Don't believe the hype suggesting the running back position is devalued in football.
While the recent results of the NFL Draft suggest otherwise, a quick look around the college football landscape reveals a position that is full of premier talent in the pipeline. From Georgia's Toddy Gurley, Nebraska' Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon possibly headlining the 2015 draft class to the intrigue surrounding young talents like LSU's Leonard Fournette, Michigan's Derrick Green and Alabama's Derrick Henry, the college game is full of dynamic runners with the potential to emerge as workhorses as the next level.
Looking at the first weekend of college game, I saw a number of talented running backs with the multi-faceted games that NFL scouts and coaches desire. The gradual shift to a pass-centric game in the NFL has led more evaluators to value explosive backs with the hands and receiving skills to contribute to the passing game. Additionally, coaches prefer running backs with the size and strength to run effectively between the tackles, while also holding up in pass protection.
Thus, the plethora of big backs shining over the weekend offers hope that running backs will re-emerge as prominent players on draft day. Studying the numbers from the top performances of the weekend, I found it interesting that most of the top performers contributed as receivers and as kick returners. With creative play-callers prone to using versatile playmakers in a variety of ways on the field, the growing stable of elite college running backs could help the position re-emerge as a marquee spot in the pro game.
RB Todd Gurley, Georgia: The junior standout put on his best Herschel Walker impersonation against Clemson with a splendid performance that featured a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown and three rushing scores. Not to mention, Gurley totaled 198 rushing yards on only 15 carries and looked like a man among boys on Saturday. While NFL scouts were clearly aware of Gurley's talents and potential as a feature runner, the spectacular performance against the Tigers should confirm his status as one of the premier prospects in college football.
QB Kenny Hill, Texas A&M: The sophomore silenced the naysayers doubting Texas A&M's staying power after Johnny Manziel's departure by putting on a spectacular show at Williams-Brice Stadium against South Carolina. Hill completed 44 of 60 passes for 511 yards with three scores. Most importantly, he displayed exceptional composure, poise and precision directing an Aggies' offense that looked unstoppable on Thursday night. If he continues to play at a high level, the rest of the SEC should fear venturing into College Station this season.
WR Rashad Greene, Florida State: For all of the attention Kelvin Benjamin received as the Seminoles' primary red-zone threat a season ago, it was Greene who served as the No. 1 receiver in the passing game. The shifty senior continues to shine as Jameis Winston's top target, hauling in 11 catches for 203 yards and a score against West Virginia.
LB Eric Kendricks, UCLA: Kendricks is quietly emerging from Myles Jack's shadow by putting up gaudy numbers as the Bruins' designated defensive playmaker. The senior standout registered 17 tackles, a forced fumble and a pick-6 against the Cavaliers. Kendricks' instincts and awareness stood out in the contest, which is why NFL scouts are intrigued by his potential.
WR Kevin White, West Virginia: NFL scouts were well aware of White's talents prior to the season opener, but the 6-foot-3, 210-pound senior was arguably the best player on the field on Saturday. White finished with nine catches for 143 yards and a score, while showcasing outstanding hands and ball skills snatching balls in traffic. In addition, he flashed some wiggle and burst in the open field with the ball in his hands. With White also showing the speed and quickness to run away from press coverage, the Mountaineers' star could make a quiet climb up the charts following his strong outing against Alabama.
QB Jameis Winston, Florida State: The Heisman Trophy winner looked flustered and out of sorts against Oklahoma State. Sure, Winston connected on 25 of 40 passes for 370 yards and scored on a spectacular 28-yard run, but the 6-4, 230-pound redshirt sophomore tossed a pair of interceptions and was woefully off the mark on a handful of throws. He didn't show exceptional poise within the pocket and his jittery footwork greatly affected his accuracy. Given the expectations surrounding his game and expected improvement, Winston's performance was one of the weekend's biggest disappointments.
RB Mike Davis, South Carolina: The big-bodied runner was expected to be one of the top runners in college football, but he was a non-factor in the Gamecocks' season opener. Davis finished with only 15 rushing yards on six carries, and didn't look like the spry runner who thrived as the team's feature runner a season ago.
Head coach Gary Andersen, Wisconsin: Credit Andersen for having the Badgers in position to knock off the Tigers, but the failure to feed Melvin Gordon in the second half is one of the most perplexing decisions of the weekend. The Heisman Trophy candidate finished the night with 140 rushing yards on 16 carries, but had only had four rushing attempts coming after halftime. Given Gordon's production and the struggles of QB Tanner McEvoy, the lack of touches for the Badgers' most explosive offensive threat falls on the shoulders of the head coach.
College Football Playoff final four
1. Georgia: The Bulldogs dominated a respected top 15 opponent with a punishing running game that ranks as the best in college football. With a defense also showing some bite under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, it's time to put the Bulldogs in the conversation as one of college football's top teams.
2. Florida State: The defending national champions didn't run roughshod over Oklahoma State, but the Seminoles still deserve their spot near the top of the list after walking away with a win. Sure, they need to improve in every area, but the Seminoles will remain in the discussion until someone knocks them off the throne.
3. Oregon: The Ducks rolled over a lightly regarded opponent, but their high-powered offense will face a stiff challenge from a hard-hitting Michigan State squad this week. How well the Ducks fare in this matchup with a Big Ten heavyweight will factor heavily in their candidacy for a playoff berth.
4. Michigan State: Mark Dantonio has the Spartans primed and ready to make a run at the national title following a Rose Bowl win a season ago. The Spartans were dominant against Jacksonville State; traditionalists are clamoring to see an stifling defense take on Oregon's high-powered offense on the road.
1. RB Todd Gurley, Georgia: The 6-1, 226-pound junior made a strong case for his candidacy by totaling 293 all-purpose yards in the Bulldogs' 45-21 win over Clemson. While the numbers will certainly get the attention of voters, it's the combination of speed, quickness and power displayed by Gurley in the dominant performance that will captivate the college football crowd. It's simply uncommon for a big back to exhibit home-run potential as a kick returner, while also displaying the strength, toughness and grit to bang between the tackles. Considering his overall efficiency (13.2 yards per carry) racking up 198 rushing yards against a quality opponent, Gurley is the frontrunner for the prestigious award after Week 1.
2. QB Kenny Hill, Texas A&M: Hill is poised to make a run at the Heisman Trophy after putting on a fantastic performance against South Carolina that has college football buzzing about the Aggies' high-powered offense. He shattered Johnny Manziel's single-game passing marks, while displaying a calm demeanor that makes him appear destined for primetime.
3. QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon: The Ducks' standout quietly prodcued four touchdowns (three passing, one rushing) and put up 310 yards of total offense in Oregon's 62-13 win over South Dakota State. The top dual-threat playmaker in college football continued to befuddle defenders with his unique mix of athleticism and passing skills on the perimeter. With a tough test coming up against Michigan State's vaunted defense, Mariota could surge to the top of the charts with a strong showing next weekend.
Word on the street
There is a growing sense among NFL scouts that more elite high school players will take advantage of the NCAA's post-graduate transfer rules to enhance their chances of playing at the next level. Talking to an AFC East college scouting director over the weekend, he told me that it was wise for blue-chip players to fast track through their academic curriculums (enroll early at their respective school and take full academic loads during summer school) to give them options at the end of their junior years. Prospects with their degrees in hand would have the opportunity to stay at the current school and pursue a Master's degree, transfer to another school for a greater opportunity at playing time or enter the NFL. This would enable guys to make smart decisions about their pro career, while leaving school with a degree, and possibly an advanced degree, in hand. Given the overwhelming evidence that suggests that college graduates play longer in the NFL than their counterparts, the advanced academic planning could help more prospects carve out successful stints in the NFL.