August 9, 2005

Off and running: The nation's top tailbacks

With the most prolific freshman running back in NCAA history returning to the gridiron in less than a month, it would seem that Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson would have the backfield spotlight all to himself.

But college football has too many promising running backs in 2005 to focus only on one. Sure, Peterson is outstanding - he didn't finish second in the Heisman balloting in 2004 for nothing - but so are the rest of these guys.

Every major conference is well represented on Rivals.com's list of the nation's top running backs. The Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-10 landed two top ball carriers each, while Conference USA, the Big East, the SEC and the ACC all had one player selected.

1. Adrian Peterson (Oklahoma)
NCAA records aside, Peterson will be one of the most hyped players on the national scene in 2005. He finished second in the Heisman balloting in 2004 and seemed to be voted all-everything by everyone, everywhere.

Peterson has plenty of speed and amazing strength. Sooners coach Bob Stoops will be trying to use the latter a little less, because Peterson took some big hits while pounding out yards between the tackles in 2004. His offensive line will be less experienced in 2005, but that shouldn't slow down Peterson too much. He's just that good.

2004 stats: 339 carries, 1,925 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns

2. Laurence Maroney (Minnesota)
It's safe to say that Maroney would have blown away the rest of the Big Ten's tailbacks last season if he hadn't had to share carries in the Golden Gophers backfield. Marion Barber III rushed for more than 1,200 yards and actually had more carries than Maroney. In fact, Barber and Maroney became the first backfield duo in NCAA history to top 1,000 yards each in consecutive seasons.

Now that Barber has left for the NFL and he has the backfield all to himself, Maroney is set for a monster season. He also will be carrying the ball behind a talented offensive line, which includes two Preseason All-Big Ten first-team members.

2004 stats: 1,348 rushing yards, 6.2 yards per carry, 12 touchdowns

3. Marshawn Lynch (California)
Lynch is the only ball carrier on this list who didn't rank in the top 100 in Division I-A football last year in total rushing yards. The reason? Lynch spent 2004 in a backup role. Even so, he has the potential to be the biggest breakout player in 2005.

With his amazing blend of speed, power and balance, Lynch would have had a shot at Peterson-like numbers in 2004 if he hadn't been behind the nation's leading rusher. Even in a backup role, Lynch averaged 8.8 yards per carry. He will benefit greatly from a talented and experienced Cal offensive line, although the loss of Aaron Rodgers might bring another couple defenders into the box.

2004 stats: 628 rushing yards, 8.8 yards per carry, eight touchdowns. 19 receptions, 147 receiving yards, two touchdowns

4. DeAngelo Williams (Memphis)
Though Williams could have been drafted to the NFL this year, he chose to stay at Memphis and try to put up another huge season in the Tigers backfield. Williams is the leading returning rusher in the nation.

Since he was the Conference USA Player of the year in 2003, opposing defenses knew to focus on Williams last season. They still couldn't stop the powerful tailback, as Williams went on to win the award again last year. Though Memphis doesn't boast the hyped offensive lines that some of the others on this list do, Williams and his blockers know how to get the job done.

2004 stats: 1,948 rushing yards, 6.2 yards per carry, 22 touchdowns

5. Leon Washington (Florida State)
The Seminoles boast one of the most potentially potent backfields in college football this season. Lorenzo Booker took most of the carries in 2004, but it was Washington who averaged 6.9 yards per carry. After a strong spring, Washington got the starting nod over Booker.

Not only did the two tailbacks have to split carries, but they were also running behind a Florida State offensive line that suffered some big losses due to injuries. Washington also went down with an injury late last season which kept him from topping 1,000 yards. But after rushing for 195 yards on 12 carries against West Virginia in the Gator Bowl, Washington is primed for a big season.

2004 stats: 951 rushing yards, 6.9 yards per carry, seven touchdowns

6. Michael Hart (Michigan)
Hart was the Big Ten's version of Peterson last season, leading the conference in rushing as a true freshman. Not only that, but Hart's rushing total was the second best ever in the Big Ten for a rookie.

Hart isn't the typical bruising Big Ten tailback, although he packs more punch than you'd expect from a 5-foot-9, 194-pound athlete. His quickness behind the veteran Wolverines blockers proved to be an explosive combination last season. One of Hart's best qualities has to be his ability to hang on to the football - he only fumbled once last season. Though he may surrender a few carries to incoming freshman Kevin Grady, Hart is set for another stellar season.

2004 stats: 1,455 rushing yards, nine touchdowns. 26 receptions, 237 receiving yards, one touchdown

7. Gerald Riggs (Tennessee)
Though he came to the Volunteers as a highly touted recruit, Riggs didn't hit the spotlight until 2004 as a junior. Riggs is another back on the list who had to share the backfield in 2004. But after Cedric Houston's departure, Riggs will get the lion's share of the carries for Tennessee this season.

He has all the qualities coaches crave - speed, vision, quick feet and strength. And with a powerful 217-pound frame, he should be able to take the pounding as a feature back. The Tennessee offensive line is one of the best in the country, so there's no reason that Riggs shouldn't improve on his numbers from a year ago.

2004 stats: 1,107 rushing yards, 5.7 yards per carry, six touchdowns

8. Maurice Drew (UCLA)
Drew had a solid year in 2004, but his stats suffered when a sprained ankle caused him to miss all of one game and parts of two others. Even so, in just eight starts, Drew was the third-leading rusher in the Pac-10.

Drew possesses breakaway speed, great balance and a strong base. He set a single-game record last season against Washington when he rushed for 322 yards and five touchdowns. A solid UCLA passing attack also will benefit Drew. While it's not the focus of the offense, Drew Olsen, Marcedes Lewis and Junior Taylor should keep opposing defenses from stuffing the box to stop Drew.

2004 stats: 1,007 rushing yards, 6.3 yards per carry, 8 touchdowns

9. LenDale White (Southern Cal)
While Reggie Bush, who we list as a utility player, gets all the national recognition, it's White who was the Trojans' leading rusher in 2004. He's a bruising runner at 235 pounds, but he also has surprising speed.

White also has a nose for the end zone and has 28 rushing touchdowns in 26 career games. Last season, despite getting 20 or more carries in just one game, he eclipsed 100 yards in five contests, including a 118-yard, two-TD performance against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. White again will share carries with Bush, but expect another big season.

2004 stats: 1,103 rushing yards, 5.4 yards per carry, 15 touchdowns

10. Andre Hall (USF)
After two successful years in the junior college ranks, Hall had a lot of hype coming into Division I football. Rivals.com ranked him as the top JUCO running back last season, and Hall lived up to the hype. He was named to the Conference USA All-Conference team. DeAngelo Williams had more rushing yards, but Hall topped Williams in yards per carry.

Now that the Bulls are playing in the Big East, Hall will be more important than ever for USF. Though he didn't put up the receiving numbers of some other all-purpose backs, Hall has the hands to be a receiving threat out of the backfield, as well.

2004 stats: 1,357 rushing yards, 6.5 yards per carry, 11 touchdowns. 18 receptions, 149 receiving yards, one touchdown.


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