It’s getting closer isn’t it? If you’re like me you’re probably pleasantly distracted by the World Cup, where, at the time of writing, football is 100% coming home (context here for our American readers).
But that being said, I’m ready for England’s inevitable demise, which will lead me to find solace in Season 3 of ‘Last Chance U’ and pre-season games prior to the season starting properly at the end of August.
I recently wrote about three of the top QB prospects I’m looking forward to watching this season. Now it’s the turn of the Running Backs. RB is a difficult position to place in mock drafts, with the exception of Saquon Barkley a few months ago, as there always seems to be a plethora of options coming out of the backfield.
With that in mind I’m going to pick out some of the gems that I believe are set to shine on Saturday afternoons in 2018.
Jonathan Taylor – Wisconsin Badgers
If you haven’t heard about this guy yet, then you’re going to want to watch the Badgers this season. Bursting onto the scene in his freshman year, Taylor ran the rock for 1977 yards last season, scoring 13 TDs in the process.
And, impressively, in the 14 games the Badgers played last season, Taylor ran for 100+ yards on all but four occasions, including against the likes of Purdue, Miami and a strong Michigan defense.
The New Jersey native broke the all time freshman season rushing record with his incredible first season, also earning 2nd team All-American honours and Big Ten Freshman of the Week eight times between September and December.
So what is it that makes Taylor one of the hottest RB prospects we’ve seen for years? Well, and I know we say this for every top prospect in the position, he’s got all the markings of Le’Veon Bell; the patience behind the line and ability to wait for his lineman to drive a hole for him, the burst of speed when that hole does open and elusiveness to carve out extra yards after contact.
Taylor also has the bravery that we see every week in the NFL from the likes of Leonard Fournette and Frank Gore. That bravery, which some would call reckless, sees Taylor seek out defensive backs to run over. One look at his game tape from his 223 yards against Florida Atlantic highlights this as he bowls over numerous defenders throughout the game, including a huge strong arm in the 3rd quarter to break for an extra 5 yards.
One thing that Bell adds to the game that the Wisconsin star currently lacks is the threat through the air. Taylor only added 84 yards in the passing game last season, something that both him and potential NFL QB Alex Hornibrook would like to change in 2018.
Wisconsin are tipped to challenge for a place in the playoffs this season, and there’s no reason why that can’t happen with Taylor leading the charge. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him sneaking into the experts top 3 draft prospects when he does decide to take the leap to the NFL.
Cam Akers – FSU
Tallahassee has produced its fair share of talented NFL calibre running backs over the years; Dalvin Cook, Devonta Freeman and Chris Thompson are the three latest alumni to be gracing our screens on Sunday afternoons.
Cam Akers looks likely to be the next to join them when he declares for the draft. Last year he broke the FSU freshman running record and shone in a team that flopped after injury struck Deondre Francois in game one, forcing Jamaal Blackman under centre.
The former five-star recruit ran for 1024 yards and 7 TDs as FSU went 7-6, losing to North Carolina State, Louisville and Miami along the way. It was in the loss to Miami that Akers really stepped up as the ‘go-to’ man in FSU’s backfield, his 121 yards helped the Seminoles hold the lead until Darrell Langham’s touchdown snatched it at the death.
Akers actually played quarterback at High School, but it was always clear he was going to be recruited as a workhorse RB. The power and explosiveness he possesses at the line makes him a danger to any College defence. Akers’ Madden-like skill set grabbed the headlines in his first season, highlighted by his performance against Miami, in which he started a run with a strong stiff arm and followed it by trucking Sheldrick Redwine right in front of the FSU bench. This was one of many highlight videos that contained jukes, spins and cuts at the line. In short, this guy is talented.
What remains to be seen is how Akers will operate in Willie Taggart’s new spread-option system, which will likely see him utilised in the passing game a lot more. Like Jonathan Taylor, Dalvin Cook’s heir at FSU has yet to add a huge contribution in that area, only receiving 15 catches for 102 yards last season. Taggart has already made it clear he will utilise the hurry-up offense to try and enable them to score quickly and regularly, a marked change from the ground and pound style of Jimbo Fisher.
If Akers can keep healthy and maintain the momentum he’s been gathering, there’s absolutely no reason why he and FSU can’t have a huge year in 2018.
Bryce Love – Stanford
There’s no doubting Bryce Love has got 2019 first-round talent and whilst the game isn’t all about numbers, Love’s are fantastic. Last year he had 2118 yards to his name, scoring 19 TDs and averaging 8.1 yards per carry, that’s impressive.
The North Carolina native was also a Heisman runner-up after some huge games against some of the NCAA’s household names, 263 yards against UCLA, 125 yards against Notre Dame and a huge 301 game against Arizona State, which helped power Stanford to a 9-5 record and a bowl appearance in San Antonio.
Love started out as backup to Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey, but quickly emerged as the hottest prospect in the PAC-12 after averaging 11.1 yards a carry through his first five games last year. Part of this success is documented by Michael Weinreb as he details how Love has taken time to control his speed, allowing him to step inside tackles and break free of flailing arms at the line.
NFL scouts have already singled out other attributes that make the Cardinals RB potentially the first back off the board next year. Firstly, it’s all about speed, Love is a 4.35 athlete who cannot be caught once he breaks through the last man, secondly, his jump cut is ridiculously effective at throwing linemen and thirdly his toughness and endurance are exactly what it is needed to succeed in the big leagues.
Look for Stanford and Love to get off to a roaring start in 2018, their first four opponents offer little in terms of resistance before a challenge appears from Notre Dame in game 5. By this time, if last year is anything to go by, Love could be past 500 yards and well on his way to a Heisman and a top 10 NFL draft pick.
So there you have it, two sophomores looking to continue their upward curve and one star who is looking to play his way onto an NFL roster in 2019 – got any more to add? Tweet myself or the team @FantasyPond
By Andy Moore – @AJMoore21
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