Ed Note: We were asked by some of the readers to start looking ahead at draft prospects, even though the season is still in play. We thought a Saturday would be a good day for a discussion since college ball will be on television. Thanks to our social media coordinator Jamie Plunkett and DawnMacelli for teaming up on this.
The Dallas Cowboys have lost five games in a row, and while the NFC East isn't out of reach quite yet, it's not too early to start keeping an eye on some kids at the collegiate level. We all know the big names that will probably be available this year, guys like Ezekiel Elliot, Derrick Henrey, Josh Doctson, and Corey Coleman, but there's plenty of value to be found in the middle rounds at both wide receiver and running back.
Dawn and I took a look at a few names you should keep tabs on on Saturdays, as these guys could all potentially wind up wearing the Star.
Tra Carson, Texas A&M
Texas A&M running back Tra Carson is the type of back I would like to see the Dallas Cowboys go after. He is not the next Todd Gurley and his draft status will reflect that next spring; he is not going to be on everyone's list on draft day. A good part of the reason for that is the offense that the Aggies prefer to run is not designed to showcase his talents. Carson is the guy who can get in there, pound the rock ahead for five yards, shake of the dust, and do it again. He is a downhill runner who will get you the tough yards and who can wear down a defense.
Carson checks in at an even six foot tall and he weighs 230 pounds. When he gets his pads squared to the line of scrimmage, Carson can be a tough man to bring down and can get you what you need between the tackles, but he is also talented and versatile enough to get it done in any situation. Tra can be "the man" or he can be a role dog depending on where he winds up going during the draft.
Carson has experienced a couple bad outings this season, but they were games where the Aggies struggled to get anything going on offense. He has also turned in some outstanding efforts when the offensive line did their job. Against a stout Mississippi State defense, Carson rushed for 110 yards on 26 carries, while averaging 4.1 yards per carry. This is the kind of output Carson is capable of delivering on a weekly basis. In fact, the more work he gets the better he will perform. The guy is a workhorse.
Devontae Booker, Utah
It's not often that a kid gets the nickname "Baby Marshawn Lynch," but that's exactly what Booker has earned for the way he runs with the ball. He doesn't run away from contact, and his ability to roll off hits and keep his legs churning means that he racks up yards after contact. Booker rushed for 1,512 yards and 10 touchdowns as a junior in 2014, and through eight games of his senior season, he's already run for 966 yards and nine touchdowns. He's had five games with over 100 rushing yards this season, and is averaging 4.8 yards per carry. For his career, Booker has 12 100+ yard games in his career, including six games with over 150 yards rushing and two with over 200 yards rushing.
Beyond his tough running, Booker is also a solid receiver. He's totaled 32 receptions to this point in 2015 for 282 yards, an 8.8 yard/reception clip.
Overall, Booker has accumulated over 3,000 yards of offense and 22 touchdowns (including one passing TD) for the Utes since the beginning of the 2014 season.
Kareem Hunt, Toledo
Kareem Hunt is the best back in the country that most people have never seen play. The MAC does not get much air time on the networks, so very few fans have seen Hunt and his Toledo Rockets play football, and that's OK. NFL scouts know about Kareem and what he can do, and on draft day that is all that really matters. The cat has turned their heads more than once or twice over his career.
Hunt is a true junior, and he may return for his senior year instead of turning professional. Between being suspended for two games to open the season due to a violation of team rules and an issue with a hamstring that limited him during mid-season Hunt may opt to roll the dice on bettering his draft value by playing another season of college ball. If he does turn pro the issues he faced this season are going to allow one team to get a sweet deal on one heck of a running back.
Hunt is a threat to take every touch to the house. His play is a nice mix of both explosiveness and physicality, which is something that he enjoys. Kareem also plays with a chip on his shoulder. He is driven to prove himself on every snap of the ball and that is what keeps the young back working to improve himself. You see, Hunt was ignored by many D-1 colleges simply because his school was considered too small to produce "real" talent. Now he enjoys teaching the naysayers what real talent is.
C.J. Prosise, Notre Dame
Prosise is a dynamic runner and a big body, standing at 6-foot-0, 220 pounds, making him extremely difficult to bring down. Opposing defenses have learned this the hard way, as Prosise is averaging 6.6 yards per carry this season, and has four 140+ yard rushing performances already this season. Total, he's amassed 947 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.
Not only is Prosise a force in the running game, but he's a valuable asset in the passing game. He's caught 23 passes for 262 yards and a touchdown this season, including a four catch, 100-yard receiving day against Clemson back in October.
Prosise projects as an early third-round pick, and if he's there when the Cowboys are up, they should jump all over him. Of course, this all depends on if he declares, as he's got another year of eligibility at the collegiate level.
D.J. Foster, Arizona State
D.J. Foster is an odd prospect, mainly because he spent the majority of the 2014 season as a running back for the Sun Devils. In fact, he ran for over 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014. However, he also had over 60 catches and 600 yards the past two seasons, averaging over 10 yards a reception.
He's transitioned to wide receiver for ASU in 2015, and he leads the team in receptions with 38. He's continued to run the ball a bit, but only to the tune of 34 carries and 219 yards this season.
What makes Foster special is his size, and speed. He's 6-foot-1, but is incredibly quick and has a great first cut in open space, thanks to his extended time as a running back. He's been compared quite a bit to Percy Harvin, which isn't a bad thing at all. Foster projects to be a fourth-round pick, and if the Cowboys were to get him there, he'd be an absolute steal.
Nelson Spruce, Colorado
You know that a wide receiver is unappreciated when he sets the PAC-12's all time receptions record and the reporters in the press box are referring to him only having success because the opposing secondary is terrible. That is exactly the scene that played out when Nelson Spruce set the record against UCLA. Nobody outside the Colorado contingent even recognized the fact that Spruce can get open and catch passes, plenty of them, on any secondary in the nation.
Nelson has not received much national attention during his time as a Buffalo largely in part due to the fact that the school's football team is not very good. That should be expected, but the hometown fans don't know much about him either. Nelson Spruce does not play with flash, though he can make the flashy play. He is a down to earth, blue collar type of play. He goes out and gets the job done and then comes back and does it again. With little fanfare he has become the Buffalo's all time leading receiver in every statistical category.
What is amazing is that Spruce has flown under the radar after having this kind of success against high level competition. Take him out of Colorado and move him to a school experiencing a high level of success and you would start hearing the hype about that trophy that is awarded to the best college football player at the end of each season. Spruce is that good, but he is also unheralded because of where he plays. He has been doing this over four seasons in Colorado and nobody has bothered to notice. You have to wonder what is going to happen on Sundays next fall when people start asking themselves where this kid came from.
Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma
Sterling Shepard has been giving Big 12 defenses fits for what seems like 100 years at this point. Sure, talk all you want about the quality of secondaries in the Big 12, but realize that Shepard racked up a lot of his yards against guys like Jason Verrett, Quandre Diggs, and Justin Gilbert.
Shepard entered the 2015 season with 147 career receptions, 2,194 career receiving yards, and 15 career receiving touchdowns. He's added 43 receptions, 732 yards, and six touchdowns to those totals through eight games this season. Shepard has incredible strength, and he's able to bounce off defenders for yards after contact.
Beyond his ability to take a hit, Shepard has good speed and fantastic hands, meaning that a quarterback really just has to get it close for him to be able to make a play on the ball.
Devon Cajuste, Stanford
Think for a moment about a wide receiver who is bigger and a little heavier than the Falcons Julio Jones, but who is just as fast and almost as talented. Does that sound like the guy you want to have on your team? If so, look no further than Stanford's Devon Cajuste. Like Nelson Spruce, Cajuste is the under the radar type but for a different reason. There is so much talent on the Stanford roster that he gets over looked. He is not even the most highly regarded receiver on the roster.
Devon looks like a tight end, until you see him run. He has wide receiver type speed to go with his large frame, and he can use both to his advantage, There are not many cornerbacks at any level of the game who will not have difficulty dealing with Cajuste once he gets the ball in his hands. He gives DBs nightmares.
Cajuste is Stanford's record holder for yards after the catch because he is so tough to bring down. As a junior he recorded only 28 receptions but he gained 642 yards on those receptions. That is just under 23 yards per catch folks. When you pick up that kind of yardage each time you get the rock, you don't have to touch it very many times to impact the game. He may not be the gamebreaker, but Devon is the guy in the shadows who does the gritty work that makes things happen.