The top running backs in the 2006 class include two likely NFL first-round picks, as well as two true sophomores who are at least one more year away from the NFL. Some of these backs are a threat catching the ball as well as carrying from scrimmage.
1. Tyrell Sutton-Northwestern. SOPH 2005 stats: rushing: 1,474 yards on 250 carries, 5.9 YPC, 16TDs; receiving: 44 catches, 396 yards, 2 TDs.
Adrian Peterson is definitely the best known returning running back, but Sutton may be the best all-around returning back. Sutton not only ran for 1,474 yards in 2005, but he also added 44 catches in Northwestern's spread offense. Sutton also produced against good teams, rushing for 112 yards in a close loss against Penn State, 244 yards in a shootout against Wisconsin and 93 yards against Ohio State. Sutton's low point occurred against Michigan when he was held to 50 yards in a 33-17 loss.
Indirectly, Sutton had a tough off-season, not only losing his long-time starting QB, Brett Basinets to graduation, but also losing head coach Randy Walker to an unfortunate heart attack. Now Sutton will be expected to carry a larger burden of the offense for new coach (and former Northwestern star linebacker) Pat Fitzgerald against some tough Big 10 defenses.
What To Look For In 2006: Can Sutton continue to produce big rushing numbers after losing his starting QB to graduation and his offensive-minded head coach.
2. Adrian Peterson-Oklahoma. JR 2005 stats: rushing: 1,108 yards on 220 carries, 5.0 YPC, 14 TDs; receiving: 9 catches, 50 yards, 0 TDs.
Adrian Peterson is on this list based more on his exceptional freshman year in 2004, rather than his up and down year in 2005. Peterson met the high expectations of being a heralded blue-chip prospect in 2004 rushing for nearly 2,000 yards and 15 TDs. The expectations for 2005 included a Heisman trophy and another 2,000 rushing yards, but injuries and a inconsistent offense with struggling QB Rhett Bomar scuttle those expectations.
Peterson had an inconsistent season in 2005. He was limited to only 63 yards and 58 yards in early season losses to TCU and UCLA. Peterson also injured his ankle and did not play or barely played in four games in the middle of the season. Towards the end of the year, Peterson rebounded, rushing for over 100 yards in four straight games against solid Big 12 foes, Nebraska, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.
Oklahoma expects Peterson to post a strong 2006 with a more experienced Bomar at the helm. The NFL will likely only await Peterson's arrival this one last year. Peterson has the size (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) and exceptional speed to be an NFL franchise running back and is regarded as a certain top 10 pick should he declare for the NFL draft after this season.
What To Look For In 2006: Will Peterson reclaim his position as college football's greatest running back? Also, will Oklahoma use Peterson more as a receiver in this year's offense.
3. Michael Bush-Louisville. SR 2005 stats: rushing: 1,143 yards on 205 carries, 5.6 YPC, 23 TDs; receiving: 21 catches, 253 yards, 1 TDs.
Despite missing two full games, Michael Bush rushed for over 1,100 yards and 23 TD in 2005, albeit against somewhat soft Big East and non-conference competition. Bush, listed at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, is a battering ram with quick feet and above-average speed for a big running back. He is also a respectable threat out of the backfield, catching 21 passes for an additional 253 yards and one score. Bush's size and skills make Bush a likely NFL first round pick in 2007.
If he stays healthy, Bush should have a big year in 2006, feasting on questionable Big East defenses, as well as non-conference softies such as Temple, Kentucky and Middle Tennessee State. His statistics could push Bush into the Heisman race, particularly if Bush has big games against the Miami Hurricanes and West Virginia, who loom as the toughest obstacles to an undefeated season for Louisville.
What To Look For In 2006: Can Bush and Brian Brohm stay healthy and lead Louisville to a Big East title and a BCS berth? Also, can Bush establish himself as the next great "big back" NFL prospect along the lines of Earl Campbell or Jerome Bettis.
4. Steve Slaton-West Virginia. SOPH 2005 stats: rushing: 1,128 yards on 205 carries, 5.5 YPC, 17 TDs; receiving: 12 catches, 95 yards, 2 TDs.
Freshman Steve Slaton arrived at West Virginia in the shadow of fellow freshman Jason Gwaltney, who was a five-star, can't miss prospect expected to be a four-year starter for the Mountaineers. Slaton patiently waited for his opportunity, only carrying the ball eight times for 42 yards in West Virginia's first four games. A mid-season knee injury to Gwaltney opened the door for Slaton to take hold of the starting running back job, and Slaton exceeded all expectations.
Slaton rushed for 188 yards and scored a school-record six TDs in a 46-44 victory against Louisville that propelled WVA to a 10-1 record and Big East title. Slaton then topped that performance by rushing for 204 yards and three TDs in a 38-35 Sugar Bowl victory against favored Georgia, establishing Slaton as a top running back to watch in 2006. Although Slaton is listed at only 185 pounds, he is dependable around the goal-line, scoring many of his touchdowns inside five yards.
What To Look For In 2006: Will Slaton combine with QB Pat White to lead West Virginia to national championship contention?
Others Running Backs To Watch For In 2006: Garrett Wolfe (Northern Illinois); Kenny Irons (Auburn); Yvenson Bernard (Oregon State); Darius Walker (Notre Dame); Antonio Pittman (Ohio State); Jamaal Charles (Texas); Albert Young (Iowa); Marshawn Lynch (Cal); and Mike Hart and Kevin Grady (Michigan).
The Best Running Back in 2006?
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