The 2014 recruiting class is loaded with exceptional running backs who appear capable of carrying the load in the future for college football programs. The leap from high school to collegiate competition is challenging regardless of position, and the role of a running back is drastically altered at the next level.
In order to see significant playing time, backs must be able to block passes, identify pre-snap gap adjustments and eliminate any shred of hesitation when approaching the line of scrimmage. The days of relying on speed and jukes are over.
An abundance of freshman backs will fill team rosters throughout the nation next season. Some will arrive on campus as instant celebrities, embraced by the school they selected from long lists of options after highly publicized nationwide recruitment processes.
Others have a longer road to recognition but remain ready to step up despite immense expectations. We take a look at ball-carriers who are primed to surprise in college and are capable of stealing the national spotlight from more heralded high school prospects.
The pedigree is in place for Jonathan Haden, who will become the fourth brother in his family to sign a national letter of intent when February 5 arrives. The diminutive speed demon follows in the footsteps of Joe (Florida, 2010 first-round NFL draft pick), Josh (Boston College) and Jordan (Florida).
The Wildcats made tremendous strides in executing the scheme last fall and suddenly possess one of the most potent offensive attacks in the Pac-12. Haden, who considered offers from Kentucky, Ohio State, North Carolina and West Virginia, per 247Sports, is a cut-and-run back.
He has outstanding vision and shoots through a seam with precision. Haden's best attribute is his ability to burst to the outside and identify running lanes.
His skill set is reminiscent of Steve Slaton, who starred at running back at West Virginia while under the tutelage of Rodriguez. Harden, who accumulated 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns as a junior, according to The Washington Post, is tailor-made for a similar role in the system.
247Sports' composite rankings list Haden at No. 493 among class of 2014 recruits. Expect him to exceed expectations at Arizona.
Jonathan Hilliman hits the hole with authority. The designation of "north-south runner" tends to be overused when analyzing running backs, but if there's a kid in this class who fit the bill, it's Hilliman.
Stylistically, his fundamentals are impressive. Hilliman keeps his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage and relentlessly churns his feet while firing through arm tackles.
Although his long strides are slightly problematic, Hilliman's straight-line speed poses a threat from anywhere on the field. He is an emphatic, high-energy back who will motivate teammates to bring maximum effort to every play.
The 6'1, 210-pound St. Peter's Prep standout is committed to Rutgers. Ranked 27th among national running backs in 247Sports' composite rankings, his speed (4.52 40-yard-dash, per 247Sports) is excellent for a rusher who figures to primarily carry the ball between the tackles.
Hilliman, who also holds offers from Arkansas, Georgia Tech, Syracuse and Miami, will vie for playing time with the Scarlet Knights as a freshman. As Rutgers transitions to the Big Ten next season, expect coach Kyle Flood to maintain a concerted effort on establishing the ground game above all.
DeAndre Tigg is still in search of his first FBS offer, and that alone puts him on this list. The 5'7", 185-pound Lipscomb Academy running back is a smooth runner in the open field and overcomes his lack of size with a powerful lower body.
He opened his senior season with 405 rushing yards and five scores in a 60-42 victory over Page, according to the Franklin Home Page. Tigg finished the 2012 regular season with 956 yards and 14 touchdowns, per the Nashville City Paper.
Considering how his senior season is progressing so far, it's safe to say Tigg is on track to obliterate those numbers and warrant more attention from the college ranks. He is currently listed as the 164th-best running back in 247Sports' composite rankings.
Tigg, while not necessary a gifted athlete, is gritty between the tackles and slips out of coverage when implemented in the passing game. He has above-average peripheral vision and anticipation.
It's only a matter of time until Tigg is presented with an opportunity at the next level. The Mid-American Conference would be a sensible destination.
Gerald Owens, a bruising 6'1", 250-pound running back, led West Deptford High School to a second straight state title in 2012. He compiled 1,700 yards and 26 touchdowns as a junior, according to Philly.com.
His bulky frame gives tacklers fits, and while he's no burner, it's hard to imagine a better goal-line running back. I saw Owens play in his team's state championship game last December, and he dismantled opponent Cedar Creek, cruising to 206 yards and five touchdowns.
I can't recall a time when he was brought down by a single defender. He has quick feet for a big guy and gets to the line of scrimmage in a hurry.
Owens, who is committed to Michigan State, is the No. 1 fullback recruit in 247Sports' composite rankings. He figures to be a major factor with the Spartans, who must play in wintry weather throughout the final months of the season.
He also considered offers from Florida State, Boston College and Rutgers, according to 247Sports.
Michigan State has always made it a point to load up on running backs with some meat on their bones. Built more like a tank than a sports car, Owens is up to the task of taking on a high volume of touches.
First-year Arkansas coach Bret Bielema bolstered his backfield by securing a commitment from in-state prospect Juan Day. The 6'1, 210-pound North Little Rock senior is listed as the 54th-best running back in the nation, according to 247Sports' composite rankings, but he could emerge as one of the top ball-carriers of the class if things click for him with the Razorbacks.
Bielema is hell-bent on breaking down teams early and often with an unwavering rushing attack. Day is suited to be a workhorse and is physically prepared for the grind of SEC action.
He is built like a grown man, outclassing high school opponents with superb upper-body strength and terrific speed (a 4.50 40-yard dash, per 247Sports). Day doesn't delay prior to contact and punctuates runs with a headfirst finish.
The recruitment process didn't last long for Day. He committed to Arkansas (his first BCS offer) in January, according to 247Sports. He rushed for 930 yards and 13 touchdowns as a junior, when he shared carries with current Alabama freshman Altee Tenpenny.
The football will be in his hands with more frequency this fall, setting the stage for him to showcase the skills that should transcend splendidly when he arrives in Fayetteville.