Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina (5-9, 223): Despite being hampered by nagging injuries for much of the season, the second-team preseason All-American led the team with 199 carries for 982 rushing yards as a true junior. He fell 18 yards short of joining George Rogers as the only players in school history to have multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons. As a junior, he ran for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns. His decision to enter the NFL a year early came in part to what happened to his brother, James, a former running back at Clemson. James Davis was given a second-round grade but went back to school. His senior season was ruined by a shoulder injury and he wound up being drafted in the sixth. His brother’s excellence and violence outside his bedroom window served as motivation as Mike Davis was growing up.
Michael Dyer, RB, Louisville (5-9, 215): Dyer was a second-team Freshman All-American at Auburn in 2010, when he rushed for 1,093 yards — beating Bo Jackson’s school record of 829 — and earning MVP honors of the BCS National Championship Game. He added 1,242 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2011 before transferring. (More on that in a moment.) His 2013 at Louisville was a bust, with 223 yards during an injury-plagued campaign. As a senior, he played in nine games and rushed for 481 yards and five touchdowns. He missed the bowl game when he was ruled academically ineligible. It was just the latest misstep. He was suspended for a violation of team rules before Auburn’s bowl games and transferred to Arkansas State. He didn’t play a game there, though, as he was kicked off the team when a gun was found in his car during a traffic stop. (He was not arrested or charged with a crime.) Thus, it was on to Louisville, where he hoped he would clear his name. He has a strong supporter in Fitz Hill, the president of Arkansas Baptist College. "Most people think Michael was involved with the law," Hill said, hammering home that message again. "He'd never been arrested. I was dumbfounded by that."
Jahwan Edwards, RB, Ball State (5-9, 220): “Quake” Edwards rewrote the school record book. He set Ball State records with 4,558 rushing yards, 51 rushing and total touchdowns, 306 points, 884 rushing attempts and 18 100-yard games. He broke the touchdown record as a junior. As a senior, he rushed for 1,252 yards to become only the second player in Ball State history to rush for 1,000 or more yards three times in a career. His 29 receptions for 236 yards eclipsed his total from his first three seasons. He was the leader of a high school powerhouse but received just one Division I offer. “There are days when I push myself to limits I never knew I had,” Edwards said. “I’ve pushed myself until I threw up, until I went home and had to sleep the whole day. Adversity makes a person.”
Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin (6-1, 203): Gordon could have entered last year’s draft but elected to return for his redshirt junior season. And what a season it was. Gordon was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy and won the Doak Walker Award (top running back) after rushing for a staggering 2,587 yards — second-most in FBS history and a Big Ten record. Only Barry Sanders’ 2,628 yards in 1988 can top Gordon’s season. He paced the nation with 32 total touchdowns. Gordon reached 2,000 yards on his 241st carry — fastest in FBS history. He briefly held the FBS record with his 408 yards against Nebraska, then closed his career with 258 yards and three touchdowns in the bowl game vs. Auburn. It was the capper of a dynamic career in which he rushed for 4,915 yards and scored 49 total touchdowns. His career average of 7.79 yards per carry is best of all-time. He’s the best running back in the long history of great Badgers runners. “And that’s saying a lot,” said Badgers athletic director Barry Alvarez, who coached seven of the top 10 runners in school history. His football career began on a field nestled between railroad tracks and a highway in Tarboro, N.C. “Todd looked big,” his mom recalled, “big” even then in those games with the older kids.
Dee Hart, RB, Colorado State (5-9, 190): Hart spent three seasons as a backup running back and special-teams player at Alabama. With diploma in hand, the Florida native transferred to CSU — head coach Jim McElwain had been Alabama’s defensive coordinator — and didn’t have to sit out a season. The decision paid off, as Hart was second-team all-Mountain West with his 1,275 rushing yards (6.6 average) and 16 touchdowns (pus 18 catches for 189 yards and two more scores). With a year of eligibility remaining, Hart decided to transfer to the NFL. The road to the NFL was longer than merely going from Florida to Alabama to Colorado. He spent most of his first 13 years living with a grandmother, until she was no longer well enough to take care of Hart. Hart moved in with an uncle in Orlando and blossomed into an elite recruit with a 3.5 GPA.
Braylon Heard, RB, Kentucky (5-11, 198): Heard opened his career at Nebraska but, with Ameer Abdullah in a starring role, Heard transferred. After sitting out the 2013 season, he made a modest impact with 368 rushing yards (5.0 average) and four touchdowns and 21 catches for 108 yards. Despite the limited production, he’s making the move to the NFL. He made a life-changing trip to Ethiopia.
David Johnson, RB, Northern Iowa (6-1, 222): Johnson broke 15 school records en route to lifting the Panthers to the FCS playoffs. He was one of just 10 FCS players at the Senior Bowl but was voted Running Back of the Week by pro scouts in attendance. As a senior, he rushed for 1,553 yards and piled up 2,527 all-purpose yards to earn All-American honors. The versatile runner added 38 receptions (second on the team) for 536 yards (tops on the team) and averaged 36.5 yards per kickoff return. During the summer, he works for the school’s dormitory maintenance crew, where he does such exciting things as pulling hair from drains. “You’d be surprised how much hair fits into a drain. It’s horrible.”
Gus Johnson, RB, Stephen F. Austin (5-10, 224): Johnson was an FCS All-American and a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, which goes to the best player in FCS. As a senior, he rushed for a Southland Conference-record 1,683 yards (6.6 average) and a school-record 23 touchdowns. He finished his career with 3,907 yards and 51 touchdowns on the ground and 57 receptions for 419 yards (7.4 average) and one touchdown through the air.
Duke Johnson, RB, Miami (5-9, 206): The true junior rushed for 1,652 yards (6.8 average) and 10 touchdowns and showed his tremendous versatility by catching 38 passes for 421 yards (11.1 average) and three more scores. It capped a remarkable comeback after Johnson sustained a fractured ankle on Nov. 2, 2013, against Florida State and was in tears as he was carted to the Hurricanes’ locker room. “He’s as good a story as there is in college football looking at where he was a year ago,” Miami head coach Al Golden said. In just three seasons, he set the school’s career leader in rushing yards (3,519) and total yards (5,523). “Everything I do is for her — her and my grandmother, who sacrifice so much,” Johnson said when announcing he was entering the draft. “My grandmother is someone who actually took care of me a lot when my mom was at work and was trying to find a better way for us.” As a true freshman, he averaged 33.0 yards per kickoff return with two email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.