Our two featured running backs bring very different, but equally exciting, skill sets to the Senior Bowl. Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray follows the recent trend toward speed-related running backs that jet downfield like receivers – there's a bit of Chris Johnson and Jamaal Charles(notes) in his game, though his all-purpose style also brings to mind a recent Super Bowl champion whose versatility has often confused analysts.
Can either of them do enough at the Senior Bowl to find their names alongside more celebrated underclassmen at the position? That's why they'll be working so hard down in Mobile.
DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma
Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma State
Pros: Murray has explosive speed as soon as he touches the ball and a rare second gear when he hits the open field. He's just as fast with his cuts as he is in a straight line; adjusts to defenders and can make anyone miss by virtue of his acceleration out of breaks. Outruns cornerbacks on a regular basis. Outstanding cutback runner who blasts through a gap, and he has the vision and patience to wait for things to happen in front of him. Could be an even greater force as a return man at the next level because of his superior vision and ability to make quick cuts with stunning accuracy. Legitimate receiving threat out of the backfield; could easily be split wide and be a threat at the line and has shown development as a route-runner.
Pros: Hunter isn't a speed burner, but he possesses great ability to avoid tackles in the backfield, and he's outstanding at sifting through trash to get upfield on blocks. A very patient runner at the line who has good burst. Keeps his eyes on a swivel; he's a very aware runner wherever he is, but especially in space. Great technique on screens and draws – he doesn't outrun his blockers and he understands his part in an integrated running game. Tough to bring down after first contact, Hunter blows past arm tackles and is very determined in a pile. Just as good inside because he's tough, has a compact body and does not shy away from contact. A foot injury cost him much of the 2009 season, but he came back with aplomb in his senior campaign, matching nearly all of his outstanding 2008 numbers.
Cons: Murray is reasonably tough inside, but he doesn't have much leg drive and he's not set up to be an inside bruiser. Generally most effective (or at least most often used) on Oklahoma's side of the field, when the Sooners implement his abilities to make up ground. Not a great runner after contact, and he benefitted from defenses adjusting to Oklahoma's pass-heavy shotgun attack with both Sam Bradford(notes) and Landry Jones. You wonder if he can shoot out of tighter gaps and shorter windows. Runs more upright than you'd like at the NFL level, almost more like a receiver after the catch than a pure running back. Ankle and hamstring injuries are slight concerns.
Cons: Hunter has good outside and downfield speed, but he'll have trouble against fast defenders. His yards per carry went down every month in his senior year (7.0 to 5.6 to 4.8 to 3.2), which may indicate that he's not a 300-carry back. At his size, he could wear down if used too often inside. Some analysts say that he gained many of his breakaway opportunities based on Oklahoma State's spread offense.
Conclusion: In the right offense, Murray could be an incredible difference-maker, though he'll probably disappoint those who see him as a pure 20-carry per game running back in the NFL. That role would maximize his weaknesses and erase his unique skill set. As a receiver/runner/return man, Murray has everything it takes to reward the offensive coordinator and coaching staff that appreciates his versatility. Murray's straight-line speed will certainly be a focus at the Senior Bowl and beyond; it's his primary attribute, but don't underestimate his outstanding and consistent cuts in space.
Like the New Orleans Saints' Reggie Bush(notes), he's not a typical running back. But Sean Payton figured out how to use Bush to open up New Orleans' passing game, and Murray could certainly do the same.
Conclusion: Because he has such great decision-making abilities and quickness through the hole, Hunter would be a great fit with any team (like the Dallas Cowboys or Pittsburgh Steelers) who run a lot of shotgun draws, play action, and counter/trap runs. He's a tough, well-proportioned back, though giving him a heavy workload isn't a good idea.
With all the talk that Mark Ingram of Alabama is the runaway leader in this draft class of backs, Hunter could rise up as that type of back if he can prove that there's nothing to the spread offense stigma. That's why the Senior Bowl will be so important to him. Though Tashard Choice(notes) is currently the Cowboys' third back, the comparison is not pejorative. Like the underrated Choice, Hunter intrigues and makes one want to see more in different schematic situations.
Pro comparison: Bush, Saints
Pro comparison: Choice, Cowboys
Doug Farrar is a regular contributor to Yahoo! Sports' Shutdown Corner