1. Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech–It looks to me like Williams is the complete package. He’s got size, speed, vision, toughness and a nose for the end zone. He put up 1,655 yards and 21 touchdowns for the Hokies as a 2009 redshirt freshman. He also caught 16 passes, including one for a score. He played very well against good competition–71 yards, 5.5 ypc and 2 TDs in his debut vs. Alabama, 107 yards against Nebraska–and I expect him to keep improving in 2010 and possibly become a Heisman candidate. I think there is a wide gap between him and teammate Darren Evans (talent-wise), so I do not expect for him to lose much in the way of production due to sharing carries.
2. Noel Devine, West Virginia–The most electrifying back in college football, the smurf-like Devine used his amazing speed and cutting ability to notch 1,465 yards and 13 scores on the ground in 2009. He also caught 22 passes, including one touchdown reception. His coach has expressed a desire to get him more carries as a senior and I think this will result in a monster season. His only weakness is a lack of real power–he goes down fairly easily most of the time–but he’s in a perfect system to highlight his superb abilities in space. Outside of Florida’s Jeff Demps, he might have the best breakaway speed of any back out there.
3. Jacquizz Rodgers, Oregon State–The diminutive Rodgers can do it all. He piled up 1,440 yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground last year, while also catching 78 passes for 522 yards and a score. Oh, and he threw a touchdown pass, too. He’s a legitimate Heisman candidate who is primed to break a bunch of Pac-10 records before he’s through with his career. Not a burner, but as consistent and versatile as they come and a relentless competitor.
4. Donald Buckram, UTEP–A top-notch talent stuck on a bad team, Buckram has great speed to go with outstanding vision. If he were on a major power, he’d be a Heisman candidate. Last year, he rushed for 1,594 yards and 18 touchdowns and added another three scores on 30 catches for 453 yards. Look for bigger and better in 2010.
5. Daniel Thomas, Kansas State–Not many people know about this guy, but I don’t think that will be the case after the 2010 season. Thomas is perhaps the nation’s premier power back, but he’s not just a bulldozer out there as he is also fairly athletic and skilled. Last year was his first year playing tailback and he responded with 1,265 yards and 11 touchdowns while also catching 25 balls. He is really, really tough to bring down. I predict a huge senior season for him and a bright NFL future.
6. LaMichael James, Oregon–James will sit out the first game due to suspension, but that won’t stop him from having another outstanding season. As a redshirt freshman in 2009, he rushed for 1,546 yards and 14 touchdowns while averaging nearly seven yards per carry. Like Rodgers, he is built very low to the ground, but he is more explosive in the open field and has the ability to take it downtown. He’ll have another highly-productive campaign and I wouldn’t be shocked if he ended up higher on this list when it is all said and done.
7. Trent Richardson, Alabama–How often do you see a backup cutting into a returning Heisman winner’s playing time? The talent oozing from this kid is too much for Alabama’s coaches to ignore, which is why the Tide will basically feature a two-headed tailback in 2010. Richardson rushed for 751 yards and eight scores as a true frosh and will top the 1,000-yard mark as a sophomore.
8. Mark Ingram, Alabama–The returning Heisman winner probably won’t duplicate the season he had in 2009, when he put up 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground while also catching 32 passes for 334 yards and three more scores. But when you have the nation’s best feet in traffic and a never-say-die motor, you will still put up good numbers. Look for two 1,000-yard rushers ‘from Bama this year.
9. Dion Lewis, Pittsburgh–Lewis was amazing as a true freshman in 2009, rushing for 1,799 yards and 17 touchdowns. He also caught 25 passes for 189 yards and a score. Like others on this list, he is a squat, low-to-the-ground runner blessed with exceptional vision and toughness but lacking exceptional speed in the open field. Still a highly productive back with an illustrious career ahead of him.
10. Michael Dyer, Auburn–I thought I’d go out on a limb for this pick and tab Dyer as the nation’s top freshman back. He’s a short, stubby runner with tremendous balance and forward lean. He keeps his legs moving and has a nice burst getting to the second level. Not a threat to take it the distance every time, but he’ll break plenty of runs and get nice yardage in Gus Malzahn’s scheme.
Honorable Mention: Washaun Ealey, Georgia; John Clay, Wisconsin; Christine Michael, Texas A&M; Armando Allen, Notre Dame; Lache Seastrunk, Oregon; Evan Royster, Penn State; Chris Polk, Washington; Tre Newton, Texas; Jeff Demps, Florida; Jermaine Thomas, Florida State.