The 2012 college football season is still months away, but it's never too early to preview. Athlon continues its countdown to the upcoming season and spring previews by ranking the running backs in each of the BCS conferences. The rankings take into account last season's production, what each player is expected to do in 2012 and the surrounding personnel.
Here's how Athlon ranks the running backs in the ACC for 2012:
1. Giovani Bernard, North Carolina (SO)
Rushing Stats: 239 att., 1,253 yards, 13 TD
Receiving Stats: 45 rec., 362 yards, TD
As a redshirt freshman, few players in the ACC had the type of impact Bernard had a year ago save for Mr. Watkins (a true freshman) at Clemson. It didn’t take long for fans to see the potential as Bernard scored two touchdowns in each of his first two games. He then rattled off five straight 100-yard games. He struggled down the stretch — likely hitting a rookie wall — with four games of 60 yards or less in his final six games. But he also posted a career-high 165 yards on a career-high 30 carries in the regular season finale against Duke. With a tremendous quarterback in Bryn Renner returning behind him and a solid offensive line up front, Bernard has a chance to build on his stellar first campaign in 2012. Additionally, his ability to excel as a receiver has to get new head coach and offensive guru Larry Fedora excited about using No. 26 this fall.
2. Andre Ellington, Clemson (SR)
Rushing Stats: 223 att., 1,178 yards, 11 TDs
Receiving Stats: 22 rec., 109 yards, 0 TD
Ellington’s first season as the starter in 2010 was cut short by a toe injury, but he rebounded with an excellent 2011 campaign. Ellington rushed for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns last year and added 22 receptions for 109 yards. He also closed out the year with back-to-back 100-yard games and rushed for 212 yards in a 56-45 victory over Maryland. Ellington is averaging an impressive 5.8 yards per rush during his career and has recorded 27 overall scores. There’s not much separating Ellington and North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard for the top spot in the ACC running back rankings. However, with Mike Bellamy likely to see a few more carries this year, it’s hard to see Ellington passing Bernard in rushing yardage.
3. Perry Jones, Virginia (SR)
Rushing Stats: 184 att., 915 yards, 5 TD
Receiving Stats: 48 rec., 506 yards, 3 TD
The 5-foot-8, 185-pound tailback started all 13 games for the Wahoos last fall. He isn’t the typical three-down feature back but can make big things happen in all phases of the offense. He had at least five games of at least five receptions and finished as the team’s No. 2 leading receiver with 48 catches. His three receiving touchdowns tied for the team lead and he even tossed a 37-yard touchdown pass in the upset road win over Miami. He only topped the 20-carry mark three times last fall but averaged nearly five yards a carry over the coarse of the season. As the Virginia brand name continues its resurrection, expect Jones to be a focal point of the offense in 2012.
4. Kevin Parks, Virginia (SO)
Rushing Stats: 152 att., 709 yards, 9 TD
Receiving Stats: 11 rec., 82 yards, TD
Parks came to Virginia with arguably the greatest prep resume for any tailback in history. His 10,895 yards are third all-time in American prep football history and no other player carried the football more than Parks’ 1,370 career attempts. Parks proved his high school resume was no fluke when he topped the 100-yard mark and scored three times in his UVa debut. He then scored twice more in Week 2. Despite missing the Idaho game and as only a freshman, Parks set the Virginia single-season rushing touchdown record with nine scores. And he did it as the back-up. Like his running mate Perry Jones, Parks is short in stature at 5-foot-8, but unlike Jones, he is thickly built and can be a goalline and short yardage player due to toughness and lower body strength. No matter who is technically named the starter, Mike London has to be pleased with his running back situation.
5. Montel Harris, Boston College (SR)
Rushing Stats: 31 att., 135 yards, 0 TD
Receiving Stats: 3 rec., 36 yards, 0 TD
Harris could rank higher on this list, but it’s hard to know what to expect out of him in 2012. He entered last season with a chance to break the ACC’s career rushing record, but managed only 135 yards and played in only two games after having knee surgery in the preseason. Harris was expected to be at full strength in spring practice, but aggravated his knee injury and it’s uncertain if he will return at 100 percent in time for the regular season. If the senior can’t return or is limited, Boston College will likely lean on junior Andre Williams to carry the load on the ground. Harris has had a terrific career, but it could end in disappointment if he can’t return in 2012.
6. Mike Bellamy, Clemson (SO)
Rushing Stats: 57 att., 343 yards, 3 TDs
Receiving Stats: 2 rec., 4 yards, 0 TD
Bellamy may not have the numbers to rank No. 6 on this list, but he certainly has the talent. As a true freshman last year, he rushed for 343 yards and three touchdowns. Bellamy ranked as the No. 7 overall running back in the 2011 Athlon Consensus 100, but playing time is limited with Andre Ellington ahead of him on the depth chart. Also, the sophomore has been in and out of coach Dabo Swinney’s doghouse, but it appears Bellamy is working his way back into his good graces heading into the summer. Bellamy may have only 300-500 rushing yards this year, but look for him to emerge as one of the ACC’s best backs going into 2013.
7. Orwin Smith, Georgia Tech (SR)
Rushing Stats: 61 att., 615 yards, 11 TD
Receiving Stats: 13 rec., 306 yards, TD
The “A-Back” in Paul Johnson’s patented triple-option attack averaged over 10 yards per clip a season ago, making Smith the clear big play threat in Tech’s offense. Over the last two seasons, he has touched the ball only 139 times and posted only one game with double-digit rushing attempts (12 against Miami in 2010). Yet, the 6-foot, 202 pounder mustered 1,632 yards from scrimmage over that span for an appalling per-touch average of 11.7 yards. And his 11 touchdowns last fall led all Yellow Jacket running backs. The offensive line at Tech returns largely intact, and the backfield is loaded, so expect Smith to only continue to rip off chunks of yards in 2012.
8. David Sims, Georgia Tech (JR)
Rushing Stats: 135 att., 698 yards, 7 TD
Receiving Stats: 3 rec., 29 yards, TD
The “B-Back” in the Yellow Jackets’ offense is asked to be a much more physical, more short yardage ball-carrier and Sims performed admirably a year ago. Filling in for famed Jonathan Dwyer, Sims led all running backs in carries and yards last year despite not playing in the bowl game. He checks in at around 220 pounds, so he fits the position perfectly. Sims is never going to be asked to pick-up big plays, but he will be a consistent force up the heart of the triple-option offensive attack in 2012 — especially running behind a veteran offensive line and quarterback.
9. Mike James, Miami (SR)
Rushing Stats: 72 att., 275 yards, 7 TD
Receiving Stats: 9 rec., 80 yards, TD
Serving as the backup for Lamar Miller, James appeared in 12 games with two starts a year ago. He finished second on the team in rushing, carries and total touchdowns. He showed flashed of upside in his best performance of the season against Duke, when he scored two touchdowns and recorded 101 yards from scrimmage on only nine touches against Duke. At 5-foot-11 and 222 pounds, James has the skillset to be the three-down feature back that Al Golden craves. However, James’ upside in 2012 may be limited by a youthful offense and inconsistent quarterback play.
10. Josh Harris, Wake Forest (JR)
Rushing Stats: 101 att., 432 yards, 3 TDs
Receiving Stats: 5 rec., 22 yards, 0 TD
A hamstring injury essentially ended Harris’ 2011 season after five games. Although he returned for two games later in the year, Harris wasn’t the same player and was relegated to only 10 carries after tallying 91 through the first five weeks. When healthy, Harris is capable of contending for All-ACC honors. As a sophomore in 2010, he rushed for 720 yards and seven touchdowns. Harris was averaging 82.4 yards per game before his injury and also chipped in five receptions. Assuming he returns at full strength for 2012, the junior will have a chance to rush for 1,000 yards. However, Harris will be running behind an offensive line that must replace four starters in 2012.
11. James Washington, NC State (SR)
Rushing Stats: 226 att., 897 yards, 7 TDs
Receiving Stats: 42 rec., 315 yards, 0 TD
Washington was a pleasant surprise for NC State last season. After rushing for just 291 yards in his first two seasons in Raleigh, he recorded 897 yards and seven scores last year. Washington was also a key factor in the passing attack, catching 42 passes for 315 yards. He posted three 100-yard efforts, rushing for a season-high 131 yards against Georgia Tech, 109 against Central Michigan and 110 in a 13-0 shutout win over rival North Carolina. NC State would probably like to see Washington improve slightly on his 3.9 yards per rush, but he will face competition from Tony Creecy and Mustafa Greene (provided a legal incident in the spring won’t prevent him from returning to the team).
12. Devonta Freeman, Florida State (SO)
Rushing Stats: 120 att., 579 yards, 8 TDs
Receiving Stats: 15 rec., 111 yards, 0 TD
Florida State’s ground attack was one of the worst in the ACC last year, but it’s hard to fault Freeman or any of the other running backs. The Seminoles struggled to establish consistency or open any rushing lanes on the offensive line, which prevented Freeman from getting on track last season. As a true freshman last year, he rushed for 579 yards and eight scores, while catching 15 passes for 111 yards. Freeman posted back-to-back 100-yard efforts in mid-October, rushing for 109 yards against Duke and 100 against Maryland. The sophomore certainly has some talent and should be Florida State’s leading rusher in 2012. However, he will face competition from incoming freshman Mario Pender and sophomore James Wilder Jr. If Freeman was the clear No. 1 back, he would likely rank higher on this list.
13. Andre Williams, Boston College (JR)
Rushing Stats: 124 att., 517 yards, 4 TDs
Receiving Stats: 2 rec., 11 yards, 0 TD
With Montel Harris battling a knee injury once again, Williams may end up shouldering much of Boston College’s rushing offense early in the year. The junior has shown flashes of ability, rushing for 185 yards on 42 attempts in the 2010 regular season finale. He also rushed for 114 yards and two scores in the opener against Northwestern in 2011 and posted 61 yards on 18 attempts in an upset win over NC State last year. If Harris is limited or unable to go, Williams could finish with over 200 carries and over 1,000 rushing yards. The junior needs a little help from the offensive line and passing attack to keep defenses from keying on the run, but this Boston College back could be higher on the list at the conclusion of the 2012 season.
14. Michael Holmes, Virginia Tech (FR)
Rushing Stats: Redshirted in 2011
Receiving Stats: Redshirted in 2011
Not much is known about the young tailback and that is just the way he likes it. The shy, soft-spoken prep star has yet to play a game in a Hokies uniform and has already become the center of attention in Blacksburg. The Harrisonburg High star rushed for a school record 2,877 yards in his career and scored 41 touchdowns as a senior. He now sits atop the Hokies depth chart and is preparing to carry the load for the Coastal Division favorites. The 5-foot-11, 208-pound tailback will compete with Tony Gregory, who is sitting out spring ball with a knee injury, and early enrollee J.C. Coleman.
15. Juwan Thompson, Duke (JR)
Rushing Stats: 110 att., 457 yards, 7 TD
Receiving Stats: 22 rec., 182 yards, TD
Thompson can be a bulldozer of a ball-carrier for the Blue Devils as he enters upperclass status. The 230-pounder finished last season as the team’s leading rusher and leading touchdown provider. When Desmond Scott missed three games early in the year, Thompson took over and never looked back. He posted his best two-game stretch at the end of September when he touched the ball 32 times for 131 yards and two scores in wins over Tulane and FIU. With Thompson, head coach David Cutcliffe has one of the ACC’s top triplets with quarterback Sean Renfree and wideout Conner Vernon.
Others to Watch
Rolandan Finch, Boston College (JR) – Finch led Boston College with 705 yards last season, including 243 in a 28-17 victory over Maryland. Andre Williams appears to be the Eagles No. 1 back, but don’t count out Finch from working his way into a split carry situation.
Mustafa Greene, NC State (SO) – Greene missed last season due to injury and had an off-the-field incident this spring that has put his status with the team in doubt. As a freshman in 2010, he rushed for 597 yards and four scores.
Charles Perkins, Georgia Tech (SO) – Rushed for only 95 yards last season, but could push for more playing time at the B-Back position.
Justus Pickett, Maryland (SO) - Pickett recorded 274 yards and one score as a freshman last season, but is not guaranteed a starting spot going into 2012.
Clifton Richardson, Virginia (SO) – With Perry Jones and Kevin Parks returning, there’s not a ton of carries available for Richardson. As a true freshman, he managed 366 yards and two rushing scores.
Desmond Scott, Duke (SR) – Scott finished second on the team with 367 rushing yards last season. He will compete with Juwan Thompson for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart.
Josh Snead, Duke (SO) – Snead missed 2011 with an injury, but rushed for 221 yards and one score as a freshman in 2010. Although Juwan Thompson and Desmond Scott are likely the top two backs, Snead could work his way into playing time.
James Wilder Jr., Florida State (SO) – Big expectations surrounded Wilder going into 2011, but he managed only 160 yards and one rushing score on 35 attempts. The sophomore had an off-the-field issue early in the spring, but is back at practice and expected to contend with Devonta Freeman and Mario Pender for carries.
Top Freshmen To Watch:
Randy “Duke” Johnson, Miami
The Duke is an speedy, incredible playmaker with the ability to score from anywhere on the field. Could also contribute on special teams. Whether or not his smallish 5-foot-9, 183-pound frame handle the pounding of three-down play remains to be seen.
Mario Pender, Florida State
The Cape Coral, Fla., native is already enrolled and working with an offense that is in desperate need of a true playmaker at running back. Keep an eye on the 6-foot-0, 190-pounder in Tallahassee.
J.C. Coleman and Drew Harris, Virginia Tech
The smaller (5-7, 170) Coleman perfectly compliments the burly (6-1, 220) Harris. Coleman brings third-down ability and out-of-the-backfield skill while Harris should excel around the goalline and in short yardage. Coleman enrolled early and could compete for carries with Michael Holmes right away.
Wes Brown, Maryland
Randy Edsall has always had successful running backs and Brown has workhorse written all over him. The 210-pound local product could have a chance to contribute right away for a program in desperate need of positive energy.
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