NFL teams are back in training camps. But they aren’t the only teams getting ready for an upcoming season. The 2021 college football season kicks off even earlier, with the first games starting August 28. That will begin the movement up and down boards for all draft-eligible prospects, which will continue up until April 28.
So before the season begins, I’m going position-by-position through the 2022 class, and previewing some names to know and be watching for throughout the college football season from a draft perspective. This is not an exhaustive rundown of every draft-eligible player, but a look at some of the more prominent and interesting names to watch this upcoming season, and where they are currently projecting for the upcoming draft. This preview begins on offense, with the running backs.
Steelers’ Need: Minimal
The Pittsburgh Steelers addressed the running back position in as big a way as they could last offseason, going against the modern trend and using a first-round pick on the position in selecting Alabama’s Najee Harris. Harris is a tailor-made fit for the Steelers’ ideal running back, and removes any need for a starting-caliber back in the 2022 Draft.
But this is a franchise that loves to continually shuffle the backfield in recent years, drafting a back in four of the last five classes. And behind Harris, there is a need for better depth. I love the upside Anthony McFarland Jr. brings, particularly with college coach Matt Canada now running the team’s offense. He should remain a piece of the team’s ground game, either as the outright backup or as a change-of-pace player because of his speed. I think he has the potential to be a true No. 2.
Whether he becomes the backup or not, there’s room to upgrade from the rest of the room, occupied currently by some combination of Benny Snell, Kalen Ballage, and Jaylen Samuels. Pittsburgh isn’t spending a Day 1 or 2 pick on a running back and is nowhere near the market for a big-time contributor as a rookie. But given the lack of stability and proven NFL production behind Najee, a Day 3 backup is absolutely in the cards.
Breece Hall, Iowa State: One of my absolute favorite players to watch in college football, and someone who can become the easy RB1 and a future bell cow in this class with another standout season. Does it all well, with an all-around game that will make him a star in the NFL. If a 2022 RB breaks into the first round, my preseason money is on Hall, who had a 1,500-yard season with 21 rushing touchdowns last year, is one of the true favorites for the Heisman this season, and is very difficult to bring down in space or up the middle.
Isaiah Spiller, Texas A&M: Fans of bruising backs are going to replay Spiller’s tape over and over again. The two-year starter for the Aggies doesn’t have great speed, but even if he did he would prefer to run through a tackler than evade him. His game as a power runner is the best in the class this preseason, and it’s how he profiles to the NFL as he enters his junior season. He’s produced at a 5.5 clip per carry with 19 rushing touchdowns. His game won’t fit every team’s scheme, but is tailor-made for a team scheming most carries between the tackles.
Ainias Smith, Texas A&M: How the backfield dynamic between Spiller and Smith works out will be an interesting storyline to watch in College Station this season. Spiller dominated the carries in 2021, but Smith had double the receptions. Whereas Spiller wins as a bruiser, Smith wins more in the open field. Smith probably doesn’t wrest a lot of carries away from his potential first-round teammate, but has the skill to play in the slot and in the backfield, which sets him apart from a lot of his classmates.
Zamir White, Georgia: A trendy name to imagine as a future top RB drafted after ranking as the No. 1 back (and top 10 overall) in his recruiting class, White has been good for the Bulldogs but not spectacular in the way prior backs like Sony Michel, Nick Chubb, D’Andre Swift, and Todd Gurley were. Two torn ACLs are a cause of that, and may have lowered the ceiling he once had. He’s averaged over five yards a carry, though, over two seasons, with a game based on physicality more than speed. There’s room for him to take a big step forward.
Kyren Williams, Notre Dame: More so than Spiller, Smith and White, Williams is the name to watch to elevate his status to the best in the class from the second tier. He was one of the only bright spots for the Irish in the playoff semifinal against Alabama. That capped a debut season as a starter where he ran for over 1,100 yards with 13 touchdowns, and displayed skill as a receiving back as well as a runner. His ceiling is sky-high.
Other Names To Know
Jerrion Ealy, Ole Miss: Of a four-player rushing attack his first year, Ealy was the biggest home run threat with a 6.9 average over 104 carries. Still splitting carries but leading the show in 2020, Ealy stepped back to a 5.1 average, but retained his big-play elusiveness. That is key to his success in another crowded backfield this season, and will make or break his draft stock and that of teammates, like fellow back Snoop Carter. A high ceiling as the speed/open-field element of a backfield.
Kennedy Brooks, Oklahoma: Brooks looked like a franchise back as a freshman, averaging nine yards per carry during a 1,000-yard season. He added another 1,000 yards in 2019 and has 18 rushing touchdowns in two seasons. Brooks opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19, but his path is open back to the starting job. His upside can jump him right back to the top tier in this class.
Eric Gray, Oklahoma: How Lincoln Riley splits the touches between Brooks and Gray will heavily impact the draft stock of both players. Brooks is the known name at OU, while Gray is the new face, a transfer from Tennessee. He brings a well-rounded game that comes with a solid albeit not sky-high ceiling, but has the opportunity to fight his way to the starting job and wow scouts to raise his stock.
Zonovan Knight, N.C. State: Knight has split carries both his seasons at N.C. State, and far outpaced his teammate in both years with remarkably consistent numbers. He’s averaged 5.5 yards per carry both years with 788 and 745 total, and doubled his touchdowns to 10 from five last season. He has only 27 career catches so his game and stock is based on his running, and he needs to take that step forward this year to improve his stock and declare as a junior.
Brian Robinson Jr., Alabama: Since 2008, all but one running back who has been a starter (or close to it) for Nick Saban at Alabama has been drafted on Day 1 or 2. Robinson may get stuck in a backfield where two or three backs split the carries, but he should be the one receiving the most touches of the group. He has a career average of five yards per carry, and has Saban’s trust as the primary backup the last two seasons.
Master Teague, Ohio State: The loss of Trey Sermon to the 2021 Draft doesn’t exactly pave the way for Teague, who split carries with him in 2020, to claim the starting job. Ohio State has a five-star back in TreVeyon Henderson challenging him for the starting job. Teague’s ceiling falls short of being an NFL starter, but he showed at OSU he can shine as a backfield compliment, and his sub-4.4 speed will get him an NFL opportunity.
Who I’m Watching
My eyes are fixed squarely on Hall and Williams, two players who I envision as exciting weapons at the next level. Hall would need a horrendous season to drop from the top tier of backs in this year’s class, and a step forward for Williams will get him into the conversation as a rookie starter in the NFL. Looking a little further down the board, the Alabama lineage of recent backs is decorated, and Robinson is the next man up. It’s hard to envision him being a Derrick Henry or Najee Harris, but there’s a higher ceiling there than Bo Scarbrough.
From a Steelers perspective, unless he plays his way higher in the draft, Robinson is a player to watch, an experienced college back that can provide a strong No. 2 option behind Harris. The team would also reunite the most recent Alabama backfield by taking him. Teague and his speed, among the best in the class, would add a perfect compliment to Harris should McFarland fail to secure top backup duties, and he comes ready-made for a complimentary role as opposed to backs who would be dropping from bell cows to clear backups in Pittsburgh.
A very intriguing name is Brooks. He had two 1,000-yard seasons and played at a very high level to begin his Oklahoma career, before opting out because of COVID. His role with OU may be more committee with Gray now than the cornerstone position he held prior, but he was a top name to watch after two years. That ceiling didn’t disappear because he was gone for 2020, but it may push his stock down.