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. We also will project the winners of the postseason awards that are given out to the best of college football.
The Doak Walker Award is given to the best running back in college football. Last year's winner was Alabama's Trent Richardson.
Doak Walker Award Winner:
Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State
This was one of the hardest awards to predict, but I went with Randle for a variety of reasons over Wisconsin's Montee Ball and South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore. Ball has lost a ton of his supporting cast, and the Big Ten will be selling out to stop him. Lattimore is coming off an injury and has other contributing factors that will potentially decrease his production. Randle, on the other hand, has everything pointing toward a massive 2012 season.
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.
Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy said Randle will take on a much bigger load this season. The back only averaged 16 carries per game last season. Word out of Stillwater is that Randle has been working relentlessly this offseason and that he is preparing for a bigger work load per direction of the coaching staff.
Randle had big shoes to fill in his first year as a starter since Kendall Hunter was in the NFL. Randle didn't disappoint as he was massively productive. The sophomore averaged 5.9 yards per carry with 1,216 yards rushing and 24 touchdowns. He also chipped in 43 receptions for 266 yards and two scores. Randle was a First-Team All-Big XII selection for his breakout 2010 campaign.
Randle was listed at 6-foot-1, 194-pounds last year, but reports are that he has added muscle mass this offseason. Randle has the size to be a bigger power back, but he runs smaller with some slashing quickness and elusiveness. The ball carrier has a serious skill set and is capable of beating collegiate defenses on sheer talent.
Randle has a number of offensive linemen returning this year. He also plays in the Big XII, a conference in which there are few quality defenses, so he should see have plenty of big games in 2012. Don't be surprised if Randle's name is on the short list for Heisman consideration.
Doak Walker Award Runner-Up:
Montee Ball, Wisconsin
After being denied the Doak Walker Award last year, Ball stands a serious shot bringing home the honor this time. He has big reputation and college football tends to award productive seniors who have star power with their names.
That being said, there are many reasons why Ball will struggle to come close to his massive season from 2011. Wisconsin lost center Peter Konz, guard Kevin Zeitler, right tackle Josh Oglesby, fullback Bradie Ewing, its offensive line coach, its offensive coordinator, quarterback Russell Wilson and wide receiver Nick Toon. Fortunately Ball has two fantastic run blockers coming back in tackle Ricky Wagner and guard Travis Frederick, so the Ball should still produce, but it will be extremely difficult for him to approach last season's numbers.
Ball ran for 1,923 yards in 2011, averaging 6.3 yards per carry and scoring 33 rushing touchdowns. He also caught 24 passes for 306 yards and six scores. Ball's 39 total touchdowns made for one of the most prolific seasons in college football history, putting him next to Barry Sanders in the record books. Ball runs with excellent vision, balance and pad level. He is not a burner, but he hits the hole quickly before it closes.
The Badgers also have another good back, James White, who will take some carries away from Ball. The Big Ten will be selling out to stop Ball, and without as much talent around him, it will be easier for defenses to focus on him. My prediction is that Randle will dominate so much, that he take the award over Ball the way Richardson did last year.
Doak Walker Award Dark Horse:
Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina
The 6-foot-1, 232-pound Lattimore will be coming back off of 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 productive if he stays healthy.
Lattimore ran for 1,197 yards and averaged 4.8 yards per carry with 17 touchdowns as a freshman 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.
Lattimore was one of the nation�s best backs through seven games in 2011. The sophomore 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 also has more agility than one might think and runs with good pad level, vision and cutting ability. The only thing missing from his 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, and quarterback Connor Shaw is improving. Thus, South Carolina may feature a more pass-heavy offense in 2012.
If Lattimore is slow to return to form early in the season, it could prompt Spurrier to ride the passing offense even heavier throughout the year. Between those factors, Lattimore may not have totals that approach the kind of production that typically leads the nation.
Honorable Mentions: North Carolina running back Giovanni Bernard, Arkansas running back Knile Davis, Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead, Pittsburgh running back Ray Graham, Arizona State running back Cameron Marshall, Stanford running back Stephan Taylor, Vanderbilt running back Zac Stacy, USC running back Curtis McNeal, Alabama running back Eddie Lacy, SMU running back Zach Line, Notre Dame running back Cierre Wood, Clemson running back Andre Ellington and Texas A&M running back Christine Michael.