I love college football. With the 2012 Draft in the books, being a crazed college football fan and NFL Draft fanatic, my sick mind naturally went to which players I will have the honor of scouting and picking apart during the 2012 NCAA football season. Listed below are the players that I am looking forward to watching the most during the upcoming college football season, and the players who we will be discussing at length as the 2013 NFL Draft approaches, if the Mayans were wrong and mother earth continues to spin. Next up on our 2012 College Football Season Preview, here are the top running backs returning for the 2012 College Football Season:
2012 NCAA Football’s Top Running Backs:
Knile Davis, Junior (6’1 226lbs) Arkansas – Entering the 2011 season, I thought that the explosive Davis had a chance be the best running back in the nation, after rushing for 1322 yards and 22 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2010. Unfortunately, Davis dislocated his left ankle in during practice in August, and missed the entire season due to the injury. Davis has major durability concerns, in high school he missed time during his junior year with a fractured collarbone and his senior year due to a broken ankle, and this combined with the injury that cost him the 2011 season will seriously jeopardize his draft stock. Davis is a freak athlete for a running back, with great size and speed (4.33 40 yard dash, bench pressed 415lbs, squatted 570lbs). If he can stay healthy (which is obviously a big if) he should have a monster 2012 season and redeem himself in the eyes of NFL front offices.
Marcus Lattimore, Junior (6’1 232lbs) South Carolina – As a true freshman during the 2010 season, Lattimore was incredible, rushing for 1197 yards and 17 touchdowns. Big things were again expected out of him as a sophomore in 2011, and Lattimore again did not disappoint, going for 818 yards and 10 touchdowns on just 163 carries before a torn ACL ended his season after just seven games. The only big question when it comes to Lattimore will be his durability, and if he can bounce back from this knee injury and produce like he did before the injury occurred, if the answer is yes I expect him to be a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate and one of the top running backs in the nation in 2012.
Montee Ball, Senior (5’11 210lbs) Wisconsin – Ball declared for the 2012 NFL Draft and was on the verge of leaving Wisconsin before reversing his decision last minute. I think it may have been a bad decision for Ball, who was amazing during the 2011 season (Rushing 1759 yards 32 touchdowns, Receiving 255 yards, 6 TDs) and will have a tough time duplicating those statistics. The question with Ball will be, as it has been for every Wisconsin running back over the years, is he a product of the system and having the novelty of running behind their always mammoth offensive line? Ball shows great balance and vision, knows how to hit the holes that the talented Wisconsin offensive line has opened up for him over the years, and displays good burst. Without quarterback Russell Wilson running the show, and after losing two stud offensive linemen to the 2012 NFL Draft (Guard Kevin Zeitler, Center Pete Konz) will Ball be as effective?
Le’Veon Bell, Junior (6’2 238lbs) Michigan State – A bruising goal line style back for the last two years at Michigan State, Bell will no longer be playing a reserve or change-of-pace role who splits carries with others, his time is now. Bell sits alone atop the depth chart, and he will carry the ball a lot more than he did during the previous two Spartan campaigns (2011: 182 carries 948 yards 13 TDs, 2010: 107 carries 605 yards 8 TDs) and as you can tell he has produced in a big way when he has had the ball in his hands. Bell is not yet a household name, but he will be quickly into the 2012 season, if the bulldozing back continues to produce at the rate he has in previous seasons with increased touches I expect him to be the top “Big Back” in the country.
Joseph Randle, Junior (6’1 191lbs) Oklahoma State – An important piece of Oklahoma State’s explosive offense over the past few seasons, Randle really emerged in 2011 (Rushing: 208 carries for 1216 yards and 24 TDs, Receiving: 43 catches for 266 yards and 2 TDs) becoming one of the best tailbacks in the country. With quarterback Brandon Weeden and wide receiver Justin Blackmon both being selected in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft, the Cowboys will rely on Randle heavily this season, and he should produce his best numbers yet for a rebuilding Oklahoma State team.
Eddie Lacy, Junior (6’1 220lbs) Alabama – The Crimson Tide have some big shoes to fill at running back, as star Trent Richardson has moved on to the NFL, and the top option is now big back Eddie Lacy. The Tide love to run the football and perennially have one of the best offensive lines in the nation, so Lacy will get his opportunities early and often, and he has produced in the past (95 carries, 674 yards 7 TDs in 2011). He will have some competition from 5 star recruit freshman T.J. Yeldon (mentioned below) who was the star of the Alabama spring game, but for now the starting job will be Lacy’s to lose.
Cameron Marshall, Senior (5’11 215lbs) Arizona State – Marshall looks the part of a prototypical every down NFL tailback (if those still exist) he has a nice blend of power and speed who should be a mid-round NFL Draft pick during the spring of 2013. He put up big numbers as a junior (230 carries, 1050 yards, 18 TDs) and should be the focal point of the offense for a rebuilding program, which lost its star quarterback and defensive player to the NFL Draft.
Kenjon Barner, Senior (5’11 180lbs) Oregon – Playing behind LeMichael James in the Ducks’ explosive offense the last few seasons, Barner has still made an impact and showcased his big play ability (2011: Rushing: 152 carries 939 yards 11 TDs, Receiving: 17 receptions 184 yards 3 TDs). Now James has moved on to the NFL and the dual threat speedster will have the ball in his hands much more often for one of the most dynamic offenses in the country, so you will be hearing his name plenty and seeing his highlights on Sportscenter often during this fall.
Ray Graham, Senior (5’9 195lbs) Pittsburgh – One of my favorite players in college football to watch, many of you probably remember the incredible 53 yard touchdown run that Graham had against Notre Dame as a freshman in the fall of 2009. If not, youtube it. Since then Graham has been amazing when healthy, but is constantly dealing with injuries which have derailed his career. As a junior last season, Graham was leading the nation in rushing (154 carries, 958 yards, 9 touchdowns) through seven games before a serious knee injury ended his season. Graham is battling back from this knee injury and if he can stay healthy (a big if) should be one of the biggest stars in college football in 2012.
Andre Ellington, Senior (5’10 190lbs) Clemson – A redshirt senior, Ellignton has been a solid contributor on the Clemson offense for years, and he is coming off his strongest season in 2011 (223 carries, 1178 yards, 11 TDs). Ike many of the backs on this list, Ellington has dealt with injuries in the past, the problem for NFL scouts is Ellington is already 23 years old. That’s right he was born in the 1980’s (for the first time this college football evaluating process I don’t feel ancient) so he will have to convince scouts that he can outplay his younger competition in 2012.
Spencer Ware, Junior (5’11 223lbs) LSU – A bigger back who has the power to bowl over defenders along with the speed to run past them, Ware did not have impressive numbers as a sophomore for a great LSU Team (177 carries, 707 yards, 8 TDs) but he passes they eyeball test. Combined with fellow junior Michael Ford (127 carries 756 yards 7 touchdowns) LSU should have a dangerous one-two punch in the backfield for ground and pound offense in the always tough SEC. (really I could have put either back first, and followed up with the other, they are both talented no disrespect to Ford).
D’Anthony Thomas, Sophomore (5’9 160lbs) – Oregon – The diminutive Thomas can flat out fly, and he should be a human highlight reel for the Ducks in the fall of 2012, he wowed football fans with his burst as a freshman. Thomas is extremely versatile and lines up all over the Oregon offense, he is also an incredible return man, and a playmaker who is explosive with the ball in his hands. On just 55 rushing attempts, Thomas ran for 595 yards (10.8 per carry) and scored 7 touchdowns. He also caught 46 passes for 605 yards and scored 9 touchdowns, and added 2 kick return touchdowns. Thomas is a safet bet to be the most exciting player to watch during the 2012 season.
Giovani Bernard, Sophomore (5’10 205lbs) North Carolina – As a true freshman in 2010, Bernard enrolled in UNC with loads of promise, but he tore the ACL in his right knee during spring practice and was forced to redshirt and miss the entire season. He bounced back in a big way, Bernard was very impressive as a redshirt freshman in 2011, carrying the ball 239 times for 1253 yards and scoring 13 touchdowns, while showcasing a great blend of speed and power. He also added 45 receptions 362 yards and a score, and if he is able to duplicate or improve upon these numbers during the 2012 college football season he has a very good chance to be an early entry candidate into the 2013 NFL Draft.
Jonathan Gray, Freshman (5’11 190lbs) Texas – The highly decorated incoming freshman is one to watch for sure, he is the first ever two time winner of the “Mr. Football USA” award and the “2011 Gatorade National Player of the Year”. He scored 205 touchdowns throughout his high school career, which is good for the most all time. Landing Gray was a huge win for a Texas program that has struggled more than usual over the past few seasons and is no longer dominant, but Gray could be a huge piece of getting them back on the National Title stage.
T.J. Yeldon, Freshman (6’2 205) Alabama – The five star recruit did not take long to show the Crimson Tide faithful that he would be an impact player in Tuscaloosa for years to come, and that the program was reloading, not rebuilding following the departure of Trent Richardson. Yeldon was named the MVP of the Alabama spring game, going for a combined 171 yards (88 rushing, 91 receiving) and scoring on a 51 yard reception, showcasing the skills that will make him a future superstar for the Crimson Tide program.