Heading into the 2012 college football season, WalterFootball.com will debut our projections for the nation's leaders during the fall. The All-American teams always have some surprises, and the next fall's stars could be the headline players next April for the 2013 NFL Draft.
First-Team Running Backs:
Montee Ball, Wisconsin
Ball had one of the most prolific seasons in the history of college football last year. The junior was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy and a massive point producer for the Big Ten champs.
Ball ran for 1,923 yards with an average of 6.3 yards per carry and 33 touchdowns in 2011. He also caught 24 passes for 306 yards and six scores. Ball's 39 total touchdowns was one of the largest totals ever, putting the Badgers running back next to Barry Sanders in the record books.
It wouldn't be surprising if Ball's production declines in 2012 with teams selling out to stop him. His supporting cast is greatly reduced as well. Wisconsin lost center Peter Konz, guard Kevin Zeitler, its offensive line coach, its offensive coordinator, quarterback Russell Wilson and wide receiver Nick Toon. That is a lot for the Badgers to replace.
However, Wisconsin is generally a factory for road-grading offensive linemen. Left tackle Ricky Wagner and guard Travis Frederick are excellent blockers coming back, so Ball should still produce, although it could easily be less than last year. Plus, he has good name recognition.
Even if Ball stays healthy, he will enter the NFL with a good amount of wear-and-tear. The senior runs with excellent vision, balance and pad level. He is not a burner, but he hits the hole quickly before it closes. Ball doesn't look like a first-rounder, but he should be a second-day pick.
Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State
With Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon in the NFL, the Cowboys are going to lean heavily on Randle in 2012. He has the size and talent to be a bell-cow back who carries an offense. Depending on how effective the replacements are for Weeden and Blackmon, Randle may be forced to take on the responsibility of being the featured player of the Oklahoma State offense.
Randle had big shoes to fill last year with Kendall Hunter in the NFL. Randle didn't disappoint as he was massively productive in his first season as a starter. The sophomore averaged 5.9 yards per carry with 1,216 yards rushing and 24 touchdowns. He chipped in with 43 receptions for 266 yards and two scores. The versatile back was a First-Team All-Big XII selection for his performance in 2011.
Randle has a serious skill set. The 6-foot-1, 194-pounder has the size to be a bigger power back. However, he runs smaller with some slashing quickness and elusiveness. Randle has the capacity to explode this season and be one of the country's most productive backs.
Second-Team Running Backs:
Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina
Lattimore will be coming back from torn ligaments suffered last October. That could slow him down in the early going of his junior year, but he is expected to be ready for the start of the season. With the talent that Lattimore possesses, there is no reason to think that he won't be extremely productive if he stays healthy.
Lattimore ran for 1,197 yards as a freshman, averaging 4.8 yards per carry with 17 touchdowns in 2010. He also hauled in 29 receptions for 412 yards and one touchdown. For that effort, Lattimore was named the SEC Freshman of the Year. Through seven games in 2011, he was one of the nation?s best backs. Lattimore ran for 818 yards on 163 carries (5.02 average) with 10 touchdowns in his shortened season. He also caught 19 passes for 182 yards and one touchdown.
There is no doubt that Lattimore is a power back. He hits the hole quickly and trucks into the second level of the defense. Lattimore is very strong and is tough to bring down. He breaks arm tackles with ease. Lattimore has more agility than one might think with good pad level, vision and cutting ability. The only thing missing from Lattimore's game is that he does not have a second gear to break off long touchdown runs after hitting the open field.
The SEC features some tough defenses and they will be selling out to stop Lattimore. Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier likes to throw the ball, so between those two factors, Lattimore may not have totals that approach the kind of production that typically leads the nation.
Rex Burkhead, Nebraska
The Cornhuskers' lead back has been building and improving over the past few seasons. He had a quality sophomore season in 2010 with 951 yards rushing (5.5 average) and seven touchdowns. Burkhead raised his level of play last year and was an All-Big Ten selection. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry with 1,357 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns.
The senior should be even better this year. He is the lead weapon in Nebraska's rushing offense and is a quality receiver. The Cornhuskers bring a lot back from their 2011 team, so Burkhead should produce well as a senior.
In my opinion, Burkhead is a sleeper candidate for the Heisman. The way he is improving on a yearly basis could push him towards to a banner senior season. He is a charitable guy who has character going for him.
Third-Team Running Backs:
Giovanni Bernard, North Carolina
Not a lot of people are talking about the redshirt sophomore, but Bernard has a lot of talent and could be ready for a massive season in 2012. He was excellent for the Tar Heels last year and carried their offense. Bernard could replace David Wilson as the top back in the ACC. Bernard figures to be the headliner for North Carolina in 2012.
Bernard burst onto the scene with 1,324 yards and 13 touchdowns (5.24 average) in 2011. He also showed fantastic receiving ability with 45 receptions for 362 yards and one touchdown. Bernard topped 100 yards seven times and had a number of games where he approached or surpassed 200 combined yards. Bernard had massive games against Georgia Tech, Miami, Duke and Wake Forest.
The dynamic back carried the Tar Heels' offense last season and was consistently good. He is extremely quick to break runs for big gains. Bernard is hard to tackle in the open field as he has the shiftiness to dodge tacklers. The ACC will be selling out to stop him, but the 5-foot-10, 205-pounder is only getting better. He looks like a three-down starting back in the NFL.
Stephen Taylor, Stanford
With Andrew Luck in the NFL, the Cardinal will be leaning heavily on Taylor. While Stanford had more attention grabbing players last year, Taylor did a lot of the leg work. He churned out a lot of yards behind a fabulous offensive line. Taylor lost two outstanding blockers in guard David DeCastro and tackle Jonathan Martin. While Taylor will miss them, he will at least benefit from more carries.
Taylor averaged 5.5 yards per carry and ran for 1,330 yards with 10 touchdowns in 2011. He also caught 25 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns. Taylor had his first 1,000-yard season in 2010 with 1,137 yards rushing (5.1 average) and 15 touchdowns. He caught 28 passes for 266 yards and a score, too.
The 5-foot-11, 208-pounder has a nice mix of quickness and strength. He has three-down back ability for the NFL. Don't be surprised if Taylor produces an impressive senior season.
Honorable Mentions: Arizona State running back Cameron Marshall, Arkansas running back Knile Davis, Iowa running back Marcus Coker, Clemson running back Andre Ellington, Texas A&M running back Christian Michael, Vanderbilt running back Zac Stacy, Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell, Notre Dame running back Cierre Wood, Pittsburgh running back Ray Graham and SMU running back/fullback Zach Line.