An early look at the running back class for the ’09 NFL Draft

LeSean “Shady” McCoy has decided to forego his final two years of eligibility at the University of Pittsburgh and enter April’s NFL draft.

So how does McCoy stack up against the likes of Knowshon Moreno (Georgia), Chris “Beanie” Wells (Ohio State), Donald Brown (Connecticut), P.J. Hill (Wisconsin) and Shonn Greene (Iowa)? Let’s take a look.

Even though he had a major setback earlier in the year when he injured his foot/toe in the Buckeyes’ first game of season, Beanie Wells has all of the intangibles NFL teams look for in a back. He’s big (6’1” 237 pounds), fast (he should run in the 4.5-range for the forty at the combine) and might even grade out better than Darren McFadden, who was selected No. 4 overall a year ago. He has had some durability issues, but after watching him over the course of the second half of the season, it didn’t look like he was suffering any lingering effects from the injury. Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel believes that Beanie is a top-5 pick and when you look at the entire package, it’s hard to disagree.

Knowshon Moreno will probably go somewhere in the first round, but it’s hard to speculate at this point whether or not he’ll go in the top 15 or fall in the 20-25 range. He doesn’t have a ton of experience (he only played two seasons at UGA), but that also means he has fresh legs and he was incredible the two years he played at Georgia. He is being compared to Thomas Jones and Cadillac Williams in that he’s a grinder who doesn’t necessarily have great top-end speed, but makes up for it with outstanding instincts and vision. If he falls past the top 15 picks, he’s going to be a steal for whichever team grabs him.

At 5’11, 210 pounds, Shady McCoy isn’t the biggest back in the draft, but his change-of-direction skills are unrivaled. After what the Texans’ Steve Slaton (a similar back with great speed) was able to accomplish in his rookie season, as well as the growing popularity of the “Wildcat” formation in the NFL, a lot of teams are going to value McCoy’s versatility and athleticism. His ability to make people miss will certainly separate him come draft time and he should run a forty in the 4.4-range at the combine.

Shonn Greene is perhaps the most intriguing back in this draft because his stock couldn’t be higher after rushing for 1,850 yards and 20 touchdowns for the streaking Hawkeyes. He also won the Doak Walker Award, which is given to the nation’s top running back and given his powerful running style, he might be a sleeper pick in the top three rounds. He’s overshadowed by Wells, Moreno and McCoy, but his skill set is outstanding.

Donald Brown rushed for 2,083 yards at Connecticut this season and will likely draw comparisons to Kevin Smith of the Lions come April. Like Smith, Brown racked up a ton of yardage at the collegiate level, but doesn’t have elite speed or athleticism. Instead he excels because of his vision and creativity and unlike Smith (who played at Central Florida), Brown faced some decent defenses in the Big East so the “weak competition” knock shouldn’t be applied come draft day.

P.J. Hill will be a late round pick given his durability issues at Wisconsin and the fact that he’s not much of a pass-catcher. He’s a bowling ball of a runner, but won’t draw much consideration in the top three rounds.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

2008 College Football Preview

I’ll just say what most college football fans are already thinking: Preseason polls and predictions are useless. But damn it, they’re fun to discuss.

With the amount of turnover most college football programs face from year to year, it doesn’t make much sense to try and figure out which program is better than the next. So what college football preseason polls essentially convey is that one team is better than the other because they have more returning starters.

If pollsters were smart (oxymoronic statement, I know), they’d wait until about week four of the season to release their first polls, because each team would have already played two cupcakes and two conference games. Then the college football world would have a better idea of which teams are the best because they would have proved so on the gridiron. (Or at the very least, they would have proved that they were the best teams in the nation over the first four weeks of the season.)

But I digress. I’ll be the first to admit that I get a little giddy when the new college football polls are released every year. I like seeing who the so-called experts think will be the top programs in the country and I join in all of the debates. I realize that the preseason polls don’t mean much, but they’re a big part of what makes college football fun for fans.

Below is our 2008 College Football Preview and much like last year, we won’t do our own rankings. Instead, we’ll use the USA Today Top 25 Preseason Poll and break down the chances of the top 15 teams making it to the 2009 BCS National Championship.

For each of the top 15, we’ll list the team’s NFL prospects as well as reasons to like and dislike that program’s chances of playing for a national title. Finally, we’ll list one of the team’s must-watch games this season.

As always enjoy, and Merry College Football Season to all.

1. Georgia Bulldogs
Future NFL Prospects: Knowshon Moreno, SO, RB; Matthew Stafford, JR, QB; Asher Allen, JR, CB; Dannell Ellerbe, SR, LB; Trinton Sturdivant, SO, OT
Reasons to Love: The Dawgs have one of the best collections of talent in the nation, including two Heisman Trophy candidates in Moreno and Stafford. Moreno has already drawn comparisons to former UGA greats Hershel Walker and Garrison Hearst, while Stafford will make his case to be the top quarterback taken in next year’s NFL draft (if he forgoes his senior season, that is). The defense returns nine starters to a unit that ranked 14th in the nation last year and is led by their inspirational senior linebacker Ellerbe.
Reasons to Question: The offensive line is the biggest concern for Georgia entering the 2008 season. Two of the four returning starters from last year’s squad are switching positions, while right tackle Kiante Tripp is a newcomer. The line is inexperienced on a whole, which doesn’t bode well for the two men they’ll be protecting in Moreno and Stafford. The schedule is also a doozy, with road games at LSU, Kentucky and Auburn, as well as home contests versus Tennessee and Alabama. Of course, the biggest game of the year is in early November when UGA will square off against Florida at “The World’s Largest Cocktail Party.”
Game to Watch: vs. Florida in Jacksonville, Nov. 1.

2. USC Trojans
Future NFL Prospects: Rey Maualuga, SR, LB; Brian Cushing, SR, LB; Fili Moala, SR, DT; Joe McKnight, SO, RB; Kevin Ellison, SR, SS.
Reasons to Love: Talent, Pete Carroll and a favorable schedule. The Trojans also have arguably the best linebacker corps in the nation led by Maualuga and Cushing, as well as one of the top defenses, period. Along with a promising quarterback in Mark Sanchez, USC boasts a bevy of talented running backs in McKnight, Stafon Johnson and C.J. Gable. Carroll often has the best recruiting classes in the nation and his roster is always chockfull of NFL talent.
Reasons to Question: Sanchez was hurt in a preseason practice and even though it wasn’t considered serious, injuries have a way of lingering all season if the player isn’t given ample time to recover. The defense is stacked, but there was a void created when defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis was drafted into the NFL and even though they usually have the best talent in the conference, the Trojans can lose their focus at times and thus are prime candidates to be upset at any given time during the season (ahem, Stanford). Plus, a nasty case of jock itch riddled the team in August.
Game to Watch: vs. Ohio State, Sept. 13.

3. Ohio State Buckeyes
Future NFL Prospects: Chris “Beanie” Wells, JR, RB; James Laurinaitis, SR, LB; Malcolm Jenkins, SR, CB; Alex Boone, SR, OT; Brian Robiskie, SR, WR.
Reasons to Love: This team is absolutely stacked with senior talent, including a Heisman Trophy candidate at running back (Wells) and two of the top defensive prospects in the nation (Laurinaitis, Jenkins). In fact, Laurinaitis might turn out to be the greatest linebacker Ohio State has ever seen. Even though they’ll face decent road challenges at Wisconsin and Illinois this year, the Big Ten is weak on a whole and should be Ohio State’s for the taking. Head coach Jim Tressel also has one of the best offensive minds in college football.
Reasons to Question: The Buckeyes should roll through their Big Ten schedule this season, but the make or break game will be against USC on September 13. If Ohio State can pull off a huge victory, they might cruise into yet another national championship. But if the Buckeyes lose in Southern Cal, they must hope the Trojans fall once or twice during the season so they’re not looking in from the outside in come January.
Game to Watch: at. USC, Sept. 13.

4. Oklahoma Sooners
Future NFL Prospects: Sam Bradford, SO, QB; Duke Robinson, SR, OG; Phil Loadholt, SR, OT; Gerald McCoy, SO, DT; Auston English, JR, DE.
Reasons to Love: Along with Bradford, sophomore running back DeMarco Murray is a Heisman candidate in the Sooner backfield. The offensive line is also the one of the biggest in the nation, led by Loadholt and Robinson, while the defense is loaded with talent from English at end, to safety Nic Harris and corner Lendy Holmes. The secondary might be the best unit in the Big 12, if not the nation.
Reasons to Question: This team didn’t play well on the road last year, compiling a 3-3 record outside of the state of Oklahoma. Bradford must also stay healthy and playing Texas, Kansas and Kansas State in consecutive weeks is a daunting task, too.
Game to Watch: vs. Kansas, Oct. 18.

5. Florida Gators
Future NFL Prospects: Tim Tebow, JR, QB; Percy Harvin, JR, WR; Brandon Spikes, JR, LB; Jermaine Cunningham, JR, DE; Jim Tartt, SR, OG.
Reasons to Love: The Gators have arguably the best player in the country at quarterback in Tebow, and he has a host of weapons at his disposal including Harvin and running back Chris Rainey. The offense appears to be more balanced than it was last year and Spikes leads one of the best front sevens in the conference.
Reasons to Question: As with all SEC teams, Florida’s schedule is brutal. Hawaii is no cupcake to open the year and even though the Gators face LSU, Kentucky and Miami at home, none of those games will be cakewalks. Georgia, Florida State and Tennessee also highlight Florida’s schedule. The secondary is incredibly young too, and will be heavily tested by pass-happy Hawaii in the first game of the season.
Game to Watch: vs. Georgia in Jacksonville, Nov. 1.

6. LSU Tigers
Future NFL Prospects: Ciron Black, JR, OT; Herman Johnson, SR, OG; Tyson Jackson, SR, DE; Kirston Pittman, SR, DE; Darry Beckwith, SR, LB.
Reasons to Love: This team will be able to win the war in the trenches, which will make a big difference on the scoreboard. Pittman and Jackson form one of the best defensive end combos in the country, while Black and Johnson provide more than enough running room for running back Keiland Williams.
Reasons to Question: LSU lost a ton of talent from their national title team of a year ago, including defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, safety Craig Steltz, fullback Jacob Hester and QB Ryan Perrilloux, who was kicked off the team this summer. Throw in a tough SEC schedule and Les Miles’ team has several hurdles to overcome if they hope to defend their title.
Game to Watch: at. Florida, Oct. 11.

7. Missouri Tigers
Future NFL Prospects: Chase Daniel, SR, QB; Jeremy Maclin, SO, WR; William Moore, SR, S; Chase Coffman, SR, TE; Sean Weatherspoon, JR, LB.
Reasons to Love: Much like 2007, Missouri is going to light up the scoreboard again in 2008. Daniel should again be a Heisman finalist and benefits from having the explosive Maclin to throw to in the passing game. Underrated talents Weatherspoon, defensive end Stryker Sulak, defensive tackle Ziggy Hood and linebacker Justin Garrett are all players to watch out look for on the Tigers’ defense.
Reasons to Question: The offense is going to be explosive again, but can the defense match up against the best in the Big 12? The secondary has experience, but isn’t spectacular by any means and the pass rush could stand to be more consistent. MIZZOU was so close to a national title appearance last year but couldn’t hang with Oklahoma in December. Will the same happen this year with the Sooners expected to once again be the favorites in the Big 12?
Game to Watch: vs. Kansas in Kansas City, Nov. 29.

8. West Virginia Mountaineers
Future NFL Prospects: Pat White, SR, QB; Ryan Stancheck, SR, OT; Noel Devine, SO, RB; Reed Williams, SR, LB; Mortty Ivy, SR, LB.
Reasons to Love: The Mountaineers have one of the most exciting players in college football at quarterback (White), and will once again have an explosive offense. Losing Steve Slaton to the NFL hurts, but Devine has speed to burn and should fill the void Slaton left in West Virginia’s backfield. The defense is also a bit underrated and the entire team came together nicely under new head coach Bill Stewart to beat Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl when Rich Rodriguez left the program in the lurch to coach Michigan.
Reasons to Question: Same song and dance as every year – the schedule is favorable, but one slip up against a lesser foe will probably bury WVU’s title hopes. And if White can’t stay healthy, the offense just isn’t the same unit. Devine must also show that he can take on a full rushing load.
Game to Watch: at. Pittsburgh, Nov. 28. (Remember when the Panthers spoiled the Mountaineers’ national championship aspirations in the final game of 2007?)

9. Clemson Tigers
Future NFL Prospects: James Davis, SR, RB; C.J. Spiller, JR, RB; Aaron Kelly, SR, WR; Cullen Harper, SR, QB; Dorell Scott, SR, NG.
Reasons to Love: The Tigers are stacked with experienced talent and boast one of the best running back duos in college football with Davis and Spiller. The offensive line doesn’t have a ton of experience, but their development this summer has been excellent and if the unit can hold its own, the Tigers’ offense is going to be tough to stop in ’08. Clemson is deservedly the favorite to win the ACC this year with this being Tommy Bowden’s most talented team.
Reasons to Question: Bowden’s bunch always seems to find a way to underachieve so why expect anything less again in 2008? And even though their development has been solid, if the offensive line doesn’t gel then the entire offense might crumble.
Game to Watch: vs. Alabama in Atlanta, Aug. 30.

10. Texas Longhorns
Future NFL Prospects: Colt McCoy, JR, QB; Roy Miller, SR, DT; Brian Orakpo, SR, DE; Adam Ulatoski, JR, OT; Cedric Dockery, SR, OG.
Reasons to Love:It’s scary to think that McCoy is entering his third year, with two full seasons already under his belt. Much like No. 6 ranked LSU, Texas will be able to beat teams in the trenches and offers some of the best returning talent in the nation. The defensive line is scary, led by Miller, Orakpo and junior defensive tackle Lamarr Houston.
Reasons to Question: Does McCoy have enough weapons at his dispoal on offense? Vondrell McGee and Foswhitt Whitaker have tons of speed and Chris Ogbonnaya is well seasoned in the program, but will the running back-by-committee approach work? The Longhorns also have major question marks in the secondary after allowing an average of 376 yards per game and 16 touchdowns in the final five games of 2007.
Game to Watch: vs. Oklahoma in Dallas, Oct. 11.

11. Auburn Tigers
Future NFL Prospects: Sen’Derrick Marks, JR, DT; Antonio Coleman, JR, DE; Tray Blackmon, JR, LB; Jerraud Powers, JR, CB; Lee Ziemba, SO, OT.
Reasons to Love: The Tigers have one of the best defensive backfields in the conference and if the front seven can generate a better pass rush this season, the secondary should blossom even more. Powers was excellent as a sophomore last year and the safety combo of Mike McNeil and Zac Etherdige is amongst the best in the SEC. The defense will carry Auburn again in 2008…
Reasons to Question: …but the offense has some question marks. Quarterback Kodi Burns is talented, but consistency might be an issue and Texas Tech transfer Chris Todd is currently dealing with an injured shoulder. For how good the defense should be, the pass rush was an issue last year and losing Quentin Groves (although injured at times last year) doesn’t help. The Tigers are talented, but they also have a fair amount of question marks heading into the season.
Game to Watch: vs. Georgia, Nov. 15.

12. Wisconsin Badgers
Future NFL Prospects: P.J. Hill, JR, RB; Travis Beckum, SR, TE, Jonathan Casillas, SR, LB; Shane Carter, JR, S; Matt Shaughnessy, SR, DE.Reasons to Love: The Badgers are stacked at running back and Hill should once again prove to be a headache for opponents to bring down. Beckum is also one of the top tight ends in the nation and the schedule is incredibly favorable with Wisconsin getting Ohio State, Illinois and Penn State all at home.
Reasons to Question: Injuries are piling high and deep on defense. Allen Langford and Aaron Henry, the Badgers’ top two corners, are both coming off ACL injuries and the entire defensive line is banged up. The quarterback situation is also a huge question mark and even though they’re expected to be Ohio State’s top competition in the Big Ten this year, Wisconsin won’t stand a chance against the talented Buckeyes with a banged up roster.
Game to Watch: vs. Ohio State, Oct. 4.

13. Kansas Jayhawks
Future NFL Prospects: Todd Reesing, JR, QB; Joe Mortensen, SR, LB; Mike Rivera, SR, LB; Dexton Fields, SR, WR; James Holt, SR, LB.
Reasons to Love: The Jayhawks were one of the best stories in 2007 and they return their star player in Reesing. Kansas led the nation in turnover margin last year and ranked seventh in passing efficiency. They also have maybe the best linebacker corps in the Big 12 led by seniors Mortensen, Rivera and Fields, and the trio will only benefit having a solid line in front of them.
Reasons to Question: Compared to last year, Kansas has a brutal schedule this season. The Jayhawks face Texas and Texas Tech at home, travel to Oklahoma and then end the season with their annual trip to Kansas City to take on rival Missouri. They won’t be able to sneak up on anyone this year and their special teams must improve as well.
Game to Watch: at. Oklahoma, Oct. 18.

14. Texas Tech Red Raiders
Future NFL Prospects: Michael Crabtree, SO, WR; Graham Harrell, SR, QB; Brandon Williams, JR, DE; Darcel McBath, SR, S; Louis Vasquez, SR, OG.
Reasons to Love: If you like points, you’ll love the Red Raiders. Harrell and Crabtree are Heisman Trophy candidates and they play in one of the most explosive offensive systems in football. The unit is also experienced, which means there’s a smaller learning curve at the beginning of the season.
Reasons to Question: The defense is going to make or break this team because the offense is going to score points. Last year Tech couldn’t stop the opposition from running at will and allowed 177 yards per game on the ground. If opponents can run the ball again this year, they can control the clock and also keep the potent Red Raider offense off the field.
Game to Watch: at. Oklahoma, Nov. 22.

15. Virginia Tech Hokies
Future NFL Prospects: Victor Harris, SR, CB; Orion Martin, SR, DE; Cam Martin, JR, LB; Kam Chancellor, JR, S; Sean Glennon, SR, QB.
Reasons to Love: Frank Beamer always produces some of the best special teams in college football and to no one’s surprise, VA Tech will boast a terrific defense again in 2008. “Macho” Harris is one of the top cornerback prospects in the nation and will get plenty of help from Orion Martin, Cam Martin, Chancellor and sophomore defensive end Jason Worilds.
Reasons to Question: Brandon Ore is gone and therefore so is a lot of the positional talent on offense. Glennon is steady, but will have to battle Tyrod Taylor for snaps. The offensive line must also play better too after struggling in the beginning of 2007 before regrouping in the second half. While the defense should once again be one of the best units in the ACC, losing Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi hurts.
Game to Watch: at. Miami, Nov. 13.

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