- Steve Muench, Scouts Inc.
It has been anything but smooth sailing this season for the top running backs on Scouts Inc.'s board, but at least some of the struggles can be attributed to injuries and poor offensive line play.
Only one back carries a first-round grade at this point but there is still plenty of talent and upside available. Here's how we break down the top five backs in the 2011 class at the midway point in the college season (underclassmen are denoted by asterisks).
Mark Ingram*, Alabama -- Scouts Inc. grade: 91
Ingram missed the first two games of the season with a knee injury and is coming off a disappointing performance against South Carolina, but he remains the top prospect in the nation. Ingram is an instinctive runner with the power and balance to pick up tough yards between the tackles and the burst to get outside. His pass blocking needs work but he is a reliable receiver who can contribute on third down. Ingram projects as a late-first round pick at this point.
Ryan Williams*, Virginia Tech -- Grade: 86
Williams has had an even tougher start than Ingram. However, struggles against Boise State and a hamstring injury that has cost him the last three games have not dropped Williams out of the No. 2 spot.
Last year's film shows a hardnosed runner who is tough to get to the ground because he can run over and around defenders. Williams is not as polished in the passing game as some of the other backs on this list, but he doesn't drop many passes he gets his hands on and can produce after the catch. Given that skillset, he still grades out early in the second round.
Daniel Thomas, Kansas State -- Grade: 85
Thomas isn't as much of a big-play threat as the backs ahead of him but he is quick enough to get outside and is at his best running downhill between the tackles. Thomas has the lateral mobility to find seams inside and the power to push the pile in short-yardage situations.
He has also shown he has more to offer on third down than many thought coming into the season, and while he could still improve in that area he did catch eight passes against Nebraska. At 228 pounds he is the top "big back" on the board and projects as a second-rounder.
LaMichael James*, Oregon -- Grade: 83
The diminutive James (5-foot-8, 185 pounds) doesn't have elite power but runs hard and follows his blocks well inside. His greatest strength is his ability to make plays in space. James can break defenders' ankles by changing speed or direction in a flash and has above-average top-end speed.
He hasn't played a big role in Oregon's passing attack but there's no questioning his big-play ability after the catch. His strong performance this year has moved him into second-round consideration and his stock could continue to rise with consistent production.
DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma -- Grade: 82
Murray is a determined runner with above-average quickness and the balance to bounce off arm tackles, but he doesn't have ideal power or lateral mobility. The reason he cracks our top five and projects as a second-round pick is his ability to contribute on passing downs.
Murray is a polished route-runner who can line up wide or release out of the backfield, and he catches the ball well. While he's at his best making plays downfield in the passing game, he is also a willing pass blocker who can recognize and pick up blitzes.
Scouts Inc.'s Steve Muench breaks down his fastest-rising prospects from the first half of the college season and looks at those falling the fastest.