Johnathan Williams – Arkansas/ Senior: With very little to be worried about concerning the Arkansas Razorback’s current back field situation, the only question left to be asked on this topic in and around Fayetteville is who do you prefer more, Alex Collins (Jr.) or Johnathan Williams (Sr.)? I must admit that I was originally partial to Collins due to his ability to step in immediately, and contribute significantly as a true freshman, and also because quite frankly he’s a native of Broward county, Florida (Plantation), which is also where I reside. I know that might seem very biased on my part, however despite my bias, the more tape that I watched on Johnathan Williams, the more I find myself enamored by his unique blend of agility, balance, and power. For a back as big as Williams is (6’1, 224 lbs.), he carries his weight well, showcasing surprisingly nimble feet with the ability to start, stop, and change directions without sacrificing velocity. Johnathan Williams is a battering ram who carries the ball with balance and vigor, which is complemented by his deceptive elusiveness. There are some questions that remain about Williams’ long speed, but outside of that, when it comes down to actually running the football, dare I say that he can do it all. Williams really stepped up his play during his junior season in which he became the leading rusher on the team, and amassed 1,190 rushing yards on 211 carries (5.6 ypc), with 12 trots into the end-zone. With Brett Bielema headed into his fourth year as the Razorbacks’ head coach, continuity will continue to be forged, and with that, overall improvement should be consistent. Expect the same consistent improvement out of Williams in both his game, and his gains, during his “swan song” season as a senior.
Devontae Booker – Utah/ Senior: Devontae Booker was somewhat of a revelation for the Utah Utes in 2014. The highly talented, but relatively unknown JUCO transfer hailing from Sacramento, California, finished last season with 1,512 rushing yards (10 TD’s), which was good enough to be the second leading rusher in the PAC-12 behind UCLA’s Paul Perkins. Devontae Booker is a well-built (5’11, 212 lbs.), powerful inside runner, with break away speed. Even though Booker has more than enough speed to break runs to the outside and turn up field, he does his most outstanding work in between the hashes. He gets across the line of scrimmage, into the second level as fast as any running back in the nation. Once into the second level, Booker routinely discards would-be-tacklers, or shifts into another gear and runs by any remaining defenders on his way to the end-zone. Booker is always a threat to take it the distance, but where he really sets himself apart is with his uncanny ability to catch the ball out of the back field. Booker finished the season with a notable 43 catches, for 306 yards, and two receiving touchdowns. He displays very soft hands, and will make highlight worthy plays to haul in passes that are inaccurately thrown. Booker is a north and south runner who would much rather plow through you, than try to maneuver around you (see. UCLA game, 3rd quarter, 28 sec). Last season Booker wasn’t fully established as the main ball carrier in the back field until the fourth game of the season. With a full panel of games as the unchallenged starter to showcase his versatile skill-set, we should see an increase in Booker’s numbers across the board. If your team needs a true three down, dual-threat running back in the 2016 draft, they need not look any further than this terrific young talent.
Alex Collins – Arkansas/ Junior: Alex Collins has been the personification of production since his inception as an Arkansas Razorback in 2013. As a true freshman for the Razorbacks, the pride of South Plantation High School started his young career with three consecutive 100 yard rushing efforts en route to a 1,026 yard, four touchdown season. Tough act to follow, right? Yet somehow Alex Collins managed to trump his impressive totals as frosh by carrying the ball 204 times, gaining 1,100 yards on the ground, and scoring 12 touchdowns. Not since the days of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones have we seen a ground attack as potent and effective as Collins and Williams have been for the University of Arkansas. What’s even more impressive, is that they’re doing it without any of the gimicky “Wild Hog” (originally adapted from the term Wild Cat) formations that McFadden and Jones frequently employed under the Bobby Petrino regime at Arkansas. No frills here, as Bret Bielema runs a traditional run-heavy, pro-style offense. Alex Collins is a well rounded running back who doesn’t excel in any one particular area, but is adept at all of facets of playing his position and carrying the football. Collins has a slashing style of running where he doesn’t waste much time in the back field, and that enables him to frequently bust through arm tackles. Collins is more of an inline runner than Johnathan Williams, but he still possesses enough agility to make defenders miss when necessary. Collins came into the college game standing 5’11, and weighing 207 lbs. Since then he has added 17 pounds of muscle to his frame, and bulked up to 224 lbs. The junior ball-carrier was originally thought to be the “burst back” in the Razorbacks’ version of a “thunder and lightning” ground attack; And while Collins still offers much in the realm of speed, his added mass and physicality made him more of a threat to run the ball in between the tackles. This especially showed up in the red-zone, where he was able to triple his scoring output from his freshman season (4 TD’s) to his sophomore season (12). With continuity being the key, we should expect to see another jump in Alex Collins’ numbers. If he does decide to forego the 2016 NFL draft, he would be the unchallenged starter in Fayetteville. Without Williams to dip into his carries, the potential for his production is a scary thought.
Paul Perkins – UCLA/ Junior: To be completely honest, I believe that the names on this tier are virtually identical when it comes to talent level. With another year being firmly established in his starting role, and with Paul Perkins being featured as the centerpiece of UCLA’s Brett Hundley-less offense, you should expect a significant spike in his productivity (which is already remarkable). Last year as a sophomore the Bruins’ ball-carrier produced a PAC-12 leading 1,575 rushing yards, an exceptional 6.3 yards per attempt, and a respectable 9 rushing TD’s. He supplemented his totals with 26 catches, for another 201 yards, and two aerial touchdowns. Perkins surpassed the century mark on the ground in 6 out of his 13 games he played in 2014. On top of that there were an additional four games where Perkins was within seven yards of reaching the 100 yard mark, and he never rushed for less than 78 yards in any game last year. While Perkins is not an overly shifty tailback, he is a smooth runner and what Paul does excel in is his acceleration. It doesn’t take long for him to reach and maintain his full speed. In this up-coming season uber-impressive super recruit Josh Rosen is expected to take over the reigns at quarterback for UCLA, and there is no better friend for a true freshman starting QB to have than a dependable, upper class-man, “booster back” to hand off or dump the ball down to when the going gets tough and a play needs to be made. The 200 pound, 5 foot 11 inch dynamo shall again prove to be dynamic in 2015 for Jim Mora Jr.
*Nick Wilson – Arizona/ Sophomore: Nick Wilson was an unsuspected starter in the back field, and budding star for the Arizona Wildcats. Rich Rodriguez always had a knack for developing running backs, and the true sophomore from Fresno, CA looks to be Rodriguez’s latest NFL prospect at the position. Wilson was yet another fantastic freshman in what seems to be rounding out to be a star-studded recruiting class at running back. He rushed 236 times for 1,375 yards (fourth among freshman), scored 16 rushing touchdowns, and had another touchdown through the air. Wilson’s ability to perform under a heavy workload is probably his most profound feat. When given at least 20 carries in any game during 2014, Wilson rushed for no less than 104 yards on the ground. He managed to accomplish all of this while battling injuries throughout the season, and splitting time in the back field with Terris Jones-Grigsby. You can color me impressed, and if Wilson continues to consistently improve upon his current arc of production, I guarantee that you’ll be impressed too. The 5 foot 10, 199 pound speedster is a smooth strider, who is not afraid to lower his shoulder and mix it up with defenders when necessary. Speed is where his strength lies however, and he utilizes it well in conjunction with his superb vision, silky acceleration, and his acute understanding of angles. A common vein among sophomore running backs headed into next season is that their predecessors have moved on (either through the draft, or exhaustion of eligibility), and have allowed them an opportunity to fully illustrate their skill-sets. This is also the scenario that Nick Wilson is presented with, and just like the rest of his piers, expect an up-tick in both his overall skill level, and productivity. It’s rare that there are two Heisman hopefuls on the same team, but with Anu Solomon returning at quarterback, and Nick Wilson solidifying the back field, Rich Rodriguez is in a very envious position as a head coach. A completely healthy, and battle tested Wilson will look to obliterate his freshman totals in the approaching season.
*Not Eligible for 2016 NFL Draft