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College Football's Top 10 Running Backs on the Rise for 2014

Karlos Williams

Karlos Williams

With spring practice already underway for some college football teams, the countdown to the 2014 season has officially started. There’s still a long way to go before August and the season opener, but it’s never too early to start thinking about which players are ready for a big jump in production.

Earlier this spring, Athlon Sports examined which quarterbacks are on the rise heading into the start of offseason practices. Now, the focus shifts to the running backs. There always seems to be a couple of running backs who where relatively unknown heading into the year but finish among the nation’s leaders in rushing yards. That trend should continue in 2014, as there are plenty of talented backs on the cusp of a breakout year.

Florida State’s Karlos Williams flashed his big-play potential after moving from safety early in the season. With Devonta Freeman and James Wilder leaving for the NFL, Williams - and touted true freshman Dalvin Cook - should handle the bulk of the carries in the backfield. Another player to keep an eye on is Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott. With Carlos Hyde departing, Elliott is due to become the No. 1 back in Columbus. Can he record over 1,000 yards next year?

In addition to Williams and Elliott, here are a few other running backs that could be breakout stars in 2014.

College Football’s Top 10 Running Backs on the Rise for 2014

Tevin Coleman, Indiana
An ankle injury robbed Coleman of three games at the end of the season, and he finished the year just short of 1,000 yards (958). Coleman scored 12 rushing touchdowns in 2013, averaged an impressive 7.3 yards per carry and caught 19 passes for 193 yards. Despite playing in nine games, the Illinois native earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. The Hoosiers should have one of the Big Ten’s top passing attacks with Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson returning at quarterback, but Coleman should expect to see more opportunities in 2014. Prior to his injury, Coleman had back-to-back 100-yard efforts, including 215 yards against Illinois. If he stays healthy, Coleman will surpass 1,000 yards and could push for a spot on the first or second All-Big Ten team.

Ezekiel Elliott/Dontre Wilson, Ohio State
Keeping quarterback Braxton Miller upright and healthy is a huge part of Ohio State’s playoff hopes in 2014. The best way for the Buckeyes to accomplish that goal? Surround their Heisman Trophy candidate with a strong supporting cast. Carlos Hyde led the way on the ground last season, rushing for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns on 208 attempts. Miller was the team second-leading rusher, recording 1,068 yards on 171 carries. Reducing Miller’s workload should be a priority, and Elliott appears to be poised to take over Hyde’s position as the top running back. The Missouri native was impressive in limited action last year, rushing for 262 yards on 30 attempts. Elliott scored twice and averaged an impressive 8.7 yards per carry. It’s unrealistic to expect the sophomore to maintain that average with more attempts, but he possesses a good blend of size and speed to handle at least 200 carries for the Buckeyes’ offense in 2014. And while we mention the Ohio State backfield, don't forget about Wilson. As a true freshman last year, he averaged 8.1 yards per carry on 31 attempts. Elliott and Wilson should be a dynamic combination for the Buckeyes in 2014.

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D.J. Foster, Arizona State
With Marion Grice dealing with a leg injury late in the year, Foster moved into the No. 1 spot on the depth chart, and Arizona State’s rushing attack didn’t miss a beat. In a 58-21 win over rival Arizona, Foster rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns, and he posted 132 yards on 20 attempts against Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl. Even though Foster and Grice were similar in yards per carry last season, both brought something different to the table. Foster is more of an all-around threat, but he is likely to see his workload increase in 2014 with Grice expiring his eligibility. The Arizona native led the nation in receptions (63) and receiving yards (653) by a running back in 2013 and was an honorable mention All-Pac-12 selection. Foster may not handle 200 carries, but he’s a lock for at least 1,000 yards of total offense.

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Leonard Fournette, LSU
High expectations surround Fournette heading into the 2014 season. As the No. 1 recruit in the 247Sports Composite rankings, the New Orleans native is expected to make an immediate impact, With Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue leaving early for the NFL, Fournette should have a clear path to significant carries as a true freshman. Fournette rushed for 7,619 yards and 88 touchdowns during his high school career and earned the 2014 Louisiana Gatorade Player of the Year award. With a young quarterback taking over, combined with one of the best offensive lines in the SEC returning to Baton Rouge, LSU should plan its offense around the ground attack. With Fournette and Terrence Magee handling the carries, the Tigers should have no trouble pushing for double-digit wins for the fifth consecutive season.

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Russell Hansbrough, RB, Missouri
Missouri’s three-headed monster at running back (Henry Josey, Marcus Murphy and Hansbrough) helped the Tigers finish second in the SEC in rushing offense last year. Josey left for the NFL, but Missouri’s ground game won’t suffer too much with Hansbrough and Murphy returning for 2014. Hansbrough finished second to Josey by rushing for 685 yards and four touchdowns, with his best performance coming against Indiana (104 yards on 13 attempts). The Texas native was picked as the team’s Most Improved Tailback coming out of spring practice and certainly backed up that honor with his play last year. There’s no question Murphy is going to see plenty of opportunities in the backfield. But Hansbrough ranked second among Missouri running backs in carries last season and averaged a healthy six yards per attempt. With potentially 75 more carries on tap this year, Hansbrough should push for 1,000 yards.

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Derrick Henry, Alabama
Considering Henry’s production in limited action, it’s probably fair to say the true freshman was underutilized by the coaching staff. 36 attempts isn’t enough of a sample size to determine value, but Henry averaged 10.6 yards per rush and took his only reception of the season (Oklahoma) for a 61-yard score. Even at 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds, it’s clear Henry is capable of providing some big-play ability outside of his usual thunder. T.J. Yeldon is set to assume the No. 1 spot in the backfield this year, but Henry is due for a significant bump in carries. And with a new quarterback taking over in Tuscaloosa, expect Alabama to build its offense around Yeldon and Henry’s production in 2014.

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Shock Linwood, Baylor
Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin will be missed, but Art Briles isn’t hurting for options in the backfield. All-name teamer Shock Linwood is slated to be the No. 1 back this spring after a strong showing in 2013. With Seastrunk sidelined due to injury, Linwood rushed for 182 yards against Oklahoma and gashed Texas Tech for 187. The Texas native finished the year with 881 yards and eight touchdowns on 128 attempts. Linwood is a big-play threat in the backfield and should be a preseason first-team all-conference selection. Even though Linwood appears to be capable of handling 200-215 carries, Briles and coordinator Philip Montgomery will likely find a running mate for him this season. A potential candidate will be 220-pound sophomore Devin Chafin or 6-foot-3 incoming freshman Terence Williams. Regardless of the backup situation, Linwood is in for a monster year as Baylor’s No. 1 back.

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Desmond Roland, Oklahoma State
Roland played sparingly through the first six weeks of the season but provided a spark to Oklahoma State’s rushing attack in the second half of 2013. Roland gashed Iowa State for 219 yards and four touchdowns on 26 attempts and recorded 144 yards and two scores against Oklahoma in the regular season finale. The Cowboys have some turnover on offense to overcome this season, as quarterback Clint Chelf expired his eligibility, and line coach Joe Wickline left for Texas. But the changes should create more opportunities for Roland, as he will handle the bulk of the carries for Oklahoma State’s offense with Jeremy Smith departing. The Cowboys plan to involve junior college recruit Tyreek Hill, freshman Devon Thomas and sophomore Rennie Childs in the rushing attack, but all signs point to Roland emerging as a potential All-Big 12 candidate.

Dwayne Washington, Washington
Change is in the air in Seattle this spring. Steve Sarkisian left for USC, and the Huskies hired Chris Petersen away from Boise State to take the program to the next level. Petersen has a track record of success from his stint in Boise, and he is the right fit for a program that is on the cusp of a spot in the preseason top 25 this year. But Petersen certainly has some work to do this spring. Quarterback Keith Price and running back Bishop Sankey depart, leaving big shoes to fill on offense. Sankey’s 1,870 yards won’t be easy to replace, and Petersen and coordinator Jonathan Smith could use multiple backs in 2014. Washington is a name to remember after he rushed for 332 yards and four touchdowns in a backup role last season. He was a three-star recruit and redshirted in his first year on campus. Deontae Cooper and Jesse Callier should factor into the mix, but the guess here is Washington emerges as the Huskies’ No. 1 back this preseason.

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Karlos Williams, Florida State
Williams was a five-star talent out of high school and spent the first two years of his career on defense. But shortly after the win over Pittsburgh on Labor Day, the Florida State coaching staff moved Williams to offense, a move some believed should have taken place earlier in his career. As expected, Williams showcased his athleticism and speed in limited duty at running back in 2013, rushing for 730 yards and 11 touchdowns on 91 attempts. The Florida native averaged a whopping 8.0 yards per carry and is expected to open spring practice as the Seminoles’ No. 1 back. Williams won’t have to carry the entire workload for coach Jimbo Fisher, as top recruit Dalvin Cook will contribute right away, and Ryan Green and Mario Pender will be in the mix for snaps. Even if Williams doesn’t top 200 carries, it’s clear his athleticism and speed will be a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses. Look for Williams to have a huge breakout season as the top back in Tallahassee.

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Other Names to Watch in 2014

Peyton Barber, Auburn
Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne return, but Barber should find a role in Auburn’s offense this season.

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Greg Bryant, Notre Dame
Bryant played in three games (three attempts) before redshirting in 2013. The Florida native ranked as the No. 46 recruit in the 2013 signing class and is poised to take on a larger role in the Notre Dame backfield this year.

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Devin Campbell/Anthone Taylor, Buffalo
Campbell rushed for 502 yards as a true freshman in 2012 but recorded only 11 attempts in 2013. Taylor was the top backup to Branden Oliver last season, rushing for 399 yards on 82 attempts. With five starters returning on the offensive line, Campbell or Taylor could emerge as an All-MAC performer.

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James Conner, Pittsburgh
Conner and Isaac Bennett will share carries once again in 2014, but Conner is due for a bump in opportunities after gashing Bowling Green for 229 yards and one touchdown in the Little Caesars Bowl.

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Braylon Heard, Kentucky
Heard averaged 6.7 yards per rush on 52 attempts at Nebraska in 2012. After sitting out a year due to NCAA transfer rules, Heard should team with Jojo Kemp to form a much-improved Kentucky rushing attack.

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Elijah Hood, North Carolina
The Tar Heels certainly aren’t hurting for options at running back. Khris Francis, T.J. Logan and Romar Morris combined for 1,065 rushing yards last season, but Larry Fedora and coordinator Seth Littrell will find a way to get Hood involved with the offense. And it may not be long before the true freshman assumes the No. 1 role in the backfield.

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Kareem Hunt, Toledo
The Rockets have produced a 1,000-yard rusher for four consecutive years. Hunt should continue that streak in 2014 after rushing for 866 yards and six touchdowns on 137 attempts last year. He could be one of the top statistical backs outside of the BCS in 2014, especially with a solid offensive line leading the way in Toledo.

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Jalen Hurd, Tennessee
Hurd ranked as the No. 40 recruit in the 2014 signing class by the 247Sports Composite rankings. At 6-foot-3 and 227 pounds, Hurd is a physical specimen at running back with an intriguing blend of speed and power. The Tennessee native will have a chance to earn playing time this spring with the departure of Rajion Neal.

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Joe Mixon, Oklahoma
The Sooners have a trio of talented options in the backfield. Keith Ford and Alex Ross played sparingly last season, but both players were big-time recruits. Mixon will join the competition this summer, and the California native was the No. 1 all-purpose back according to 247Sports. Ford and Ross will factor into the mix, but it will be tough to keep Mixon off the field in 2014.

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