Underclassmen RBs to watch next season

After looking over the senior running back class for the 2011 draft, one word comes to mind: Blah. There are some intriguing third-down-type options who can be dynamic in space, with a few well-built inside runners mixed in, but as a whole, it’s not a real impressive group. Today, the National Football Post breaks down some of the nation’s top underclassmen running backs who could end up crashing next year’s draft party in a big way.

Top challengers

Mark Ingram, Alabama (5-10, 215)

The breakdown

Ingram possesses a thick, compact build for the position with great lower body strength and overall balance, which allows him to consistently break tackles in all areas of the game. Runs with a low pad level and is really tough to wrap up and bring down initially on contact. However, what makes him so effective running between the tackles is his combination of body control and instincts inside. He’s so sudden and powerful in tight areas that he consistently has the wiggle to make a defender miss in a phone both and accelerate into the open field. At the same time, he’s also very patient and showcases a real feel setting up blocks and exploding into daylight. He’s a two-stepper in every sense of the word, getting up to top-end speed instantly out of his breaks. He’s more quick than fast in my opinion and lacks an elite second gear to his game, but he still possesses good enough game speed and will be able to create his share of long runs at the next level because of his ability to sidestep/break tackles in the open field. He’s also still maturing as a pass blocker inside and isn’t the most natural of receivers in the pass game. But he’s one of the most natural runners I’ve ever scouted and looks like an impact-caliber guy ready to carry the load at the next level from day one.

What the future has in store

Honestly, if Ingram could have entered the 2010 draft, I would have rated him as the top running back. He’s powerful, sudden and really natural running inside, consistently showcasing an ability to hit the big play because of his knack for making defenders miss. I don’t think he’s ever going to be a guy to run in the 4.3 range, which could cause him to slip a bit on draft day (as we’ve seen, the fastest running backs tend to come off the board first). However, I think Ingram has the skill set to be a legit impact-type running back and, in my opinion, is one of the nation’s top overall prospects.

Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech (5-10, 206)

The breakdown

Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck isn’t the only redshirt sophomore worth evaluating this year. Virginia Tech’s Williams has the type of dynamic open-field running ability to instantly make an impact at the next level. He’s a surprisingly patient runner who does a nice job setting up blocks in tight quarters, picking his way through traffic and accelerating into daylight. However, it’s his cutback ability and lateral suddenness that he exhibits at full speed that make him so tough to bring down. Plus, he showcases a real second gear to his game, and once he gets into the open field he typically doesn’t get caught. He needs to do a better job securing the football because he has a tendency to let the ball get away from his body once he breaks into daylight. And although he does showcase the power/toughness and overall sixth sense to drop his pad level and find the end zone and/or pick up the first down in short yardage situations, he does run a bit too upright inside and can be tripped up easily when trying to press the line of scrimmage. However, he’s very natural catching the ball out of the backfield, and with another strong year looks like a potential first-round running back.

What the future has in store

Williams possesses a strong build, showcases natural vision and patience inside and knows how to make defenders miss and accelerate instantly into the open field. Plus, he catches the ball well out of the backfield and is a consistent big-play threat. Now, I’d like to see him run with a more consistent pad level inside, and Virginia Tech running back coach Billy Hite is one of the best in the business, so I’m sure he’s working on trying to lower Williams’ overall pad level inside. But either way, the guy is without a doubt one of the nation’s most dynamic running back prospects and should be able to challenge and win a starting job at the next level early in his NFL career.

Others worth noting:

John Clay, Wisconsin (6-1, 248)
Clay possesses rare size for the position and has the power to wear down opposing defenses. However, it’s his body control and balance that allow him to pick through the line and consistently break tackles/churn out yards after contact.

Jacquizz Rodgers, Oregon State (5-7, 188)
Although he’s a bit undersized, Rodgers is extremely shifty and does a great job picking his way through the line of scrimmage and accelerating into daylight. Plus, he can catch the football out of the backfield and looks like a big-time X-factor in both the run and pass game.

Jeffery Demps, Florida (5-8, 176)
Another undersized back, but he’s blessed with sub-4.3 speed and is an absolute blur once he gets into the open field. Lacks the size to handle to rigors of being an every-down option in the NFL, but if you get him the ball in space, he’ll pick up yards in chunks.

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