- Mel Kiper Jr., Football analyst
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Every year freshmen running backs end up making a huge impact right away, proving this is the easiest position at which to make the transition from one level of competition to another. This also holds true for RBs immediately making their presence felt as rookies in the NFL.
While USC QB Matt Leinart and WR Mike Williams deserve Heisman Trophy consideration, a key to the Trojans success this season has been the dynamic duo of freshman RBs LenDale White and Reggie Bush. Against Arizona, the two combined for 154 yards on the ground.
Had it not been for the spark provided by freshman RB Tyrone Moss, Miami might not have pulled out a hard-fought 17-10 victory over Syracuse. With no passing game to speak of, it took a nine-yard TD scamper by Moss in the fourth quarter to give the Hurricanes the win. For the day, Moss picked up 91 yards on 18 carries.
The SEC is also feeling the effects of freshman running all over the place. South Carolina's Demetris Summers figures to be back in action this week against Clemson after sitting out the Florida game because of a concussion. He's been one of the top RBs in the SEC, while Georgia's Kregg Lumpkin keyed the Bulldogs victory over Auburn and finished with 70 yards on 13 carries. Another star of the not-too-distant future in the SEC is super blue chip first-year performer Alley Broussard at LSU. Blessed with a tremendous skill, Broussard picked up 79 yards on just 11 carries in the Bayou Bengals' 27-3 victory over Alabama.
At UCLA, Maurice Drew has provided a spark by picking up just under 500 yards rushing on the year and scoring five TDs.
In a year that has seen the emergence of several outstanding field goal kickers, the one who clearly stands alone at the top of the list is Iowa senior Nate Kaeding. Combining uncanny accuracy with the necessary leg strength, Kaeding has connected on 15 of 16 field goals this season and is 36-of-40 over the past two seasons. He's 8-of-9 during his stellar career in Iowa City from 40 to 49 yards out and is 4-of-5 over 50 yards. Against Minnesota, Kaeding hit four field goals, including a 55-yarder. In the past three years, he's 138 of 139 on PATs.
As for where Kaeding projects in the NFL Draft in April, I would say right now that he could end up hearing his name called in the second or third round.
History tells us this is the spot where teams sometimes gobble up the top overall place-kicker on the board. Examples of successful NFL place-kickers who were drafted at this point include Chris Bahr (second round in 1976 to Cincinnati), Tony Franklin (third round in 1979 to Philadelphia), Chip Lohmiller (second round to Washington in 1988), Jason Hanson (second round to Detroit in 1992), Jason Elam (third round to Denver in 1993) and Martin Gramatica (third round to Tampa Bay in 1999).
While Sebastian Janikowski was a rarity for place-kickers, going in the first round to Oakland in 2001, we've also seen clubs find All Pro caliber or even future Hall of Famers from the fourth round on. Back in 1982, New Orleans landed Morten Andersen in the fourth round, and Gary Anderson didn't come off the board that same year until Buffalo selected him in round seven.
Swain and Banks providing voltage for Vols
In July when I previewed the SEC, and Tennessee in particular, I pointed out that for a program that produced so many big time wide receivers over the years like Stanley Morgan, Anthony Hancock, Willie Gault, Tim McGee, Anthony Miller, Alvin Harper, Carl Pickens, and Peerless Price, the Vols didn't appear to have a receiving corps that would strike fear in the hearts of opposing defensive coordinators.
In fact, to strengthen the position, they were forced to switch athletically gifted James Banks from quarterback. The change has paid dividends: He's currently leading the Vols with 36 catches, a 15-yard average and six touchdowns.
While Banks has really come on, another reason things are looking much brighter is the emergence of gifted freshman Jayson Swain. He was rated the ninth best high school prospect in the nation last year by recruiting guru Tom Lemming. The 6-2, 205-pound Swain is coming off a solid performance in a 59-21 victory over Mississippi State. For the day, Swain hauled in four receptions for 75 yards, bringing his season total to 17 receptions, which ranks him fourth at UT.
Pair of gamers
Production is always a key in the evaluation process, although physical qualifications or computer numbers often complicate matters when defining what a prospect's final NFL grade should be heading into the draft.
That said, I always try to remember what I see on gameday with the pads on often tells the accurate story of how a player will project to the next level.
Notre Dame LB Courtney Watson is one of those players who shows up big in just about every contest. Blessed with great awareness and instincts for the position, he reads and diagnoses plays as quickly as any LB in the country. In the mold of a Tampa Bay Buccaneers style of LB, Watson right now is regarded as a second- or third-rounder.
Also, if you've checked out my Top 25 Senior Prospect Big Board throughout the season, you've noticed the steady rise of South Carolina CB Dunta Robinson. Against Florida, Robinson turned in yet another impressive performance. Robinson supported the run, delivered bone-jarring hits and really jumped out at you with his enthusiasm for the game. For the year, he's come away with a team-leading four interceptions. On draft day, look for Robinson to turn out to be an outstanding addition to the team that brings him into the fold in the latter stages of the first round.
Wilson helps win Brawl
I've seen a number of talented RBs pick up tons of real estate this season, but a senior who is enjoying a steady rise on the draft board is West Virginia's Quincy Wilson. The son of former Chicago Bear LB Otis Wilson, the powerful and super-determined 215-pounder is coming off a "wow" type effort in the Mountaineers' impressive victory over Pittsburgh in the "Backyard Brawl".
Wilson finished the game with 208 yards on 34 carries, scored four TDs, and also hauled in two receptions out of the backfield. For the year, he's picked up 1,226 yards on the ground, is averaging 4.9 yards per carry and has scored 12 TDs.
While RBs sometimes slide down further on the draft board than their collegiate production tends to indicate, the bottom line is, can they get it done at the next level? In Wilson's case, I would say definitely yes.
This year freshmen running backs are proving this position is the easiest to transition to from one level of competition to the next.