by Zachary Somma
Photo courtesy of Athlon Sports.
Throughout the college season, Draft 412 will be scouting the NCAA for the best at each position. Our top ten feature this week—running backs. While in recent years, the running back position has been diminished in the eyes of the scouting war rooms in favor of less bellcow backs and more “running back by committees,” the position often brings power, speed and suddenness to the game and helps to define offenses for many NFL teams.
Here’s a glimpse at Draft 412’s top ten running back prospects that may be available in next year’s 2024 NFL Draft:
Blake Corum – Michigan
Corum could have been one of the top backs off the board last year if it weren’t for a late season meniscus tear that kept him out of the Big Ten Championship game and the College Football Playoff semifinal against TCU. Instead, he decided to come back for his 4th season of CFB alongside a talented Michigan Wolverines squad.
Corum is a shifty, agile back that excels as a “slasher”, taking outside runs and making quick jump cuts to the inside. He possesses excellent vision, allowing him to find gaps and holes to run through. Despite his smaller size (5’8”, 213 lbs.), he has a surprising amount of power and tackle breaking ability thanks to his strong lower half. Corum also has NFL-ready burst and acceleration and has more than enough speed to outrace defenders to space. His stamina is of note as well, as he doesn’t lose any burst or power as the game goes on.
Despite his traits, Michigan rarely uses him in the receiving game, although Corum has good hands and the agility to be dangerous when given the opportunity. His size might limit him from being a true every down back in the NFL, but he has the talent to potentially get there. Though his age and injury history may keep him off some draft boards, it would truly be a surprise if Corum doesn’t become a very solid NFL running back.
Trey Benson - Florida State
A transfer from Oregon, Trey Benson has emerged as one of the most talented players on an already talent-rich Florida State team for 2023. Benson has all the quintessential traits for an NFL running back. He pairs a 6 ‘1, 223-pound frame with elite-level burst and acceleration. His size allows him to excel as a downhill runner with power, while also having the agility and speed to hit the outside as well. But maybe his greatest ability is his contact balance. Benson routinely breaks tackles, and it is extremely difficult for defenders to try and bring him down solo.
While not a true receiving back, he has been efficient and successful on the small number of opportunities he has received in the pass game (170 yards on 15 catches in 3 seasons). Despite having the profile of an every-down RB, FSU has preferred to use him in a committee role. Maybe his stamina or durability is a potential issue, but it’s very puzzling as to why Benson has only received around 20-25 snaps a game since his arrival in Tallahassee. It’s going to be an intriguing draft process for Benson, and his future NFL role is going to vary team by team.
Braelon Allen - Wisconsin
Braelon Allen is in an interesting situation at Wisconsin this year. A well-known RB factory for the NFL, the Badgers changed head coaches this offseason, bringing in Luke Fickell from Cincinnati. Fickell mainly deploys a zone running scheme, which isn’t necessarily the best fit for the 6 ‘2, 246-pound Allen, who thrived in the more balanced and gap run-focused scheme of the previous regime. Despite the situation around him, Allen still ranks high on NFL Draft boards. His burst paired with his size make him almost guaranteed to get 5+ yards a carry given good enough blocking. He runs hard with power, and it can be a tough task to try and bring him down one-on-one. Allen’s overall long speed is also impressive for a larger back, and his acceleration allows him to hit that top gear very quickly. He can also hold his own in pass protection and can be a sufficient receiver on checkdown options.
Will Shipley - Clemson
Will Shipley is easily the most complete player on the 2023 Clemson offense, and yet there are still a few questions about how high the ceiling is for him. He’s an elusive, athletic back who is friendly to almost any scheme. He’s been the dependable every down back for the Tigers, seeing around 40-50 snaps a game and averaging 15 carries a game in his true sophomore season. As a rusher, Shipley relies on his explosiveness and agility to find gaps and elude defenders. Despite not being an elite tackle breaker, it can still be a tough task to bring him down, especially one-on-one in space. Shipley is also one of the most dependable receiving backs in college football as well. He racked up 37 receptions on 42 targets for 237 yards last season, and his shiftiness lends himself to be a dangerous route runner, especially in the short areas of the field. Overall, Shipley has very balanced skillset that should lend itself very well to a future NFL career.
Carson Steele – UCLA
A transfer from Ball State, Steele might not be a well-known name just yet, but he has plenty of talent to shoot him up draft boards. At 6’1”, 225 lbs., Steele possesses the size as well as speed that lends itself to being a true every down back. In 2021, he was a tackle breaking machine, using both his agility as well as strength to routinely get through arm tackles or juke defenders onto the turf. Per PFF, Steele was the 2nd overall back in all of CFB last season in missed tackles forced per PFF, only behind Bijan Robinson (104), with 96. Though he is not the most patient runner, he will often look for cutback lanes and has fantastic acceleration to get through gaps and catch flat-footed defenders off-guard.
While not a true receiving back by any means, Steele can be a solid option in the short areas of the field, and his size and effort level lend itself well to potentially being a good blocker, although he does need some development in terms of his recognition there. Being originally from a small school, however, it will be very important for him to continue to show out during Pac-12 play if wants to be one of the top backs in the 2024 Draft class.
Raheim “Rocket” Sanders – Arkansas
Despite the nickname, Raheim Sanders isn’t necessarily a speed-first type of back. At 6’2, 242 lbs., Sanders has a huge frame and does not shy away from contact. But for a big guy, he possesses quick feet and can make surprisingly quick jump cuts with the ball in his hands. His standout trait is his contact balance. Sanders has the uncanny ability to stay on his feet and absorb contact while continuing to drive forward. It’s not uncommon to see him drag defenders with him for multiple extra yards before going down. He also has good long speed, especially for his size, and he has a knack for explosive plays. Per PFF, Sanders was 5th in all of CFB last season in “breakaway yards”, or yards on carries that go 15+ yards, ahead of players like Bijan Robinson, Zach Charbonnet and Deuce Vaughn. There are a few holes in his game, however. While the breakaway yards are nice, he can sometimes struggle on down-to-down consistency. He’s also not a patient runner, opting to run downhill more than looking for cutback lanes.
Bucky Irving – Oregon
Bucky Irving has been explosive to start the 2023 season, with 216 yards and 3 TDs on just 27 carries. Admittedly, this has come largely against lower competition, but Irving has still shown off many desirable traits so far. A transfer from Minnesota, Irving was a big part of the Duck’s resurgence in 2022, putting up over 1,000 yards on only 157 carries. Easily his best traits have to be his contact balance and tackle breaking ability. Despite only being 5 ‘10, 195 lbs., Irving has a shocking amount of power thanks to his lower half, and that helps him stay upright and drive through arm tackles. In 2022, Irving was tied for 9th overall in average yards after contact at 4.36 per carry, and was 15th in missed tackles forced with 67, per PFF. Pair that ability with good overall speed and agility, and Bucky Irving has a real shot at being one of the first backs off the board in 2024.
TreVeyon Henderson - Ohio State
Henderson might have the most talent out of anybody on this list, but injuries really limited him in 2022. As a freshman in 2021, Henderson was supremely impressive, rushing to the tune of 1,248 yards on 183 carries. The “under the hood” numbers were fantastic as well, with a 4.31 average yards after contact. However, he was limited to only 8 games and 106 carries in 2022, and it was clear that something was off about how he was playing. His yards per attempt dropped from 6.8 to 5.4, but more concerningly his average yards after contact plummeted to 2.72, which would mark him 127th in CFB (for RBs with minimum 100 attempts). It was announced that Henderson was dealing with a broken bone in his foot, which caused him to miss multiple games late in the season, however it is unknown publicly when that injury occurred and if Henderson was playing through it throughout the year. Whatever the case, Henderson will need to return to his freshman form if he wants to become a high draft pick come April, and he absolutely has the traits to do so.
Henderson has a great blend of power and speed in his game. His contact balance was fantastic, and his fluid feet allowed him to dance through gaps while avoiding defenders. He was a very solid receiving option in 2021, but saw that role completely disappear in 2022. To put it bluntly, where Henderson goes in the 2024 NFL Draft completely depends on what version of Henderson we get in 2023.
Audric Estime - Notre Dame
Audric Estime has burst his way on to NFL radars with his start to the 2023 season. At 5 ‘11, 227 lbs., Estime is a powerful downhill runner with quick feet and good burst. He takes contact head on and has enough speed to be a threat for at least 1 or 2 explosive runs per game. His contact balance is solid, although he doesn’t bounce off of tackles like some running backs are able to. He plays with a very high motor and competitive edge that will catch the eye of NFL scouts. Though Notre Dame doesn’t utilize him often in the receiving game, Estime has surprisingly good hands and explosiveness despite being a lackluster route runner. If Estime can keep up his torrid pace as the competition ramps up, it would not be shocking if his rise up draft boards continues.
Donovan Edwards – Michigan
While most of the backs on the list have seen their draft stocks rise in 2023, that’s not the case for Donovan Edwards. After bursting onto the scene in 2022, mainly after the injury to Blake Corum, Edwards seemingly was poised for the lead role for 2023. Even when Corum announced he would be returning to Michigan for the following season, Edwards’ status was still regarded highly, and the prospect of a two-headed monster backfield was almost too good to be true.
Nate Noel (Appalachian State) - After losing his starting role to Camerun Peoples last season, an explosive performance against UNC and dominant start to the 2023 season has put Noel in a good position to be the top Group of 5 RB in the 2024 class.
Kendall Milton (Georgia) - Though Georgia loves to utilize multiple running backs in their offense, Milton still has a chance to prove he’s more than just a contributor in a Bulldogs offense desperate for a breakout rusher.
Jo’Quavious Marks (Mississippi State)- While he’s gotten off to a hot start and the receiving numbers are gaudy, some of the underlying numbers paint him as a middle of the road rusher and a volume-dependent receiver who relies way too much on screens for his receiving totals. Still, an intriguing case study and there’s plenty of room for development.
Frank Gore Jr. (Southern Mississippi) - Yes, the son of the legendary Frank Gore may soon join his father in the NFL ranks. It’s been a slower start than expected after a breakout 2022 season, and his struggles against higher levels of competition will be of note heading into draft season. Still, the bloodline is of note and he might be worth a late look on day 3 of the draft.
Roman Hemby (Maryland) - Hemby has a very balanced skillset and has already shown improvements in his vision and contact balance from 2022 to 2023. If he can produce during Big 10 play this season, he could be a sneaky riser up the board.