It’s too early to say whether or not 2016 will be the year of the running back in college football, but there’s no shortage of talent returning at this position next fall. The top three returning options at running back – LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey – should be among the favorites to win the Heisman in 2016. And there’s a strong second tier in place with the return of Oregon’s Royce Freeman, Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine, Clemson’s Wayne Gallman and Georgia’s Nick Chubb. North Carolina’s Elijah Hood and Penn State’s Saquon Barkley are two names just inside of the top 10 that could climb even higher next fall.
With spring practice inching closer for all 128 teams, Athlon Sports is taking an early look at the top 75 running backs in the nation for 2016. This list could look a lot different by August, as position battles are sorted out and the distribution of carries for each team is developed, along with the emergence of freshmen in offseason workouts. Our rankings are compiled by using many factors including career stats so far, 2015 statistics, pro potential, projection for 2016, value to the team, recruiting background and just overall talent. Additionally, playing time and the split of carries for teams with multiple backs in consideration was taken into account. Think of this list as an early power ranking for 2016, with tweaks expected at the end of spring and prior to Week 1.
Other names in consideration: Gerard Wicks, Washington State; De’Veon Smith, Michigan; Kalen Ballage, Arizona State; C.J. Leggett, Georgia Tech; Dalyn Dawkins, Colorado State; Terry Swanson, Toledo; A.J. Ouellette, Ohio; Markell Jones, Purdue; Robert Martin, Rutgers; Gerald Holmes, Michigan State; Devin Chafin, Baylor; Anthony Wales, WKU; Jeffrey Wilson, North Texas
College Football's Pre-Spring Top 75 RB Ranks for 2016
75. Marquis Young, UMass
Young’s 960 yards last season was the highest mark by an UMass player since the Minutemen joined the FBS ranks in 2012. He also finished the year on a high note, gashing Buffalo for 240 yards and three scores on 35 attempts in the season finale.
74. Johnston White, Arkansas State
Three Arkansas State running backs eclipsed the 600-yard mark last season. With Michael Gordon expiring his eligibility, Warren Wand and Johnston White should be more involved with the ground attack in 2016. White recorded 616 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2015.
73. Devante Mays, Utah State
In his first season at Utah State, Mays led the team with 966 yards and nine rushing scores. The junior college product became more involved as the season progressed and finished with two 100-yard efforts over the final three games.
72. Jarveon Williams, UTSA
Williams was a breakout performer for the Roadrunners last season and is one of the top returning players for new coach Frank Wilson. In 11 appearances last season, Williams rushed for 1,042 yards and eight touchdowns.
71. Paul Harris, Hawaii
Harris has an interesting backstory on his path to Hawaii. In his first year with the Rainbow Warriors, Harris led the team with 1,132 yards and finished the season by recording 125 yards in each of the last four games.
70. Jordan Scarlett, Florida
Scarlett was a key pickup on the recruiting trail for coach Jim McElwain in the 2015 signing class, and the four-star recruit played sparingly behind Kelvin Taylor. In nine appearances, Scarlett recorded 181 yards and one touchdown on 34 carries.
69. LeShun Daniels, Iowa
Iowa may not have a clear star at running back, but the Hawkeyes have plenty of depth and options to lean on in 2016. Daniels gets the nod on the list after finishing second to Jordan Canzeri (expired eligibility after the Rose Bowl) in rushing yards (646) last season. However, Akrum Wadley and Derrick Mitchell will factor into the mix for carries.
68. Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Illinois
The Fighting Illini offense will miss Josh Ferguson, but Vaughn is a capable replacement. In 11 games as a true freshman last season, he recorded 723 yards and six touchdowns and grabbed 16 receptions for 119 yards.
67. Shannon Brooks, Minnesota
Brooks recorded a solid freshman campaign despite not receiving a carry through Minnesota’s first three contests. The Georgia native finished with 709 yards and seven touchdowns on 119 carries and posted two 100-yard games.
66. Justin Stockton, Texas Tech
Stockton is a big-play threat for coach Kliff Kingsbury and will be critical in helping the Red Raider offense replace DeAndre Washington’s production (1,492 yards in 2015). Stockton averaged 6.02 yards per carry last season and caught 22 passes for 341 yards and six touchdowns.
65. Khalfani Muhammad, California
Starter Daniel Lasco was limited most of the season due to injury, which allowed Muhammad to lead the team in rushing yards (586) last season. Muhammad is also one of the fastest players in college football and could see an increased role next fall.
64. Jela Duncan, Duke
Duncan missed the 2014 season due to a suspension but picked up where he left off in 2013 last fall. In 10 games, Duncan recorded 460 yards and four touchdowns and averaged a healthy 6.9 yards per carry.
63. Jacobi Owens, Air Force
Owens has recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns for the Falcons and earned honorable mention All-Mountain West honors in 2015.
62. Joe Williams, Utah
Devontae Booker leaves big shoes to fill in Salt Lake City, but the Utes got a glimpse of their 2016 ground attack in the final three games of 2015. With Booker out due to injury, Williams – a former junior college recruit – posted 100-yard efforts against UCLA and Colorado and recorded 91 yards against BYU. He has a chance to move up on this list by the conclusion of spring practices.
61. Soso Jamabo, UCLA
With Paul Perkins off to the NFL, Jamabo is slated to take the top spot in UCLA’s backfield. Jamabo was a five-star recruit in the 2015 signing class for coach Jim Mora and recorded 403 yards and four touchdowns on 66 carries.
60. Jamauri Bogan, Western Michigan
Western Michigan’s leading rusher has been a freshman in each of the last two seasons. Jarvion Franklin paced the Broncos’ ground attack in 2014 with 1,551 yards, and Bogan took the lead for coach P.J. Fleck last season, recording 1,051 yards and 16 scores.
59. Ito Smith, Southern Miss
Todd Monken’s late departure for the NFL has added some uncertainty for Southern Miss going into 2016. New coach Jay Hopson will certainly put his stamp on the program, but the first-year coach shouldn’t change too much on offense. Smith teamed with Jalen Richard to form an effective one-two punch for the Golden Eagles last year, rushing for 1,128 yards and 10 scores and catching 49 passes for 515 yards.
58. Joel Bouagnon, Northern Illinois
Bouagnon is a 6-foot-2, 226-pound bruising rusher for coach Rod Carey. After sitting behind Cameron Stingily for two seasons (2013-14), Bouagnon stepped into the lead role for the Huskies last year and recorded 1,286 yards and 18 scores.
57. Jamaal Williams, BYU
It’s hard to rank Williams on the list, as he’s coming back from sitting out the 2015 season and an ACL tear suffered late in the 2014 campaign. However, Williams is also one of the most productive running backs in school history and needs just under 1,000 yards to pass Harvey Unga for the most career rushing yards by a BYU player.
56. Devine Redding, Indiana
Jordan Howard’s one-year stint in Bloomington was a successful one, and the Hoosiers have a capable replacement waiting in the wings. Redding rushed for 1,012 yards and nine scores and posted three straight performances of 130 yards or more to end 2015.
55. Justin Davis, USC
Davis is the second USC running back to appear on this list. He nearly eclipsed 1,000 yards in 2015, finishing with 902 yards and seven touchdowns on 169 attempts. Additionally, he recorded over 100 yards against Oregon and UCLA.
54. Jon Hilliman, Boston College
Hilliman struggled to find running room (3.9 ypc) behind Boston College’s rebuilt offensive line last season and was lost for the year after suffering a broken foot against Northern Illinois.
Related: Early ACC Predictions for 2016
53. Jovon Robinson, Auburn
The No. 54 spot on this list might be too low for Robinson. In his first year from the junior college ranks, Robinson rushed for 639 yards and three scores, including 126 yards against Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl. With Peyton Barber off to the NFL, Robinson is poised to see an increase in carries next fall.
52. Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt’s offense is a work in progress under second-year coordinator Andy Ludwig and sophomore quarterback Kyle Shurmur, but the Commodores are in good shape on the ground, as Webb (1,152 yards and five scores) returns after producing the first 1,000-yard season for the program since 2012.
51. Chris Warren, Texas
Warren stepped up with D’Onta Foreman sidelined by injury in Texas’ final two games of 2015. He gashed Texas Tech for 276 yards and four touchdowns and recorded 106 yards on 28 attempts against Baylor. Warren and Foreman will lead the way for the Longhorns in 2016, but true freshman Kyle Porter could factor into the mix.
50. D’Onta Foreman, Texas
Foreman missed the last two games of 2015 due to injury but finished as Texas’ leading rusher with 681 yards on 95 attempts. His 7.2 yards per carry average ranked second in the Big 12 behind Baylor’s Johnny Jefferson.
49. Taquan Mizzell, Virginia
Mizzell posted a career-best 664 yards last season and was a valuable cog in Virginia’s passing attack. The Virginia native led the team with 75 catches and ranked second with 721 receiving yards.
48. Rushel Shell, West Virginia
High expectations have surrounded Shell since he was a four-star recruit coming out of high school. However, he’s yet to reach 1,000 yards in a season and finished second on the team last year with 708 yards. With Wendell Smallwood off to the NFL, Shell will compete with junior college recruit Justin Crawford for the top spot on the depth chart.
47. Ray Lawry, Old Dominion
Lawry led all Conference USA running backs by averaging 103.3 rushing yards per game last season. He also has 27 rushing scores over the last two seasons and was a valuable receiver out of the backfield (21 catches).
46. Curtis Samuel, Ohio State
Ezekiel Elliott leaves big shoes to fill in Columbus. The Buckeyes head into spring ball with some uncertainty at this position, as Mike Weber, Antonio Williams, Bri’onte Dunn and Samuel are all expected to push for carries. Does Samuel fit in better as a running back, H-back or as a receiver?
45. Johnny Jefferson, Baylor
Jefferson is the second running back from Baylor to make this list. Thanks to 457 yards over the final two games of 2015, Jefferson joined teammate Shock Linwood in the 1,000-yard club last season.
44. Tarean Folston, Notre Dame
Folston’s 2015 season was cut short after a knee injury in the opener against Texas. With C.J. Prosise off to the NFL, Folston is expected to regain the No. 1 job in the backfield. He rushed for 889 yards and six touchdowns as Notre Dame’s feature back in 2014.
43. Qadree Ollison, Pittsburgh
James Conner is on track to return in 2016, but the Panthers won’t have to rush him back with Ollison in the mix. Ollison kept Pittsburgh’s ground attack going without Conner last year, recording 1,121 yards and 11 scores as a redshirt freshman.
42. Travon McMillian, Virginia Tech
New coach Justin Fuente inherits a couple of talented options in the backfield, with McMillian leading the way after recording 1,042 yards and seven touchdowns in 2015. He was the first 1,000-yard rusher for the Hokies since David Wilson reached that mark in 2011. Shai McKenzie and Marshawn Williams return to the mix after redshirt years in 2015.
41. Keith Ford, Texas A&M
Ford should be one of the nation’s impact transfers in 2016. The Texas native was a five-star recruit coming out of high school and played in eight games with Oklahoma in 2014. In limited action with the Sooners, Ford recorded 392 yards and five touchdowns on 71 carries.
Related: Very Early Top 25 for 2016
40. Leon Allen, WKU
Allen is one of the toughest players to rank on this list after a serious knee injury ended his 2015 season in September. As WKU’s feature back in 2014, Allen rushed for 1,542 yards and 13 touchdowns and caught 51 passes for 476 yards and three scores. If Allen isn’t ready by the opener, the Hilltoppers have two capable options on the ground in Anthony Wales and D’Andre Ferby.
39. Alvin Kamara, Tennessee
Kamara is the second Tennessee running back to make this list and is a solid complement option to starter Jalen Hurd. In 13 games last year, Kamara recorded 698 yards and seven scores and grabbed 34 receptions for 291 yards and three touchdowns. Opportunities are slightly limited with Hurd the No. 1 option, but Kamara is good enough to start for many SEC programs next season.
38. Matt Dayes, NC State
Dayes was limited to eight games due to injury but still finished as NC State’s leading rusher with 865 yards last season. The Florida native should return at full strength next fall, but he will be pushed for snaps by sophomore Reggie Gallaspy II and redshirt freshman Johnny Frasier.
37. Joseph Yearby, Miami
Mark Richt’s offenses at Georgia always boasted a strong ground game, and it’s a safe bet he will look to energize a rushing attack that ranked 13th in the ACC last season. Yearby was a big-time pickup on the recruiting trail for Miami and worked as the team’s feature back after a year as Duke Johnson’s understudy. Yearby recorded 1,002 yards and six scores last season.
36. Boom Williams, Kentucky
Williams is an explosive, game-changing back for the Wildcats, and new coordinator Eddie Gran needs to find ways to get the Georgia native more involved. Despite missing two games, Williams averaged 7.1 yards per carry in 2015 and recorded six rushing scores.
35. Aaron Jones, UTEP
Jones is one of the top running backs in the Group of 5 ranks, but his 2015 season ended after an ankle injury on Sept. 12 against Texas Tech. He should rebound in a big way this fall with a chance to surpass his 2014 totals (1,321 yards and 11 scores).
34. James Butler, Nevada
Nevada’s offense featured two 1,000-yard rushers last season, with Butler leading the way at 1,345 yards. Additionally, Butler recorded a career-best mark of 189 yards in the Arizona Bowl victory over Colorado State and reached 100 rushing yards in five out of his last six games. Penn State graduate transfer Akeel Lynch should take Don Jackson’s place as Butler’s backup in 2016.
33. Jahad Thomas, Temple
Thomas quietly impressed last fall, rushing for 1,262 yards and 17 scores on 276 carries. The 1,000-yard rushing season was the first by a Temple player since 2012 and was a big improvement from the 384 team-leading yards Thomas had in 2014.
32. Demario Richard, Arizona State
A breakout year was expected from Richard last season, and he delivered with a solid, all-around sophomore campaign. He rushed for 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns and caught 31 passes for 303 yards and three scores. With a new quarterback taking over in Tempe next fall, Richard and backfield mate Kalen Ballage could shoulder more of the workload on offense.
31. Nick Wilson, Arizona
Injuries derailed Wilson’s 2015 season, as he finished second on the team with 725 yards and eight scores after recording 1,375 yards and 16 scores as a freshman in 2014. Wilson rushed for 135 or more yards in three out of the first four games but never eclipsed more than 80 yards in his final four appearances last fall.
30. Bo Scarbrough, Alabama
Replacing a Heisman Trophy winner or an All-American at running back is usually a difficult task, but this is the norm at Alabama. The Crimson Tide’s run of talented rushers – Eddie Lacy, Glen Coffee, Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry – is deep and impressive. Scarbrough has all of the physical tools and talent to be the next standout for coach Nick Saban. However, he just lacks experience after rushing 18 times for 104 yards and one score last year.
Related: Early SEC Predictions for 2016
29. Marlon Mack, South Florida
Mack is only the third player in South Florida history to reach the 1,000-yard mark on the ground. After recording 1,041 yards and nine scores as a freshman in 2014, Mack posted a strong sophomore season, rushing for 1,381 yards and eight touchdowns.
28. LJ Scott, Michigan State
Regardless of what Scott does over the next few seasons in East Lansing, he’s already cemented a place in Michigan State history after his game-winning touchdown against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship. After a strong freshman campaign (699 yards and 11 scores), the arrow on Scott’s career is clearly trending up for 2016.
27. Corey Clement, Wisconsin
All signs pointed to a breakout season from Clement last fall, as he was pegged as the next star running back for the Badgers in replacing Melvin Gordon. However, hernia surgery sidelined him for most of the year. Clement finished with only 221 yards and five scores. With a full offseason to rehab and return to full strength, Clement should be one of the Big Ten’s top running backs.
26. Elijah McGuire, UL Lafayette
McGuire contemplated an early jump to the NFL but decided to return for his senior season. He’s recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns and has 27 rushing scores in that span.
25. Marcus Cox, Appalachian State
The Mountaineers have a deep backfield of options to lean on in 2016, with Cox leading the way after earning his third consecutive 1,000-yard campaign last year. Despite missing a game, Cox finished with 1,423 yards and nine scores and rushed for over 100 yards (103) against Clemson last season.
24. Sony Michel, Georgia
Michel had big shoes to fill midway through 2015. After Nick Chubb was lost for the year with a knee injury, Michel stepped into the starting role at running back and rushed for 1,161 yards and eight scores. Talent certainly isn’t a question – Michel was a five-star recruit – but opportunities will be limited if Chubb returns at full strength in 2016.
23. Ronald Jones II, USC
New coach Clay Helton wants to build USC’s offense around its ground attack, and the Trojans return two running backs that eclipsed 900 yards last season. Jones II is a rising star after leading USC with 987 yards and eight touchdowns in 2015. He should emerge as one of the Pac-12’s top running backs next fall.
22. Brian Hill, Wyoming
Hill finished 2014 on a tear, recording at least 120 rushing yards in four out of Wyoming’s last five games. The Illinois native picked up where he left off with a strong 2015 campaign, which included four 200-yard performances and 1,631 overall yards on the ground.
21. Kareem Hunt, Toledo
Hunt missed three out of Toledo’s first four games last season and fell short of 1,000 yards (973) after recording 1,631 yards in 2014. Hunt will team with Terry Swanson to form one of the nation’s top tandems at running back.
20. Joe Mixon, Oklahoma
After sitting out 2014 on a season-long suspension, Mixon joined the Oklahoma backfield as the No. 2 option behind Samaje Perine. The former five-star recruit showcased his talent in limited snaps, recording 753 yards and seven scores on 113 carries. He also added 28 catches for 356 yards and four touchdowns.
Related: Early Big 12 Predictions for 2016
19. Mike Warren, Iowa State
New Iowa State coach Matt Campbell had a 1,000-yard rusher at Toledo in three out of his four seasons with the Rockets. Expect to see Campbell build his 2016 offense around Warren after he recorded 1,339 yards and five scores as a freshman last year.
18. James Conner, Pittsburgh
Conner is on the comeback trail after suffering a season-ending knee injury in the 2015 season opener and being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in December. And the best news of all: Coach Pat Narduzzi recently indicated he expects Conner to play in 2016.
17. Larry Rose, New Mexico State
Rose is one of the nation’s best-kept secrets and has recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns for the Aggies. On 240 carries last season, Rose rushed for 1,651 yards and 14 scores and earned third-team All-America honors by the Associated Press.
16. Matt Breida, Georgia Southern
Breida is one of the nation’s most-explosive running backs and has recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns for the Eagles. Over the last two seasons, Breida has recorded 11 rushing plays of 60 yards or more – the most of any player in college football.
15. Myles Gaskin, Washington
Gaskin turned in a breakout performance in 2015, leading the Huskies' ground game as a true freshman with 1,302 yards and 14 scores. Additionally, Gaskin finished the year by rushing for at least 100 yards in seven out of the last nine games, including a season-high of 181 yards against Southern Miss in the Heart of the Dallas Bowl.
Related: Early Pac-12 Predictions for 2016
14. Jeremy McNichols, Boise State
Boise State’s ground attack didn’t miss a beat after Jay Ajayi left early for the NFL, as McNichols rushed for 1,337 yards and led all Mountain West running backs with 20 rushing scores. The Broncos enter 2016 with a string of seven consecutive seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher.
13. Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State
Pumphrey is on the verge of history in 2016, as he enters the season needing 318 yards to break Marshall Faulk’s school record (4,589) for most rushing yards in a career. The Nevada native is poised to earn his third consecutive 1,000-yard season in 2016.
12. Justin Jackson, Northwestern
Northwestern’s passing attack ranked last in the Big Ten (138.5 ypg), but the offense churned out yardage thanks to the ground game. Jackson rushed for 1,418 yards and five scores last season, earning his second straight 1,000-yard campaign. He also ranked third on the team with 21 receptions.
11. Shock Linwood, Baylor
Baylor’s backfield is overflowing with riches in 2016, as four players with at least 550 rushing yards return. Linwood is the headliner for coach Art Briles and returns after earning his second consecutive 1,000-yard campaign (1,329) last season.
10. Elijah Hood, North Carolina
Hood’s emergence was a key cog in North Carolina’s run to the Coastal Division title last season. The former four-star recruit rushed for 259 yards as a true freshman in 2014 but increased his yardage to 1,463 last season. Hood’s 17 rushing scores ranked second in the ACC to Dalvin Cook (19).
9. Saquon Barkley, Penn State
Despite a sluggish offensive line, Barkley managed to record 1,076 yards and seven touchdowns for the Nittany Lions last season. He will be even better as a sophomore in 2016.
8. Jalen Hurd, Tennessee
The Tennessee duo of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara is one of the best in the nation, with Hurd leading the way after recording 1,288 yards and 12 scores last season. He’s also the only player in school history to rush for 100 yards in two bowl games.
7. Wayne Gallman, Clemson
Gallman is the perfect complement to quarterback Deshaun Watson in Clemson’s high-powered offense. Not only is Gallman capable of breaking the big play on the ground or on receptions, but the junior is also adept at getting the tough yards between the tackles. Gallman recorded 1,527 yards and 13 scores last season.
6. Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
Perine’s rushing total dipped slightly from 2014 (1,713 yards) to 1,349 last season. A couple of factors played into Perine’s drop, as Oklahoma’s scheme changed under new coordinator Lincoln Riley, the offensive line had its share of ups and downs, and Joe Mixon made his first appearance in a Sooner uniform. Regardless of the drop in statistics, Perine is the top running back in the Big 12 in 2016.
5. Nick Chubb, Georgia
A significant knee injury ended Chubb’s 2015 season in early October. Prior to his injury against Tennessee, Chubb was setting a torrid pace, rushing for at least 120 yards in five consecutive games and averaging 8.1 yards per carry. How quickly will Chubb return to full strength in 2016?
4. Royce Freeman, Oregon
Freeman quietly finished fourth nationally in rushing yards per game (141.2) last season and led all Pac-12 running backs with 17 rushing scores. The most-impressive feat on Freeman’s 2015 resume? He rushed for at least 100 yards in 12 out of Oregon’s 13 contests last year, including 246 against Washington State on Oct. 10.
3. Dalvin Cook, Florida State
The ridiculous amount of talent returning at running back next year is evident when Dalvin Cook is ranked No. 3 on the list. A strong argument could be made for Cook at No. 1 or No. 2, but for now, McCaffrey and Fournette get the nod at the top. Despite a hamstring and ankle injury last year, Cook rushed for 1,691 yards and 19 scores and averaged 7.4 yards per carry. Additionally, Cook’s six runs of 40 yards or more tied for fifth nationally.
Related: Very Early Top 25 for 2016
2. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
After setting the FBS record for most all-purpose yards (3,864) in a single-season, McCaffrey has his sights set even higher for 2016. With the Cardinal replacing quarterback Kevin Hogan and a couple of key offensive line starters, the junior will have to carry more of the workload next fall. However, he’s up to the task and will aim to shatter last year’s rushing mark (2,019).
1. Leonard Fournette, LSU
Fournette is the nation’s most-talented running back and poised for another monster season after recording 1,953 yards and 22 scores last season. He should be one of the frontrunners to win the Heisman Trophy in 2016 and has rushed for at least 100 yards in 12 out of his last 14 games. Fournette led the nation with an average of 162.8 yards per game in 2015 – more than 15 yards more per game than Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry.