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Oklahoma's Murray leads list of NFL-caliber running backs

Editor's note: This is the second in a series detailing the top senior prospects, by position, for the 2011 NFL Draft.

The running back position has changed a great deal over the past 10 years. Most teams use two (Carolina had two backs -- DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart -- gain over 1,100 rushing yards in 2009) and even three to share carries.

Did you know?

   » Since the draft started in 1936, 23 running backs have been selected No. 1 overall, but none have been first overall since 1995 and just two since 1986. 

» The most running backs ever drafted in the first round was eight in 1938.

» All-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith (18,355 yards) who also holds the NFL record for most consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons (11) and most games with at least 100 rushing yards (78) will enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 7, 2010.

Since 1998, 41 running backs (slightly more than three per year) have been selected in the first year of the NFL draft. Running back may be the easiest position for a rookie to come in and start quickly. Speed is important, but outstanding quickness is the most important trait for the position. Running backs have become more involved in the passing game, so being a good receiver is also very important.

Because of the proliferation of multiple receiver sets, many teams carry only four running backs -- three tailbacks and a fullback. Others employ an H-back instead of a fullback. The H-back many times will be a tight end who shifts into the backfield.

This list only includes players who will have exhausted their eligibility after the 2010 season. Alabama RB Mark Ingram will be a third-year junior who has two years of eligibility remaining. For that reason, he was not included on this list, even though he would likely be a top prospect if he chose to enter the 2011 draft.

Here are the top 12 senior running backs -- plus two fullbacks -- scouts will be keeping a close eye on this fall.

Top senior running backs

College: Oklahoma
Height/Weight: 6-0, 215

Murray is a fifth-year player who can do everything. He has running ability, speed and outstanding quickness. Add to that he's a very good receiver, and he reminds you of Reggie Bush. Murray has 2,471 rushing yards and 977 receiving yards, despite being injured a lot. If he stays healthy, he's a first-round pick.

College: Penn State
Height/Weight: 5-11, 215

Royster is a fifth-year player who has started the past two seasons, rushing for 2,405 yards and 17 touchdowns. He is a very good athlete (an outstanding lacrosse player) and is a good blocker. He doesn't have any weakness and is a smart player with good character.

3. Graig Cooper

College: Miami
Height/Weight: 5-11, 200

This ranking is based on Cooper's three years, because he might miss the upcoming season after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in last year's bowl game against Wisconsin. He played as a true freshman in 2007 and led the team in rushing for three straight years. He's a versatile guy and a good prospect if his knee is OK.

College: Kansas State
Height/Weight: 6-0 1/4, 225

Thomas is only in his second year with the Wildcats, as he was a junior college transfer. He led the Big 12 in rushing last year and has the ability to run, pass (a former high school QB) and catch well. He's got good speed and quickness and has lots of upside as a player just learning the position.

5. Noel Devine

College: West Virginia
Height/Weight: 5-8, 175

Devine will start for the third year, rushing for 2,754 yards in the previous two seasons. He has outstanding quickness and speed for the position and can return kicks and catch passes, very reminiscent of Darren Sproles but not as strong.

College: Syracuse
Height/Weight: 6-2, 212

Carter might miss 2010 because of off-field issues, although his coach, Doug Marrone, has said he could return if he follows a laid-out program. Carter was the team's leading rusher last season, with 1,021 yards. He's a powerful and explosive runner.

7. Da'Rel Scott

College: Maryland
Height/Weight: 5-11 1/4, 200

Scott is a fifth-year player who did not have a good 2009 on a very average team, but he's got potential to explode. In 2008, when he had 1,133 yards on the ground, he rushed for 174 yards against Nevada in one half. He's an elusive runner with 4.4-40 speed and is a solid return man.

College: Nebraska
Height/Weight: 5-11 5/8, 221

Helu is a very good inside runner, strong, with good quickness, and 4.5-4.6 speed. Even with defenses playing the run against a poor passing Nebraska team, Helu still managed 1,147 yards and 10 touchdowns.

College: Oklahoma State
Height/Weight: 5-8, 200

Hunter was injured most of 2009 and missed five games, but he had a great 2008, rushing for 1,555 yards and 16 touchdowns. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry in 2007. He looks to have 4.5 speed to go with outstanding quickness and strength. He has show big-play ability in the pas, with 19 runs of 20 yards or more in 2008.

College: Texas Tech
Height/Weight: 5-9 1/4, 200

Batch has good pass-catching skills to go with his running ability. The Red Raiders are a pass-heavy team, but Batch still ran for 136 yards against Oklahoma last season. He has quickness, smarts and will block.

College: Auburn
Height/Weight: 5-10 3/8, 228

Fannin is a fifth-year guy headed into a full-time starting role for the first time. He had shoulder surgery in 2008. He's a very good receiver and is a strong runner.

College: USC
Height/Weight: 5-11, 236

Bradford is a fifth-year player who originally came to USC as a safety. He has just one start but is strong and tough. He's got the ability to make an impact as a runner.

What about the fullbacks?

Fullbacks at one time were a big factor in a team's offense, both as runners and blockers. They have been replaced by tight ends who will shift into the backfield or line up and motion out of the backfield. The last fullback drafted in the first round was William Floyd of Florida State, taken by the San Francisco 49ers in 1994. Here's a look at two college fullbacks who could make it in the NFL:

College: USC
Height/Weight: 6-2, 225

A fifth-year player, who is going to be starting for the second year, he is very smart.

College: Georgia
Height/Weight: 6-2 3/8, 236

He had just nine catches and seven rushes in 2009, because Georgia plays mostly with one back. But this guy can block when asked.

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