victory over Michigan to preserve an undefeated regular season, Wells had a season-long 52 yard TD run to give the Buckeyes a 14-7 lead at the time. He saw just two carries in their disappointing loss to Florida in the BCS National Championship, as the team fell behind early and went to the air. With Pittman declaring early, the running game was turned over to Wells. He responded with 9 100-yard games on his way to 1,609 rushing yards for the season and 15 TDs in leading the Buckeyes back to the BCS National Championship. His biggest performance was literally carrying the team to a 14-3 victory over Michigan in his first appearance in the Big House with a career-high 222 yards rushing and scoring both TDs in an otherwise defensive struggle of a game. He was recognized with first-team All-Big Ten honors.

Wells battled a nagging ankle injury for much of the season that prevented him from displaying his speed. He did break off a 62-yard TD run at Michigan, his second 60-yard run of the season. It was also revealed he played the entire season with a broken bone in his left wrist near the thumb. Considering that, his accomplishments become a bit more impressive, especially the fact he was able to improve his ball security, and it says a lot about his pain tolerance and durability, which NFL teams will value greatly. Wells had surgery on the wrist in January and sat out the Spring Game to continue recovery and rehabilitation for both problems. He is expected to be fine for the season and is the preseason Heisman favorite of most pundits. The nickname “Beanie”, which he prefers to go by, comes from his older brother Ray, who likened his tall and thin brother to a string bean when he was young. No one will make that mistake about him these days. Wells is built for power and speed, distributing his 230+ pounds across his well-defined frame. He hits the hole fast with great pad level for a big back. He is quick to find the cutback lane if the hole is filled, but good about not trying to bounce too much outside. After his burst through the hole, he has the speed to run away from defenders and finishes his runs delivering a blow. Tacklers who come in too high find themselves on the ground. Wells always looks for the extra yards, avoiding the sideline and cutting back in to the field looking for one more tackle to break or defender to punish. Wells joins Adrian Peterson and Darren McFadden as the latest superstar RB of the year, already having separated himself from the pack in terms of achievement and being the total package of measurables (although he doesn’t have the elite speed Peterson and McFadden have). He is a Heisman favorite and, barring injury, a lock to declare early and likely will be the first RB selected.

Stafon Johnson (USC – 3JR) 6’0” 210
In 2006, USC brought in a trio of RB recruits expected to rival the 2003 group of Reggie Bush, LenDale White, and Chauncey Washington. Johnson joined C.J. Gable and Emmanuel Moody in the Trojans’ trifecta of top-rated new blue chips. Calling himself “The Prince”, Johnson walked around campus with t-shirts sporting his own picture and his arrogant attitude quickly landed him in Pete Carroll’s doghouse. He dislocated his left shoulder in camp before the season started, burying him even further on the depth chart. The shoulder would pop out several more times during the season. Between that and the success of the running game behind Washington and the other two freshmen left Johnson out of the loop. He appeared, briefly, in just three games and had just three carries on the year. He had surgery in January 2007 to clean up the shoulder and missed most of the spring. Rumors started to swirl he would transfer as the outlook for his career as a Trojan continued to dim. However, he returned for summer camp and worked his way to a co-starting spot with Gable for the season opener against Idaho. He scored the first TD of the season for the Trojans, and first of his career, on their first drive. He scored another short TD later in the game, finishing with 12 carries for 64 yards. In their next game, Gable started, but Johnson led the team with 144 yards rushing in a win at Nebraska. He finished with 48 yards rushing as the ball was spread around in a win over Washington State. In a tight win at Washington, Chauncey Washington got the start and rushed for a 106 yards on a team-high 21 carries, but Johnson had 122 yards rushing on just 14 carries, including a 45 yard burst that set up his own eight-yard TD run to give the Trojans their first lead in the game. On his final carry in the game, his left foot was twisted trying to break a tackle and suffered a deep bruise. He would miss the next two games due to the foot injury and Washington would asset himself as the workhorse back and top freshman Joe McKnight had a breakout game against Arizona. Johnson would return, but just as another contributor in the ridiculously deep backfield for the rest of the season as the foot problem would linger. He would end the season on a strong note in their Rose Bowl victory, rushing for 104 yards on just nine carries, including an off-tackle run left where he split a small hole and burst 63 yards before getting dragged down at the Illinois 21-yard line. Johnson finished the season second on the team in carries, rushing yards and TDs with 98-673-5.

The competition in the backfield has once again been fierce this spring. Johnson and 2SO McKnight are the top returning rushers, while 3JR Gable returns from injury. Fellow 3JR Allen Bradford has also had a good spring and could be a wildcard impacting the balance of carries. There is also a pair of blue redshirt freshmen, Marc Tyler and Broderick Green, who will be looking for a niche. Johnson was the leading rusher in the Spring Game, with 13 carries for 58 yards. McKnight was academically ineligible this spring, but is expected to be fine for the fall. The best case scenario for Johnson appears to be sharing the feature role with McKnight and not losing too many carries to the other backs. Johnson has size, but it won’t be a LenDale White and Reggie Bush Thunder-and-Lightning backfield. Johnson has size and some power, but thrives on elusiveness and can hit the home run. With barely 100 career carries, there isn’t much to judge Johnson on, but he was a tremendous prep talent and has shown flashed on the collegiate field. I expect Johnson to break out this season, making him a no-brainer to declare early. On potential talent, he is already near the top of the class.

LeSean McCoy (Pittsburgh – 2SO) 5’11” 204
The Pennsylvania native known as “Shady” was one of the top recruits in the country in 2006 despite a compound fracture of his right ankle in September 2005 that prematurely ended his senior year of HS and chase of the state’s career rushing record. He verbally committed to Miami, but did not qualify academically, so he went to Milford Academy (NY), a prep school that also frequently serves as a minor league team for academically-challenged future Hurricanes. At Milford that fall, he was still getting back to full speed on his ankle and would up a reserve to fellow Miami recruit Graig Cooper. When Larry Coker was fired at Miami, Pittsburgh swooped in and stole him. McCoy changed his commitment and headed to Pitt in the summer of 2007. Returning starter LaRod Stephens-Howling remained the nominal starter to begin the season, but McCoy was the leading rusher in their season opening win over Eastern Michigan. The following week at Grambling, Stephens-Howling bruised his ribs on the first carry of the game. McCoy took over and never looked back. He rushed for a TD on three of his first four carries, finishing with 107 yards, the first of seven 100-yard rushing games he would have on the last season. Stephens-Howling would miss the next game giving McCoy his first start at Michigan State. The team couldn’t overcome the lack of a passing game in the loss, but McCoy ran for a career-high 172 yards, including breaking off a season-long 64-yard TD to tie the score on the first play from scrimmage after the Spartans took a 7-0 lead in the second quarter. Out of a single-back set, there was misdirection from a WR in motion, when McCoy took the handoff off-tackle right. The hole wasn’t there, so he cutback left and turned up the field, running away from the defense. Contributing to his success in the game was the incorporation of the “Wildcat offense”, which Pitt coaches picked up from Arkansas in the spring, for the first time. With struggles at QB after the loss of starter Bill Stull, McCoy worked in the Darren McFadden role, taking snaps directly from center in a spread-option package. It was a rough year for the Panthers, but it ended on a high note for the team and McCoy. Huge underdogs in the 100th Backyard Brawl at West Virginia, Pitt would end the National Championship hopes of the then second-ranked Mountaineers in a 13-9 upset. McCoy led way, pounding out 148 yards on a career-high 38 carries. He finished the season rushing for 1,328 yards and 14 TDs, breaking Tony Dorsett’s rushing TD record. He also had 33 receptions for 244 yards and another TD.

McCoy heads in to the season with a target on his back unless he can get some help on offense. QB Bill Stull returns, but his next game will be just his second start after getting injured in the season opener last year. The offensive line lost three starters, two who were drafted, including first-round pick Jeff Otah, so that unit will be a big concern. McCoy had four carries for 16 yards, including a one-yard TD run, in the Spring Game. McCoy is a workhorse who thrives between the tackles, but can also bounce outside to hit a home run. Ball security is one of the few holes in his game. He lost a few fumbles last year, including one at the one-yard in their seven-point loss to Louisville with ensured defeat. While he is a true sophomore, he played in prep school for a year, so McCoy is three years removed from his HS class and therefore eligible for the 2009 draft. He has the talent to come out this early, like former Panther Larry Fitzgerald. McCoy’s brother LeRon plays for the Cardinals with Fitzgerald. In a weak RB class, if McCoy can put up a similar season, he seems like a strong candidate to declare extra early.

Keiland Williams (LSU – 3JR) 5’11” 223
One of the top prep RBs in 2005, he failed to quality academically and spent a year at Hargrave Military Academy before committing again to the Tigers in 2006. As the NCAA Clearinghouse didn’t clear him as eligible until less than two weeks before their first game in 2006, he was buried on the depth chart to start his freshman year. Alley Broussard, Justin Vincent, and Jacob Hester led the RBBC to start the season. Fellow frosh Charles Scott actually worked his way in the rotation first, but a concussion took Scott out by midseason. With Broussard and Vincent ineffective, Williams emerged in the second half of the season. He carried the load (17-63-1) over Hester in an upset at Tennessee on 11/4/06. The following week against Alabama, he ran for a 38-yard TD on the first Tiger offensive drive and already had 79 yards on just nine carries when he suffered an ankle injury. He would miss the next game, an OT victory against Ole Miss, due to the ankle. He would return for a match-up with then-5th ranked Arkansas in Little Rock and get his first career start. Williams led the RBBC with 13 carries and 70 yards, including a 29-yard TD, in another upset that secured a BCS Bowl appearance. The Tigers met ND in the Sugar Bowl and Williams would lead the demolition of the Fighting Irish on ground. He finished with 14-107-2, his first 100-yard rushing game.

After his strong finish to the previous season, Williams looked to be the favorite to lead the backfield in 2007. However, it was tweener FB Jacob Hester, with consistency, good hands, and the ability to pick up the blitz who was the workhorse runner. The plethora of talented options in the backfield also contributed to limited Williams to 70 carries. He would see double-digit carries just once in the season, even though he played in every game. Despite his limited opportunities, Williams demonstrated his home-run ability. In an early season test against VaTech, he ripped off TD runs of 67 and 32 yards as the Tigers easily beat the Hokies. He would finish with career-high 126 yards on just seven carries in his only 100-yard game of the season. Williams took a pass in the flat 46 yards for a TD to get the Tigers on the scoreboard in an eventual win against Auburn. A bruised shoulder early in the season and some knee problems later in the year also helped limit his workload, but mostly HC Les Miles showed the most confidence in Hester at the expense of giving more touches to the other more athletically-gifted backs on the roster. It’s hard to argue with the results, LSU won the BCS title and Hester was a third-round pick in the draft.

Williams was limited by ankle problems this spring, but he started the Spring Game for the White (first team). He had five carries for 36 yards early in the game, but fumbled on his last carry and sat the rest of the day because of it. With Williams benched, 3SO Richard Murphy got some additional carries with the White team and exploded. Murphy rushed for 145 yards on just 11 carries, including a 70-yard TD, and also caught a 53-yard TD pass. It was his second straight year with a spectacular Spring Game performance. 3JR Charles Scott did not play due to an ankle injury. While Williams may be the nominal starter come fall, it looks like the RBBC remains business as usual for another season in Baton Rogue. A veteran offensive line that returns four starters and features a stellar left side, along with a true blocking FB (as opposed to Hester often lining up in the spot) in converted LB 5SR Quinn Johnson, should provide plenty of opportunities for the running game to succeed.

It’s hard to look at the career arc of Williams so far and not be reminded of the similarities to Justin Vincent. After being MVP of the National Championship in the Sugar Bowl as a freshman, Vincent’s career went in reverse, ending with him buried on the depth chart and going undrafted. A few key differences were Vincent had some serious injuries and, even before them, lacked the physical talents that Williams has. Williams’ vision is and/or ability to think quickly is a bit questionable. Sometimes he runs up the back of his linemen instead of a quick cut to the open hole. Otherwise, he often looking to bounce outside or dance behind the line looking for somewhere to hit the home run. An example of the bad decisions he can make with the ball exasperating an already poor situation was a 14-yard loss he took against Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game last year. He buried the team deep in their own territory in the second quarter with the run and were forced to punt two plays later. Another area that Williams needs to work on is in the passing game. While he has shown good hands, he has just 13 career receptions because he rarely works in third-and-long situations. He needs to work on picking up the blitz. Despite the negatives I just discussed and lack of career achievements, Williams is on the list because he has incredible upside and ideal measurables. He has the speed and explosion to hit the home run, with the size to be a workhorse, while adding value with kick return potential. In two seasons he has just 146 carries, less than 60% of what an average feature back would get, and has produced 914 yards (6.26 ypc) and 11 TDs. So while you can project his numbers to elite production over a whole season, it is another thing to do it in the same season. Williams is unlikely to get the touches to allow him to put up outstanding numbers this season, but if he can separate himself enough from Scott and Murphy, he could be this year’s Rashard Mendenhall.

Knowshown Moreno (Georgia – 3SO) 5’11” 207
The New Jersey native joined a friend to attend Georgia’s HS summer camp in 2005 and ended up Georgia’s top recruit. While redshirting in 2006, he quickly earned a reputation as one of the hardest working practice players. He had a good showing in the 2007 Spring Game, but was expected to be the third option behind seniors Thomas Brown and Kregg Lumpkin heading in to the season. In the season opener against Oklahoma State, Lumpkin broke his thumb and Moreno would get involved early and often. He finished leading the team with 20 carries and 73 yards, also catching two passes for 51 yards. He would immediately earn his way in to sharing carries with Brown and lead the team again the following week in a loss to South Carolina with 104 yards on just 14 carries, including a 50-yard dash in the third quarter. He would split carries fairly evenly with Brown over the next several games until Brown broke his collarbone in a loss at Tennessee. Moreno would take over the following week and roll off five consecutive 100-yard rushing games, becoming the first Bulldog since Herschel Walker to do so. Moreno would finish the season with 148-1,334-14 on the ground and 20-253-0 through the air. He was named SEC Freshman of the Year and was on the All-SEC First Team.

In the Spring Game, he had just three carries for 16 yards in limited work. Redshirt freshman Caleb King will team with Moreno to form what should be one of the top RB tandems in the nation and QB Matthew Stafford is also a top NFL prospect. The offensive line meshed quickly last year with three new starters and is young, but a talented unit. The comparisons to Herschel Walker will only ramp up this season with both the Heisman Trophy and National Championship as not unreasonable expectations. Moreno will have a crash course on dealing with pressure. A high-motor guy, Moreno hits full speed quickly and slashes through the line with great quickness and agility. He’ll need to be more patient in letting blocks develop and not try to bounce everything outside at the next level, but has obvious elite talent in running and catching the football. With a redshirt season under his belt, Moreno is three years removed from his high school class and eligible for the draft. If he stays healthy and puts up similar production, he is likely to make the jump.

P.J. Hill (Wisconsin – 4JR) 5’11” 228
Many so-called scouting services listed Hill as a fullback prospect in high school, despite the fact he never played the position, because of his girth. Despite being one of the dominant prep RBs in New York, he only received scholarship offers from four FBS schools (Wisconsin, Buffalo, Indiana, and Syracuse). HC Barry Alvarez and RB coach Brian White had no doubt about the position Hill was best suited for, and he came to Madison in the fall of 2005 with two other RB recruits. Hill quickly impressed upon arrival, moving his way up the depth chart with each practice. However, he broke a bone above his left ankle in a scrimmage and would end up with a redshirt for the season. As the Badgers headed in to 2006, the RB situation was in disarray. Leading rusher Brian Calhoun left for the NFL early and Booker Stanley, the top back-up, was kicked off the team due to legal problems. Hill did little to help himself early in the year when he was suspended indefinitely for a disorderly conduct charge along with several other football players after an incident in the dorm. However, the issue was minor and Hill was back with the team for the start of spring. With an uninspiring group of veterans to choose from, Hill quickly asserted himself as the obvious choice. New RB coach John Settle was skeptical of Hill and his “unique” physique upon their first meeting, but that all changed on the field once the pads were on. Hill worked through some neck problems to be the star of the spring and clear choice as feature back heading in to the 2006 season. He would immediately erase the doubts for those who didn’t think the bowling ball out of Queens could be a feature back in college, as he rushed for over 100 yards in eight of his first ten games. Neck problems resurfaced during one of those games (vs. Illinois), limiting him to a season-low 12 carries when he was on his way to another 100-yard day. Another game he was limited under 100 yards rushing was what would be their only loss of the season, at Michigan. However, he had five receptions for 64 yards, including the first score of the game when he took a short pass 29 yards to give the Badgers a 7-0 lead. Overall, Hill wore down as the season went on, going over 100 yards rushing in just one of their last five games. He was limited to just 36 yards on 19 carries in their Capital One Bowl victory over Arkansas, but the win gave the Badgers their best season ever with a 12-1 record. Meanwhile Hill finished with one of the best seasons ever by a freshman FBS RB, rushing for 1,569 yards and 15 TDs. He added another 197 yards and a TD on 18 receptions.

After being listed as high as 242 pounds during his rookie campaign, Hill worked out to cut down under 230 while missing spring practice due to surgery on his right shoulder. Despite a new QB and the loss of all-start LT Joe Thomas to the NFL, Hill picked up where he left off the previous season. He had just 84 yards rushing in their season-opening win over Washington State. The Cougars focused on Hill while gambling, and losing, on letting Badger QB Tyler Donovan beat them in his first career start. Hill did run for two short TDs in the game, but almost lost a costly fumble at the goalline late in the game, recovering the ball himself. Hill would then rattle off four-straight 100 yards games, before being held under 100 in their first loss of the season at Illinois and a loss the next week at Penn State. In their next game, he bounced back with 21-184-2, including a career-long 72-yard run, in an easy win over Northern Illinois. With key dates at Ohio State and against Michigan looming back-to-back to start off November, Hill got off to a fast start in a tune-up against Indiana on 10/27/07. He had already amassed 56 yards on 11 carries in the first quarter when he got the call on a fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line. Hill scored, but hobbled off the field after with a leg injury. X-rays revealed no broken bones in his left foot or leg, but an MRI found a deep bruise in the lower leg, the same one he broke in 2005. Hill would miss their loss to the Buckeyes and attempted to come back in the second half of their victory over Michigan, but managed just 14 yards on five carries before leaving. He would also sit out their regular season finale against Minnesota, where true freshman Zach Brown rushed for 250 yards and two TDs in the thrilling 41-34 victory. At first, the prognosis didn’t look good for Hill to even be ready for their New Year’s Day Outback Bowl game against Tennessee. However, Hill returned as the feature back in the game and ended the season strong. He rushed 16 times for 132 yards, including a huge 50-yard run late in the game that stalled at the Tennessee ten-yard line. He finished the season 1,212 yards and 14 TDs on 233 carries, joining Ron Dayne and Anthony Davis as the third UW back to rush for 1K in his first two seasons.

Unlike his rookie season, the team will no longer thin in the backfield and needing to rely on Hill to carry the running game in 2008. The embarrassment of riches includes former star recruit 3JR Lance Smith-Williams, who is past some legal problems after getting his feet wet last year, and 2007’s blue chip recruit John Clay, who excelled in the Spring Game after redshirting last season. Then there is 2SO Zach Brown who emerged when Hill was hurt last year and should be the top reserve bringing speed and consistency. He is listed as a “co-starter” with Hill on the spring depth chart. Hill will still be “the man”, but the team can afford to protect him and it seems impossible he’ll see 300 carries like he did his freshman year. For the third straight year the Badgers will have a new QB and they return four starters up front. Although they lost standout center Marcus Coleman, as usual, there is plenty of talented depth up front up north in Wisconsin.

Even after cutting weight last year, Hill doesn’t jump out at you in the eye-ball test. An upper body lacking definition gives way to a bit of a gut, then an enormous posterior and a couple massive thighs. However, Hill has mastered generating tremendous power from his lower body that gives him explosion not just to overpower defenders on impact, but in shockingly good agility and quick feet. He seemed to digress a bit last season as coaches tried to reign in his aggressiveness in delivering the blow to protect him. The natural runner I saw as freshman with good pad level and great forward lean came off the ball a bit more upright and tentative. After dealing with fumble problems, he also resorted to putting two hands on the ball too frequently, limiting his agility. The comparisons to Ron Dayne are natural, and I can see some of it, but Hill has better speed and hands as a pass catcher. Hill has three runs of 50 or more yards and soft hands as a receiver. He is also a decent blocker in the passing game, but lacks polish as a route runner. I’m not sure if he lacks good vision or just prefers to always try to run defenders over. Either one is bad for the next level. Although he does show pretty good instincts as a runner and definitely has a nose for the end zone. What I see when watch him doesn’t always translate to tremendous production he has achieved. Maybe I’ve just picked some of his bad games, but he also has padded his numbers on some weak opponents. He has yet to face Ohio State, has struggled as a runner both times he faced Michigan (albeit his was hurt in one of those games), underperformed against two other good Big Ten opponents last year (Illinois and Penn State), and was a non-factor against a quality Arkansas team his freshman year. His performance against Tennessee in his last game was one of his few good ones against a top opponent. Still, there is no denying his appealing combination of size and power with surprising speed. He is definitely fearless as a runner, although that has contributed to his lack of durability. Conditioning is also a concern as, injuries or otherwise, he has worn down by the end of the season each of his first two years. He is a great fit for a ball control offense, particularly a single-set, with a team who would be patient with his grinding running until being rewarded with a big play here and there. The is no questioning his success as a feature runner, as the team is 15-1 when he has over 20 carries and he boosts a 5.1 ypc average. Hill is a player I’ll be following closely this year. I’m hoping to see a player who has worked on sculpting his upper body a bit more and, on the field, runs more like the player I saw in 2006 than in 2007. Regardless, with another season of solid production, he seems a no-brainer to declare early as he is already in his fourth-year and has a backfield full of young talent stealing touches.

Ben Tate (Auburn – 3JR) 5’11” 214
Maryland all-time HS rushing leader graduated early to join spring ball in 2006. Despite being behind Kenny Irons and Brad Lester, he made an immediate impact with limited touches, rushing for 100 yards twice and just missing doing it a third time in mop-up duty. He finished the season third on the team in rushing with 392 yards on just 54 carries (7.3 ypc) and three TDs as a true freshman. His big break came in 2007 when Lester was suspended for the first five games. Tate moved in to the starting role and had solid, but unspectacular, production. Once Lester returned, Tate was still heavily involved and finished the season as the team’s leading rusher with 202 carries for 903 yards and 8 TDs.

Tate missed most of spring practice in 2008 with a hamstring injury, but scored two TDs during limited work in their Spring Game. Tate is a good combination of size and speed. Although he has decent size and isn’t afraid to run between the tackles, he needs to do a better job of it and learn to use play with better leverage when taking on tacklers at the line. While he doesn’t have the home-run potential of 5SR Lester, Tate is the better NFL prospect. He hasn’t been very involved in the passing game, but the spread offense being installed by new OC Tony Franklin should give him some opportunities this year. Lester will be the nominal starter, but it is essentially a RBBC. Tate can force his way in to even more carries if he shows he can run with more authority in short-yardage and goal-line situations. He hasn’t quite lived up to the hype of being the next great Auburn RB, but he has shown some flashes of great talent and been their most consistently effective runner his first two seasons. With a weak RB class, even if Lester holds his job all year, Tate could consider making the jump.

Javarris James (Miami – 3JR) 6’0” 216
As a true freshman in 2006, he wasted no time climbing the depth chart on his way to one of the debuts ever for a Hurricane RB. With Tyrone Moss coming off a blow knee, Charlie Jones earned the nominal starting role to begin the season, but the first three games were a RBBC. With a 1-2 record, James got his first start when Houston came to town and wouldn’t relinquish the role the rest of the year. James set a record for rushing yards by a Miami freshman in his first start with 148 in the close victory over the Cougars. He went back-to-back with 100 rushing yards in a win over North Carolina the following week, including a 62-yard TD run. It was his longest run of the season and one of three runs over 40 yards he had that flashed his big play ability. James finished the season with 802 yards, behind Clinton Portis for the second-most by a Miami true freshman, and added another 200 yards on 17 receptions. To start 2007, the Canes added blue-chip recruit Graig Cooper, who is James’ roommate, and the expectations soared for them to form a dynamic duo in the backfield. Everything seemed on track in the season opener when James rushed for 99 and two scores while Cooper added 116 in an easy win over Marshall. However, in that game James suffered a neck injury that would linger for most of the season and end the season getting hurt in pre-game before their season-finale loss to BC, limiting him in that game. He would post just one 100-yard game and see less than ten carries in three games, despite starting all of them. James finished with just 582 rushing yards on the season and his ypc dropped to 3.7 from 4.7 in 2006. To blame was his lack of hitting any home runs. His longest run was 23 yards. Meanwhile, Cooper broke out in his first season, leading the team with 100 more yards rushing than James despite 28 less carries, although a knee sprain would limit Cooper in the last three games of the season, as well.

Reports are James has looked great this spring, adding ten pounds of muscle, while playing with explosiveness and showing quickness again. He looks awfully good on a cutback TD run from a spring scrimmage that is out on YouTube. James had just one carry in the Spring Game, but he took it for 25 yards, and also had four receptions for 60 yards. James has been frequently lining up in the slot this spring. Showing the type of flexibility to line up split out could be a boost to his draft value, as long as it doesn’t come at the cost of carries, i.e. Cooper evolving in to the feature runner and James being a role player. The offensive line is experienced, not to mention deep, but the talent level is questionable heading in to 2008. Overall, the team averaged less than four ypc for the fourth consecutive year in 2007. Obviously they weren’t a problem when James averaged 4.7 ypc as a freshman, so it is hard to implicate them in his rushing for a yard less per carry in 2007, especially when Cooper ran for 5.5 ypc. One part of the running game that has been lacking is a mauler at fullback. HC Randy Shannon focused on addressing that this year. The team added JUCO transfer 3JR Patrick Hill and 1FR John Calhoun, who are both true fullbacks, and converted 4SR LB Eric Houston to the position to help the running game. The team will also be starting a freshman QB, whether it is 2FR Robert Marve or 1FR Jacory Harris, so the team will be relying on the running game to ease the burden.

While stopping short of blaming his sophomore slump on being dinged up all season, James has referred to playing cautiously to “protect” himself because of his injuries, particularly his neck, last year. James didn’t have breakaway speed before the extra weight, so it’s unlikely he’ll display another gear now, but speed isn’t his game. James is a physical, inside runner who should be able to deliver more punishment with the extra weight packed on his previously thin frame. He has excellent footwork and quickness, finding the cutback lane if the hole is filled. James is advanced as a pass blocker and, while not used extensively as a receiving option (he averaged 15 catches his first two years), he is an above-average receiver. His use in the slot this spring validates his good hands and ability as a route-runner. James is a first cousin of UM and NFL star Edgerrin James. Javarris works out with him in the off-season, so he’s gaining some valuable insight and experience from that relationship. However, with that comes unfair pressure and expectations. There’s no question Javarris is a decent prospect, but he is not nearly the next Edge. He looked more like the next Jarrett Payton last season. If the offense can cut back on penalties and be more consistent, a challenge behind a young rookie QB, a healthy James should resemble a bigger version of the productive player he was as a freshman. However, it will be a challenge to put up big numbers in a deep backfield with complimentary talents. In addition to the elusive Cooper, Shawnbrey McNeal is the fastest back and 2FR Lee Chambers is a slasher, while forgotten 5SR Derron Thomas can do a little bit of everything. RB coach Tommie Robinson says the plan is to continue working them all in and has been non-committal about naming a starter between James and Cooper. With that crowded backfield, James seems a lock to leave early if he has a solid season.

Mike Goodson (Texas A&M – 3JR) 6’0” 200
The 2006 Big XII Freshman of the Year has had his numbers limited by bulldozing TD-machine Jorvorskie Lane and mobile QB Stephen McGee. This limited his total production to 280-1,558-8 and 53-474-4 in his two collegiate seasons. He put on over ten pounds last year and could add some more bulk, but has ideal size. His receiving total jumped, but Goodson took a step back last year as a runner, getting less carries and seeing his average drop just over two ypc. He never fully seemed on the same page with former HC Dennis Franchione and Goodson became frustrated at times over not being used more. Goodson should benefit from new HC Mike Sherman’s NFL experience and more conventional offense. If the Spring Game was any foreshadowing, Goodson should be happy with how he’s used this year. In the game, Goodson was featured on the first drive, carrying eight times for 58 yards. With Lane moving to fullback and more traditional roles for him and McGee, Goodson should be the centerpiece of the offense and in line for a breakout season over 1K rushing. If he finally reaches his full potential this season, he should be one of the top runners in the country and a candidate to declare early.

Mikell Simpson (Virginia – 4JR) 6’1” 200
A redshirt in 2005, Simpson was expected to challenge for a significant role in the backfield in 2006. An impressive spring, including be recognized as one of the players who had shown the most improvement with a Rock Weir award, led to a disappointing fall. Simpson was passed by Cedric Peerman and the team relied on their FB, Jason Snelling, as the feature runner. Simpson was frequently inactive because of disappointing practice efforts. He was moved to WR to start 2007 and used as a kick returner, but did little in either role. After the team lost Peerman, their leading rusher, to a foot injury in a close win at Middle Tennessee State halfway through the season, Simpson started working out with the running backs again. Back-up RB Andrew Pearman was battling a back injury when he got the start at Maryland on 10/20/07. Pearman returned kicks, but didn’t get a touch on offense as Simpson was thrust in to a significant role and responded with a career game. He established his presence on the first series, catching three passes, including one for 27 yards, on their first drive that resulted in a FG. With the team down 14-3 in the second quarter, he had a 44-yard TD run as the half wound down. His signature on the game came with the team down by five halfway through the fourth quarter. The team went on a 15-play drive on which Simpson touched the ball 14 times, including flipping over the pile for a game-winning one-yard TD plunge with less than a minute left. In the end, he had rung up 271 all-purpose yards and was the second player in UVA history to have 100 yards rushing (119) and receiving (152) in the same game. After having just two carries for a loss of nine yards and four receptions for 31 yards in the first seven games, he would finish with 111 carries for 579 yards and 39 receptions for 371 yards in the last six games. He scored at least one TD in each of those six games, totaling eight on the ground and two more through the air. At Miami in the final game at the Orange Bowl, he rushed for 93 yards, including two short TDs, as the Cavaliers dismantled the Hurricanes 48-0. In their Gator Bowl loss to Texas Tech on New Year’s Day, Simpson set an NCAA record for longest TD by a running back in bowl history (former Heisman winner and Oregon State QB Terry Baker had a 99-yard run in the 1963 Liberty Bowl). Out of the shotgun from their own four-yard line in the second quarter, Simpson to a handoff on the draw, hit the hole, and sprinted untouched down the sideline for a 96 yard TD run. He finished the loss with 20 carries for a season-high 170 yards and caught five passes for 36 yards and another TD.

Simpson is a fantastic athlete with elite speed, but he’s still learning to be a running back. He won’t be able to get by on just athleticism at the next level, but made a lot of progress developing as a running back. Already an outstanding receiver, Simpson needs to learn to block and it would help if he could develop some return skills. He also needs to show his late season performance wasn’t a fluke and dispel concerns about his work ethic and consistency by stringing together solid performances throughout the season. If Peerman struggles to return from his foot injury and Simpson builds on the second half of last season, he could consider declaring early. If his touches are limited by Peerman, he’ll be better served returning in 2009 and continuing to build his resume.

Damion Fletcher (Southern Mississippi – 3JR) 5’10” 175
Fletcher had the best rushing season by a freshman ever in C-USA when he posted 276-1,388-11 in 2006. His encore was 295-1,586-15 in 2007. In 2008, new OC Larry Fedora comes over from Oklahoma State with an explosive offense that should feature Fletcher as both a runner and receiver. He has shown good hands averaging almost 24 receptions his first two years, so Fletcher should continue to thrive. It was no holds barred for Fletcher in the Spring Game, where he rushed for 107 yards and a TD on just 13 carries, as well as caught six passes for 78 yards.

Fletcher is undersized and not a home run hitter (career-long run is 40 yards), but has averaged over 5 ypc and scored 36 rushing TDs in two years. He is a slasher with great agility, vision, and instincts. He gets to full speed quickly off the snap and finds the cutback lane if the hole is clogged, but doesn’t bounce runs outside unnecessarily. With Kevin Smith and Matt Forte’ in the NFL, he won’t be overshadowed in C-USA this year and is set for a huge season that would make him a candidate to declare early.

Toney Baker (North Carolina State – 4JR) 5’10” 225
The five-star recruit joined the Wolfpack as the state’s all-time leading prep rusher, breaking former NCST RB T.A. McClendon’s HS record. Baker teamed with Andre Brown as true freshmen in 2005 to form a dynamic duo in State’s backfield. The two split carries nearly down the middle their first two years, frequently both in the backfield at the same time, and took turns leading the team in rushing their first two seasons. In 2006, Baker became viewed as the more consistent runner and saw his workload tick up slightly. He shed some weight, playing at 220 pounds, and finished the season with improved numbers across the board: 157-688-6 on the ground and 21-177-0 through the air. After another outstanding spring, Baker looked ready to take his game to the next level in 2007. Baker got the start in the season opener against Central Florida and had 40 yards on ten rushes when he caught his third pass of the day in the fourth quarter in the flat. After shedding a few arm tackles, his right knee collided with a UCF defender as he tried to spin away. He left the game with what was originally diagnosed as a sprain, and after a few weeks after arthroscopic surgery was already walking without a brace. However, during the original procedure to determine the extent of the injury, it was found he also had cartilage damage to the knee. A second procedure in October added healthy cartilage to the knee and required an estimated 9-10 month recovery and rehabilitation period.

Baker was granted a medical redshirt and enters 2008 with two years of eligibility left. He has not participated in spring practice while he tries to get ready in time for the season. As Brown also missed most of last season, the duo will become at least a threesome in the backfield this season when Brown returns. 4JR Jamelle Eugene stepped up with both Baker and Brown out most of the season and finished as the team’s leading rusher. As the only healthy scholarship RB this spring, Eugene has a head start heading in to the season. Baker has ideal size and is very well built, one of the strongest players on the team. He is advanced in the passing game for a college runner, adding value as both a receiver and a blocker. He has had some issue with fumbles, but the biggest gap in his game is speed. Baker is not a home-run hitter, with a career long of 36 yards. He runs with authority inside and can break tackles, but doesn’t have a second gear to break off the long play. If he returns healthy this season, it will be in deep RBBC with even less touches to go around. It makes him an unlikely candidate to declare early, but if injuries strike the State backfield again and Baker is the last man standing, he could put up some good numbers and choose to make the jump, despite slim prospects.

Jamelle Eugene (North Carolina State – 4JR) 5’10” 195
Hardly the prospect either teammates Toney Baker and Andre Brown were when the three joined the Wolfpack in 2005, Eugene looked destined for special teams work and rare game touches as a running back despite a great spring. He was redshirt his first season as Baker and Brown starred as true freshman. Undeterred by his apparent role, Eugene had another huge spring in 2006 and was active for all 12 games that season. Fate gave him an opportunity when both Baker and Brown were injured in 2007, and Eugene made the most of it. After the team lost five of their first six games, Eugene took over in that sixth game against Florida State after Brown went down. Although they would go on to lose, he would rack up 101 yards on just 14 carries, the first of three 100-yard games in their final seven contests. The team would go 4-2 in their last six games with Eugene as the feature back and with his best day coming against rival North Carolina. Eugene finished with 32-159-3 on the ground and added six passes for 33 yards in the victory.

With both Brown and Baker still ailing in the spring, Eugene is having another great spring in 2008. He was the only scholarship RB active for the Red-White Game and is building a case to be the nominal starter come the fall. More quick than fast, nothing about Eugene jumps out at use as a runner. However, if the same continued improvement he showed as a practice player translates to his progress in games this year, perception of him could start to rise. The problem is even if he leads their RBBC, his touches will be limited. When healthy, the team needs Baker and Brown in the picture. However, if either or both have complication or further injury, Eugene could have the opportunity to further showcase himself and, if successful, decide to declare early.