Scouting Combine Research Series: Running Backs (Part 1)

Who was too focused on the 2016 draft? Who was such an inspiration while beating cancer? Who came out of nowhere to rush for 2,000 yards? Those answers and much more as we get to know the top running backs.

Here are the 30 running backs (and two fullbacks) who have been invited to the Scouting Combine. Players are listed in alphabetical order. Heights and weights come from CBSSports.com/NFLDraftScout.com. All players are seniors unless noted. This is Part 1. Here is Part 2. And Part 3.

Christopher Carson, Oklahoma State: Carson spent two years at a junior college before arriving at Oklahoma State. As a junior, he led the Cowboys with 517 rushing yards (3.9 average) and four touchdowns and added 17 receptions for 170 yards. He was more productive as a senior. Carson rushed for 559 yards but averaged an explosive 6.8 per carry and scored nine touchdowns. He chipped in 13 receptions for 128 yards.

Carson makes quite a first impression with his chiseled physique. “I want to look like him, don't you?” coach Mike Gundy said in August 2015. He didn’t use that strength to his advantage, though, until midway through the 2016 season. “Some of the other running backs started saying, ‘I've never seen you run over somebody. And you're squatting and lifting all this weight,'” Carson said. “So that's something I've been trying to prove. And it's working out.”

Carson ended up going the juco route because of a torn ACL sustained as a high school senior. Everything went downhill. Schools backed off. His girlfriend broke up with him. “Why doesn’t anybody want me?” he asked. That rejection fueled his fire.

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Corey Clement, Wisconsin (5-10, 221): Clement tallied career highs with 1,375 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior. He had eight 100-yard rushing games, including career-high games of 164 yards against powerhouses Ohio State and Penn State. With 547 yards as a freshman, 949 yards as a sophomore and 221 in four games in 2015 (sports hernia), Clement finished his career with 3,092 rushing yards (5.4 average) and 36 touchdowns.

“That’s one of the most annoying things I faced,” Clement said of the injury. “It started from friends, fans, family. ‘You should do this. You shouldn’t do that. Why would you go out there? I think you should go out there.'” Clement was better mentally and physically in 2016. Clement’s focus in 2015 was on being a top pick in the 2016 draft. Then he got hurt. Then he was arrested for throwing a punch during a dispute at his off-campus apartment. “I thought I was going to sail right through the season, with flying colors. I thought I was going to ease my way into the league, be a potential first-round pick based on the type of potential I had. ... I wanted to get back and be a different person, not who I was last fall. I really hated it. I was disgusted with it. It really wasn't me and who I was. I was on the high horse a little bit. I needed to get off. That's when karma comes around and smacked me right back down and said, you're still here at this university and you need to pay attention to it.”

Clement added 29 career receptions, including 12 as a senior. Going under the radar is nothing new. As a high school senior, he set a New Jersey single-game record with 478 yards. The TV reporter botched his name. “The name they called him wasn’t even anyone on the team,” said Latanya Clement, Corey’s mother. “I think they called him Chris something. I had to call the news person and let him know that it was Corey.”

Tarik Cohen, North Carolina A&T (5-6, 178): Cohen put up prodigious numbers throughout his career. He rushed for 1,148 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman — and that was his worst season. Cohen rushed for 1,340 yards and 15 touchdowns as a sophomore, 1,543 yards and 15 touchdowns as a junior and 1,588 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior. That gave the three-time FCS All-American a four-year total of 5,619 rushing yards (6.5 average) and 56 touchdowns. He celebrated one of those touchdowns with a backflip that got him on “SportsCenter” in 2015. “I know I’m the best running back in the country. That’s no knock on anybody else. I know what I can do.”

But what a workload — 868 carries and another 98 receptions. “I’m feeling old, that’s how I’m feeling,” he said late in the season.

Cohen grew up in Bunn, N.C. — population 354. A&T was the only school to offer him a scholarship. “I watched him in high school, and he was just too small,” A&T head coach Rod Broadway said. “And Coach [Trei] Oliver wouldn’t let it die and would say take a look at this guy again. I read this quote Bill Parcells said one time which said, ‘Err on the side of production, not size.’ So I went and met with him, and he was bigger than what I thought on tape. And we ended up offering him a scholarship and he signed and the rest is history.”

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James Conner, Pittsburgh (6-2, 240): Junior. Conner is one of the great stories in the draft. In 2014, he was a first-team All-American with 1,765 rushing yards and a school-record 26 rushing touchdowns. Conner, however, tore his MCL in the 2015 opener and sat out the rest of the season. The knee injury, however, was nothing compared to what was ahead. Conner was winded during his rehab. His face was puffy. On Thanksgiving 2015, he was diagnosed with cancer. Among the many well-wishes was a plaque from a team of Navy SEALs. An inscription opens by imploring Conner to never quit. He has a portion of it tattooed on his left arm. “Persevere and thrive on adversity," was Conner’s message. "Strive to always be physically harder and mentally stronger than your opposition. If knocked down, get back up. Every time. Draw on every remaining ounce of strength to accomplish your life's mission. You are never out of the fight." That was his message to many of the cancer patients at Pittsburgh’s Hillman Cancer Center, where he became an inspiration during his own battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Conner detailed his comeback in a first-person account at The Players’ Journal. “I was tired and … weak. My body was resting in that chair, sure. But I couldn’t believe that the person sitting there was really me. It couldn’t be. I was ... known for running people over — either that or for stiff-arming would-be tacklers to the ground. Trying to bring me down was like trying to tackle a linebacker, and when I was locked in, no one was going to tackle me. No one. If I saw a defender in my way, I was lowering my shoulder, and it was not gonna be fun for the other guy. Sometimes I would just look at defenders like, Come on … you literally have no chance of tackling me. I felt like nothing or no one could stop me at that point. On the field. In my element. But that was before treatment six. Treatment six was no joke. Treatment six didn’t just stop me in my tracks, it took me down for a loss.”

After 12 rounds of chemotherapy, Conner was declared cancer-free on May 23. He was back on the field for the opener against Villanova. "I know it was a 'comeback' game, but it's felt like regular football since (fall) camp," Conner said after that game. "My battle was already won, beating cancer. Everything else is just a bonus and a reward."

By season’s end, Conner was back to his dominant self. He was named first-team all-ACC with 1,092 rushing yards (5.1 average) and 16 touchdowns. Conner won the Disney Sports Spirit Award, presented annually to college football's most inspirational figure.

Dalvin Cook, Florida State (5-11, 206): Junior. In just three seasons, Cook broke Warrick Dunn’s 20-year-old school career rushing record. His 4,464 career rushing yards rank second in ACC history, though Cook is the only player with more than 4,000 rushing yards in three seasons. Cook rushed for 1,765 yards (6.1 average) as a junior, 1,691 yards (7.4) as a sophomore and 1,008 (5.9) as a freshman. Cook showed his all-around game with 33 receptions for 488 yards this past season. It didn’t matter who he played. Cook averaged 5.8 yards per carry against Top 25 teams and 5.7 yards against unranked teams. That includes a 169-yard, four-touchdown day against eventual national champion Clemson. and 145 yards against Michigan in his final collegiate game.

He was first-team all-ACC in 2015 and 2016 and a unanimous All-American in 2016. Cook is fast. “It’s the best feeling in the world,” lineman Kareem Are said of blocking for Cook. “It’s the best feeling because you know nobody is about to catch him.”

He went to the same high school, Miami Central, as former Florida State and current Atlanta Falcons star Devonta Freeman. His brother, James, is a running back who might be headed to FSU. They were raised — as was FSU receiver Da’Vante Phillips, whose mother was shot and killed — by Cook’s grandmother, Betty Cook. "Sometimes, all kids need to know is somebody loves them," she says. "Somebody is there for them. Sometimes, that's all they need to know."

Justin Davis, USC (6-1, 200): Davis rushed for 607 yards (5.5 average) and two touchdowns while catching 14 passes for 112 yards as a senior. He missed three games due to injury — right when he was hitting his stride with 126 yards vs. Utah, 123 vs. Arizona State and 92 vs. Colorado, the game in which he suffered a high-ankle sprain. Davis’ best season came as a junior, when he had career-high totals of 902 rushing yards, seven rushing touchdowns and 18 receptions. “The ball would bounce off his facemask when he first got here,” coach Clay Helton said. “Had never pass protected, never really had natural ball skills. He's worked at that and really has become a complete back.”

His four-year total added up to 2,465 rushing yards and 19 scores. It was a crazy career. Lane Kiffin was fired on an airport tarmac. Interim replacement Ed Orgeron quit before the Trojans were set to play in a bowl game. Steve Sarkisian was fired during the middle of the 2015 season due to his battle against alcohol. “I guess I’m used to the craziness.”

Matthew Dayes, N.C. State (5-9, 207): Dayes rushed for 865 yards as a junior before sustaining a season-ending foot injury in the eighth game of the season. At the time of the injury, he led the nation with 12 rushing touchdowns. He returned as a senior and rushed for 1,166 yards (4.7 average) and 10 touchdowns while adding 32 receptions. He finished his career with 2,856 rushing yards (5.2 average) and 34 touchdowns and 98 receptions for 933 yards (9.5) and six scores. Dayes’ big career should have come with Vanderbilt. Dayes had narrowed his choices to N.C. State and Vanderbilt. Those schools were squaring off in the 2012 Music City Bowl. Dayes said he’s play for the winner. Vandy won — but none of the coaches answered Dayes’ phone calls. So, Dayes went to N.C. State, instead.

D’Onta Foreman, Texas (6-1, 249): Junior. In a star-studded running back class, Foreman somehow has flown under the radar. In 2016, he was a first-team All-American and the winner of the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the nation’s top running back. He rushed for 2,028 yards and 15 touchdowns and led the FBS ranks with 184.4 rushing yards per game — the 10th-highest figure in NCAA history. Foreman played in 11 games. He topped 100 rushing yards in each of them, tying Hall of Famer Earl Campbell for most 100-yard games in a season. In his first career start, he rushed for or 131 yards against Notre Dame. In nine Big 12 games, Foreman rushed for 1,740 yards. He ran for 341 yards against Texas Tech, with 200 coming after contact. "He's faster than you think. The first guy doesn't get him down," Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said. "His sheer size and the ability to move that well at that size — once he gets going, you better bring your hat to try and stop him and you better bring a buddy because he is a load and once he gets rumbling, he's not slowing down."

In three seasons, he rushed for 2,782 yards but caught just 13 passes. Twin brother Armanti plays wide receiver for Texas. D’Onta came into the world 12 minutes after his brother. Armanti also got offered by Texas, first. "I feel like I was overlooked, and I wanted to be right there next to him. Unfortunately, I wasn't. But that gave me a different approach for the game, and I want to prove a lot of people wrong. That provided fuel for the game." A great family moment is tattooed on their backs.


Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.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.


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