Predicting which RBs will have a breakout year this fall
The 2018 college football season features plenty of big-time talents returning at running back. Stanford’s Bryce Love returns for another run at the Heisman Trophy, while Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, Alabama’s Damien Harris, Boston College’s AJ Dillon, Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins and FAU’s Devin Singletary are just a few of the other running backs vying for All-America honors this fall. While those standouts are back, there are a handful of running backs ready to emerge with a breakout season.
With fall practice around the corner, Athlon Sports is taking a look at some of the breakout candidates for 2018. The second installment in the offseason breakout player series focuses on running backs. Of course, 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 2018? Athlon has compiled 30 names to watch, along with a few others to consider.
College Football's Top 30 Breakout RBs for 2018
30. Toren Young, Iowa
Iowa must replace its top two rushers from last season, but the ground game isn’t going to miss a beat. Coach Kirk Ferentz and play-caller Brian Ferentz will find the right mix at the running back spot, with Young likely to take over as the starter. He rushed for 193 yards and two scores on just 45 carries as a freshman last fall.
29. Brittain Brown, Duke
After working as a backup to Shaun Wilson in 2017, Brown is slated to take over the starting role in Duke’s backfield. The Georgia native was impressive in limited snaps last fall, recording 701 yards (5.4 ypc) and seven touchdowns. Brown exceeded 100 yards in two games and also caught 14 passes for 161 yards.
28. Lorenzo Lingard, Miami
The Hurricanes already have a standout running back (Travis Homer) garnering plenty of All-ACC honors this preseason. However, it’s going to be tough for coach Mark Richt to keep Lingard on the sidelines. Lingard ranked as the No. 25 overall prospect and five-star recruit by the 247Sports Composite for the 2018 signing class. The Florida native rushed for over 2,500 yards in his high school career and is already one of the fastest players in the ACC.
27. Jamarius Henderson, Troy
Troy loses its top two rushers from last season, but the cupboard isn’t bare at running back for coach Neal Brown. Henderson – a transfer from Memphis – is slated to take on a bigger role in the backfield. In his first opportunity for playing time with the Trojans last fall, Henderson rushed for 355 yards on just 45 carries, averaging a healthy 7.9 yards per attempt.
26. Terence Williams, Houston
Houston coach Major Applewhite is counting on a couple of transfers for instant help on both sides of the ball this season. Williams is one of those players, as he arrives in Houston after spending the last three years at Baylor. The Texas native rushed for 1,048 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2016 and finished his career in Waco with 1,859 total rushing yards. Assuming he takes the bulk of the carries, Williams should have a big senior year under new coordinator Kendal Briles.
25. Salvon Ahmed, Washington
Washington is set at running back with Myles Gaskin leading the way, but the No. 2 spot is up for grabs after Lavon Coleman expired his eligibility. Ahmed is an intriguing weapon for coach Chris Petersen, as he could be used in more of an all-purpose role. As a true freshman last fall, Ahmed ranked third on the team with 388 rushing yards and scored three times on the ground. He also caught 13 passes for 77 yards and averaged 25.2 yards on kickoff returns.
24. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU
Standout running backs are the norm in Baton Rouge, but LSU enters 2018 without a proven option. Derrius Guice successfully followed in Leonard Fournette’s footsteps and ended his career with the Tigers by rushing for 1,251 yards and 11 scores last fall. Edwards-Helaire only recorded nine carries for 31 yards in 2017 in limited snaps. The Baton Rouge native has a good combination of speed and power and is primed to take on a prominent role in LSU’s backfield.
23. JaMycal Hasty, Baylor
After rushing for 623 yards and three scores as a freshman in 2016, Hasty was limited to just 76 carries and finished ’17 with 314 yards. A knee injury forced him to miss a couple of contests, and Hasty never reached the 100-yard mark in any game the rest of the year. However, with a full offseason to recover, he should return to his freshman form.
22. Darius Bradwell/Corey Dauphine, Tulane
Tulane coach Willie Fritz loses a 1,000-yard rusher (Dontrell Hilliard), but Bradwell and Dauphine should ensure the ground game doesn’t miss a beat. Bradwell converted to running back after spending the 2016 season at quarterback. He ranked third on the team with 411 yards last fall, averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Dauphine sat out the 2017 campaign as a transfer from Texas Tech. He ranked as the No. 205 overall recruit by the 247Sports Composite in the 2015 signing class.
21. Kelton Moore, Nevada
James Butler left big shoes to fill in Nevada’s backfield last season, but Moore stepped up in the second half of 2017 for coach Jay Norvell. He gashed Hawaii’s defense for 216 yards in early October and finished the year by rushing for at least 100 yards in three out of his final five contests. Moore ended 2017 with 855 yards and four scores and also caught 19 passes. The junior should see more opportunities in 2018 as the No. 1 back in a high-powered Nevada offense.
20. Jeremy Cox, Old Dominion
With Ray Lawry out of eligibility, Cox is slated to take over the majority of the workload in Old Dominion’s backfield. The senior has worked as the backup for the last three seasons, rushing for 1,675 yards and 18 touchdowns in that span. With five starters back up front, Cox should also have one of the top offensive lines in Conference USA clearing the way this fall.
19. Kam Martin, Auburn
Replacing Kerryon Johnson – the SEC’s 2017 Offensive Player of the Year – isn’t going to be easy for Auburn. However, coach Gus Malzahn has plenty of options to pick from, including Martin after he ranked second on the team with 453 yards and two touchdowns last season. The Texas native ranked as a four-star recruit in the 2016 signing class.
18. Jason Huntley, New Mexico State
New Mexico State’s offense will miss Larry Rose, but coach Doug Martin has a good replacement in Huntley. As a sophomore last year, Huntley rushed for 420 yards (6.0 ypc) and a touchdown, while catching 39 passes for 363 yards and two scores. The Texas native should be a valuable all-around weapon for the Aggies in 2018.
17. Tyler King, Marshall
King earned a place on Conference USA’s All-Freshman Team last fall. The Florida native saw action in 11 games for the Thundering Herd, recording 820 yards and seven touchdowns on 158 attempts. He posted 106 yards versus Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl and also eclipsed the 100-yard mark in matchups against Kent State, MTSU and WKU.
16. Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Vanderbilt
Ralph Webb finished his career on West End as Vanderbilt’s all-time leading rusher and never finished a season below 800 rushing yards. Vaughn has big shoes to fill, but the Illinois transfer should be an impact addition to the offense in 2018. He led the Fighting Illini with 723 rushing yards and six touchdowns as a freshman in 2015 and followed that season by recording 301 yards and two touchdowns in ’16. Vaughn caught 25 passes in two years at Illinois and should be a valuable safety net for quarterback Kyle Shurmur.
15. Darius Anderson/Sewo Olonilua, TCU
With the Horned Frogs breaking in a new quarterback (Shawn Robinson), expect to see plenty of this duo in 2018. Despite missing three games, Anderson paced the TCU offense with 768 yards last season, while Olonilua posted 330 yards on 64 attempts. This tandem accounted for 15 rushing scores and also contributed 28 receptions in 2017.
14. Trey Ragas, Louisiana
New coach Billy Napier inherits a Louisiana offense stocked with talent at the skill positions. Ragas is one of the building blocks for the new staff after an impressive freshman campaign. He rushed for 813 yards and nine touchdowns last season, averaging a healthy 5.7 yards per rush. Ragas recorded only 142 carries in 2017, a number that’s likely to increase under Napier this fall.
13. Eno Benjamin, Arizona State
Benjamin was the top-rated recruit by the 247Sports Composite in Arizona State’s 2017 signing class and received limited work as a freshman with two talented backs (Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage) in front of him on the depth chart. However, Richard and Ballage have expired their eligibility, leaving Benjamin as the No. 1 back for 2018. The Texas native rushed for 142 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries last fall.
12. Jeremy Larkin, Northwestern
Justin Jackson eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards in all four years as Northwestern’s starting running back. That’s a tough assignment for Larkin to follow, but Ohio native is ready to take over the No. 1 role after rushing for 503 yards and five touchdowns last season. He posted 112 yards on nine attempts in the Wildcats’ Music City Bowl win and ended the year with 11 catches for 115 yards.
11. Andrew Clair, Bowling Green
After recording only 50 yards through the first four games, Clair saw an increased role in Bowling Green’s backfield and finished his true freshman year with 725 yards and four touchdowns. He eclipsed 100 yards in four straight games, including 148 versus Ohio in mid-October. With Josh Cleveland out of eligibility, Clair is primed for a big season in his sophomore campaign.
10. Ty Chandler, Tennessee
After working as the backup to John Kelly last season, Chandler is primed for a breakout season as Tennessee’s No. 1 option in the backfield. The Nashville native flashed potential in his true freshman campaign, recording 305 yards and two scores on 71 attempts. Chandler rushed for 120 yards against Kentucky and also scored once on a kickoff return versus Indiana State. Michigan State graduate transfer Madre London will push for time, but Chandler is the best all-around (and big-play) option for coordinator Tyson Helton.
9. Stephen Carr, USC
A back injury sidelined Carr in the spring, but USC hopes to have Carr back at full strength by the 2018 opener. With Ronald Jones departing for the NFL, Carr – a five-star recruit from the 2017 signing class – is poised to take on a bigger role in the backfield. As a freshman last season, Carr ranked second on the team with 363 yards and posted three scores.
8. Shakif Seymour, Toledo
Toledo has produced a 1,000-yard rusher in eight out of the last 10 years, and it’s a good bet coach Jason Candle will find another standout at this position in 2018. Seymour and teammate Art Thompkins should form an effective one-two punch this fall, with Seymour primed for the starting role after rushing for 702 yards and 12 touchdowns as a backup to Terry Swanson in 2017.
7. Shamari Brooks, Tulsa
Tulsa has finished third in the American Athletic Conference in rushing offense in back-to-back seasons. Coach Philip Montgomery’s group should have another strong ground game in 2018. D’Angelo Brewer expired his eligibility, but Brooks is ready to assume the starting role after rushing for 687 yards and 10 touchdowns as a freshman last fall. He missed the final three games of 2017 due to a collarbone injury but still posted four 100-yard efforts, including 164 yards versus UConn.
6. Najee Harris, Alabama
Once again, Alabama’s backfield is loaded with talent. Damien Harris is slated to take over as the No. 1 option for coach Nick Saban, but it will be tough to keep Najee Harris on the sidelines. The California native ranked as the No. 2 overall recruit by the 2017 247Sports Composite and rushed for 370 yards and three touchdowns on just 61 carries last season. Even if he doesn’t start, Najee Harris is due for an increased workload this fall.
5. Travis Etienne, Clemson
Clemson’s backfield tandem of Etienne and Tavien Feaster will be a handful for opposing ACC defenses this fall. Feaster posted 669 yards and seven touchdowns last season, while Etienne led the team with 766 yards and 13 scores in his true freshman campaign. The speedster from Louisiana should see more work in 2018.
4. Miles Sanders, Penn State
Saquon Barkley leaves big shoes to fill in Happy Valley, but the cupboard isn’t empty at running back for new coordinator Ricky Rahne. Sanders – a former five-star recruit – is ready to take over as the team’s No. 1 back. The Pittsburgh native rushed for 191 yards and two touchdowns on just 31 carries last fall and contributed 184 yards and a score as a freshman in 2016.
3. Juwan Washington, San Diego State
Rashaad Penny (2,248 yards last season) is gone, but San Diego State’s rushing attack isn’t going to miss a beat in 2018. Washington worked as the backup to Penny in 2017, rushing for 759 yards and seven scores. He averaged 5.98 yards a carry and scored twice on kickoff returns. Expect Washington to extend the Aztecs streak of seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher to nine in 2018.
2. D’Andre Swift, Georgia
Despite losing Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, Georgia’s rushing attack will rank among the best in college football next season. Swift flashed potential as the team’s No. 3 back last fall, averaging a robust 7.6 yards a carry for 618 yards and three scores on just 81 attempts. He also caught 17 passes for 153 yards and one touchdown. Swift will have help from a talented stable of backups, but the sophomore is primed to take over the No. 1 role for coach Kirby Smart.
1. Cam Akers, Florida State
Akers ranked as one of the top recruits in Florida State’s 2017 signing class and earned third-team All-ACC honors after rushing for 1,025 yards and seven touchdowns on just 194 attempts. He also caught 16 passes for 116 yards and one score. While 2017 was a good year for Akers, he’s only going to get better and perform at a higher level in 2018. The Mississippi native should thrive under coach Willie Taggart and challenge for a spot on postseason All-America teams.
Others to Watch: Terelle West, MTSU; Squally Canada, BYU; James Williams, Washington State; Darwin Thompson, Utah State; Izzy Matthews, Colorado State; Kennedy McKoy, West Virginia; Morgan Ellison, Indiana; Jalen Rhodes, UTSA; J.J. Taylor, Arizona; Ricky Person, NC State; Tyler Nevens, San Jose State; Dexter Williams, Notre Dame; DeAndre Torrey/Nic Smith, North Texas; Mike Epstein, Illinois; Raheem Blackshear, Rutgers; Jordan Cronkrite/Elijah Mack, USF; Gerrid Doaks, Cincinnati; Kevin Mensah, UConn