At this time last year, there was one college football running back who stood out from the crowd and whose name dominated preseason conversations, and that was of course Alabama’s Trent Richardson.
As soon as his Heisman-winning backfield mate Mark Ingram announced he would forgo his senior season and enter the 2011 NFL draft, pretty much everyone started touting Richardson as college football’s next star running back.
The talented Tide rusher certainly managed to live up to his preseason publicity and the gaudy expectations that were thrust onto his shoulders last summer. Richardson ended up totaling over 2,000 yards of offense and scoring 24 touchdowns in 2011, and he played an integral role in Alabama’s run to a BCS championship.
The freakishly talented rusher made good on his potential and his promise, and he became the highest running back chosen in the NFL draft in the past six years, when Cleveland traded up to the No. 3 overall pick to grab him.
Now that Richardson’s gone, it’s time for college football fans to shift their focus to the next crop of running backs that will be looking to wow NFL scouts during the 2012 season.
Unlike last offseason when Richardson was soaking up the spotlight, this year, there is no clear-cut cream-of-the-crop running back that is simply a cut above the rest. Instead, there seem to be four backs—Arkansas’ Knile Davis, South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore, Wisconsin’s Montee Ball and Oklahoma State’s Joseph Randle—who will be competing this season to earn the title of college football’s top running back prospect.
What’s going to make this year so interesting is the fact that two of those players, Davis and Lattimore, will both be returning from serious injuries that forced them to miss substantial time in 2011.
Knile Davis, Arkansas
Personally, I believe Davis has the most pro potential out of any running back in college football, and if I had to pick an early favorite for who will be the first back taken in the 2013 NFL draft, the Razorback rusher would be my choice.
After a breakout performance in 2010, in which he ran for 1,322 yards and scored 14 touchdowns, Davis was all set to ascend to star status in 2011 before a freak preseason ankle injury put him on the shelf for the entire season.
Following months of resting and rehabilitating his injury, Davis will now return to the fold, and he'll once again be one of the key weapons for an Arkansas offense that has the potential to be absolutely explosive this season.
The 6'1'', 226-pound junior has a rare combination of size, speed, strength, agility, vision and balance, and he has everything that NFL teams are looking for in a top featured back.
Davis is without a doubt a truly special talent.
If he can shake off the rust, he should have a monster campaign in 2012, and it definitely wouldn’t be surprising if you end up hearing his name mentioned among the serious Heisman contenders this season.
Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina
Marcus Lattimore is the other big-name SEC rusher that will be looking to put together a big comeback performance in 2012.
After arriving at South Carolina as a heralded 5-star recruit, it didn’t take long for Lattimore to become one of college football’s most talked about players, especially after he put together a sensational freshman season, rushing for 1,197 yards and scoring 19 touchdowns in 2010.
The 6'0'', 218-pound junior was in the process of putting together an even more impressive campaign as a sophomore in 2011, as he came out and totaled 932 yards of offense and scored 10 touchdowns in the team's first six games.
Then came that one nightmarish play that every running back dreads and fears the most. While throwing a block against a Mississippi State defender, Lattimore's leg got rolled up on and he ended up tearing a ligament in his knee, an injury which left him on crutches for the remainder of the season.
After feverishly rehabbing his knee for the past few months, Lattimore is now on track to be back and ready to go by the time fall camp finally rolls around. While it will certainly take some time for Lattimore to ease back into the flow of the offense, if his knee proves to be up to the challenge, it wouldn't be shocking to see him put together a huge comeback season.
Lattimore is certainly a rare physical specimen, and he's one of the best running backs to grace the college game in years, which is why it's a real shame that he went down with such a serious injury last year.
Still, if he can bounce back and prove that he's the same type of runner we saw in 2010 and early on in 2011, the South Carolina star will regain his reputation as one of the sport's top players and he should solidify his status as a highly coveted pro prospect.
While Davis and Lattimore were standing on the sideline last season, two other running backs, Montee Ball and Joseph Randle, were enjoying big breakout seasons.
Montee Ball, Wisconsin
Last year, Ball put together arguably the most impressive individual performance out of any running back in college football, as he accounted for over 2,200 yards of total offense and scored 39 total touchdowns.
After such an eye-opening season, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Ball would leave Wisconsin a year early and head off to the NFL, but he surprised everyone when he announced that he would be returning to Madison for one more year.
Ball would have likely been a Day-2 pick if he had entered the 2012 NFL draft, but now he’ll have the opportunity to prove to scouts that he’s worthy of being a first-round selection.
The 5’11’’, 210-pound senior may not be able to top his outstanding 2011 showcase season, but it should be interesting to see what he can do for encore this year now that defenses will be keying in to stop him.
Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State
Like Ball, another running back that is set to be the undisputed focal point of his offense in 2012 is Joseph Randle.
For the past two years, most people have viewed Oklahoma State’s offense as QB Brandon Weeden, WR Justin Blackmon and everybody else. However, even though Randle flew under the radar and was forced to play in the shadows of his more highly touted teammates in 2011, he still showed plenty of flashes of greatness last season.
The speedy 6’1’’, 190-pound junior proved his tremendous versatility last year, as he ran for over 1,200 yards, caught 43 passes and scored 26 total touchdowns.
Randle is an absolutely dynamic offensive weapon, and he’ll now have the chance to rise to national stardom as the featured player of the Cowboys’ offense in 2012.
Other Running Backs to Watch Out For
Davis, Lattimore, Ball and Randle will likely be the four running backs that NFL scouts pay the most attention to during the 2012 season, but make no mistake about it, there are plenty of other talented college rushers who have a future playing on Sundays as well.
Here’s an early look at how I think the top running back prospects for the 2013 NFL draft stack up.
The Top 15 Seniors
1. Montee Ball, Wisconsin
2. Andre Ellington, Clemson
3. Stepfan Taylor, Stanford
4. Kenjon Barner, Oregon
5. Christine Michael, Texas A&M
6. Matthew Tucker, TCU
7. Ray Graham, Pittsburgh
8. Johnathan Franklin, UCLA
9. Rex Burkhead, Nebraska
10. Onterio McCalebb, Auburn
11. Zac Stacy, Vanderbilt
12. Curtis McNeal, USC
13. Isi Sofele, California
14. Robbie Rouse, Fresno State
15. Cameron Marshall, Arizona State
The Top 15 Eligible Underclassmen
1. Knile Davis, Arkansas
2. Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State
3. Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina
4. Cierre Wood, Notre Dame
5. Eddie Lacy, Alabama
6. Le’Veon Bell, Michigan State
7. Giovani Bernard, North Carolina
8. Spencer Ware, LSU
9. Michael Dyer, Arkansas State*
10. Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michigan
11. Henry Josey, Missouri*
12. Michael Ford, LSU
13. Waymon James, TCU
14. James White, Wisconsin
15. Silas Redd, Penn State
*Dyer and Josey are both expected to miss the 2012 season