February is a miserable month. The weather stinks and there’s little hope for anything on the horizon. Actual football ends after the first weekend and there’s NBA basketball that keeps trying to appear on my television. I’m slowly getting caught up on my college hoops, but the brackets don’t show up for another month. Thankfully we’ve got a bunch of teenagers, who often make important life decisions based on helmet designs, to provide some existential meaning. On February 6th a great majority of high school gridders formally announced their collegiate plans by signing an air-tight document that even Nick Saban’s agent would have difficulty breaking. In doing so these future stars gave Joe Fan, be he the traditional supporter of State U or the college fantasy freak, a reason to look to the future with optimism usually only found at a beginning of an all-day tailgate. It is our pleasure to analyze the 2008 bumper crop of incoming talent, and of course, we do so with the fantasy diehard in mind. As is our style, this will be a multi-part piece over the next few days breaking down each of the skill positions (our apologies to the Big 12 South and Big East fans as your Look Ahead will have to take a backseat for now). JUCOs and Prep Schoolers will be broken down in a separate edition as they come with their own set of circumstances. We start with the running backs because as Chris Speilman so eloquently and simply puts it, running backs only need to “see hole hit hole”, giving them the best shot at immediate playing time. We’ve broken down the top running back prospects into three tidy categories based on our assessments and potential impact in 2008 and beyond.
Top Running Backs that Could Make an Impact in 2008
RB Darrell Scott, Colorado - Scott is the homerun back of the 2008 class. He has that rare top gear that separates him from the other running backs. When his feet start churning, they become a blur. Think C.J. Spiller. The difference is Scott has the size to shed tacklers to go with this great speed. Scott tore up the California high school ranks in 2007 including leading them to a Div III state championship. There are certain states where numbers don’t lie. If a kid can get it done in places like Cali, Texas, Ohio and Florida, then he can do it anywhere. His 7,605 yards and 99 touchdowns over the last three years say plenty. Scott solidified his spot as our #1 incoming running back when he chose Colorado over Texas. No offense to Demetrius Sumler, who is a young talent in his own right, but I don’t think it is going out on a limb to state that Scott is going to get a heavy look at the starting running back job in Boulder in 2008.
RB Mark Ingram, Alabama
- What is my love affair with Mark Ingram? I don’t know, maybe it is because his old man was catching footballs in Spartan Stadium while I was doing keg stands in East Lansing. Or maybe it is because I see no discernable difference between him and some of the other backs listed. In fact I believe he is one of the top five backs in this class. He would have been at the top of this list had he committed to Iowa. Ingram has the rare combination of size, speed and agility. In a nutshell he is a big athletic back that has the body and field presence to make an immediate impact. Will he do so at Alabama? That is a tough call as Terry Grant and Glen Coffee already have the inside track on playing time. However Saban was been critical of the running back production last year, and neither Grant nor Coffee was able to put a firm grip on the starting spot last fall. Grant is the more explosive of the two and has the most potential, but he is a small speed back and Saban also wants someone that can run between the tackles. We have Grant penciled in as the starter but have our eraser handy as Ingram will be given a chance when he arrives in Tuscaloosa this summer. Keep an eye on the position battle this August and as the season progresses.
RB Sam McGuffie, Michigan - McGuffie has become a high school legend with his high-flying antics making the rounds on Youtube. There is no question McGuffie is a burner. In fact he reminds me a lot of former Michigan and USC running back Justin Fargas. A good freind of mine used to say that Fargas “was shot of a cannon” when he took a hand-off. McGuffie is of the same mold, but he has the added dimension of a hurdle. However, McGuffie ran through gaping holes in most of the video I’ve seen, so it will be interesting to see if he can run between the tackles and shed tacklers at the line of scrimmage and withstand the Big Ten pounding. With Mike Hart graduating, there is a hole in the Michigan backfield. Especially when you consider that head coach Rich Rodriguez will be looking for a speed back to run his spread option attack. Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor return but neither locked down the starting job with the old regime, so certainly the job is up for grabs with the new sheriff in town.
RB Michael Shaw, Michigan – Shaw made a last-minute switch to Michigan from Penn State on signing day causing us to switch where we slot Shaw for this piece. Because of the hole left by Mike Hart, he’ll join Sam McGuffie as freshman to watch this summer. Shaw has good very good straight-line speed and cutback ability. He was a strong toss sweep and pitch out runner in high school. I’d like to see how he does between the tackles. Michigan also signed running backs Terrance Robinson and Mike Cox to the ’08 class. Based on our pre-season evaluations we’ll give the edge to Shaw and McGuffie. RB Jonas Gray, Notre Dame - Gray is a compact runner with good speed that I would consider a high risk/high reward pick. There is no question that Notre Dame is in dire need of upgrades on offense, and running back is no exception. Gray will have the opportunity to see the field early, and he could possibly win the starting job. The experts classify him as a gritty, between-the-tackles runner, which has me a bit confused. From what I’ve seen he appears to bounce many of his runs to the outside, and Gray himself claims that Michigan offered him as an athlete and not a running back. This bounce-it-outside tendency will work well against slower/smaller high school defenders, but won’t always play at the collegiate level. Like McGuffie, I’d like to see if he can run in traffic effectively. RB De'Anthony Curtis, Arkansas - Curtis doesn’t have nearly the size and power of Darren McFadden, but I couldn’t help but have flashbacks of D-Mac the first time I saw Curtis’ feet kicking up behind him as he ran. He possesses very good straight-line speed and changes direction while continuing to move forward (not a cutback runner), weaving his way through the line or past defenders. With the loss of D-Mac and Felix Jones, Curtis could come in and compete with Michael Smith and Brandon Bennett. RB Aundre Dean, UCLA - Dean is a very quick and agile back. Like Sam McGuffie he explodes to the line of scrimmage. He also has some of the best footwork of any back in this class. He is a tall skinny kid with room to grow. With Chris Markey graduating and Kahlil Bell recovering from a torn ACL, Dean could have a chance to compete with Chane Moline for immediate playing time.
Top Talent with Backs in the Way
RB Jamie Harper, Clemson - Harper is one of the most impressive backs in this year’s recruiting class. The 210-pound power back from Florida runs with his pads low and his knees high, delivering punishment to opposing defenders brave enough to try and bring him down. He’s not going to blow you away with top end speed, but he has the size and power to run at the collegiate level as a freshman. Harper’s decision is one we’ve been eyeing closely as he had potential to be a good fantasy back immediately. However, his fantasy potential took a big hit when he signed with Clemson. With both James Davis and C.J. Spiller back we don’t see much opportunity for Harper to make a major impact in 2008.
RB Jermie Calhoun, Oklahoma - Caulhon is a big back with good cutback ability. He is listed at 6’ 210 lbs and he is all of that and probably more. I’m sure he will draw a lot of comparisons to Adrian Peterson as they have similar running styles and thunder thighs. I don’t know if he has the top end speed of his predecessor. Like Harper, it is also going to be difficult for Caulhon to crack a line-up that already features DeMarco Murray (coming back from a dislocated knee cap) and Chris Brown. Calhoun has great long-term potential.
RB Justin Johnson, Oklahoma– Johnson is another big powerful back for the Sooners. Like Caulhon, it is going to be difficult for Johnson see significant playing time as a freshman running back. With the loss of LB Chris Lofton, Johnson may be moved to linebacker in order to provide depth. He is on campus and will start out at running back this spring.
RB Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech - Williams’ draft stock took a hit when Branden Ore decided to return for his senior season. Good decision by Ore, by the way. Anyway, Williams is a lean athletic running back that reminds me a lot of Lorenzo Booker, but without the top gear. One thing for sure is he former Hokie running Kevin Jones' spin move down.
RB Chris Burns, Pittsburgh – Burns is a talented running back. Speed, power, agility, cutback…he does everything well, including catching the ball out of the backfield. Problem is, unless LeSean McCoy plans on spending more time at quarterback or has a reoccurrence of fumbling problems, Burns’ touches will be limited in 2008.
RB Dontavius Jackson & Richard Samuel, Georgia - Jackson and Samuel are two highly rated running backs for the Bulldogs. Both have enrolled early so they will compete with redshirt freshman Caleb King for the right to spell Knowshon Moreno in 2008.
RB Andre Ellington, Clemson - I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Ellington won’t make a huge fantasy impact at running back in 2008. He does catch the ball and run well though. He’s got some skills and is a good get for Clemson down the road, whether it be at running back, kick returner or even at wide receiver.
RB Cyrus Gray, Texas A&M – A running back/quarterback in high school, he has a long list of talented backs in front of him at A&M.
Keep an Eye On
RB Jermaine Thomas, Florida State - Thomas is a better runner than the recruiting services are giving him credit for. Plays everything at one speed. He reminds me of former Colorado/Colorado State running back Marcus Houston, a long, lean straightforward runner. The question is, what is up with the Florida State running back situation? Antone Smith has not blown us away, and Preston Parker was a nice change of pace for the Seminoles last year, but can Parker be an every-down back?
RB Chris Polk. Washington – A running back/wide receiver in high school, Polk is good straight-line runner that can catch the football. The Huskies have an opening at running back with the graduation of Louis Rankin, and Polk is already on campus so he’ll be ready for spring ball.
RB LaMichael James, Oregon – Despite the small stature something caught my eye in LaMichael that didn’t in the countless other “scat” backs. First off he is filled out for his frame, giving him a leg-up to avoid a redshirt. Second he has some grit to go along with his wiggle. More importantly, the Ducks could be in the market for a running back with Jonathan Stewart off to the NFL and Jeremiah Johnson recovering from a knee injury.
RB Ryan Bass, Arizona St. - Bass is listed at a liberal 5’ 10” and 186lbs. However, like James, he plays bigger than his size and not afraid to get dirty between the tackles.
RB Darius Barksdale, Ole Miss – Barksdale is not going to blow you away with his speed but he is a strong between-the-tackles runner. Ole Miss has a hole at running back with the graduation of BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
RB Ray Polk, Colorado – Polk has only one year of experience at a running back so I was unable to unearth any video on Polk. I’m not going to pretend to know anything about him except that he is rated highly by a number of recruiting services, and Colorado has needs at running back. The signing of Charles Scott could hurt his chances for immediate playing time. But remember West Virginia’s Jason Gwaltney was the top-rated running back in 2005 and Steve Slaton ended up stealing the show.
RB Jamal Womble, North Carolina - At 5’10 220+ pounds, Womble is a load. He has pretty good cutback ability and vision for a back his size. He’ll need to beat out Greg Little who had a strong showing at the end of last year.
RB Jeff Brinson, Iowa – A compact, between-the-tackles runner that will get a look at the starting gig for the simple fact that Iowa is extremely thin in the backfield. **ADDED**
RB Jeffrey Demps, Florida - An undersized burner that could play RB, WR or DB. Given the shortfalls at running back and that he is a playmaker, we could see Demps in the Gator backfeild in 2008.
RB Josh Haden, Boston College - A short stocky jitterbug that could find his way in the Eagles backfeild. Despite his small stature, he also played linebacker in high school. A good measure of his toughness. Obviously it is very early and recruiting has been proven quite the inexact science, so naturally predicting which recruit will have a fantasy impact, be it immediate or eventual, is inexact as well. However seeing that an exact science is defined as: a science, as chemistry or physics, that deals with quantitatively measurable phenomena of the material universe, we’ll take the inexact science as it sounds like a hell of a lot more fun.