Analysis  

 

Marcus Lattimore, Knile Davis head top college running backs

Rich Glickstein/Associated Press
South Carolina RB Marcus Lattimore looks to return to form after his 2011 campaign was cut short by a torn ACL.


 

Football season is right around the corner! Not only in the NFL, but at the college level, too. As a resident guru of the Saturday standouts, Chad Reuter provides the top draft-eligible college players at each position in a 10-part series. Today's group is the running backs.

Best college football players by position


With the college football season approaching, and the 2013 NFL Draft on the horizon next April, NFL.com draft analyst Chad Reuter is providing the top draft-eligible college players at each position in a 10-part series.

DEFENSE
DE -- Texas' Jeffcoat headlines class
DT -- Ohio State's hulking Hankins paces pack
LB -- Keep tabs on LSU's Mingo, ND's Te'o
CB -- Amerson, Milliner, Mathieu top options
S -- 'DB U' produces another top prospect

OFFENSE
QB -- USC's Barkley leads intriguing group
RB -- Injuries an issue for most top prospects
OL -- O-line prospects strong across the board
WR -- Dynamic Pac-12 duo leads receivers
TE -- Seeking tomorrow's Graham, Gronkowski

When studying the running backs who could be available in the 2013 NFL Draft, it seems more relevant to consult medical journals than game tapes.

Most of the backs listed below have had injury issues, with a few missing some or all of last season due to one malady or another. Honestly, ranking them in July is a hopeless exercise. But you gotta do what you gotta do.

And considering the difficulty NFL backs have staying healthy over the course of a season, scouts are even more unnerved by the troubles this year's most talented ball carriers have had staying on the field.

The risk of injury is just one reason why so many running backs decide to leave school early, especially if they are projected to be picked on the first two days of the draft. Since 2005, 38 of the 63 runners selected in the top three rounds did not complete their eligibility -- that 60 percent clip is easily the highest of any position.

All of the RBs listed below, whether they were injured during 2011 or not, have potential to become starters at the next level.

*Denotes underclassmen.

1. Marcus Lattimore, 6-0, 218, South Carolina*
This taller north/south runner presented a nice combination of power, balance and quickness before a torn left ACL ended his sophomore season in mid-October. (He was also knocked out of the Chick-fil-A Bowl following his freshman season of 2010 with a concussion/jaw injury.) Still, the South Carolina back has amassed 2,016 yards and 27 touchdowns in 19 regular-season games. If he can return to form in 2012, NFL teams will eye him as a bell-cow back.
NFL comparison: Arian Foster

Arkansas RB Knile Davis missed the entire 2011 campaign after breaking his ankle in an August scrimmage.
Arkansas RB Knile Davis missed the entire 2011 campaign after breaking his ankle in an August scrimmage. (William Purnell/Associated Press)

2. Knile Davis, 6-0, 226, Arkansas*
Davis is a bruising back who has struggled with injuries since high school, and lost his entire 2011 season due to a broken ankle. But as he proved with an impressive late-season surge in 2010 (led SEC with 1,322 rushing yards, 13 scores), his power and burst in the open field make him tough to stop when all his parts are in working order. A productive and healthy junior season could vault him to the top of this list.
NFL comparison: Corey Dillon

3. Christine Michael, 5-11, 213, Texas A&M
Scouts like Michael's low-center-of-gravity power and blazing speed, but he must stay healthy to fulfill his promise after managing to play in just 13 games over the last two seasons due to a broken right leg in 2010 and torn left ACL in 2011. For what it's worth, he still amassed an impressive 1,530 yards and 12 touchdowns in that span.
NFL comparison: Rashard Mendenhall

4. Ray Graham, 5-9, 195, Pittsburgh
The next Pittsburgh running back likely to make his way to the NFL, Graham looked to translate his quickness between the tackles to a big year in 2011 (958 yards, nine touchdowns in eight games) before a torn right ACL struck him down. If he maintains his explosiveness after the rehabilitation of the injury, then his reputation as one of the toughest runners in the game will only be enhanced.
NFL comparison: Ahmad Bradshaw

5. Andre Ellington, 5-10, 190, Clemson
Ellington turned in a second-team All-ACC season in 2011, taking the lead role on Clemson with 1,178 rushing yards after sharing carries in the Tigers' crowded backfields of the past. His elite straight-line speed (if only average size) allows him to press the line with authority and accelerate to freedom, yet he still shows patience when following his blockers -- a dangerous combination for opposing defenses.
NFL comparison: Jahvid Best

6. Montee Ball, 5-11, 212, Wisconsin
The 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist led the country with 1,923 rushing yards and tied the all-time FBS record of 39 total touchdowns (33 rushing) after losing 25 pounds in the previous offseason. He surprised everyone by returning to Wisconsin for his senior year, and though not a burner like others in this class, his durability and efficient zone running make him a probable NFL starter.
NFL comparison: BenJarvus Green-Ellis

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7. Joseph Randle, 6-1, 200, Oklahoma State*
As the running component of Oklahoma State's dynamic offensive trio in 2011, Randle brought power and a bit of wiggle to the field, finishing with 1,216 rushing yards and 26 total touchdowns. Randle was largely overshadowed last season by 2012 first-round draft picks Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon, but he has a chance to really make a name for himself this fall. If he shows a bit more explosiveness, he'll be a very enticing prospect for NFL teams.
NFL comparison: Fred Jackson

8. Kenjon Barner, 5-11, 195, Oregon
Patience has been a virtue for Barner, as he is finally the Ducks' top back with LaMichael James gone to the NFL. This speedy linear back more than doubled his career rushing total in 2011 (939 yards, 11 touchdowns), despite playing behind James. He could become a riser in the draft process if he exhibits improved strength and vision, and also puts his notable return skills on display. (He's already scored a touchdown on both kick and punt return during his Oregon career.)
NFL comparison: Joe McKnight

Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @ChadReuter

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