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College Football's Top 30 Breakout Running Backs for 2019

Najee Harris, Alabama Crimson Tide Football

Najee Harris, Alabama Crimson Tide Football

Running back is a deep position for returning standouts in college football, as Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor, Clemson's Travis Etienne, Boston College's AJ Dillon and Arizona State's Eno Benjamin all return to campus for 2019. While plenty of stars are in place at running back this fall, there's another wave of players ready to emerge with a breakout year. Alabama's Najee Harris, Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard and Maryland's Anthony McFarland are just a few of the breakout candidates to watch when the season kicks off.

With fall practice underway, Athlon Sports is taking a look at some of the breakout candidates for 2019. 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 2019? Athlon has compiled 30 names to watch: 

College Football's Top 30 Breakout Running Backs for 2019

30. Breece Hall/Jirehl Brock, Iowa State

David Montgomery leaves big shoes to fill in Iowa State’s backfield, and with experienced options like Kene Nwangwu, Sheldon Croney and Johnnie Lang in the mix, a true No. 1 option may not emerge. But even with those three backs returning, two freshmen – Hall and Brock – are worth watching. Both players ranked as four-star recruits in the 2019 signing class and could earn their way into a significant role over the course of the year.

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29. Hassan Hall, Louisville

New coach Scott Satterfield had a 1,000-yard rusher in all six seasons at the helm at Appalachian State. Hall may not be a 250-carry option for Satterfield, but the Georgia native was one of the bright spots on Louisville’s offense last year and should see more touches in 2019. Hall ran for 303 yards and three scores over 70 attempts, caught 12 passes and averaged 24.1 yards per kickoff return. Even if he’s not a 1,000-yard rusher, Hall should be a key all-purpose option for the new staff.

College football rankings: Louisville

Related: College Football's Top 35 Coordinator Hires for 2019

28. Charles Williams, UNLV

Williams paced the UNLV offense in rushing yards (763) as a freshman in 2016 but worked as the backup to Lexington Thomas over the last two years. With Thomas out of eligibility, Williams is set to assume the No. 1 role in the backfield once again. The California native should have one of the Mountain West’s top offensive lines leading the way, which should allow Williams to reach 1,000 yards for the first time in his career.

College football rankings: UNLV

27. BJ Emmons, FAU

With Devin Singletary and Kerrith Whyte off to the NFL, FAU is losing 2,214 yards and 30 rushing touchdowns out of last year’s backfield. Coach Lane Kiffin has a couple of intriguing replacements vying for snaps, with Emmons and James Charles topping the list for 2019. Emmons started his career at Alabama in 2016 and later transferred to Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College in ’17. The North Carolina native ranked as a four-star recruit in the 2016 signing class and has plenty of untapped potential for Kiffin to utilize this fall.

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26. Ta’Zhawn Henry, Texas Tech

At 5-foot-7 and 185 pounds, Henry may not see 30 carries a week, but the Houston native is poised to take on a bigger role in 2019. As a true freshman last fall, Henry ran for 341 yards and eight touchdowns over 86 attempts and caught 22 passes for 196 yards and a score. Utah transfer Armand Shyne joined the team this summer, giving new coach Matt Wells an intriguing combination to build the ground game around this fall.

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25. Michael Carter/Javonte Williams, North Carolina

The running back position is the unquestioned strength of Mack Brown’s offense in 2019. While Brown and coordinator Phil Longo want to attack with the passing game, this backfield will see plenty of opportunities. Carter led the team by running for 597 yards (7.1 ypc) on just 84 attempts last fall. Williams was behind Antonio Williams (504 to 224), but the sophomore has generated a lot of offseason buzz. With three freshmen vying to start under center, utilizing the talents of Carter and Javonte Williams against a tough early slate wouldn’t be a bad thing for North Carolina.

North Carolina Football Schedule 2019

24. Juma Otoviano, Rice

Mike Bloomgren is starting to put some of the pieces in place to run his version of “Intellectual Brutality” at Rice. The former Stanford assistant might have found his go-to running back for 2019 at the end of last season. Otoviano was used sparingly prior to the finale against Old Dominion. However, he showcased his talent by gashing the Monarchs for 224 yards and two scores over 27 attempts. Otoviano rushed for 364 yards over 65 attempts last fall. He’s poised to take on a bigger workload as the No. 1 option for Bloomgren in 2019.

College Football Rankings: Rice

23. Jo-El Shaw, Kent State

Kent State showed progress in coach Sean Lewis’ first year at the helm and could be the most-improved team in the MAC for 2019. The Golden Flashes return an All-MAC candidate (Woody Barrett) at quarterback, but Shaw’s emergence late in the ’18 season should help a rushing attack that averaged 4.2 yards per carry in MAC play last fall. Shaw signed with Syracuse out of high school but spent his first two years at Lackawanna (Pa.) Community College. After recording only 35 carries through the first seven contests of 2018, Shaw posted three 100-yard games over the final four games. He gashed Eastern Michigan for 159 yards on Nov. 23, posted 128 against Bowling Green and rushed for 116 against Toledo. Shaw’s strong finish gave him 657 yards over 138 carries – both totals poised to increase in 2019.

College Football Rankings: Kent State

22. Zach Charbonnet, Michigan

Putting Charbonnet on this list is a bit of a gamble since he’s yet to take a snap in a game and missed time in the spring due to a knee injury. However, there’s no denying he’s got talent – No. 46 overall player by the 247Sports Composite in 2019 – and the opportunity. Michigan’s backfield depth was depleted after Karan Higdon finished his eligibility, and Chris Evans was lost due to a suspension for 2019.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Michigan

21. Toa Taua, Nevada

Toa is the brother of former Nevada standout and current running back coach Vai Taua. The California native made an impression in his freshman campaign last fall, leading the Wolf Pack offense with 872 rushing yards and six scores. Toa Taua also caught 22 passes for 202 yards and one touchdown. With Nevada breaking in a new quarterback, coach Jay Norvell is likely to lean on Taua even more in 2019.

College Football Rankings: Nevada

20. Jafar Armstrong, Notre Dame

Armstrong started his career in South Bend as a receiver but shifted to running back prior to the 2018 campaign. With Dexter Williams out of the lineup for the first couple of games last fall, Armstrong emerged as the top back for coach Brian Kelly, posting 245 yards over the first four contests. A knee injury sidelined him for the next three games, but he returned for the second half of 2018 and provided solid depth behind Williams. As evidenced by his position switch and pass-catching ability, Armstrong should be a versatile option out of the backfield for quarterback Ian Book.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Notre Dame

Related: College Football Top 25 for 2019

19. Ricky Person, NC State

NC State’s offense is undergoing some offseason renovation. Des Kitchings and George McDonald are the new play-callers, Matt McKay is slated to replace Ryan Finley at quarterback, the Wolfpack lost two 1,000-yard receivers, and must replace three starters up front. Despite all of those changes, the news isn’t totally bad for coach Dave Doeren. Reggie Gallaspy finished his career in Raleigh with 1,091 yards, but the running back stable has a couple of capable options ready to step up, including Person and freshman Bam Knight. Person ran for 471 yards and two touchdowns as Gallaspy’s backup last fall. If he can avoid the injury bug after dealing with it in 2018, Person could crack 1,000 yards as the leader of NC State’s backfield.

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18. Marcel Murray, Arkansas State

Murray emerged as Arkansas State’s best running back last season, running for 860 yards and eight scores as a true freshman. His best performance came against Louisiana (121 yards and three scores) but he also contributed 67 in the Arizona Bowl against Nevada, 115 versus Georgia State, and 94 against ULM. Murray did not record more than 20 carries in a contest last season, but with Warren Wand out of eligibility, he should take on more of the workload in 2019.

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17. Isaiah Bowser, Northwestern

Bowser was a key cog in Northwestern’s Big Ten West Division title last season. While the final stat line (866 yards and six touchdowns) wasn’t among the best in the conference, Bowser stepped up and became the No. 1 rusher after Jeremy Larkin was forced to retire in September due to cervical stenosis. The Ohio native posted 166 yards against Illinois, 117 versus Wisconsin and 165 in a huge road win at Iowa.

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16. Clyde Edwards-Helaire/John Emery, LSU

LSU enters 2019 with a streak of six consecutive seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher. Whether it’s Edwards-Helaire or Emery, there’s a good chance that streak goes to seven this fall. Emery ranked as a five-star recruit in the 2019 class and has the size (6-0, 203) to be a workhorse back for coach Ed Orgeron. Edwards-Helaire is more of an all-around threat and looks to build off a strong sophomore campaign (658 rushing yards, 11 catches and seven touchdowns) this fall.

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LSU Football Schedule

Related: College Football's Top 35 Coordinator Hires for 2019

15. Bryant Koback, Toledo

High-scoring offenses and standout talent at the skill positions seem to be an annual tradition for the Rockets. Koback looks like the next All-MAC running back for coach Jason Candle after running for 917 yards and 14 touchdowns in his first year on campus. The Ohio native started his career at Kentucky in 2017 but transferred to Toledo and gained immediate eligibility last fall. Shakif Seymour is likely to see his share of carries, but Koback should eclipse 1,000 yards after scratching the surface of his potential at the end of 2018.

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14. Gerold Bright, Utah State

Darwin Thompson departed Logan a year early for the NFL, leaving Bright as the No. 1 option at running back for Utah State’s high-powered offense. The Florida native started his career at receiver but shifted to running back and has accumulated 1,224 yards and 13 scores over the last three years. Bright’s best season came last fall. He averaged a healthy 6.3 yards per rush, posting 888 yards and 10 touchdowns and 22 catches for 232 yards over 13 appearances.

College Football Rankings: Utah State

13. Rakeem Boyd, Arkansas

Assuming Arkansas finds more stability in the trenches this fall, a 1,000-yard season should be within reach for Boyd. After starting his career at Texas A&M, Boyd spent the 2017 season at Independence (Kan.) Community College and ran for 1,211 yards over 10 appearances. The Houston native recorded only 21 carries over the first four games for the Razorbacks last season but eventually reeled off three 100-yard games in October. He finished the year with 734 yards and two touchdown runs and caught 23 passes for 165 yards.

College football rankings: Arkansas

12. Tavien Feaster, South Carolina

With Travis Etienne locked into the No. 1 role for Clemson’s backfield and one year of eligibility remaining, Feaster decided to transfer to South Carolina. While Feaster may share carries with Rico Dowdle, his arrival should provide some pop to a rushing attack that averaged only 4.2 yards per carry in SEC play last year. The South Carolina native ranked as the No. 29 recruit by the 247Sports Composite in the 2016 signing class and recorded 1,363 yards and 15 touchdowns in three seasons with the Tigers.

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11. JaTarvious Whitlow, Auburn

Whitlow was productive as a redshirt freshman last season, running for 787 yards and six touchdowns over 150 carries. The Alabama native ran for 104 yards against LSU and posted 170 against Ole Miss, but was banged up down the stretch and never topped 61 yards in any of his final five games. With an experienced offensive line leading the way in 2019, Whitlow (with a little better luck in the health department too) should have a breakout year on the national stage.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Auburn

Related: College Football Bowl Projections for 2019

10. Patrick Taylor, Memphis

With Darrell Henderson off to the NFL, Taylor will assume the No. 1 role in the backfield for coach Mike Norvell. As a junior last fall, he ran for 1,122 yards and 16 touchdowns (5.4 ypc) and caught 17 passes for 197 yards. Taylor (6-foot-3 and 223 pounds) is a bigger back than Henderson (5-foot-9 and 200 pounds) but the level of production won’t change for the Tigers’ ground game.

College Football Rankings: Memphis Football

9. Kylin Hill, Mississippi State

Hill flashed potential as Mississippi State’s No. 1 running back in 2018, ending the year with 734 yards and four scores. However, after rushing for 211 yards against Kansas State and 126 versus Auburn, Hill only managed 218 yards over his final four games. Injuries hindered Hill in that stretch, but a return to full strength and more opportunities should allow him to easily exceed the 1,000-yard mark this fall.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Mississippi State

8. Ricky Slade, Penn State

Penn State’s last two starting running backs – Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders – are now in the NFC East, but there’s not much concern about this position in Happy Valley. Slade ranked as a five-star prospect and the No. 1 all-purpose back in the 2018 signing class and ran for 257 yards and six touchdowns on just 45 attempts last fall. With Sanders off to the NFL, Slade will take on more carries for coach James Franklin. He may not be a 250-carry back though, as Journey Brown, Devyn Ford and Noah Cain are too talented to keep on the sidelines.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Penn State

Related: College Football's Top 30 Breakout Quarterbacks for 2019

7. Max Borghi, Washington State

Mike Leach’s offenses are known for high-powered passing attacks, helping quarterbacks and receivers put up huge numbers each week. However, Leach quietly has a running back capable of earning all-conference honors this season. Borghi rushed for 366 yards (5.1 ypc) and eight touchdowns and caught 53 passes for 374 yards and four scores last year. With James Williams off to the NFL, Borghi should inherit the No. 1 role in Pullman.

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6. Salvon Ahmed, Washington

Myles Gaskin’s record-setting career ended after the Rose Bowl, but coach Chris Petersen has a solid backfield to fill the void in 2019. Ahmed is expected to take over as the No. 1 back after thriving in a backup role the last two years. The Washington native ran for 388 yards and three scores as a freshman in 2017 and posted 608 yards and seven touchdowns on just 104 attempts last fall. Ahmed has good hands out of the backfield (34 career catches) and enters 2019 averaging six yards a carry.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Washington

5. Keaontay Ingram/Jordan Whittington, Texas

Texas averaged 3.8 yards a carry last season, and after watching Sam Ehlinger tote 164 attempts, this offense could use more pop out of its running backs in 2019. Coach Tom Herman won’t have to look far for answers, as both Ingram and Whittington are poised to break out. Ingram finished second on the team with 708 yards (4.99 ypc) last fall, while Whittington joined the team this spring after ranking as a five-star prospect in the 2019 signing class. Whittington is likely to be utilized as an all-purpose weapon, but both players should emerge to take some of the pressure off of Ehlinger.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Texas

Related: College Football Top 130 Teams for 2019

4. Jashaun Corbin, Texas A&M

Trayveon Williams leaves big shoes to fill in College Station after rushing for 1,760 yards and 18 scores last fall. However, the cupboard is far from bare for coach Jimbo Fisher. As a true freshman in 2018, Corbin ranked third on the team with 346 yards and one score over 61 attempts. The Florida native showcased his versatility by catching 10 passes and averaging 30.1 yards on 14 kickoff returns. Corbin has yet to handle more than 10 carries in a contest, but his limited work and explosive all-around ability should allow him to push for All-SEC honors in 2019.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Texas A&M

3. Anthony McFarland, Maryland

In some ways, McFarland had a breakout 2018 season. He set a new Maryland single-season rushing record with 1,034 yards and earned a spot on the postseason All-Big Ten squad. However, McFarland makes this list because we think he’s got another level he can reach in 2019. A good chunk of McFarland’s rushing yards came in two games (Indiana-210 and Ohio State-298), and new coach Mike Locksley should ensure the Maryland native gets closer to 200 carries this season. Assuming McFarland can replicate the 7.89 yards per rush and become more consistent throughout the year, postseason All-America honors would certainly be within reach.

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2. Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State

Justice Hill’s late-season injury allowed Hubbard to showcase his talent over the final four games of 2018. The Canada native posted three 100-yard games over that span, including 145 yards versus Missouri in the Liberty Bowl. Hubbard averaged a healthy 5.97 yards per rush and reached the end zone seven times over the final four contests.

College Football Top 25: Oklahoma State

Related: Big 12 Breakout Players for 2019

1. Najee Harris, Alabama

With Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris off to the NFL, Harris is set to take on a larger role in Alabama’s backfield. High expectations have surrounded the California native after he joined the team as a five-star prospect prior to the 2017 season. Harris rushed for 370 yards and three scores as a freshman that fall and finished second on the team with 783 yards and four scores (6.7 ypc) in 2018. Freshman Trey Sanders and junior Brian Robinson will also factor into the mix for the Crimson Tide.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Alabama