Spring practice is officially underway for a handful of college football teams, and the offseason workouts are the first step to building a depth chart and getting an idea of what all 128 squads will have in 2015.
Quarterback battles will receive most of the attention in spring practice, but there are a handful of key playoff contenders losing a starter at running back or have a player poised for a breakthrough season. While pinpointing breakout players is easier after spring practice, it’s never too early to examine some of the top rising stars at running backs.
Players like Georgia’s Nick Chubb, California's Daniel Lasco and Oregon’s Royce Freeman could certainly fit into this column, but we tried to identify and focus more on players who may have went under-the-radar last season or running backs that are poised for a significant jump in production in 2015.
Let’s take a look at 20 running backs on the rise for 2015, followed by a few other names to watch:
College Football's Top 20 RBs on the Rise for 2015
Corey Clement, Wisconsin
Melvin Gordon leaves big shoes to fill at running back for Wisconsin, but new coach Paul Chryst is inheriting a rising star in Clement. The New Jersey native was Gordon’s top backup in 2014 and rushed for 949 yards and nine scores on 147 attempts. Clement never recorded more than 17 rushing attempts in a game last year, so there’s plenty of room for his overall production to grow with more carries in 2015. He also rushed for 547 yards as Wisconsin’s No. 3 running back in 2013. Clement may not match Gordon’s 2,587 rushing yards from last season, but he should be one of the Big Ten’s top running backs in 2015.
Dalvin Cook, Florida State
With quarterback Jameis Winston off to the NFL, the focus for Florida State’s offense shifts to the ground attack and talented sophomore Dalvin Cook. As a true freshman last season, Cook rushed for 1,008 yards and eight scores and caught 22 passes for 203 yards. The Miami native averaged 141.3 rushing yards over his final three games, including 6.9 yards per carry in the Rose Bowl against Oregon. Cook was a five-star recruit coming out of high school and is poised to push for All-American honors in 2015.
Imani Cross, Nebraska
New coach Mike Riley and coordinator Danny Langsdorf has some work to do this spring. The Cornhuskers must replace three offensive linemen, receiver Kenny Bell and standout running back Ameer Abdullah. While the losses are heavy, Riley and Langsdorf have options at running back. Cross, Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor all appear capable of keeping the ground attack performing at a high level. Cross is the early guess as frontrunner to handle the bulk of carries for Riley, as the Georgia native finished third on the team with 384 yards and five scores last year. Over the last three seasons, Cross has rushed for 1,155 yards and 22 scores.
Tarean Folston, Notre Dame
Folston quietly led the way for Notre Dame’s rushing attack in 2014, recording 889 yards and six scores on 175 attempts. Through the first six games, Folston eclipsed more than 50 yards only twice and did not score a touchdown through his first five appearances. However, the Florida native was more effective in the second half of the season, recording four 100-yard efforts over the final seven games. With a solid offensive line returning in 2015, the arrow on Folston and teammate Greg Bryant’s production is clearly pointing up.
Leonard Fournette, LSU
Fournette was regarded as the No. 1 player in the 2014 247Sports Composite and certainly didn’t disappoint in his Baton Rouge debut. In 13 appearances, Fournette rushed for 1,034 yards and 10 scores. He also made an impact on special teams, averaging 26 yards per kickoff returns and one touchdown. With LSU struggling to find consistent production from its passing game, the ground attack will have to carry the offense in 2015. With Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard out of eligibility, Fournette should see an uptick in carries and production next year and should be considered a lock for first-team All-SEC honors this offseason.
Wayne Gallman, Clemson
The Clemson depth chart is loaded with young talent, headlined by quarterback Deshaun Watson and receiver Artavis Scott. But the rushing attack shouldn’t be overlooked, especially with Gallman expected to capitalize off a strong freshman campaign in 2015. In 13 games last season, Gallman led all Clemson players with 769 yards and a solid 4.8 yards per carry mark. After recording only two efforts of 55 yards or more through the first seven games, Gallman rushed for at least 55 yards in five out of the last six games. He also contributed 24 receptions for 108 yards in 2014.
Aaron Green, TCU
TCU’s offense showed significant improvement under new co-coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham in 2014. The Horned Frogs return most of their core for 2015, including standout quarterback Trevone Boykin and one of the Big 12's top offensive lines. Green became the starter after B.J. Catalon was sidelined due to injury and averaged 108.8 rushing yards over the final five contests. He rushed for 171 yards in a 41-20 win over Kansas State and recorded 68 on 18 attempts against a tough Ole Miss defense in the bowl game. Green also scored five touchdowns in his final four games and produced 10 rushing plays of 20 yards or more. The Nebraska transfer is a rising star in the Big 12.
Josh Hicks/Robert Martin, Rutgers
Rutgers has a few tweaks coming to its offense in 2015, as coordinator Ralph Friedgen stepped down, the offensive line lost three starters, and quarterback Gary Nova expired his eligibility. New coordinator Ben McDaniels inherits some talent to work with, including a solid stable of running backs and standout receiver Leonte Carroo. Josh Hicks and Robert Martin showed promise as true freshmen last year, combining for 874 yards and nine scores. Hicks closed out 2014 on a high note, gashing North Carolina’s defense for 202 yards on 19 attempts in the Quick Lane Bowl. Paul James and Desmon Peoples also return for 2015, giving McDaniels plenty of options in the backfield next year. Hicks and Martin may not have huge numbers, but both players are rising stars to watch in the Big Ten.
Jon Hilliman, Boston College
Boston College has ranked inside of the top 20 nationally in rushing offense in back-to-back years under coach Steve Addazio. While Andre Williams did most of the heavy lifting in 2013, Addazio used more of an all-around effort to attack opponents on the ground last year. Quarterback Tyler Murphy led the team with 1,179 yards, while Hilliman finished second with 860 yards on 211 attempts. Myles Willis and Marcus Outlow also chipped in as key contributors at running back. With uncertainty at quarterback heading into 2015, Addazio can lean on Hilliman and the rest of the Boston College backs to carry the offense (at least early in the year). The offensive line must be revamped, but Hilliman could easily eclipse 1,000 yards with 50-75 more touches in 2015.
Jalen Hurd/Alvin Kamara, Tennessee
In addition to the emergence of quarterback Joshua Dobbs, one of the biggest reasons for optimism in Knoxville in 2015 is the tandem of Hurd and Kamara at running back. The Volunteers averaged only 3.6 yards per carry last season and finished near the bottom of the SEC in rushing yards per game. But with Hurd having another offseason under his belt, combined with Kamara’s arrival, Tennessee’s rushing attack is expected to take a significant step forward. Hurd rushed for 899 yards and five scores last season as a true freshman, while Kamara arrives in Knoxville after spending 2014 at Hutchinson Community College (1,469 yards of total offense in 2014). The former Alabama running back is an instant-impact recruit for the Volunteers.
Justin Jackson, Northwestern
Jackson might have been the quietest 1,000-rusher in the nation last season. In 12 games, Jackson recorded 1,187 yards and 10 scores and caught 22 passes for 201 yards and one touchdown. Jackson’s emergence on the ground was critical after expected starter Venric Mark left the team prior to the season. After an under-the-radar performance in 2013, Jackson will be among the Big Ten’s top running backs for 2015. And the Illinois native will be under even more pressure to perform next season as Northwestern enters the offseason with uncertainty under center. While his performance in 2014 might have been lost in the shuffle with the talent in the conference at running back, Jackson certainly won't go unnoticed in 2015.
Akeel Lynch, Penn State
Improving the offensive line and rushing attack are two areas of focus this offseason for second-year coach James Franklin. And if Franklin can get more production from his offensive line, it should help to spark a rushing attack that averaged only 2.9 yards per carry in 2014. Lynch led the Penn State offense with 678 rushing yards last season and finished second to Bill Belton with four rushing scores. With Belton and Zach Zwinak out of eligibility, Lynch is slated to receive more of the workload in 2015. The Canada native gave the offense a spark over the final four games, which included 100-yard performances against Temple and Illinois. Lynch should push for All-Big Ten honors next year.
Marlon Mack, South Florida
Mack is a key cog in coach Willie Taggart’s rebuilding efforts at South Florida. As a true freshman in 2014, the Florida native led the Bulls with 1,041 yards and nine scores. Mack averaged a healthy 5.2 yards per carry and also grabbed 21 receptions for 160 yards. South Florida is making a few tweaks to its offense in 2015, but Taggart isn’t going to go away from giving Mack around 15-20 carries per game and a shot at back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
Taquan Mizzell, Virginia
Mizzell has spent the last two years as a backup to Kevin Parks, but the former four-star recruit is slated to become the go-to back for the Cavaliers in 2015. The Virginia Beach native has 464 rushing yards and three scores through his first two years on campus, while also catching 68 passes for 435 yards and one touchdown. Mizzell has only one game of 10 or more carries in his career with the Cavaliers. Expect that to change in 2015, as Mizzell should live up to his recruiting hype with a standout campaign this fall.
Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
For the first time since the 2007 season, the Cardinal did not have a rusher reach the 1,000-yard mark in 2014. That one-year 1,000-yard rusher drought could be short-lived, as McCaffrey is primed for a breakout season in 2015. As a true freshman in 2014, he recorded 300 rushing yards (seven yards per carry) and caught 17 passes for 251 yards and two scores. McCaffrey recorded at least 57 rushing yards in three out of the final four games, including 77 against Utah on Nov. 15.
Demario Richard, Arizona State
The future of the Arizona State backfield appears to be in good hands with Richard leading the way in 2015. The Sun Devils also return D.J. Foster (1,081 rush yards in 2014), but the senior is expected to shift to more of a running back/receiver role in 2015. Richard was solid in limited action last year, rushing for 478 yards and four scores on 84 attempts. He eclipsed the 100-yard mark against a tough Utah defense on Nov. 1 and contributed 41 yards on seven attempts in the bowl win over Duke. Richard should have no trouble exceeding last year’s numbers in 2015.
Jovon Robinson, Auburn
Auburn’s top three rushers from last season – Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and Nick Marshall – have expired their eligibility. Robinson originally committed to Auburn in 2012 but was forced to make a two-year detour at Georgia Military College. He was selected as the NJCAA 2013 national player of the year after rushing for 2,387 yards and 34 scores that season. The Tigers aren’t hurting for talent at running back with Peyton Barber and Roc Thomas also in the mix, but Robinson is expected to receive the bulk of the carries.
L.J. Scott/Delton Williams, Michigan State
The battle to replace Jeremy Langford begins this spring in East Lansing, and the Spartans aren’t hurting for talent in the backfield with Scott, Williams, Madre London and Gerald Holmes competing for time. Perhaps a true starter doesn’t emerge from this group, and co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner can use all four throughout the 2015 season. While split carries among a couple of players is certainly possible, Scott has the edge in talent and could eventually claim the No. 1 job. The Ohio native ranked as the No. 59 recruit in the 2015 247Sports Composite and will be tough for coach Mark Dantonio to keep on the sidelines. Williams – 316 yards and five scores last year – is the team’s most experienced running back headed into 2015.
David Williams, South Carolina
Even though Mike Davis left early for the NFL, the cupboard is far from bare for coach Steve Spurrier. Williams and Brandon Wilds are expected to handle the bulk of the carries next season, and both players have been effective in limited action. Williams is a back with significant upside, rushing for 256 yards (5.7 ypc) and two scores on 45 attempts last year. It’s only a matter of time before the former four-star recruit is in the mix for All-SEC honors.
Joseph Yearby, Miami
The Hurricanes already have one of the nation’s top rising stars at quarterback in sophomore Brad Kaaya, and Yearby is due for a breakout year as the new starter at running back in Coral Gables. Duke Johnson left for the NFL after rushing for 1,652 yards and 10 scores last season, leaving Yearby and Gus Edwards as the backs in contention for the majority of snaps. Yearby impressed as a true freshman last year, recording 509 yards and one touchdown on 86 attempts. The Miami native was a teammate to Florida State’s Dalvin Cook at Miami Central High School, and both players are near the top of the ACC in rushing yardage in 2015.
Other Running Backs to Watch in 2015
Corey Avery, Kansas
The Kansas offense is short on proven playmakers next season. While the receiving corps needs to be revamped, and uncertainty surrounds the quarterback position, the rushing attack should be in good hands with Avery after he rushed for 631 yards and five scores last year.
Joel Bouagnon, Northern Illinois
Bouagnon is poised to become the new go-to back in Northern Illinois’ high-powered offense with Cameron Stingily out of eligibility. The 6-foot-2 rusher finished third on the team with 655 yards in 14 appearances last season.
Chris Carson, Oklahoma State
Carson was mentioned as one of Athlon’s instant-impact junior college recruits for 2015. The Butler Community College product could start this year for Oklahoma State.
D’Onta Foreman/Donald Catalon, Texas
Johnathan Gray is slated to open spring ball as the No. 1 back at Texas, but there’s room for a No. 2 option to emerge. Foreman recorded 74 yards on 16 attempts as a true freshman, while Catalon spent 2014 as a redshirt.
Alex Gardner, FIU
Gardner was a bright spot for a FIU offense that averaged only 23 points per game last season. The true freshman rushed for 582 yards and one score before missing the final four games due to injury.
Brian Hill, Wyoming
Hill stepped up as Wyoming’s go-to back after Shaun Wick was lost for the year due to injury. He rushed for 796 yards and seven scores in 2014 as a true freshman, including 281 yards in a 45-17 win over Fresno State.
LaJuan Hunt, Utah State
Hunt only recorded one game of more than 11 carries (Hawaii), but he finished with a team-high 545 yards and one touchdown as a true freshman in 2014. The Florida native is poised to take on a bigger role in the backfield next season.
Ty Isaac, Michigan
It’s no secret new Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh likes to win the battle in the trenches and pound the rock between the tackles. Isaac – a USC transfer – sat out last year due to NCAA rules, but the former four-star recruit could add some punch to an offense that averaged only 138.8 rushing yards in Big Ten games in 2014.
Treyous Jarrells, Colorado State
New Colorado State coach Mike Bobo’s offenses at Georgia recorded at least 500 rushing attempts in three out of the last four years. The Rams will miss Alabama transfer Dee Hart, but Jarrells (5.2 ypc, 450 yards) showed potential in his first year with the Rams.
Jeff Jones, Minnesota
Jones ranked as a four-star prospect in the 2014 247Sports Composite and redshirted in his first year in Minneapolis due to academic issues. He should compete with Berkley Edwards and Rodrick Williams in spring practice to replace David Cobb (1,626 yards in 2014).
Ronald Jones II, USC
Buck Allen is off to the NFL after rushing for 1,489 yards and 11 scores last season. Jones II ranked as the No. 39 overall recruit in the 2015 signing class by 247Sports. He could play a major role in the USC backfield next season.
Ray Lawry, Old Dominion
Prolific quarterback Taylor Heinicke has expired his eligibility, and the Monarchs may need a little more from their ground attack until a quarterback emerges. As a true freshman last season, Lawry rushed for 947 yards and 16 scores (7.1 ypc) and caught 17 balls for 155 yards. Lawry should take the next step in his development in 2015 and emerge as one of C-USA’s top running backs.
C.J. Leggett, Georgia Tech
Leggett is a three-star recruit from the 2014 signing class that redshirted in his first year on campus. With the Yellow Jackets losing four out of their top five rushers from last year, the Georgia native could make an impact next season.
Sony Michel, Georgia
Nick Chubb is the unquestioned starter in Athens. However, the Bulldogs frequently use a second back, and Michel is expected to fill that role in 2015. As a true freshman last season, he rushed for 410 yards and five scores in eight games.
Joe Mixon, Oklahoma
Mixon was suspended in 2014 due to an off-the-field incident. He ranked as the No. 1 all-purpose back by 247Sports in the 2014 signing class, and even with Samaje Perine returning, Mixon is too talented to keep on the bench.
Devon Spalding, Central Michigan
Thomas Rawls expired his eligibility at the end of 2014, but the Chippewas have two intriguing options at running back. Spalding showed flashes of promise as a freshman (5.1 ypc) last season, and Saylor Lavallii has over 1,000 yards the last two years. Spalding rushed for 147 yards and two scores against Miami, Ohio in 2014.
D.J. Vinson, South Alabama
Vinson rushed for 670 yards and nine scores as a backup to Jordan Howard at UAB last year. He transferred to South Alabama after UAB’s team was eliminated at the end of 2014 and should thrive under coordinator Bryant Vincent in 2015.
Dalvin Warmack, Kansas State
Kansas State’s rushing attack averaged only 134.2 yards per game in 2014, and two of the team’s top three leaders in yardage – running back Demarcus Robinson and quarterback Jake Waters – have expired their eligibility. The Wildcats need more production from their supporting cast with Waters and receiver Tyler Lockett off to the NFL, and Warmack will be a name to watch this spring. The Missouri native was a three-star recruit in 2014 and redshirted in his first season in Manhattan.
Dwayne Washington, Washington
Big things were expected of Washington in 2014 in replacing standout Bishop Sankey. He led the team with 697 yards and nine rushing scores, but the California native could be poised for even bigger things in 2015 after rushing for 100 or more yards in three out of the final four games.
Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt’s offense struggled last season, but Webb was a bright spot and a player for new coordinator Andy Ludwig to build around in 2015. The Florida native rushed for 907 yards and four scores as a redshirt freshman last year.
Aeris Williams, Mississippi State
With the departure of Josh Robinson, the Bulldogs are looking for a new go-to back in 2015. Williams ranked as a four-star recruit by 247Sports in 2014 and redshirted in his first year on campus. This talented Mississippi native is one to watch in 2015.