Five of the six most productive running backs from the 2005 season have moved on to the NFL, and that includes three – USC's Reggie Bush, Minnesota's Laurence Maroney and Wisconsin's Brian Calhoun – who were underclassmen and could have returned for another year.
Despite those early departures, 2006 figures to yield a bumper crop of running backs, including about a half dozen serious Heisman Trophy contenders. There are also a few sleepers and a bunch of simply solid ball-carriers around whom productive offenses can be built.
There's even another Bush, though Louisville workhorse Michael would never be confused with Reggie. But like Reggie, Michael could make a run at the Heisman Trophy.
Peterson is generally considered the best of this year's stellar group. For these running backs, separating themselves from tacklers will be much less difficult than separating themselves from each other.
Rivals.com 2006 Preseason Top Running Backs
1. Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma, Jr., 6-2, 215
A perfect blend of speed and power, Peterson has the moves to evade tacklers and the strength to run through them. The total package, he has gained 3,033 yards on the ground in two seasons and rushed for 1,108 yards last year despite missing considerable time with injuries. The Palestine, Texas, product saw his carries drop by nearly a third in his second season but still managed to find the end zone 14 times – just one TD shy of his freshman total.
2. Marshawn Lynch, California, Jr., 5-11, 215
Fast and powerful, the 5-11, 215-pounder rushed for 1,246 yards and 10 touchdowns last season despite missing two games and most of a third with hand and finger injuries. He can run inside for tough yardage, but makes excellent cuts and has big-play ability. He's also an excellent receiver. With teammate Justin Forsett continuing to push him, look for Lynch to become a bigger part of Cal's powerful offense.
3. Darren McFadden, Arkansas, So., 6-2, 210
Sprinter's speed with a good frame makes this slasher a threat to turn any carry into a long run. He needs only a small crease to make his way into the open field. He can outrun safeties who would appear to have the angle. Last season he rushed for 1,113 yards despite limited attempts early in the year. McFadden faces an uphill climb after suffering a toe injury in a fight outside a nightclub. He's out for the opener against USC and may miss more time.
4. Kenny Irons, Auburn, Sr., 5-11, 200
A quick-footed slasher, Irons also brings a little power. The veteran leader is best when making one move and turning on the speed. He rushed for 1,293 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2005. The Tigers coaches want Irons to add a few pounds. The important factor for Auburn is Irons plays like a big back, combining good speed and vision with a tenacity that could separate him from the others on this list as the season progresses.
5. Michael Bush, Louisville, Sr., 6-3, 250
A classic power runner, Bush moves the pile but also has breakaway speed. He rushed for 1,143 yards last season and had a 73-yard run. Most importantly, he scored 23 rushing touchdowns. Bush, with help from quarterback Brian Brohm, will anchor one of the nation's top offenses this season. Good showings against Miami and West Virginia could help propel Bush to the top of the Heisman Trophy list.
6. Mike Hart, Michigan, Jr., 5-9, 198
When healthy, he's among the nation's best. With excellent vision and even better balance, it's hard to bring him down on first contact. Injuries limited him to 662 yards in 2005, but he rushed for 1,455 as a freshman. With an up-and-coming sophomore in Kevin Grady - who was ranked the No. 22 prospect by Rivals.com in 2005 - nipping at his heels, Hart has all the incentive he needs to put up some gaudy numbers in 2006.
7. Steve Slaton, West Virginia, So., 5-10, 190
Fast and physical for his undersized frame, Slaton rushed for 1,128 yards as a freshman. His production is more impressive when considering he did not have more than 11 carries until the sixth game of the season but still posted five 100-yard plus performances. Slaton should be able to take advantage of the Mountaineers' weak schedule to rack up some eye-catching stats, talented quarterback Pat White figures to take some touches from him along the way.
8. James Davis, Clemson, So., 6-0, 205
Shifty and elusive, Davis gained 879 yards while splitting carries with Reggie Merriweather in 2005. He will get a chance to solidify himself as the every-down back in preseason drills, opening the door to a 1,500-yard season. The problem? Clemson coach Tommy Bowden is adding more multiple-back sets to take advantage of the team's depth. With all-everything C.J. Spiller arriving on campus Davis has his work cut out for him.
9. Jamaal Charles, Texas, So., 6-1, 190
Fast and elusive, he rushed for 878 yards and averaged 7.4 yards per carry despite an ankle injury that limited him in four games. This season he should be the focus of the Longhorns' offense. Charles put himself on the national scene with a 116-yard performance against Oklahoma last season that included an 80-yard scoring scamper. Don't let his speed fool you. Almost half of his rushing yardage was gained after contact.
10. Garrett Wolfe, Northern Illinois, Sr., 5-7, 177
Wolfe is an instinctive runner with good speed and excellent cuts. He is not a big guy, but is as effective between the tackles as he is outside them. The MAC's leading rusher in each of the last two seasons rushed for 1,580 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2005 and 1,656 yards in 2004. His 2005 total suffered because of an injury that cost him three games. Things are not all rosy in DeKalb, however. Wolfe will have to run behind three new offensive linemen this season.