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2018 college football season: Top 12 running backs to watch

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NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein will reveal the top CFB players to watch in 2018 at six different positions with an eye toward their NFL potential, continuing today with running backs.

Putting this list together took quite some time because there were so many quality runners to sift through from the sophomore, junior and senior classes. While Bryce Love will be the more recognizable senior name, this year's sophomore class is absolutely loaded with talented and productive runners that NFL evaluators will have to dig into within a year or two.

Lately, NFL teams have reversed course a little bit regarding the value they place on top running backs, as we've seen Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette and Saquon Barkley all go inside the top four picks in three consecutive years. Size seems to be a prerequisite for being an early pick, but it doesn't guarantee success. The most successful running backs are consistent and often have the ability to create their own yardage with power, elusiveness or speed.

While I had to leave some solid running backs off of this list, the following 12 players ended up standing out for their potential as either primary running backs or productive playmakers.

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12

Devin Singletary - RB

School: Florida Atlantic | Year: Junior

Singletary's jaw-dropping rushing touchdown total of 32 was way ahead of San Diego State's Rashaad Penny, who was second in 2017 with 23 TDs. Singletary (5-foot-9, 200 pounds, per school measurements) is a little lighter than scouts prefer when looking for primary runners, but his tape shows good toughness between the tackles. Singletary isn't a power back, but he can break tackles. He possesses the impressive ability to process traffic quickly and make sudden, lateral cuts to find openings outside of the intended rush track.

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11

Justice Hill - RB

School: Oklahoma State | Year: Junior

Hill was good as a freshman and very good as a sophomore. Now it's time to see if he can be great. With 23 or more carries in seven of Oklahoma State's 13 games last year, Hill has proven that he can handle a heavier workload. That's good, since the Cowboys will be replacing a quarterback and three receivers this year. Hill is a lively runner with quick feet for sudden change of direction, but there are times when he will string too many moves together rather than just hitting it downhill. At 190 pounds (school measurement), teams might end up viewing him as a committee talent with third-down ability.

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10

AJ Dillon - RB

School: Boston College | Year: Sophomore

I'm reminded of former Pitt RB James Conner when I watch Dillon, except Dillon is a little more savvy as a rusher. At 6-foot, 245 pounds (school measurements), the physical resemblance to Conner is obvious, but Dillon is less reliant on just pure power. He does a great job of squeezing the most out of every run with vision and a mature rush approach. His foot quickness and overall burst won't get people excited. However, he utilizes an effective spin move and efficient cuts to help open lanes with great balance to keep runs alive after contact.

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9

Travis Etienne - RB

School: Clemson | Year: Sophomore

When it comes to the recent crop of Clemson running backs, they have a tendency to run with good urgency and a willingness to give as much as they get on contact. Etienne is no different. He possesses an impressive ability to shake off tacklers and create yardage after contact, but it's also worth noting that he has the breakaway speed to take it the distance once he can get to daylight. He does a good job of staying true to the rush track. With a low pad level and aggressive approach, he's usually falling forward after contact. Evaluators might want to see him add a few more pounds to his frame as he gets older, but there is time to do that.

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8

Damien Harris - RB

School: Alabama | Year: Senior

Harris decided to get lighter and quicker during the summer of 2017. The results? He posted similar numbers to 2016, but was able to finish long runs for touchdowns that had previously ended in him being tackled well before the goal line. Harris has NFL size and toughness. He fits the mold of what teams look for in an early-down back. He's not overly creative or elusive, but he knows who he is as a runner and it takes a committed effort to bring him down.

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7

Cam Akers - RB

School: Florida State | Year: Sophomore

The box-score scouts will notice that against Alabama, Clemson and Florida, Akers gained 30, 40 and 34 yards. Now, once you turn the tape on, you'll see that his offensive line was substantially overmatched by all three defensive fronts and that he was frequently forced to forge his own path on the way to breaking the FSU freshman rushing record set by Dalvin Cook. Akers runs with a low center of gravity and can wallop would-be tacklers that aren't fully committed. He runs with good bend and can make sharp cuts in the open field. He needs to prove that he has the burst to hit more chunk plays in his sophomore season.

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6

Zack Moss - RB

School: Utah | Year: Junior

I call Moss "The Menace" because of his menacing, aggressive style. At 5-10 and 217 pounds (school measurements), Moss is one of the premier power-through-contact runners in college football. However, Moss doesn't use a blind, sledgehammer approach. Instead, he takes his time reading blocks and consistently picks the best running lanes. Once he makes his choice, he drops his pads and prepares to punish tacklers with a powerful lead shoulder and churning leg drive. He's a little tight-hipped, which limits his elusiveness, and I question his ability to win many foot races, but his ability to create yards through power should not be taken lightly.

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5

Bryce Love - RB

School: Stanford | Year: Senior

Love might be the most explosive running back on this list. He averaged a whopping 8.1 yards per carry last season despite facing loaded boxes and heavy traffic near the line of scrimmage. He's the type of runner who can be bottled up for a while, but as soon as the offensive line creates a crease or a defender misses his run fit -- goodnight. Love lacks desired NFL size and that could hurt him with scouts who might see him as a complementary slasher rather than an every-down ball carrier. It's also worth noting that Love has been a relative non-factor in the passing game. I would like to see improved vision from him this year, but he can stack yardage with elusiveness and burst all day.

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4

Rodney Anderson - RB

School: Oklahoma | Year: Junior (RS)

Anderson is decisive between the tackles and shows good feel for when and how run lanes will develop. He ran for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns over his final eight games, but also added four touchdowns catches during that stretch. Like Joe Mixon before him, Anderson is able to combine plus size with dual-threat ability to provide production on any down and from anywhere on the field. One area that does concern me a little bit is the amount of punishing hits Anderson takes in any given game.

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3

Jonathan Taylor - RB

School: Wisconsin | Year: Sophomore

Downhill running back who is perfectly suited to the Wisconsin style of play. Taylor finished the 2017 season just 23 rushing yards shy of the vaunted 2,000-yard mark -- as a true freshman. He already possesses "next-level" size and it's likely that he'll continue to fill out his young frame. Taylor was a workhorse last season with 299 carries. He showed the vision and toughness needed to help the Badgers impose their will on the ground. His feet aren't as sudden as some of the other runners on this list, but he's going to get the yards that are there for the taking, and he has good bang behind his pads once he gets rolling downhill.

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2

J.K. Dobbins - RB

School: Ohio State | Year: Sophomore

Any time a freshman running back puts 1,403 rushing yards on the board, it's an impressive feat. But what makes Dobbins' 2017 season even more impressive is that he managed to do that while logging 18 or more carries in just two of his 14 games. Dobbins is a quick-twitch runner who can glide, gather and burst whenever he spots an opening. His ability to accumulate chunk yardage on the ground was a catalyst for Ohio State finishing sixth in the country at 41.1 points per game. He still needs to work on running with a little more conviction through congestion, but he has plenty of time to do so.

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1

D'Andre Swift - RB

School: Georgia | Year: Sophomore

"Man, those guys are loaded at running back" is what most of us said at some point last season when watching Georgia trot out Sony Michel, Nick Chubb and Swift. Like the aforementioned runners (who are now in the NFL), Swift possesses the desired combination of size, discipline, toughness and quickness to become a top-tier lead back. He hit double-digit carries only once last season as a true freshman, but Swift's tape shows a running back with the ability to run with good decisiveness without losing his ability to change direction suddenly. Swift could be widely considered the best running back in the country by season's end.

Follow Lance Zierlein on Twitter @LanceZierlein.

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