Don't believe the hype about the extinction of the running back.
Although the NFL has become a passing league dominated by quarterbacks, the running back remains a pivotal part of most offenses. The job description, however, has certainly changed; the one-dimensional workhorse has been replaced with the three-tool back who can affect the game as a runner, receiver and blocker.
Scanning today's college game for exceptional running backs with the potential to one day anchor an NFL franchise, I see South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore and Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell.
Lattimore, a junior with 2,455 career rushing yards, is a big, physical runner with a smooth gait and exceptional natural instincts. He slips and slides into open creases, and also has the strength and power to run through or drag tacklers in the hole. Though he's at his best going downhill, he does have the speed and burst to turn the corner on perimeter runs. Lattimore is also an effective weapon in the passing game, with 64 career receptions, including 16 grabs this season.
Lattimore's game is polished and refined in all aspects. When I project his potential impact as a pro, he reminds me of the Houston Texans' Arian Foster. A big back (6-foot, 218 pounds) with a decisive, one-cut running style, Lattimore could emerge as a star in a zone-based system. While he must continue to recover from a torn anterior cruciate ligament that abruptly ended his sophomore season, Lattimore certainly has the goods to be a three-tool franchise running back in the NFL.
Bell, a junior with 2,208 career rushing yards, exploded onto the national scene with a pair of 200-yard games this year. He's a hard-nosed, violent runner with speed, strength and power who excels at running through tacklers inside. Bell attacks defenders with an intimidating tenacity and toughness, but he's nimble enough to bounce to the perimeter when creases emerge on the outside. Those skills have enabled him to consistently find running room despite facing eight-man front on most downs.
Bell has also been a critical playmaker for the Spartans through the air, racking up 20 receptions in five games. He shows a natural sense of timing and anticipation on screens, and is an effective route runner despite his imposing physical dimensions (6-2, 244). As a pro, Bell compares favorably to Steven Jackson of the St. Louis Rams.
Bell is a big-bodied running back with better-than-anticipated athleticism and receiving ability, and he has the capacity to stay on the field in any situation. NFL offensive coordinators are valuing versatile backs at a premium, and Bell's superb all-around skills could make him a future top priority in pro circles.
WORD ON THE STREET
Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei has been pegged as the next Ndamukong Suh by some NFL evaluators, but not all scouts share that favorable opinion. I recently spoke with an NFC South scout who suggested Lotulelei is a bit "one dimensional" and doesn't have a proven track record of affecting the passing game. He alluded to Lotulelei's lesser career sack total (four to Suh's 24) and a comparative lack of refined rush skills. The scout went on to say that Lotulelei is certainly a "Day 1 prospect," but he doesn't think he's the dominant player some have suggested he is through the first few weeks of the season.
Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
This is Smith's third appearance on this list, but he certainly deserves a mention after passing for 656 yards and eight touchdowns in the Mountaineers' 70-63 win over Baylor. He was spot-on with his accuracy, ball placement and anticipation, shredding the Bears' defense for 45 completions in 51 attempts. Smith has completed 83.4 percent of his passes for 1,728 yards and 20 touchdowns in just four games. Most importantly, however, he hasn't thrown a single interception, displaying a polished game that should translate well at the next level. Other college quarterbacks garnered most of the attention heading into the season, but Smith is the hottest QB prospect in the 2013 draft class at this point.
Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall*, RB, Georgia
Freshmen who can carry the load of a feature back are rare, but Georgia has found two first-year runners with extraordinary playmaking ability. In Saturday's 51-44 victory over Tennessee, Gurley and Marshall combined to rush for 294 yards and five touchdowns, producing a host of big plays. Gurley, who excels at picking up hard yards between the tackles, rushed for 130 yards on 24 attempts with three touchdowns. Marshall, an explosive change-of-pace runner with speed to burn, picked up 164 yards on just 10 attempts and found the end zone twice, on runs of 75 and 72 yards. With a young, explosive running tandem to build around, the Bulldogs' offense will give SEC foes fits for the next few seasons.
* I can't finish the note without letting everyone know that Marshall played at my high school, Millbrook Senior High in Raleigh, N.C., and will go down as one of the best football players to ever wear the Wildcat uniform.
Kain Colter, QB/WR, Northwestern
Scouts love when prospects live up to the hype professed by their coaches, and Colter was certainly as good as advertised in a 44-29 win over Indiana this weekend. The junior quarterback completed just one of three passes for two yards, but ran 14 times for 161 yards with four scores, adding another 131 receiving yards on nine receptions. This was the kind of all-around performance that prompted Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald to rave about Colter's talents when I spoke to him on the NFL Draft Tracker podcast last week, and it will lead NFL evaluators to consider Colter as a versatile playmaker in the mold of Antwaan Randle El.
Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M
Moore sparked a buzz in the scouting community with his six-tackle, two-sack performance against SMU on Sept. 15. He'll certainly remain a hot item after tallying four tackles (two for a loss) and a forced fumble in the Aggies' 58-10 blowout win over Arkansas on Saturday. Moore has the kind of speed, athleticism and skills that scouts covet in pass-rushing specialists, and looks comfortable in his new position as a defensive end (after playing outside linebacker in the previous scheme).
Alvin Bailey, G, Arkansas
The Razorbacks have been one of college football's biggest disappointments this season, and their suspect offensive line has been a pivotal part of the problem. The unit has failed to sufficiently protect quarterback Tyler Wilson in the pocket or provide running back Knile Davis with room to run between the tackles. Bailey has been disappointing in recent weeks due to his inability to blow open holes in critical moments; scouts certainly have concerns about his capacity to dominate in the middle. Although the tweaks to Arkansas' offensive scheme under new head coach John L. Smith could be affecting Bailey's play, the fact that he isn't performing like an all-conference guard is not helping his case as a future prospect in the eyes of NFL evaluators.
David Amerson, CB, N.C. State
Amerson is unquestionably one of college football's top ballhawks, and he has 16 interceptions over the past two seasons, including one in each of the Wolfpack's three wins this year. However, he has given up his fair share of plays this season, thanks to his gambling nature. And on Saturday, Miami had a field day working on his side. Amerson has been vulnerable to double moves and doesn't show refined technique when instructed to play bump-and-run. Although exceptional physical dimensions (6-3, 195) and superb ball skills make Amerson an intriguing prospect, the fact that he's been victimized in big games will spark concerns about his ability to be a "shutdown corner" at the next level.