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May 22, 2013

Top backs believe they can carry the load

PHOTOS: Top-ranked RBs: Past and present

Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

Only time will tell if newly minted five-star running back Joe
Mixon
will be correct.

The 6-foot-2, 207-pound prospect from Oakley (Calif.) Freedom jumped to No. 15 in the recently updated Rivals100 presented by Under Armour, and he understands that the game is trending toward the pass and backfields-by-committee. But he thinks he will be the next workhorse to hit college football once he signs with a program in February.

"I know I'll be that running back to change the game," he said.

Following a season in which no running backs were selected in the first round of the NFL draft -- combined with the fact that only Le'Veon Bell of Michigan State and Montee Ball of Wisconsin carried the ball more than 25 times per game in the five major conferences -- ambition and reality might not match for Mixon and other top prospects.

But Mixon said carrying the ball more than 25 times per game is going to happen and that he models his game after 2,000-yard-rusher Adrian Peterson.

He isn't alone in his belief or his lofty ranking.

Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said Mixon may have been the player to sound off but he is far from the only one to believe he will buck the trend of platooning at the position.

"They all think that they can step in and be The Man," Farrell said. "Right now, they are carrying the load -- and a lot of these kids are their entire high school team -- so why would they not think they can do it on the next level, and why would they not think they can do it in the NFL?

"I can't fault any of them for that, and sometimes you need to have that type of mentality to succeed; on some levels, it is good they believe it."

The Rivals100 features six players listed as running backs inside the top 25 -- with two additional players who project better at other positions but primarily playing running back for their high school teams.

New Orleans (La.) St. Augustine prospect Leonard Fournette leads the list of players ranked at the position as the No. 3 prospect in the nation. Georgia verbal pledge Sony Michel of Plantation (Fla.) American Heritage is just below him at No. 6.

[ CLASS OF 2014 RANKINGS: Rivals100 - Rivals250 ]

The list continues with plenty of talented prospects. Notre Dame commit Elijah Hood of Charlotte (N.C.) Catholic was reclassified as a running back in this update of the rankings, moving from athlete, but he remained a five-star player at No. 13. Hendersonville (Tenn.) Beech prospect and Tennessee commit Jalen Hurd was ranked No. 19, and Florida-bound Dalvin Cook of Miami (Fla.) Central rounds out the group at No. 24.

Jabrill Peppers of Paramus (N.J.) Catholic is the No. 2 player in the Rivals100. He is listed as a cornerback, but he plays running back, too. Bo Scarbrough is committed to Alabama from nearby Tuscaloosa (Ala.) Northridge and ranked No. 21. He is a dominant running back but is listed as an athlete based on college projections.

This current group is bucking one trend: The six running backs inside the Top 25 of the class of 2014 are the most for the position since the Rivals100 began with the class of 2002.

The average number of prospects ranked at this level for running back is three. The low was just one when the class of 2004 was represented solely by Peterson at No. 1.

Farrell said that while this depth may be an anomaly for the rankings, it is noteworthy.

"This particular group is just so good that we cannot ignore all the talent," Farrell said. "These kids are so good at catching the ball and being threats in space; they aren't just fast, and they aren't just big bruisers. Many of these guys are all of those things, and when you watch the film you see it.

"Coaches are doing whatever they can just to get the ball into the hands of these guys. Fournette, Hood, Mixon and Michel are getting a ton of carries, and really that feeds into the ego a little bit. Everyone thinks they will be a 30-carry guy."

Hood has drawn comparisons to the No. 1 player in the class of 2003, linebacker Ernie Sims. He recently committed himself to being a running back at the next level.

"I am starting to (get comfortable with it)," Hood said. "I think I have a higher ceiling at running back, so that is what I am leaning toward."

His running style is undefined. He claims to be angry, mean, fast and strong.

"It might not be flashy, but it gets the job done," Hood said "I have subtle moves in space and just hit the hole hard."

Because of Hood's talent and versatility, Farrell isn't convinced that running back is the only spot on the field for him.

"He could go and play linebacker for any major college program next year if he wanted to," Farrell said. "There is nothing to hold him back from beating out [class of 2013 five-star Notre Dame signee] Greg Bryant and forcing (Bryant) to the slot, but there is nothing to hold him back from being great at another position if need be."

[ MORE: Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge roster ]

Cook is another player who has the talent to do multiple things.

Rivals.com Southeastern regional analyst Kynon Codrington said Cook is among the more versatile players in the country.

"Cook is one of the top playmakers in this class," Codrington said. "He could be a five-star corner if he wanted to commit himself. He possesses game-breaking ability and can score from anywhere on the field, and his elite speed and athleticism make him a top prospect.

"He reminds me of C.J. Spiller, but being committed to Florida he will spark a Percy Harvin-type comparison."

The ability to do multiple things is a benefit for players such as Hood and Cook, but the persistence to play the position is what Farrell likes about Mixon and Hurd.

"They are both tall running backs and probably guys who would have been pushed to other positions a decade ago," Farrell said.

Mixon is listed at 6-foot-2. Farrell said he has the talent and size that historically would have tempted coaches to shift him to slot receiver.

Hurd is listed at 6-foot-3 and likely would have been viewed as a tight end or an H-back in prior classes.

"Height simply isn't a hindrance to them," Farrell said. "I know in the past people would have said they run too high or that they are too tall, but neither of them cares and they want to play the position. More importantly, both have the talent to play it."

The shortest of all the backs in this group is Michel, listed at 5-foot-11. He is not walking into a situation in which he will be asked to be a 30-carry athlete. Georgia split its carries last season. Todd Gurley handled the ball 222 times for 1,385, yards, and Keith Marshall toted it 117 times for 759 yards.

Farrell said Michel has the ability to push one of the two out of the way immediately.

"He could step right in and be the lightning to Gurley's thunder," Farrell said. "A lot of these guys are going to have to share the ball and put the ego aside, or it could be time to dust off the 'jogjam article' and focus on who may be transferring out."

Fournette is the prototypical player at 6-foot-1 with a 225-pound frame that can continue to fill out.

He enters his senior year with 5,828 yards and 72 touchdowns. LSU, among many other schools, is targeting him.

Farrell said that if any of the players could handle the heavy load of a feature back, it would be Fournette.

It is also part of the reason Fournette leads the list of nationally elite players at the surprisingly deep position.

"We saw a time when the game was about getting it in the hands of players such as Percy Harvin and Derrick Williams, but it has changed," Farrell said. "Fournette can have the ball in his hands 25 to 30 times a game and handle it. His size makes him physically able to take it, and his physical gifts make him stand out in the rankings."



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