2015 Draft: RB, FB injury concerns

While several other positions have early- and mid-round selections that could be injury concerns heading into the draft, the tailbacks and fullbacks that will need further medical testing are mostly late-rounders.

#%Drake, Kenyan AlabamaJr 06:00.2202 4.524.7 FA
#EDMUNDS, Trey Virginia Tech rSo06:00.5 2164.42 5.06-7
#FARMER, George, Jr.(WR) Southern California Sr06:01.1 2054.48 4.7PFA
Most of the draft-eligible tailbacks remain on the field in some sort of shape, but several underclassmen that scouts were hoping to see in the draft class are probably going to return to school next season to make up for lost playing time. Others, like Florida’s Matthew Jones, Tra Carson of Texas A&M and Michael Dyer, were all looking to bolt college after the 2013 campaign before injuries derailed those thoughts. With very successful 2014 seasons behind them, all three reclaimed their previous draft status.

That could be the formula that this year’s crop of injured underclass ball carriers follow, headed by Alabama’s Kenyan Drake, Virginia Tech’s Trey Edmunds and Paul James from Rutgers. Drake has been a regular “resident” in head coach Nick Saban’s doghouse. He had been disciplined a handful of times throughout his first two seasons with the Crimson Tide, but his latest infraction led to a suspension after he was arrested early July 5 for obstructing governmental operations.

Saban said Drake, who was suspended for last year’s season opener and suspended from Alabama’s penultimate spring practice, was doing “really well” and had a good offseason up until his arrest. He was arrested for trying to cross a police barricade to retrieve his car, which was parked near the scene of a shooting in Tuscaloosa.

About two months after suffering a gruesome leg fracture vs. Ole Miss, Alabama’s only loss of the season, Drake was donning his No. 17 jersey and was as active as he could be on the sideline - needing no crutches or a knee walker - during Alabama’s 42-13 win over Missouri in the SEC Championship Game. His recovery is well underway and it showed.

Drake recently marked nine full weeks of rehabilitation, as his foot also came out of a protective boot recently. While he will not be available for action during the national championship series this season, he expects to be healthy for the start of 2015 spring practice. In the meantime, Drake has made the temporary adjustment to life without football.

Through four-plus games with new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, Drake was proving to be an integral part of Alabama’s offensive scheme. In the 51 offensive snaps Drake played this season - about 13 percent of Alabama’s overall snaps before the injury - Alabama accrued 481 yards of offense, an average of 9.4 yards per play, a significant boost to the 6.8 yards per play the offense averaged without Drake in the game.

Virginia Tech’s leading rusher a year ago, Trey Edmunds was hoping to return to a prominent role alongside freshman Marshawn Williams in the backfield for the Hokies in 2014, but his incredible string of bad luck has continued. His latest setback, a broken clavicle suffered in the Oct. 4 clash vs. North Carolina, was expected to be healed enough for him to get back on the field before the end of the season. During practices leading up to the Wake Forest game on Nov. 22, he again appeared on the injury report as “out” for the game with a reoccurrence of the injury.

For Edmunds, the turn of events was just another reminder of how difficult the past 11 months have been. Looking back on the first play of the fourth quarter in Virginia Tech’s 2013 regular season finale at Virginia, when the tailback crumpled to the turf after a 9-yard run negated by a holding penalty, head athletic trainer Mike Goforth still can’t believe Edmunds didn’t need a cart to get off the field.

The Danville, Virginia native gained more than 4,000 rushing yards during a prolific high school career playing for his father, former Pro Bowl tight end Ferrell Edmunds, at Dan River High. As an 18-year-old redshirt freshman, Trey Edmunds won the starting tailback job at Virginia Tech. He had a 77-yard touchdown run vs. Alabama in his first game. He finished with 675 yards and ten touchdowns.

Coaches and teammates thought Edmunds turned a corner when he rushed for four touchdowns in a win at Miami late in the 2013 schedule. He had 93 rushing yards on 11 carries and a 26-yard touchdown catch when he went down vs. Virginia.

Since August, when Edmunds returned to practice wearing a light brace over his left shin, Coach Frank Beamer kept waiting for that familiar burst. But with Williams emerging and Edmunds still laboring, Edmunds only got in games via special teams. He has never complained, and a relentlessly positive attitude began to show up on film. Beneath the surface, though, Edmunds wanted to run the ball again.

With the tailback expected to miss the post-season, Tech will be down to their fifth-string tailback starting for the Hokies, thanks to the rash of injuries the running backs corps has experienced this year.

Built like a tailback and recruited to play that position, USC’s George Farmer is just happy to step on the football field again no matter what position the coaches feel he should play. In football time, he waited three seasons, 50 games, a pair of coaching changes, a position switch and one season-ending injury to put on the kind of show he did in the 2014 season finale vs. Notre Dame at the Coliseum.

In real time, it might as well have been a lifetime, but it was merely six minutes of the first quarter that Farmer needed to finally show everyone why he was considered one of the most dynamic prospects in the country four years ago, and why so many predicted he’d emerge as the premier playmaker among fellow Serra High standouts Marqise Lee and Robert Woods.

And why you could almost hear fans saying “so that’s what all the hype was about” when Farmer cracked the game open with touchdown receptions for 31 and 48 yards to lead the Trojans to a 49-14 whipping of the “less than” Fighting Irish.

Considering the stage, the opponent and the historical backdrop from which Framer crafted his breakout performance, he wasn’t complaining one bit. He never once complained throughout a college career that was greatly affected by injuries, position changes, depth chart issues and the constant game plans structured around Woods or Lee or even this year, with Nelson Agholor.

Farmer is blessed with the element of sheer speed and power, and combined with his sure hands, he’s the kind of weapon opposing coaches stay awake at night worrying about. Many analysts felt he was the best prospect among the Trojans recruits when he joined the program. Only things didn’t quite work out that way. Woods and Lee both enjoyed spectacular careers at USC and are now in the NFL.

Farmer, meanwhile, moved to running back midway through his freshman year in 2011 and appeared in just four games, then shifted back to wide receiver as a sophomore while catching just one pass in nine games. He was in line for a bigger role heading into 2013, but blew his knee out in practice and missed the entire season.

By the beginning of this year, Farmer was slotted behind Nelson Agholor and Darreus Rodgers and alongside flashy recruits Juju Smith and Adoree Jackson in the receiver mix. While Agholor has staked a claim for being one of the best wide receivers eligible for the draft, Farmer just kept biding his time. A nagging hamstring injury slowed him down to start the season, but his health and comfort level have improved over the last month and he’s finally beginning to flash as a deep threat.

Farmer enters the postseason with 20 catches for 225 yards and a pair of scores. Will he ever return to tailback? Unlikely, especially based on his 2014 figures there (one run for minus two yards), but he’s looking like a player worth a late round draft pick as a flanker, instead.

#DURHAM, Trayion (TB) Kent State Sr05:11.4 2504.75 5.55
#HILLIARD, Kenny (FB) Louisiana State Sr05:11.4 2304.60 5.55
#ZWINAK, Zachary (TB) Penn State Sr06:00.4 2314.64 4.97
A Brandon Jacobs clone, Trayion Durham was hoping the 2014 season would convince pro scouts to regard him strictly as a ball carrier and not to try and convert him into a big, bruising short yardage runner or a fullback at the next level. In three seasons, he had amassed 2,712 yards with 24 touchdowns on 644 carries (4.2 ypc) and caught 37 balls while splitting backfield duties with speedy Dri Archer.

With Archer now a return specialist for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Durham entered the 2014 campaign expected to be the featured back. However, he underwent unsuccessful foot surgery during the spring and never suited up for the Golden Flashes this season.

Durham could apply for a medical hardship, as he never used a red-shirt season. He’s currently ranked fifth in school history for rushing yardage and is ninth for rushing touchdowns.

Louisiana State’s Kenny Hilliard is a lot like Hertz – when you’re No. 2, you try harder. Even being a legacy does not earn you “extra” carries in the Tigers’ crowded backfield, but the 2014 season was turning into the senior’s best college campaign. The nephew of former LSU star halfback, Dalton Hilliard, Kenny had started six of the team’s first 10 games, totaling 431 yards and a 5.0-yard rushing average while scoring six times on the ground through ten games.

Before this season, Hilliard was routinely used on short-yardage plays near the goal line. He wound up scoring eight touchdowns rushing and one receiving score as a freshman, helping the Tigers win their first 13 games, including a Southeastern Conference title.
In the Nov. 8 game this year vs. Alabama, Hilliard suffered what was first described as a “shoulder stinger” from sideline reports. It happened on the third play of the game, when he collided with Tide safety Landon Collins after converting a first down via an option pitch. He did not return to the game after that play.

Tigers head coach Les Miles called Hilliard “day-to-day” during his post-practice press conference later that week, describing the injury as a “pretty good size bruise,” but was hopeful that he would return to the field. Then, four days later, the school announced that Hilliard’s college career may have come to an end. He missed the final two games on the 2014 schedule and is not expected to suit up for the bowl season.

The 232-pound senior had been a very important part of a four-back rotation with Leonard Fournette, Terrence Magee and Darrell Williams. Hilliard was one of the featured runners during LSU’s winning touchdown drive vs. then third-ranked Mississippi on Oct. 25. The drive was highlighted by his 16-yard gain in which he used his free hand to throw down 6:05, 243-pound defensive end Carlos Thompson along the LSU sideline.

Penn State’s Zachary Zwinak could not catch a break from the injury bug this season. Playing for one of the few college teams that emphasize a ground-and-pound approach, the fullback has excelled whether serving as the lead blocker, staying in the backfield in pass protection or generating the tough yardage running inside tackles for the Nittany Lions.

As a sophomore, Zwinak exploded on the season, rushing for 1,000 yards on 203 tries (4.9 ypc) with six touchdowns while also catching 20 passes for head coach Bill O’Brien. The player and coach continued to build confidence in each other, with Zwinak producing 12 touchdowns on 210 attempts (4.7 ypc) for 989 yards last season. Zwinak’s PSU “honeymoon” would then come to an end.

O’Brien left the university to accept the Houston Texans’ head coaching job. Enter James Franklin, former Vanderbilt mentor, as the new Lions head coach. When Zwinak suffered a hand injury that wiped out 2014 spring drills, he expected to remain with the first unit when August camp opened. He would soon find himself blocking for Akeel Lynch and Bill Belton through the first eight games on the schedule.

Zwinak entered the Ohio State game on Oct. 25 with just 40 carries for 112 yards and three touchdowns, as Belton and Lynch had combined for 440 rushing attempts. During the opening kickoff vs. the Buckeyes, before Penn State’s offense even ran its first play Saturday, it was already without its senior backfield contributor.

With Penn State returning the opening kickoff, Zwinak went down with an injury to his lower left leg while making a block and had to be carted off the field. Teammates said it was difficult to see the fifth-year player be taken off the field. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg said Zwinak was a player who took him under his wing at Penn State, and the sophomore spoke of the respect he has for his backfield mate.

The last vision of the senior on the football field was Zwinak having his left shoe removed as he was driven off the Beaver Stadium field. It was one of a trio of injuries to Penn State starters, as starting safety Ryan Keiser didn’t play and left tackle Donovan Smith left the game in the fourth quarter. Two days after he was injured, Penn State announced that Zwinak would miss the rest of the season

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