Paul Perkins, UCLA (5-10, 210): Underclassman. In 2014, Perkins became the first UCLA runner since DeShaun Foster in 2001 to lead the Pac-12 in rushing, with his 1,575 yards ranking second in school history. In 2015, he finished fourth in the conference with 1,343 rushing yards and tied for second with 15 total touchdowns to earn second-team all-conference honors. Perkins finished his career ranked third all-time at UCLA with 3,491 rushing yards and fifth with 4,236 all-purpose yards. No running back in school history has caught more passes than Perkins’ 80. Perkins’ father, Bruce Perkins, played football at Arizona State and spent two seasons in the NFL as a fullback for the Buccaneers and Colts. An uncle, Don Perkins, was a running back for the Cowboys for eight seasons. In a game in October, Paul lined up at running back for the Bruins while his brother, Bryce, was a redshirt freshman quarterback for Arizona State. At Chandler (Ariz.) High School, he was teammates with former UCLA quarterback and current Packers signal-caller Brett Hundley. Perkins went from a two-star recruit to an NFL-bound runner. “I'm unseen and unheard. There are no stories about me, unless I make the stories.”
C.J. Prosise, Notre Dame (6-1, 220): Underclassman. Prosise went from Notre Dame’s special teams player of the year and a slot receiver in 2014 to its marquee running back in 2015 to, presumably, the NFL in 2016. In his lone season in the backfield, Prosise rushed for 1,032 yards (6.6 average) and 11 touchdowns. He added an impressive 26 receptions for 308 yards and another touchdown. In 2014, he played receiver and caught 29 passes for 516 yards and two touchdowns. His 17.8-yard average was lifted by three receptions of 50-plus yards. The change in roles was nothing new for Prosise, who was an all-state defensive back in Virginia and spent his redshirt season at safety. An excellent athlete, he was a state champion in the 55-meter dash and long jump at the state indoor track meet. An Air Jordan-esque dunk opened eyes, too.
Wendell Smallwood, West Virginia (5-11, 202): Underclassman. After rushing for 734 yards in 2014, Smallwood had a huge 2015 campaign with 1,519 yards (6.4 average) and nine touchdowns to earn first-team all-Big 12. His rushing total ranked 13th in the nation. He’s also an adept receiver, with 57 receptions during his final two seasons. Chargers were dropped but he’ll have some explaining to do to teams. Smallwood played at an unusual high school — an online curiculum and about 50 students, most of whom play football in what has been termed a “football factory.”
Kelvin Taylor, Florida (5-10, 205): Underclassman. In his first season in full-time duty, Taylor rushed for 1,035 yards (4.0 average) and 13 touchdowns, running his three-year total to 2,108 yards (4.3 average) and 23 touchdowns. He added 24 career receptions. That’s good production but nothing compared to what he did in high school: 12,121 yards, 191 touchdowns and two state titles during an incredible high school career at Glades Day School in Belle Glade, Fla. He was so good that he played on the varsity when in eighth grade. Not only did he play, he was an all-state selection. Of course, the DNA isn’t bad. His father is Fred Taylor, who rushed for 11,695 yards and 66 touchdowns during a superb NFL career. “He wants to be better than me,’’ Fred said when his son was still in high school. “He tells me, ‘I’m going to be better than you — I’m better than you now.’” Even with a famous dad, life wasn’t easy for Kelvin Taylor. His mom and dad never married; the man his mom did marry and got Kelvin involved in football is serving a 20-year prison term for armed robbery.
Shad Thornton, N.C. State (6-0, 218): Thornton was kicked off the team in September following a moped accident in which he was charged with failure to stop and render aid and failure to provide information. Before that incident, he had been arrested twice and suspended on three other occasions. As a junior, he had a team-high 907 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. In fact, he led the team in rushing as a freshman, sophomore and junior, and entered his final season ranked 10th in school history with 2,369 rushing yards. After serving a two-game suspension to open the 2015 season, he rushed for 203 yards in two games. “It just made me respect the game more,” Thornton said before his final incident. “It definitely gave me a different perspective about the game.”
DeAndre Washington, Texas Tech (5-8, 199): Washington ranked 15th in the nation with 1,492 rushing yards (6.4 average) while adding 14 touchdowns as a senior to earn first-team all-Big 12 honors. He added 41 receptions for 385 yards (9.4 average) to cap an outstanding career. Washington topped 1,000 yards as a junior and senior — the first Red Raiders running back to do that in nearly 20 years — and had at least 30 receptions in each of his final three years. Williams, who missed the 2012 season with a torn ACL, finished his career with 3,411 rushing yards (5.6 average) and 23 touchdowns and 124 receptions for 1,091 yards (8.8 average) and four scores. As a kid, he worked at NRG Stadium, home of the Houston Texans, selling popcorn, candy and the like at football games, rodeos and other events. And that’s where he played his final collegiate game.
Brandon Wilds, South Carolina (6-1, 220): While he might not have huge stats, Wilds was a contributor throughout an injury-plagued career. As a true freshman in 2011, he rose from fifth on the depth chart to featured running back after Marcus Lattimore sustained a season-ending injury. After missing the 2012 season due to a high-ankle sprain, Wilds rushed for 221 yards in 2013 as he was limited by a dislocated elbow and hamstring injury, and 570 yards in 2014 despite shoulder and knee issues. He had high hopes for this season. “Playing here for a while, I’m ready to be that guy. I’m ready to show everybody what I have to bring to the table. Since my freshman year, I always knew what I had to do. This year, you’ll see it.” Injuries, however, got in the way again. He rushed for a team-high 567 yards but missed three games with an injured rib. He finished his career with 1,844 rushing yards (4.9 average) and 13 touchdowns, and added 59 receptions for another 540 yards.
Jonathan Williams, Arkansas (5-11, 219): Williams was supposed to be in a time-share with touted underclassman Alex Collins. However, he sustained a foot injury during fall camp and missed the entire season. Well, not the end of the season. He played as the “safety” in the victory formation in Arkansas’ bowl win over Kansas State. As a junior, he rushed for 1,190 yards (5.6 average) and 12 touchdowns — earning second-team all-SEC in the process — as he and Collins became the only tandem in the nation to each top 1,000 rushing yards. What happened to Williams as a senior was difficult, no doubt, but hardship was hardly a foreign concept. As he arrived for his first fall camp with Arkansas, his family had been evicted from their home in Allen, Texas. "That was the happiest I had seen her. She was happy she was taking her son to the University of Arkansas, where I'd be taken care of. I remember telling her, 'No matter what, I'm going to make it to the NFL to be able to help us out through all these financial problems.'"
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.