Two of the 2009 NCAA football season's most accomplished running backs, C.J. Spiller of Clemson and Toby Gerhart of Stanford, have declared for the 2010 NFL draft. As of now, most scouts have Spiller projected as the first running back to be selected, while Gerhart sits behind a few other running backs on the list. Here's some background on the two standout athletes, and some qualities that will determine their fate in the NFL.
C.J. Spiller by the Numbers
C.J. Spiller is a 5'11'', 195lb multi-position player, originally from Florida. His primary position is running back, but he also returned kickoffs and punts for Clemson, and was consistently a receiving threat out of the backfield. He's likely to run a sub-4.4 40 yard dash at the NFL Combine, allegedly having run it in less than 4.2 seconds in the past. Spiller finished his career at Clemson with over 7,000 all-purpose yards, one of only five players to ever reach that total. He scored a touchdown in every game last year, and finished sixth in Heisman trophy voting, a surprisingly low placement for the most explosive player in all of college football. Former UM wide receiver Santana Moss famously once said "big time players make big time plays in big time games." Clemson's biggest game in 2009 was their ACC Championship showdown against Georgia Tech, a shootout in early December that GT won because of a late touchdown, 39 to 34. Despite the final score, Spiller posted astronomical numbers in his ACC finale, amassing 233 yards and four touchdowns, almost scoring a fifth on a 54-yard run late in the fourth quarter. His #28 jersey has already been retired by the school.
Being utilized in so many positions can take its toll on players over the course of a season, but if you were a coach and saw how jaw-droppingly fast Spiller was, you'd feel uncomfortable with him sitting on your bench too. For C.J. Spiller, speed is the name of the game. Spiller and Clemson wide receiver Jacoby Ford set the NCAA record for all-purpose yards by a duo this past year, and this can largely be explained by both having competed for the Clemson track and field team. He's relatively strong, which gives him the important element of balance. That he is an able pass-catcher and a proven kick returner is enough to convince most NFL teams that he can make an impact on the field one way or another. His senior season was his first year not splitting time in the backfield with a larger running back, and NFL scouts surely noted how he took command of the featured role, improving in strength-related aspects of the game such as pass-blocking and interior running.
Although Spiller demonstrated improvements in toughness and strength in 2009, those two areas are still probably his two weakest attributes. Some have questioned his ability to block some of the NFL's most physical linebackers, and also his ability to run in between the tackles, as opposed to the outside edge where he was dominant in college. There's much more speed throughout the NFL, but Spiller has been such an elite performer throughout his football career, it's hard to imagine him not finding success at the highest level.
NFL Comparisons - Reggie Bush, Felix Jones (best case scenario - Chris Johnson)
NFL Draft Projection - top 5
Toby Gerhart by the Numbers
Gerhart, a California native, stands at 6'1'' and weighs 235lbs. He has also played fullback and linebacker, which helps explain his physical style of running. He's likely to have a 4.5-4.6 40 time. His third full season at Stanford won him the Doak Walker Award for the NCAA's top running back, and the runner-up in the Heisman race. Gerhart had three 200+ yard rushing games for Stanford in 2009, including a school-record 223-yard campaign against Oregon, one of the country's top defenses. He led the BCS subdivision of college football in most major rushing categories, including rushing yards (1871), rushing TD's (28), and points scored (172). His success transformed the Stanford Cardinal as a team, leading them to their first bowl berth in 8 years, and a much-improved 8-5 record. In Stanford's bowl game against Oklahoma, Gerhart rushed 32 times for 135 yards, and scored two touchdowns in a losing effort.
Quite simply, Toby Gerhart is the anti-C.J. Spiller. He is a large, punishing back, content with making his own holes; a north-south runner who goes straight through defenders. While he rarely improvises to the outside to try and pick up yards, he does have surprising quickness, which is possibly the key to his college success. Defenders preparing to tackle him found themselves out of position, as his deceptive speed granted them less time than anticipated. He's faster than most fullbacks, which is the primary reason why he defies typical categorization. Gerhart is durable, having been heavily relied on during his three full seasons at Stanford, and is very aggressive when it comes to picking up extra yards. He was also a baseball star at Stanford, which further solidifies his abilities as a natural athlete.
Gerhart is used to looking like a man amongst boys, but will need to adapt to being a man amongst men. It's quite possible that a team may draft him with intentions of using him as a fullback, because of his proven strength and blocking abilities. He may not be able to outrun NFL defenders in the open field, so whoever drafts him will need another running back with speed to compliment him. Gerhart might need to improve his evasiveness, but as long as he's willing to block often and runs with the desire he showed at Stanford, most teams could use him to improve their running game.
NFL Comparisons - Greg Jones, Ron Dayne, Ottis Anderson (best case scenario - Larry Czonka, Jerome Bettis)
NFL Draft Projection ? second round