The college football season is a few weeks away, but that doesn't stop NFL scouts from surveying the landscape to see which players have the potential to emerge as game changers at the next level. As a scout for the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers, respectively, I would frequently jot down notes and make preliminary lists of the top players in my region to help me plan my travel schedule for the fall. Although these lists were etched in pencil instead of pen due to the constant change in the evaluation process, the compilation served as a nice starting point for my draft rankings.
I will share with you some of my preliminary lists this week to help pinpoint which college players to track this fall. Today, we will take a look at some of the top workhorses (running backs) in college football.
1. Leonard Fournette, LSU: It's uncommon for such a hyped player to match the buzz surrounding his game, but the LSU star might be even better than his reputation. Fournette displays a rare combination of strength, power, balance and body control with the ball in his hands, which is why defenders have such a tough time bringing him down between the tackles. Measuring 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, he's capable of running through or around defenders on inside plays, but he also flashes the agility and burst (see spin move) to turn the corner on sweeps into the boundary. Fournette's unique talents allow him to shine in an old-school Power-I offense that routinely faces eight- and nine-man fronts.
2. Dalvin Cook, Florida State: I could easily make a case for Cook being rated at the top of the list after watching his dazzling skills on tape. The 5-11, 213-pounder is an electric runner with exceptional stop-start quickness, body control and acceleration. He is one of the few runners in the college game who's capable of scoring from anywhere on the field on inside or outside runs. Now, I know there are plenty of explosive runners on the collegiate level, but few possess Cook's combination of vision, wiggle and power. He's a rare blend of "flash and dash" (speed, quickness and power) with a workmanlike game that will make him an ideal runner in a power-based or spread system as a pro.
3. Nick Chubb, Georgia: Whenever a running back reels off 13 straight 100-yard games, when a majority of those games were against SEC competition, NFL scouts take notice. That's why Chubb is commanding a lot of attention from scouts heading into his junior year despite suffering a knee injury that prematurely ended his sophomore season. Prior to his injury, Chubb had run roughshod through SEC opponents, exhibiting nifty feet, balance and vision as a cutback runner. He has a patient running style at the point of attack, but he attacks the hole with speed and precision when he spots a crease on the back side. Chubb's lateral quickness and jump-cut skills are some of the best traits that I've seen from a big back (5-10, 220) in recent years. Not to mention, he flashes speed, explosiveness and sudden acceleration on "bounce outs" or outside runs around the corner. If he fully returns to form following his knee injury, there isn't any reason why he can't continue as a 100-yard machine for the Bulldogs.
4. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford: Some fans will surely argue with me over where the Heisman finalist ranks on this list, but I don't mind setting the record straight when it comes to the premise of this piece. This list is all about workhorses -- classic downhill backs. I view McCaffrey as a "do-it-all" playmaker in the backfield that does his damage as a runner-receiver-returner at the college level. With that being said, I still believe he's a dynamic runner with a knack for slithering through holes on inside runs. McCaffrey has some of the best feet and hips at the position, and his stop-start quickness makes him a nightmare to hit in the hole. He uses a variety of tempo-changing maneuvers (high step, jump cut and stutter move) in traffic that destroy the angles of defenders at the second level. With McCaffrey completing those moves with outstanding speed, quickness and wiggle, the Cardinal standout reminds me a little of Warrick Dunn when he has the ball in his hands. Although younger fans might not remember the three-time Pro Bowler, there are plenty of NFL scouts that will appreciate McCaffrey's potential to make an impact as an undersized workhorse at the next level.
5. Elijah Hood, North Carolina: Some readers might not be familiar with Hood, but his game is highly impressive. The big-bodied runner (6-0, 220) is a battering ram with a rugged game built on strength, power and physicality. He not only embraces contact in the hole, but he seeks defenders on the second level to punish them at the end of runs. Although he's a bit of a straight-line runner, Hood flashes enough pitter-pat to slip and slide into open holes at the point of attack. He bounces off multiple defenders in the hole and finds a way to consistently fall forward when finishing off a run. After rushing for 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns last season as the primary runner in the Tar Heels' backfield, Hood has quietly created a buzz in NFL circles. The buzz could grow into a drumbeat when scouts see the junior run rampant over ACC competition as the focal point of one of college football's most dynamic offenses.
Watch list: Samaje Perine, Oklahoma; Joe Mixon, Oklahoma; Royce Freeman, Oregon; Jalen Hurd, Tennessee; Corey Clement, Wisconsin