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College Football's Top 25 Breakout Running Backs for 2021

Bijan Robinson, Texas Longhorns Football

A huge performance in the bowl game last season has Texas' Bijan Robinson poised for big things in 2021

With the 2021 college football season less than 20 days away, a new wave of stars and standouts are ready to emerge on offense and defense and for every position on the field. At running back, Texas' Bijan Robinson and Georgia Tech's Jahmyr Gibbs flashed potential in the abbreviated '20 season but are ready for bigger and better things this fall. Those two aren't the only ones poised to breakout. Oklahoma's Eric Gray, Hawaii's Calvin Turner and North Carolina's Ty Chandler are just a few of the other names to watch.

With fall practice underway, Athlon Sports is taking a look at some of the breakout candidates for 2021. Determining what player fits the breakout tag isn’t easy. Each person has a different take on what a “breakout player” is, and college football is always home to several new faces throughout the season. While it’s difficult to label breakout players, the new stars of any season can have a huge impact on conference championship or national title races.

Who are the next breakout stars at running back for 2021? Athlon has compiled 25 picks and some names to watch: 

College Football's Top 25 Breakout Running Backs for 2021

25. Terion Stewart, Bowling Green
Bowling Green’s offense struggled to get on track in 2020, but coach Scot Loeffler found a bright spot for the future in Stewart. The Ohio native played in four contests, rushing for 295 yards and four scores over just 37 carries. Stewart posted 162 against Kent State and ran for 91 yards over 14 attempts in the season finale against Akron.

24. Will Shipley, Clemson
Kobe Pace and Lyn-J Dixon are likely to occupy the top two spots on the depth chart for the Tigers. However, keeping Shipley – a five-star prospect in the 2021 signing class – on the bench won’t be easy. The freshman is likely to have some role this season.

Related: Ranking All 130 College Football Teams for 2021

23. Lawrance Toafili, Florida State
Florida State’s offense is still under construction for second-year coach Mike Norvell, but the combination of Toafili and Jashaun Corbin provide a solid one-two punch on the ground. The sample size was small for Toafili as a freshman in 2020, but the potential was obvious. Over 37 carries, Toafili ran for 356 yards and two scores and caught 12 passes for 120 yards. While the limited workload is notable, Toafili still averaged nearly a first down (9.7 yards) every time he touched the ball.

22. Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State
Second-year coach Mel Tucker aggressively added help via the transfer portal this offseason, with Walker expected to be one of the biggest pickups for 2021. After rushing for 579 yards as a freshman at Wake Forest in 2019, Walker matched that mark in eight contests last year. Additionally, he reached the end zone 13 times in the abbreviated season, including three versus NC State. Michigan State’s offensive line is a work in progress, but Walker’s arrival should add needed punch to a ground game that managed only 2.7 yards per carry in 2020.

Related: Big Ten Quarterback Rankings for 2021

21. Lew Nichols III, Central Michigan
Nichols III would rank higher on this list if we knew he was going to get the bulk of the work for Central Michigan. As a redshirt freshman in 2020, he led the Chippewas' offense with 508 rushing yards and four scores and claimed MAC Freshman of the Year honors. However, Kobe Lewis (468 yards in 2020 and a 1,000-yard rusher in ‘19) is going to be heavily involved.

20. Tyjae Spears, Tulane
The inclusion of Spears on this list comes with a small caveat. The Louisiana native is recovering from a season-ending knee injury suffered against Southern Miss in late September last year. He’s on track to return for 2021, but with Cameron Carroll in the same backfield, coach Willie Fritz won’t have to rush Spears back. While Spears doesn’t have a large sample size of carries so far, the potential has been obvious. He ran for 192 yards and a touchdown in 2019 and posted back-to-back 100-yard efforts versus South Alabama and Navy before the injury last year. 

19. Reese White, Coastal Carolina
Replacing standout running back CJ Marable is one of the few question marks for Coastal Carolina in 2021. But luckily for coach Jamey Chadwell, the Chanticleers aren’t hurting for options. White is one of those players poised for a larger role, as he returns atop the depth chart after running for 478 yards and six touchdowns last season. He won’t need to handle 250-300 carries, but White is due for an uptick in opportunities – and is ready to capitalize on those chances in ’21.

18. Chris Smith, Louisiana
The Ragin’ Cajuns don’t lose much off of last year’s squad that went 10-1, but coach Billy Napier has to replace two standout running backs in Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas. Smith was the No. 3 option last season and could slide into the No. 1 role now. The Mississippi native averaged 10.4 yards per carry on just 32 attempts as a freshman in 2019 and posted 350 yards over 62 carries last year. Smith was also a weapon on special teams, scoring twice on kickoffs in 2020. If Smith assumes the No. 1 workload, he should end ’21 much higher on this list.

17. TreVeyon Henderson, Ohio State
Ohio State isn’t hurting for backfield options with Master Teague, Miyan Williams and Marcus Crowley, but it’s hard to ignore the talent and potential Henderson brings to the table. The Virginia native was a five-star prospect in the 2021 signing class and ran for more than 4,000 yards in high school. Henderson’s exact role is unclear, but he’s going to contribute in some fashion for the Buckeyes.

16. Devon Achane, Texas A&M
College Station is home to one of the deepest backfields in college football. The Aggies return All-American Isaiah Spiller at the top of the depth chart, while Ainias Smith is back as the all-purpose weapon for coach Jimbo Fisher. Achane should slide behind Spiller as the team’s No. 2 back this season after an impressive showing in the Orange Bowl, as the speedy Texan ran for 140 yards and two scores versus North Carolina. For the season, Achane had only 43 carries but certainly made the most of them (364 yards and four scores) – and is in line for a much bigger role in 2021.

Related: College Football's Top QB Battles for 2021

15. Ty Chandler, North Carolina
Chandler isn’t necessarily a new face in college football. After all, he ran for 2,046 yards and 13 touchdowns and nabbed 58 receptions for 465 yards and three scores in four seasons at Tennessee. But the Tennessee native is on the move from Knoxville to Chapel Hill and will benefit from the play-calling of coordinator Phil Longo, along with one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Sam Howell. Chandler may not get 250 carries, but he should be one of the top all-around playmakers in the ACC this fall.

14. Cam Porter, Northwestern
Porter was invisible at the start of Northwestern’s 2020 season, recording just eight carries in the first six games. However, the Cincinnati native emerged as the team’s best back by the end. He gashed Illinois for 142 yards and two touchdowns over 24 carries, ran for 61 yards versus Ohio State and added 98 yards and a score in the Citrus Bowl against Auburn. Porter finished with team-high 333 rushing yards and is expected to team with Evan Hull to handle the bulk of the carries in Evanston this fall.

13. Calvin Turner, Hawaii
Few players in college football can rival Turner’s all-around versatility, and after a strong debut for coach Todd Graham last season, it’s safe to assume Hawaii will find more ways to deploy him in 2021. Prior to arriving in Honolulu, Turner spent three years at Jacksonville University and played a variety of roles, including quarterback and defensive back. He maintained that versatility with the Rainbow Warriors, running for 331 yards and four scores, catching 33 passes for 546 yards and six touchdowns and adding 324 yards on 12 kickoff returns.

Related: Ranking All 130 College Football Teams for 2021

12. Austin Jones, Stanford
Stanford played just six games last season, but that was enough of a sample size to showcase Jones’ potential over a full year. After working as the backup in 2019, Jones assumed the No. 1 role and recorded 550 yards and nine scores for the Cardinal. He ran for at least 100 yards in three games, including 138 versus Washington. Jones also caught 21 passes for 156 yards. With a full workload ahead in ’21, look for Jones to be one of the top running backs in the Pac-12.

11. DeWayne McBride, UAB
Spencer Brown is a big loss for UAB’s offense, but the ground game isn’t likely to miss much of a beat with McBride poised to assume the No. 1 role. As a true freshman last season, the 5-foot-11, 215-pound back ran for 439 yards and four touchdowns on just 47 attempts. McBride posted two 100-yard efforts and averaged a robust 9.3 yards per carry. Look for McBride to rank among the top backs in Conference USA for 2021.

10. Kevin Marks, Buffalo
Marks isn’t exactly an unknown commodity after rushing for 2,621 yards and 28 touchdowns over the last three years. However, with Jaret Patterson departing, the No. 1 job in the Buffalo backfield now belongs solely to Marks. The Bulls have a new play-caller (Shane Montgomery) and a few new faces up front along the offensive line. However, despite those changes, Marks should be the focal point of this unit in 2021.

9. Rachaad White, Arizona State
The Sun Devils are loaded at running back for 2021, so coach Herm Edwards can spread the wealth and keep all of his options fresh late in games this fall. White was a late pickup for Arizona State in the 2020 signing class, but he proved to be a steal. The Missouri native ran for 76 yards over 12 carries in the opener versus USC and later put up 133 yards and three touchdowns against Arizona, followed by a 158-yard performance against Oregon State in the finale. 

Related: Ranking the Pac-12 Quarterbacks for 2021

8. Jerome Ford, Cincinnati
With Gerrid Doaks off to the next level, Ford is poised for a big role as the No. 1 back for the Bearcats. The Florida native spent the first two years of his career at Alabama (2018-19), before landing at Cincinnati prior to the ’20 season. Ford worked as the backup to Doaks last fall but took advantage of the limited time, running for 483 yards (6.6 per carry) and eight scores on 73 carries. He also started the Peach Bowl versus Georgia and ran for 97 yards, which included a 79-yard touchdown to open the second half.

7. Jalen Berger, Wisconsin
Jonathan Taylor left big shoes to fill in Madison last season, and the abbreviated 2020 campaign hindered the overall development of Wisconsin’s offense. However, a rebound should be in store this fall, and the ground game is expected to get back on track with Berger leading the way. Despite missing three of the Badgers’ seven games, Berger paced the offense with 301 rushing yards and two scores (5.0 per carry). With a full No. 1 workload expected, Berger should eclipse 1,000 yards this season.

6. Brian Robinson, Alabama
Najee Harris is gone, but Alabama isn’t lacking for talent at running back. The Crimson Tide have a handful of options they can turn to, but Robinson – a senior who waited his turn – is likely to be the No. 1 back. Over the last four seasons, he’s rushed for 1,361 yards and 15 touchdowns, while also catching 17 passes for 150 yards in limited work. 

Related: Ranking the SEC Quarterbacks for 2021

5. Zach Evans, TCU
Evans took a bit of a winding path to TCU, as he originally signed at Georgia but landed in Fort Worth after his release from the LOI in Athens. After recording only 11 carries through the Horned Frogs’ first five games, Evans flashed the talent that made him a five-star prospect out of high school. He posted two 100-yard efforts late in the season to finish with 415 yards and four scores over just 54 attempts. With Darwin Barlow transferring to USC, an increased role and more big plays should be in store for Evans this fall.

4. Christopher Rodriguez, Kentucky
New offensive coordinator Liam Coen was brought in to help Kentucky’s passing game improve, but the coaching staff isn’t going to abandon the ground game this fall. The Wildcats return one of the SEC’s top offensive lines, and Rodriguez should be the focal point of this attack until the passing game stabilizes. The Georgia native took control of the backfield last season, averaging 6.6 yards per carry for 785 yards and 11 scores. Rodriguez missed two games due to injury but still finished second in the SEC by recording nine runs of 20-plus yards. 

Related: College Football's Top 50 Impact Transfers for 2021

3. Eric Gray, Oklahoma
Kennedy Brooks is back after opting out of the 2020 college football season, but Gray could be Oklahoma’s best option at running back. The Tennessee transfer accumulated 1,311 yards and eight rushing touchdowns during his two seasons with the Volunteers, along with 43 receptions for 369 yards and three more scores. Wasting no time, Gray has already made an impression on his new team, including a touchdown run in the spring game.

2. Jahmyr Gibbs, Georgia Tech
By the end of the 2021 college football season, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Gibbs is considered the best running back in the ACC. The Georgia native didn’t disappoint in his first year on campus last fall. Although he was limited to seven games due to injury, Gibbs still ran for 460 yards and four scores on just 89 attempts. He also added 24 receptions for 303 yards and three touchdowns and averaged 25.6 yards on eight kickoff returns. The former four-star recruit should assume more of a workload in ’21, which is likely to equal first-team all-conference recognition by season's end. squad.

1. Bijan Robinson, Texas
The combination of the arrival of new coach Steve Sarkisian, along with a heftier workload from Robinson, should turn the sophomore into one of the top running backs in college football. Robinson showcased what’s to come in 2021 by gashing Kansas State for 172 yards and three touchdowns on nine carries and a 183-yard effort versus Colorado in the Alamo Bowl.

Other Names to Watch

Oscar Adaway, North Texas
With DeAndre Torrey likely to see more time at receiver in 2021, Adaway should become the lead back for coach Seth Littrell. In seven appearances last year, Adaway ran for 572 yards and two scores, which included 100-yard games versus SMU and UTSA.

Chase Brown, Illinois
New Illinois coach Bret Bielema certainly knows a thing or two about productive ground attacks. Brown emerged as the No. 1 back for the Fighting Illini last season (540 yards and three scores) and should see an uptick in opportunities in 2021.

Gabe Ervin, Nebraska
The Cornhuskers have a crowded (and unsettled) backfield going into the fall. Ervin – a three-star prospect in the 2021 signing class – made noise this offseason and is a name to watch when Nebraska open its season on Aug. 28.

Rahjai Harris, East Carolina
Harris and Keaton Mitchell formed a solid one-two punch for the Pirates last fall. After rushing for 624 yards and four scores and collecting six receptions in 2020, can Harris seize more control of the No. 1 spot?

Dillon Johnson/Jo’quavious Marks, Mississippi State
This duo combined for more than 500 rushing yards and nearly 100 receptions last season and is likely to be even more involved in 2021.

Jalen Mitchell, Louisville
Mitchell closed 2020 on a high note by rushing for 168 yards over 20 carries against Wake Forest. Can he take control of a backfield that also features Hassan Hall and Maurice Burkley?

MarShawn Lloyd, South Carolina
Kevin Harris should lead the way for South Carolina’s backfield, but Lloyd – the No. 43 overall recruit from the 2020 signing class – is ready to make an impact after missing last year due to an ACL tear.

Isaih Pacheco, Rutgers
Pacheco is an underrated playmaker for the Scarlet Knights. He’s quietly rushed for 1,795 yards and caught 34 passes for 224 yards over the last three seasons.

Jabari Small, Tennessee
The sample size was (ahem) small, but there were flashes of talent last season, as Small ran for 117 yards over 26 attempts and caught four passes for 24 yards in 2020. Tiyon Evans and freshman Jaylen Wright are also in the mix for carries in Knoxville.

Sean Tucker, Syracuse
Tucker led Syracuse with 626 rushing yards last season, but the return of Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard crowds the backfield.

Chris Tyree, Notre Dame
Kyren Williams is set as the No. 1 back in South Bend, but Tyree (496 yards and four scores) is capable of eating into his carries after an impressive freshman season.

Harrison Waylee, Northern Illinois
A youth movement under coach Thomas Hammock is underway in DeKalb. Waylee is one of those young players seeing snaps, as he led the Northern Illinois offense with 456 yards and a touchdown on the ground in 2020. 

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