Running backs were the talk of the 2017 NFL Draft, with Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook as the headliners at the position. However, Chiefs rookie RB Kareem Hunt, a third-round pick who flew under the radar for much of draft season, is the league's leading rusher with 229 yards (and he's accumulated 126 yards and two touchdowns as a receiver, too).
This year's college football conversation was supposed to be dominated by quarterbacks, but running backs have again taken a starring role and might give NFL scouts a second straight excellent group from which to select. Penn State's Saquon Barkley is a Heisman Trophy candidate, as expected. LSU's Derrius Guice is a great talent, even though the Tigers couldn't get him going as much as they would have liked against Mississippi State last weekend. Seniors Nick Chubb (Georgia) and Royce Freeman (Oregon) are looking healthier than they did in 2016.
In addition to those stars, five other backs are making a name for themselves early in the season. They're not as highly touted as the big names at the position, but as Hunt is proving this season (and as Jordan Howard, a fifth-round pick, did last season), you don't need to be one of the most heralded prospects to have major success in the NFL right away. Here are 5 up-and-coming RBs who could make a similar impact in the league one day.
John Kelly, Tennessee
Florida's Hail Mary in the final seconds against Tennessee last week resulted in a heartbreaking loss for the Vols. A silver lining for Kelly, though, is that his explosiveness once again caught the eyes of NFL scouts. His 128 yards and four touchdowns in the opener against Georgia Tech were impressive, and that same combination of straight-line speed, elusiveness in the open field and ability to run through contact showed up in The Swamp (141 yards and one score on 19 carries). Alvin Kamara earned high marks from scouts while wearing orange and white in Knoxville last year, and Kelly's on a similar track.
Bryce Love, Stanford
With Christian McCaffrey's departure to the NFL, the door opened for Love to be the centerpiece of the Cardinal offense. Though things have not gone as expected for David Shaw's group so far this season (they've lost 2 in a row), it's not because of Love. He's averaging 175 yards per game despite only getting about 14 totes each week. Love presents a thick build that makes him tough to tackle, and he possesses straight-line speed to take advantage of open lanes. His skill set makes him a likely feature back in the pros.
Ryan Nall, Oregon State
Nall arrived in Corvallis as an H-back prospect, but flashed great promise over the past two years as a 6-foot-2, 237-pound tailback. It's tough for Nall to grab national headlines because his team won just 6 of 24 games over his first two years. The Beavers probably won't win many games this year, either, as they've given up more than 45 points a game. Nall is deserving of notice, though, because he consistently breaks off big runs in addition to powering through tacklers with his strength. He's not just a brute, as any defender who's tried to catch him in the open field will tell you.
Rashaad Penny, San Diego State
Even though Donnel Pumphrey became the all-time leading rusher in FBS history last season, most NFL scouts preferred the pro potential of Penny, his SDSU teammate. Through three games, Penny leads the country with 588 rushing yards, including 175 on 32 carries in a win over Stanford last week. Penny has enough speed and agility to do more than just keep the chains moving. The 5-11, 220-pound back's hard-charging style makes him one of the top kickoff returners in the country, as well. He's averaging 31 yards per return and has taken six kicks back for TDs in his career.
Aeris Williams, Mississippi State
Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is the face of the Bulldogs, and senior left tackle Martinas Rankin is a legitimate first-round prospect. Williams' 6-1, 217-pound frame and powerful running are tough to ignore, however -- just ask LSU. The junior put up 146 rushing yards against the Tigers in the 37-7 rout in StarkVegas last week, showing off patience and lateral movement skills along with huge biceps. With more impressive performances against SEC foes, NFL teams will be picturing him as a contributor on Sundays.