Peyton Barber, Auburn (5-10, 225): Underclassman. Barber essentially was a one-and-done player. He redshirted in 2013 and had just 10 carries in 2014. In 2015, Barber rushed for 1,017 yards (4.3 average) and 13 touchdowns. With that, it was off to the NFL for Barber, who is second cousins with former NFL players Marion and Dominique Barber. He runs with the same hard-to-tackle style. Incredibly, he got to Auburn before anyone realized he had dyslexia. "I was reading and the words would come off the page and then I would start reading backward," Barber said. "I was wondering what was going on and I had always had that problem, so I went and talked to one of the counselors about it and they said, 'We'll get you tested.'" It’s a challenge he conquered.
Devontae Booker, Utah (5-11, 212): Booker is arguably the best running back in Utah history. Booker is one of just two players at Utah to record back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and one of just three to accomplish two 1,000-yard seasons in his Utah career. He set a school record with 120.6 rushing yards per game and tied the school record with 14 100-yard rushing games, and ranks third with 2,773 rushing yards and sixth with 21 rushing touchdowns. He was first-team all-Pac-12 as a junior — plus first-team all-academic — with 1,512 yards (5.2 average) and 10 touchdowns on the ground and 306 yards on 43 receptions. He was second-team as a senior, despite having season-ending surgery on a torn meniscus in November. He rushed for 1,261 yards (4.7 average) and 11 touchdowns and added 318 yards on 37 receptions. He spent his freshman season at American River Junior College. He opened eyes during a game last season when he was one-on-one with UCLA standout linebacker Myles Jack and emerged as the unquestioned winner. He’s got big plans for his hometown of Sacramento, Calif. In the Del Paso Heights part of the city, Booker remembers seeing friends being shot and killed. “As kids, we didn’t have anywhere to go to play ball or get homework done. Just everybody was out in the streets pretty much. If we had a Boys and Girls Club, the kids wouldn’t get in trouble or do bad things.”
Tra Carson, Texas A&M (5-11, 235): Carson rushed for 1,165 yards (4.8 average) and seven touchdowns and almost tripled his career reception count with 29 catches for 183 yards and another score. In three seasons, he rushed for 2,075 yards (4.8 average) and 19 touchdowns. He’s a bruiser, not a breakaway threat — until breaking a 55-yarder vs. Louisville in his final career game, his long career run went for 39 yards on his previous 408 carries. In high school in Texarkana, Texas, he broke LaMichael James’ single-season rushing record. He then followed James’ path to Oregon. Carson rushed for 254 yards for the Ducks in 2011, then sat out 2012 due to NCAA transfer rules as he returned to Texas to play for the Aggies. He “worked his tail off” to become faster to catch the big schools’ attention.
Alex Collins, Arkansas (5-11, 218): Underclassman. Collins ranks second in program history in career rushing yards (3,703), 100-yard games (16) and is fourth rushing touchdowns (36). He’s only the third player in SEC history to rush for 100 yards in each of his first three games and 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons. In 2015, he ranked 12th nationally with 1,577 rushing yards and sixth with 20 rushing touchdowns. He topped 100 yards in 10 games, tied with Alabama’s Derrick Henry for No. 1 in the nation. One reason is because he dropped nine pounds between spring practice and the start of training camp. He was Scout.com’s third-ranked running back out of South Plantation (Fla.) High School. His mom would not sign his letter of intent, though, preferring he stay closer to home. That ugly episode became an Internet soap opera. He also was a star lacrosse player.
Marshaun Coprich, Illinois State (5-8, 205): The two-time FCS All-American and two-time Missouri Valley Football Conference Offensive Player of the Year led the league in every rushing category and finished No. 2 in the FCS in rushing yards (1,967) and rushing yards per game (151.3), and No. 3 in points per game (11.2). He helped Illinois State to a share of the MVFC title for a second consecutive season and led the Redbirds to the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs. In 2014, Coprich set single-season school records for rushing yards (2,274), rushing touchdowns (27), rushing yards per game (151.6), points scored (162) and total touchdowns (27) while rushing for more than 100 yards in 14 of 15 games. For his career, he finished as Illinois State's career leader in rushing yards (5,196), all-purpose yards (5,429) and touchdowns (60 — 23 more than the previous record). He’s the first ISU player to be invited to the Combine since receiver Laurent Robinson in 2007. ISU coach Brad Spack found out about Coprich while recruiting his cousin, Jeffrey, who wound up going to Cal. He was born in San Bernadino, Calif, but moved to Victorville, Calif., on the edge of the Mojave Desert, to escape violence. In May, he pleaded guilty to selling nine grams of marijuana to a police informant. If he successfully completes two years of probation, the conviction will be erased. He lost his captaincy and had his scholarship reduced. “I feel very blessed,” Coprich said before the season. “I’m not a bad kid. I made a bad mistake, I learned from it and I’m moving forward. I look forward to no more mistakes in my career.”
Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech (5-10, 215): Dixon ran for a school-record 4,480 yards and 72 touchdowns, plus caught 88 passes for 972 yards and 15 touchdowns. His 87 total touchdowns rank second in NCAA history. Dixon tied the national record by scoring a touchdown in 38 games, and he ranks second with 24 games with two-plus touchdowns and 14 games with three-plus touchdowns. His 522 points scored trail only Navy’s Keenan Reynolds’ 530 in the record books. As a senior, he was first-team all-Conference USA and first-team all-Louisiana. Despite missing two games, he rushed for 972 yards (5.8 average) and 17 touchdowns and caught 23 passes for 273 yards and three more touchdowns. That’s big-time production from Arkansas’ “Mr. Football” winner as a high school senior and a Freshman All-American after breaking Marshall Faulk’s NCAA freshman record of 27 rushing touchdowns. Not bad for a guy who put Strong, Ark. — population 600 — on the map. “I get emotional talking about it. These four years have been great,” he says. “I couldn’t ask for a better four. It’s remarkable, and I just really want to go out the right way.” He was driven by his parents and one of the Strong coaches, who told the kids there were no NFL players in the program. “I had a dream I wanted to be a firefighter. I surpassed that a little bit.”
Kenyan Drake, Alabama (6-1, 210): If nothing else, Drake will be fresh. With Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry leading the nation in touches, Drake received merely 77 carries as a senior. He turned those into 408 yards (5.3 average) and one touchdown. He added a career-high 29 receptions for 276 yards and another touchdown. He averaged 22.1 yards on 14 kickoff returns during the regular season but had a 95-yard touchdown in the playoff loss to Clemson. One of his biggest games came against Wisconsin in the opener, with 77 rushing yards and 48 receiving yards. He finished his career with 233 carries for 1,495 yards (6.4 average) and 18 touchdowns. In high school, he was Georgia’s Gatorade Player of the Year and a 100-meter sprint champion. The Alabama depth chart, suspensions and injuries — including a broken and dislocated ankle in the fifth game of the 2014 season — continually stood in his way. “I play to follow my dreams that I’ve had since I was a kid,” he said. “I grew up watching football, watching my favorite players play. It was devastating to see other players get injured too. But you see somebody like (Adrian Peterson) who tore his ACL and then comes back a year later and almost rushes for 2,000 yards. That gives you added motivation and understanding that you can do whatever you want to.”
Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State (6-0, 225): Underclassman. Elliott finished fifth in the nation with a Big Ten-high 1,821 rushing yards to win the conference’s Ameche-Dayne Running Back of the Year Award and the Chicago Tribune’s Big Ten MVP. He averaged 6.3 yards per carry and finished third in the nation with 23 rushing touchdowns. Plus, he added 27 receptions for 206 yards (7.6 average). As Ohio State blew through Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon to win the national championship in 2014, he rumbled for 696 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. Elliott owns two of the top three single-season rushing totals in Ohio State history — his 1,878 yards in 2014, when he won the Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete despite playing through a broken wrist, is No. 2 on the list. His career total of 3,961 rushing yards trails only Archie Griffin’s four-year total of 5,589 on the list. His talent is undeniable but he’ll have questions to answer from the scouts and general managers. After Elliott carried the ball only 12 times in a 17-14 loss at home to MIchigan State that doomed the Buckeyes’ chances of winning back-to-back national championships, he not only ripped coach Urban Meyer’s game plan but the “effort from the coaches” in putting it together. How good of an athlete is he? Notre Dame recruited him to play defensive back. In his final collegiate game, the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame, Elliott rushed for 149 yards and a career-high four touchdowns. Athletics runs in his DNA. His parents were athletes at Missouri, with his father playing on the football team. “Ezekiel grew up pretty sheltered,” his dad said. “He's not an inner-city youth. He was a true child … From 7 years old all the way through, he's always in the back of the car. He didn't experience a lot of things like friends dying.”
ALSO IN THIS SERIES
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.