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Last week I broke down the positional ranking of the running backs in the Power Five conferences and Notre Dame. It's not just about the starters but the overall depth and talent of each team's position of running back and how I believe this unit will do as a whole this coming season. Here's the national top ten running back units going into the 2015 season.
The Razorbacks are pumped and primed for a break through 2015 season. They have everything in place offensively and will lean heavily on their brutal and punishing run game. Arkansas coach Brett Bielema has a potent one-two punch in senior Jonathan Williams and junior Alex Collins. The two almost put up identical numbers last year, each rushing for over 1,100 yards and a dozen scores. They will be relentless this fall with a ground and pound attack led by this pair and will be as good as anyone in the country in the run game. They are both 220-pounds plus and are proven between the tackles.
Senior Kody Walker, sophomore Denzell Evans, and freshman Juan Day should all see the field and get carries as well. Rawleigh Williams is a 210-pound back Arkansas signed in February. Walker is one of the league’s top fullbacks.
I really like this program in the SEC West. In addition to this running back group they have a very good and veteran offensive line and quarterback. If they are really to make their way to Atlanta in December then this part of the Arkansas offense must be relentless in their attack and impose their will in league play.
Injuries allowed Nick Chubb to strut his stuff in 2014, as he had an absolutely sensational freshman season for the Dawgs. He finished with 1,547 yards and 14 scores and was virtually unstoppable the second half of the season. Georgia will have Keith Marshall back as well as Sony Michel. Remember both Michel and Chubb came to Athens together as members of Georgia’s 2014 recruiting class. Michel averaged over seven yards per rush last year, scored six touchdowns and is an excellent receiver out of the backfield.
This spring, Chubb got rest while Michel injured his collar bone. Many of the carries went to A.J. Turman, who looked very good. It should be the Chubb/Michel show in 2015. But running backs get banged up and UGA is a good four deep here. Marshall is an outstanding senior talent who came in with Todd Gurley. He just can’t stay healthy and battled a bad hamstring this spring.
The Ducks should have an outstanding ground game in 2015 as they have a loaded arsenal at tailback. Leading the way is super sophomore Royce Freeman. As a true freshman he rushed for 1,365 yards and 18 touchdowns. In fact, he’s the first Oregon freshman to ever eclipse the century mark. Freeman had 1,523 all-purpose yards. He has outstanding size and speed at 5-foot-11, 230-pounds.
Junior Thomas Tyner is the fast one of the group. At 215-pounds, he can absolutely fly. He finished the 2014 season with only 586 yards and six scores. Tyner has the ability to be a 1,000 yard rusher. He rushed for 711 yards and nine touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013. Senior Byron Marshall rushed for 392 yards and led the team in receptions with 74 and 1,003 receiving yards and six touchdown receptions in 2014. It’s expected that red-shirt freshman Tony Brooks-James make his presence felt this fall. He’s one of the fastest players in the Pac-12. True freshman Taj Griffin is an ideal, explosive piece for the Oregon offense. The Ducks also signed a bigger back in the 5-foot-11, 210-pound Kirk Merritt.
With Marcus Mariota in the NFL and the Ducks breaking in a new quarterback, Freeman, Tyner and company will need to have a big fall and post some huge numbers on the ground.
4) Ohio State
The Buckeyes ground attack is led by junior running back Ezekiel Elliott. He ran like a beast in the second half of the season, especially over the Ohio State run in the Big 10 Championship and playoff and title games. Over those last 12 quarters Elliott was red hot and unstoppable, rushing for a staggering 704 yards and eight touchdowns when the games meant the most. Elliott enters 2015 as a Heisman Trophy candidate and arguably the game’s top player at his position. He finished the 2014 season with 1,878 yards and 18 scores.
The Buckeyes found Elliott’s backup this spring in Bri’onte Dunn. This red-shirt junior got much of the spring reps and looked super. He gives Ohio State that big back presence. Another player to keep an eye on this fall is Mike Weber. He was a four-star recruit that Urban Meyer signed with his 2015 that will certainly have a chance to play. Curtis Samuel was moved to wide receiver.
James Conner is one of the leading returning running backs in college football. This Panther rushed for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2014 and averaged 5.9 yards per carry. This junior is a monster at 6-foot-2, 250-pounds and looking to build on an already impressive running back resume and the 2014 ACC Offensive Player of the Year. Conner could challenge the 2,000 yard mark this season and put up Heisman Trophy like numbers once again.
As a true freshman Chris James had an impressive campaign, rushing for 437 yards, four scores and averaged five yards a carry last season. He will be counted on even more this year. Fellow freshman Qadree Ollison red-shirted in ’14 so he will be ready to go this fall. There’s also Rachid Ibrahim, who has plenty of game experience over the last two seasons. Pitt was so deep here that they moved some guys to defense. Four-star running back Darrin Hall signed with the Panthers as well.
Oklahoma freshman Samaje Perine had a sizzling true freshman season in 2014 after rushing for 1,713 yards and 21 touchdowns. It was an incredibly year, especially the back half which included a 427-yard performance against Kansas. There’s a new offensive coordinator (Lincoln Riley) and likely a new quarterback in Norman, but expect much of the same for the Sooner run game, especially from this powerhouse sophomore.
There’s some nice talent behind Perine in the OU backfield. All Sooner fans are anxious to see former five-star prospect Joe Mixon run the rock. He was suspended all of 2014 by Sooners coach Bob Stoops and that suspension included the spring game. By all accounts, Mixon impressed the Oklahoma staff all throughout the spring practice session and looks like the first running back off the bench. Another player that impressed this spring was red-shirt junior Alex Ross. He’s another big back at 220-pounds. True freshman Rodney Anderson and red-shirt junior Daniel Brooks are two other running backs that should get some touches this fall.
Riley is known as a pass first offensive coordinator with an offense called the ‘air raid’ but make no bones about it; the running back group at Oklahoma is so strong it has to be the centerpiece of this offense.
There’s a lot of buzz around the Bruins right now, especially with true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen. So it’s good for UCLA that they have a super running back talent like Paul Perkins. He posted a terrific 2014 campaign and finished atop the Pac-12 rushing charts. Perkins had 1,575 yards, nine touchdowns and averaged an eye popping 6.3 yards per carry. Perkins was also active in the passing game with 26 receptions and a pair of scores. Bruins coach Jim Mora will need that kind of production again from this workhorse while breaking in Rosen.
Nate Starks is the only other full time running back with any kind of experience. He saw action in a dozen games last year and had 32 carries. Of course UCLA is the home to one of college football best overall players in linebacker and part time running back Myles Jack. He had 28 touches last season with 125 yards and three scores. Craig Lee and Steve Manfro will be two other options. The Bruins signed the nation’s top running back in Sotonye Jamabo but he was arrested in April for fleeing police. He was booked on charges of speeding and alcohol possession. Jamabo’s availability is unknown at this time but many feel he will be ready for fall camp. Another incoming freshman at this position is Bolu Olorunfunmi.
If he gets a lion’s share of the Alabama carries this fall then I could see Derrick Henry posting Heisman Trophy like numbers for the Crimson Tide offense. This is a huge running back north of 240-pounds that should be primed and ready for a monster junior season this fall. Last year in sharing carries in Tuscaloosa he still rushed for 990 yards. Alabama is not quite as running back deep as they have normally been but remember that Henry is a back that can carry the mail and be a workhorse. Senior Kenyan Drake is a versatile and speedy talent that should complement Henry well, especially in the Tide passing attack. There was terrible news for Bo Scarbrough, as he tore his ACL this spring. Altee Tenpenny and Tyren Jones are no longer with the team. Alabama does have two talented true freshmen in Damien Harris and DeSherrius Flowers. Harris has a chance to be special for the Crimson Tide.
Alabama's offense will be interesting to watch for Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, considering they are breaking in a new starting quarterback, Amari Cooper is now in the NFL, and the makeup of the current running back situation. There’s no doubt there’s still an array of talent here but Henry and Drake have to stay healthy this fall.
LSU is loaded at running back, led by the nation’s top recruit in 2014, Leonard Fournette. His true freshman season was a good one as he rushed for 1,034 yards, 10 touchdowns and averaged 5.5 yards per carry. Barring injury, Fournette is poised for a super ’15 campaign and should challenge for the league rushing title. He worked hard in the off-season to get stronger and become a better blocker and receiving out of the back field. It showed during spring ball, as Fournette looked fantastic in every aspect of the game. He’s stronger, faster and more patient of a runner. He was certainly one of the most improved players this spring in Baton Rouge. That’s scary. Fournette is hungry to make this upcoming season one to remember for the Tigers.
LSU has some nice talent behind him. Darrell Williams is a good running back that came in with Fournette in the same recruiting class. There’s also freshman fullback David Ducre and incoming freshman Nicholas Brossette and Derrius Guice. Brossette and Guice are good enough to find their way into the rotation very early at LSU.
10) Florida State
The fan in me can’t wait to see the Dalvin Cook encore in 2015. He will be one of the most explosive players in college football this coming season. Cook was one of a handful of true freshman running backs that made an enormous impact on their respective programs. FSU probably doesn’t make the first ever college football playoff last season without his 1,008 yards and eight scores. The only issue with Cook is ball security. He needs to do a better job in this area.
Florida State has some good talent behind the speedy Cook. True freshman Jacques Patrick had a fantastic spring. He’s going to be Jimbo Fisher’s hammer with his 235-pound frame and running style. Mario Pender looked good as well and is finally ready to declare his role in the Seminole offense. Look for both Pender/Patrick to spell Cook and be kind of 2A and 2B in the rotation. There’s also Jonathan Vickers, who will likely see time at both running back and fullback.
There will be a ton of pressure on this group because quarterback Jameis Winston and some veteran offensive linemen have moved on to the NFL.
SEC RB Rankings
Big 10 and Notre Dame RB Rankings
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