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Varied skills make for deep running back class

With the regular season and conference championship games having come and gone there is now a little time for scouts to breathe and take a second look at some NFL prospects. For me that means another glance at the top four running backs on Scouts Inc.'s board.

Clemson's C.J. Spiller, California's Jahvid Best, Georgia Tech's Jonathan Dwyer and Fresno State's Ryan Mathews all figure to be off the board by the early portion of the second round, but because of their unique skill sets they can be easily separated.

Spiller and Best are at the head of the class because of their explosiveness and abilities in space while Dwyer and Mathews are at their best pounding the ball inside. That's not to say all four can't do both, but their strengths are obvious.

>Spiller and Best can make defenses pay any time they get a seam and often they don't even need a crack of daylight. A perfect example is Spiller's 54-yard run on first-and-10 midway through the fourth quarter of the ACC championship game. He takes the handoff and follows the fullback between the tackles but a Georgia Tech linebacker steps into the hole and stones the lead blocker. Spiller simply cuts outside and then up behind the tight end before making a defender miss and streaking down the left hash for the long gain.

Best made a similarly dazzling play on second-and-11 from the California 7-yard line late in the second half against UCLA. After taking the handoff and heading off-tackle to the left Best sees the defense over-pursuing and taking away the edge. He then cuts back to the right, jukes no fewer than five defenders and flies down the sideline for a 93-yard touchdown. The play is a perfect example of his feel for defenses and how they flow.

It's hard to say whether Spiller or Best is more explosive but there are a few reasons we give Spiller the edge overall. First, while Best seems to have better breakaway speed at times he has missed the past three games with a concussion and has had other durability concerns during his career, and with his smaller frame he is much more of an injury concern at the next level.

Secondly, Spiller's larger frame means he is a little stronger and more effective between the tackles, and he also does a better job reading blocks inside. Finally, Spiller has been far better in the return game to this point. His seven career kickoff returns for touchdowns are an FBS record, and while we believe Best has the tools to be a good return man we have simply seen more from Spiller in that area. In the end Spiller and Best project as mid-first round picks.

Dwyer and Mathews come in slightly behind the other two because they lack the same big-play ability and are not nearly as effective on third down. Both are better between the tackles, however, using their lower-body strength to push the pile in short-yardage and goal-line situations and almost always seem to finish runs by falling forward.

The one difference between Dwyer and Mathews is that Dwyer has better lateral movement and is better at making defenders miss in the hole, though Mathews might be the best back in the nation no one is talking about. He is averaging an FBS-best 151.3 yards per game, and he is very effective using his off arm to stiff-arm defenders, slap or push over-pursuing defenders past him and to regain his balance or launch himself for extra yards while falling.

The biggest knock on Mathews is that he is a liability on third down. He does not show good awareness or get in sound position in pass protection and he struggles to sustain his blocks. We have not seen much of Dwyer as a blocker because of Georgia Tech's triple-option scheme, but Mathews' struggles in that area are the difference between his early-second round grade and Dwyer's late-first round grade.

Dwyer's edge in lateral mobility shows up on a second-and-8 play with 10:45 remaining in the fourth quarter of the ACC title game. He takes the inside handoff and follows his guard into the hole, where he encounters a linebacker. He is able to make the defender miss in the hole and pick up 12 yards and a first down.

Mathews' ability to keep defenders at bay is illustrated on a first-and-goal play from the 10-yard line late in the third quarter against Illinois. He initially heads off-tackle left but the Illini get immediate penetration up the middle and force him to bounce outside. Mathews carries the ball in his left hand and keeps his right hand on the back of his offensive lineman as he waits to turn the corner. He then sweeps the over-pursuing cornerback past with his right arm and finishes the run by stiff-arming a linebacker before being muscled out of bounds at the 2-yard line.

The runs described above show why our top four running backs fall into their current order, and while Spiller is the only senior among the group, all four could be off the board by the middle of the second round if the three underclassmen make themselves available for the draft.

Around the nation

• Georgia Tech DE Derrick Morgan (Scouts Inc. No. 6) and RB Jonathan Dwyer (No. 30) have been mulling their future at school, and possibly in the NFL draft. "I'm really just looking at what's best for me and my family," Dwyer told Macon.com. "We'll see where that ends up. I really don't know what BeBe [WR Demaryius Thomas, No. 52] or Derrick is going to do, so we'll see."

• While three Yellow Jackets are contemplating their futures, Notre Dame QB Jimmy Clausen (No. 18) and WR Golden Tate declared their intentions on Monday to leave school and head to the NFL. "I don't think we could have done more than we did this past year," Clausen said at a news conference. "Golden has played great. I've done my part. This is just the best time for us to go out."

• Michigan may have had a disappointing season but DE Brandon Graham (No. 44) kept it in perspective. Graham's attitude comes from his mother, Tasha, who survived leukemia when she was 8 years old. When he wanted to quit youth football when he was younger she wouldn't let him. The Chicago Tribune reports that "Graham started playing football at seven after a kindergarten teacher told Tasha that Brandon played rough with other kids.

"'He was a handful,' Tasha said. 'You know what you do when your hands are full? Find a way to free 'em. He went right on that football field.'

"Brandon played center but didn't like it. After he got knocked down, he went home and tried to quit. Tasha and Brandon's father, Darrick Walton said no way."

• Tennessee S Eric Berry (No. 1) is up for some of college football's more prestigious awards and that means traveling to the ceremonies with his family. The Knoxville News Sentinel reports that "the biggest benefit of three trips for banquets this week will clearly be the family time they provide starting with Monday night's Nagurski Trophy presentation in Charlotte.

"'Everybody gets to come, my mom, my dad and my brothers will be there tonight,' Berry said. 'I'm very excited. The next one in Orlando [for the Thorpe Award], I know my parents will be down there but my brothers won't because of a band audition or something like that so they're going to have to stay at home.

"'The one in California [the Lott award], me and my dad are going to go out there and have some fun -- a little guy trip.'"