Every year around NFL Draft time, we think about college those players who are going to succeed at the next level. Who is going to boom and who is going to bust?
While this debate often takes place over the quarterbacks, running backs feature a similar level of scrutiny each year.
Let's face it, some early-round picks become franchise backs, while others falter. Some late-round gems soon become starters and shine in the pros.
There is no magic formula for predicting the future of running backs.
Adrian Peterson was injury prone at Oklahoma, but has become a dominant and productive running back in the NFL.
On the other hand, Reggie Bush was a Heisman winner, but his big play ability has yet to really justify his high draft position.
This coming season, college football will have one of the deepest running backs corps in quite some time. However, which of these budding superstars may be quickly forgotten once their time in college has finished, and all eyes turn to next year's NFL Draft?
Let the debate begin!
Rodney Stewart has been a bright spot on the otherwise disappointing Colorado Buffalo team.
Stewart had 804 yards with nine touchdowns last season. With five 100-yard games and six games of 20 or more carries, Stewart has established himself as the offensive force for Colorado.
However, Stewart is simply a bit too scrawny to make it at the next level. At 5'6'' and 170 pounds, the rising junior will have trouble staying on the field with some of the hard-hitting NFL defenses at the next level.
Let's face it, the knock on the Big XII has been defense, and against the better rush defenses Stewart had little answer.
Against the five of the top six rush defenses in the conference, he averaged only 51 yards and scored only one touchdown in that stretch.
Stewart may have some big play ability in college, but it will not translate to success in the NFL.
Ralph Bolden is a talented player for the Purdue Boilermakers.
The sophomore tailback accumulated over 1,100 total yards last season, and 11 total touchdowns with his ability to run and catch the football.
Bolden had a breakout performance when he ran for 234 yards in the season opener against Toledo. He also had at least 16 carries in nine games last season.
His hard work made him the third-leading rusher in the Big Ten.
However, Bolden has two problems that may ruin his NFL aspirations.
First is his undisciplined nature.
Bolden even admits himself that he tends to cut back, and go against the script. Relying on your pure athleticism can work in college but not in the NFL.
Sometimes making the big play, and the right play are completely different. It is something he must learn if he wants to make it in the pros.
Bolden must also continue to work on his blocking skills. It may not be a glamorous aspect, but it is a necessary one for making it in the NFL.
Also, Bolden needs to avoid the injury bug. Already, the upcoming 2010 season looks to be one to forget for the Boilermaker, as a torn ACL may cost him all of next season.
Considering some of the running backs behind him, and the emergence of transfer quarterback Robert Mavre, the junior may have a hard time earning back his playing time once he returns from injury.
That is the nature of the NFL, injuries can cost you your livelihood. Bolden may be strong, but his journey towards greatness is far from complete.
OK, OK, I realize I don't need angry Mountaineer fans on my case, but here's the thing.
Noel Devine has freakish speed, but he runs the risk of becoming the next Reggie Bush.
Devine rushed for over 1,400 yards last season, and had 13 touchdowns.
He benefits from a system that helps produce big numbers, and his speed can overwhelm his Big East opponents.
However, against the top three defenses in the conference, Devine was contained to an average of 80 yards per game, and two touchdowns combined.
That speed though, will not be as big an advantage in the NFL.
Devine will never be an every down back in the NFL. At 5'8" and 175 pounds, the speedster will be a solid kickoff returner, and could break off every now and then, but he will not become a franchise player.
Devine should look toward his fellow Mountaineer Steve Slaton as a barometer for success. At similar height and weight, Slaton made headlines in 2008 before injuries led to disappointment, and perhaps in replacement in 2010.
Devine can be a very good player in the NFL if his next team handles him the right way. Just don't expect him to be a primary ball handler.
The Miners know how to run an offense.
UTEP had the 18th-best offensive attack in college football last year. Helping the cause was Donald Buckram, a junior running back with 1,594 yards, and 19 touchdowns.
In the process he shattered a more than 60-year old school record, and established himself as a premiere rusher in college football.
So why is he on this list?
UTEP's offensive superstars haven't exactly translated into NFL glory.
How about Marcus Thomas, who rushed for 1,116 yards, and 16 touchdowns in 2007?
How about Howard Jackson, who rushed for 1,187 yards, and 10 touchdowns in 2004?
Both of these men had similar patterns to Buckram, as each slowly waited to establish himself as the lead back before going off on big seasons.
Yet, neither of them found any success after their time with the Miners.
Thomas, who finished as the third-leading scorer, and fifth-best rusher in UTEP history, has been cut by five different teams, and has yet to accrue a single rushing yard in the NFL after being drafted in the fifth-round by San Diego.
Jackson went undrafted.
Now can Buckram buck the trend? Perhaps.
Will he be able to reproduce the numbers he has in Conference USA and become a lead back in the NFL?
History would say no.
It may be easy to forget in our ADHD culture, but Kendall Hunter looked like a budding superstar in 2008.
As a sophomore, Hunter led the Oklahoma State offense with 1,555 rushing yards, and 16 touchdowns.
The Cowboy tailback is one of the fastest players around college football, but is he strong and healthy enough to become an NFL talent?
Despite Hunter's speed, his career has been rather ho-hum comparatively.
Considering the respect Big XII teams have to give to the passing game of Oklahoma State, you would expect Hunter to be successful.
Yet, he often went down on first contact, and has lacked the strength to get the extra yards that can make-or-break a team's success.
Speaking of breaking, Hunter suffered injuries in 2009, and as a result missed five games. For the year, he finished with fewer than 400 yards, and just one touchdown, the lowest marks of his career.
Clearly, the pressure will be on Hunter to produce as a senior, but can he physically withstand the beating he will take to exploit his quickness?
I'll believe it when I see it.
Nic Grigsby is another running back who saw his stock drop dramatically last season.
As a sophomore he turned heads with 1,153 yards, and 13 touchdowns, as the Arizona Wildcats tried to make a move towards respectability in the PAC-10.
However, last year Grigsby saw his production lower to 567 yards, and only 79 carries.
Despite over 2,400 yards and 20 rushing touchdowns for his career, Grigsby personifies the good college player who will not translate into the NFL.
At 5'10", 190 pounds, he lacks the size and durability to be a punishing back, but his 40 speed is not enough to make him a speedster.
In the NFL he is a 'tweener that will struggle mightily to find playing time.
Injuries have certainly played a role in his struggles, and his senior year could help prove the doubters wrong, but he will need a great deal of work to succeed at the next level.
The Brigham Young star may have 3,455 yards and 36 touchdowns for his career, but he now finds himself withdrawn from school for violating the honor code.
The school's all-time leading rusher already saw a drop in production from his sophomore to junior seasons. He also had lingering knee and shoulder injuries that were raising red flags.
This recent incident though really will put Unga in trouble. However, it's worth waiting to see what Unga does next. He can try to get re-admitted at BYU, go to another school, or enter the NFL supplemental draft.
History shows that early departures can often crush future phenom's dreams. Mike Williams of Southern California looked to be a superstar in the making, until he jumped on the Maurice Clarett bandwagon and tried to challenge the NFL age rule.
Now Unga may not have to sit out an entire season like Williams did, but he will need time to grow and improve his technique. Something he likely won't be getting at BYU.
This Georgia Bulldog entered Athens with hype fit for a king.
Caleb King was rated the best player in Georgia out of high school, and was ranked in the top 10 amongst running backs by every major recruiting service in the country.
King had scholarships from five different SEC schools, and when he chose Georgia he was expected to become the next big thing.
Well, King has found the backfield crowded. First, King had to deal with Knowshon Moreno, who limited his playing time, and finished his freshman campaign with 247 yards.
In his first season without Moreno (now running the ball in the NFL for the Denver Broncos), King suffered from a jaw injury that limited him to 10 games. As a result, he only racked up 594 yards on the ground.
Now as a rising junior, King must split duty next season with Washaun Ealey. The big name recruit has yet to pan out, and time is running out if he wants to make it at this level, let alone the next one.
King has missed most of spring practice and will be in a dog fight, pardon the pun, once the 2010 season begins.
Can he turn things around and prove that he can be a big name in the NFL?
King has the speed and a pretty good frame, but he will need a few breaks to go his way if he doesn't want his career to be marked by "what could have been?"