Running backs are arguably the most valuable position for any fantasy owner, and as such, are targeted early and often during drafts, and that’s no different in NFL or college fantasy leagues. As a result, owners focused on other positions can see top-end talent slip through their grasp.
However, there is always solid talent at the RB position, lesser-known commodities that are often overlooked, but can make or break a fantasy season. In this installment, we look at five potential sleeper college running backs that should help fantasy owners bring home the bacon.
Jalen Hurd, Tennessee
Going into 2014, many people expected Marlin Lane to take over from Rajion Neal as the Volunteers’ lead back. However, that notion was quickly dashed, as Hurd out-carried Lane in all but one game during the season. Lane still managed to get 86 carries, but he’s no longer in the picture, leaving Hurd as the No. 1 ball carrier. Not only does he run well (4.7 yards per carry), he’s also a valuable contributor in the receiving game, recording 35 catches for 221 yards. With a stable of weapons at WR for defenses to focus on (Pig Howard, Von Pearson, Marquez North, Jason Croom, Josh Malone, Preston Williams), Hurd, who’s bulked up to over 240 pounds, should find tons of space to run and be a terror near the goal line. Hurd could be a major coup for owners in the middle rounds once all of the household names are off the board.
Don Jackson, Nevada
Jackson had a solid season in 2014, leading the Wolf Pack in carries (216) and finishing second in rushing yards and touchdowns behind QB Cody Fajardo (957 yards, 7 TDs). With Fajardo graduated, and Nevada breaking in a new QB, Jackson has the potential for a monstrous breakout season. Fajardo had 177 carries in 2014, many of which should fall to Jackson in 2015. Even if Jackson received a quarter of the carries given to Fajardo last season, he would still get more than 260 attempts, which would almost certainly take him over the 1,000-yard plateau. Fajardo also scored 13 rushing TDs last season, so there’s potential for Jackson’s scoring opportunities to increase as well. Even with James Butler in the picture, Jackson should get more than enough carries to be very productive and thrill fantasy owners willing to scoop him up in the later rounds of their drafts.
Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt
To say that Vanderbilt’s offense was atrocious last year would be putting it mildly. The Commodores were one of the worst offensive units in the country in 2014, finishing 116th in FBS at just 17.2 points per game. The only bright spot to Vandy’s train-wreck of an offense was Webb, who ran for 912 yards on 212 carries. Webb wasn’t particularly flashy, averaging only 4.3 yards per carry, but he did grind out 76 yards per game on a squad that only averaged 109 yards on the ground as a team. Vandy fired offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell in the offseason and replaced him with former Cal, San Diego State and Wisconsin OC Andy Ludwig. Under Ludwig, five different running backs (Shane Vereen, Ronnie Hillman, Adam Muema, James White and Melvin Gordon) since 2009 have surpassed 1,000 yards, becoming fantasy mainstays in the process. Ludwig has proven he’s a guru when it comes to developing running backs. Couple that with four returnees on Vanderbilt’s offensive line, and everything points to Webb having a great 2015 season. Fantasy owners should grab him with confidence in later rounds.
Storm Barrs-Woods, Oregon State
Barrs-Woods was quite effective last year, averaging a robust 6.3 yards per carry while racking up 766 yards and five scores. The only problem is he didn’t receive enough carries to be fantasy-relevant, as he was second on the Beavers behind Terron Ward (133 to 121). However, with Ward gone, the workload should fall squarely to Barrs-Woods. New Oregon State head coach Gary Andersen has already confirmed Barrs-Woods will see more touches this season, in the range of 20-25 carries per game. Everyone knows that Andersen-coached teams love to pound the rock. In two seasons at Wisconsin, the Badgers finished no worse than eighth in rushing yards nationally. Playing for a coach who loves to run the ball and having little competition for carries is a perfect fantasy recipe for Barrs-Woods. Fantasy owners should be quick to pull the trigger if he falls to them in the mid-rounds; he should be a great RB2 for any team.
Shadrach Abrokwah, UMass
Abrokwah was quite effective last season, rushing for 578 yards and seven TDs on 122 carries. If this doesn’t seem overly impressive, keep in mind that Abrokwah missed the season’s first four games after being ruled ineligible. So, all of his work was done in just eight games. Over those eight games, Abrokwah averaged 72.3 yards per game. If he had not missed the first four games, at his 2014 per game pace, he would have rushed for more than 860 yards. Four extra games would definitely have added to Abrokwah’s touchdown totals as well. With an increased workload, Abrokwah could see a sharp spike in his numbers, as he only received 15-plus carries in four games last season. In three of those he broke the 100-yard barrier and also scored five times. With QB Blake Frohnapfel keeping defenses honest with his arm, Abrokwah should find more than enough room to operate on the ground. In the late rounds of a draft, Abrokwah should be a steal for owners looking for depth at the RB or FLEX positions.
— Written by Andrew Bursey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network.