May 3, 2007

A threat from anywhere

Some running backs do their best work in the red zone, while others are equally effective in the dead zone.

Consider this.

Which running backs would you want to rely on if you had to reach the end zone from the opponent's 5-yard line? Who would you want running the ball if you were inside your 5-yard line?

The answers to those two questions might not be the same.

Michigan's Mike Hart, Boise State's Ian Johnson and Wisconsin's P.J. Hill proved last year they're as good as anybody at obtaining the tough yards that allow teams to make the most of their red-zone opportunities.

But they don't necessarily have the pure speed to score from anywhere on the field.

As we continue to break down the top big-play performers in college football, we at wanted to list the nation's top 10 breakaway threats. These guys aren't necessarily the best runners in college football - though we wouldn't trade the top two guys on our list for anyone - but they do have a legitimate shot to reach the end zone every time they touch the ball.

This list also includes a couple of wild-card selections meant to honor lesser-known players who also possess breakaway ability.

PHOTO GALLERY: College football's breakaway backs

1. Darren McFadden, Jr., Arkansas: You can't go wrong by naming McFadden or West Virginia's Steve Slaton the top breakaway threat. We sided with McFadden because he delivered some of his best runs against a couple of the nation's top defenses in Louisiana State and Auburn. McFadden had an 80-yard run against LSU, a 72-yard score against Utah State, a 63-yard run against Auburn, a 52-yard scamper against Southeast Missouri State and a 43-yard burst against South Carolina last year.
2. Steve Slaton, Jr., West Virginia: Slaton was the nation's fourth-leading rusher last year while averaging 7 yards per carry. The only player in the top 30 with a higher rushing average was West Virginia teammate Pat White. Slaton needs to improve his red-zone efficiency, but you can't argue with his breakaway ability. He averaged 29.4 yards on his 16 touchdown runs last season.
3. C.J. Spiller, So., Clemson: Spiller's spectacular freshman season included six touchdowns of at least 50 yards, including an 80-yard run against South Carolina and an 82-yard conversion of a short pass reception against Boston College. Spiller's 12 touchdowns (10 runs and two receptions) last season covered an average distance of 38.4 yards. His average of 7.3 yards per carry was the highest of any Atlantic Coast Conference player since Warrick Dunn. No wonder Clemson fans were holding their breath last winter when Spiller thought about transferring to Florida.
4. Percy Harvin, So., Florida: Harvin technically isn't a running back, but this wide receiver's versatility and big-play ability demanded that we include him on this list. Harvin had 41 attempts last season and gained 428 yards (an eye-popping 10.4 yards per carry). He raced for a 41-yard touchdown in the regular-season finale against Florida State and added a 67-yard touchdown run in the Southeastern Conference championship victory over Arkansas.
5. Felix Jones, Jr., Arkansas: How dangerous is Jones? Consider that he gained more yards per carry last year than teammate and Heisman Trophy runner-up Darren McFadden. Jones' average of 7.6 yards per carry was the second-highest total of any of the nation's top 100 rushers (trailing only Houston's Anthony Alridge). Jones had a 76-yard touchdown in the Capital One Bowl loss to Wisconsin and a 58-yard score against Louisiana-Monroe. He also has recorded a 100-yard kickoff return each of the last two seasons.
6. Mike Goodson, So., Texas A&M: Goodson led the Big 12 last year by averaging 6.9 yards per carry. His most important run of the season came when he raced 64 yards for a game-clinching touchdown with 2:15 remaining in a 31-21 victory over Baylor. Goodson also had a 58-yard breakaway against Oklahoma and a 53-yard burst against Nebraska, though he didn't score on either play.
7. Justin Forsett, Sr., California: Forsett's average of 6.4 yards per carry was the highest in the nation by any running back with at least 260 attempts. He gained 124 yards on just eight carries in the Golden Bears' 45-10 Holiday Bowl victory over Texas A&M. The departure of Marshawn Lynch could drop Forsett's average, but should increase his opportunities for long touchdown runs this fall. The one strike against Forsett as a breakaway threat is that his longest gain of the 2006 season covered only 48 yards.
8. LaMarcus Coker, So., Tennessee: Coker became the first Tennessee player to have two runs of over 80 yards after he delivered an 89-yard breakaway against Marshall and an 87-yard burst against Vanderbilt last year. Coker's touchdown against Marshall was the third-longest run from scrimmage in Tennessee history.
9. Jonathan Stewart, Jr., Oregon: This former five-star prospect certainly has breakaway speed, which he showed two years ago by leading the nation in kickoff return average as a freshman. He only had one touchdown run longer than five yards during an injury-riddled sophomore season, which tempted us to add Pac-10 rival Chris Markey of UCLA to this list instead. But we're betting that as long as Stewart stays healthy, he should run wild and put together a breakthrough season this fall.
10. Pat White, Jr., West Virginia: We already included a wide receiver (Florida's Percy Harvin) on this list, so why not make room for a quarterback? Although we rated teammate Steve Slaton higher on our list, White actually gained more yards per carry last year. In fact, White's average of 7.4 yards per carry was the highest of any player ranked among the nation's top 30 rushers last year. Six of his 18 touchdown runs last year went for at least 32 yards.
Wild cards: Anthony Alridge, Sr., Houston, and Rashard Mendenhall, Jr., Illinois: Alridge gained 10.1 yards per carry - the best average among any of the nation's top 100 rushers - as a situational back last year. He had an 87-yard touchdown run against Tulane and a pair of 77-yard breakaways against Southern Methodist. Mendenhall averaged 8.2 yards per carry and delivered an 86-yard touchdown against Northwestern and a 79-yard burst against Penn State. Mendenhall also had a 76-yard catch-and-run against Syracuse.

PHOTO GALLERY: College football's breakaway backs

Steve Megargee is a national writer for He can be reached at is your source for: College Football | Football Recruiting | College Basketball | Basketball Recruiting | College Baseball | High School | College Merchandise
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