The running back position is full of talent for 2014, headlined by Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah. And talented rushers like South Carolina’s Mike Davis, Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon and Miami’s Duke Johnson aren’t far behind.
While the individual talent is important, depth and the No. 2 option – especially in the era of committee approaches – are also key factors to consider when ranking a team’s backfield.
Ranking the individual units among each conference is no easy task. However, determining where each team stacks up among its conference peers for each of the position groups is critical to determining potential strengths and weaknesses on the roster and potential landmines to a league title.
How did we come up with these rankings? A couple of factors were considered. Depth, overall talent, production, level of competition and projected output in 2014 all factored into the rankings for the backfield. While some teams like are ranked largely due to one player, some may lack a superstar this year but have no shortage of depth.
They’re the teams within the team — those cohesive little units bound together by their shared responsibilities within the larger team context.
Whether it’s the offensive linemen firing off time after time into those familiar blocking sleds, or the defensive linemen drilling repeatedly on how to shed blockers, or the defensive backs breaking on ball after ball — these teams in miniature hone their tasks on the practice field until those tasks become second nature.
Whether or not these units function as one can make the difference between winning and losing, and a single unit can carry a team to New Year’s Day — or beyond.
It’s entirely fitting, then, for us to honor the best of the best at each position with our 14th annual Athlon Awards.
College Football's Top 30 RB Units for 2014
T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry headline a Crimson Tide backfield that features six four- or five-star recruits. Yeldon led the team with 1,235 yards and 14 scores last season, while Henry finished with 382 yards and three touchdowns. Henry’s role increased late in the season, and he is expected to earn a larger share of the carries in 2014. Kenyan Drake (694 yards in 2013), Jalston Fowler, Altee Tenpenney and Tyren Jones provide depth and plenty of big-play ability for new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.
This unit was hit hard by injuries last year, but with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall back at full strength, combined with the addition of talented freshmen Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, the Bulldogs have one of the top backfields in the nation. In two years at Georgia, Gurley has averaged 6.1 yards per carry and rushed for 27 touchdowns. Marshall ran for 759 yards and eight touchdowns in 2012 but was limited to 246 yards last year due to a torn ACL. Michel and Chubb were both five-star recruits and should be future stars in Athens.
Melvin Gordon surprisingly turned down the NFL for one more year in Madison. In 2013, he was one of only two players to record 200 carries and average over seven yards per attempt, and his 1,609 yards ranked second in the Big Ten. With James White gone to the NFL, Gordon’s new sidekick in the Badgers’ backfield will be sophomore Corey Clement, who shined in a limited role last fall. Clement led the Big Ten by averaging 8.2 yards per rush on 67 attempts as a true freshman.
Ameer Abdullah headlines a Nebraska backfield that returns players responsible for 94.2 percent of the team’s rushing production from last season. Abdullah led the Big Ten with 1,690 yards last year and had eight rushes of 30 yards or more. Imani Cross, a 230-pound junior, is a valuable asset on short-yardage situations. He led the Cornhuskers with 10 rushing scores and ranked second on the team with 447 yards in 2013. Terrell Newby (298 yards in 2013) is expected to fill the No. 3 role with Adam Taylor out indefinitely due to an ankle injury.
5. South Carolina
Steve Spurrier was known for his passing offenses at Florida, but his South Carolina teams have been effective on the ground, averaging at least 190 yards per game in two out of the last three seasons. Mike Davis shined in his first year as the starter, averaging 5.9 yards per carry in SEC play. Davis is an Athlon Sports third-team All-American for 2014. The Gamecocks have plenty of depth behind Davis, as Shon Carson and Brandon Wilds both rushed for over 200 yards last year. Redshirt freshman David Williams is a name to watch.
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Quarterback Marcus Mariota is short on proven targets at receiver, but the Ducks’ offense has a bevy of options at running back. Byron Marshall returns after recording 1,038 yards last year, and he will be pushed for time by talented sophomore Thomas Tyner (711 yards in 2013). True freshman Royce Freeman (229 pounds) is a bigger option than Tyner or Marshall and should help the Ducks in goal-line and short-yardage situations.
Assuming Duke Johnson returns to full strength, the Hurricanes should have the ACC’s top running back corps for 2014. Johnson rushed for 920 yards prior to a season-ending leg injury against Florida State. The junior is an Athlon Sports third-team All-American for 2014. Backing up Johnson will be touted true freshman Joseph Yearby (No. 7 running back in 247Sports Composite) and sophomore Gus Edwards (338 yards in 2013). Dallas Crawford finished No. 2 on the team with 558 yards last season, but he was moved to defensive back in the spring.
New coach Steve Sarkisian plans to install an up-tempo offense, but the former Washington coach isn’t going abandon the run. Buck Allen returns after leading the team with 785 yards and 14 scores last season. Allen finished 2013 by recording four 100-yard efforts over the final six games. He will be pushed for time by converted linebacker Tre Madden, who recorded four 100-yard games in the first five weeks of 2013. Justin Davis is expected to claim the No. 3 job.
Bret Bielema needs time to rebuild Arkansas into the smashmouth, run-first team he had at Wisconsin. The pieces are starting to come together though, as the Razorbacks have three potential standouts at running back. Alex Collins led the team with 1,026 rushing yards as a freshman and is expected to share carries with Jonathan Williams (900 yards in 2013) this year. Korliss Marshall was a spring standout and brings a big-play element to the backfield after averaging 8.6 yards per touch in 2013.
10. Florida State
Despite the departures of Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr., there’s very little reason to expect a drop-off in performance for Florida State’s backfield. Coach Jimbo Fisher has assembled an embarrassment of riches here, starting with Karlos Williams. The converted safety averaged eight yards per carry last season and is expected to be one of the ACC’s top breakout players in 2014. In addition to Williams, true freshman Dalvin Cook and sophomores Ryan Green and Mario Pender will see snaps in the backfield.
11. Michigan State
The emergence of Jeremy Langford and quarterback Connor Cook was a big reason why Michigan State won the Big Ten title last year. Langford recorded eight 100-yard games over the final nine contests and finished with 1,422 yards and 18 scores on 292 attempts. Nick Hill (344 yards in 2013) and Delton Williams (238 yards) are expected to spell Langford in 2014.
Freshman Leonard Fournette could have a monster season behind one of the nation’s top offensive lines. Fournette is expected to share carries with Terrence Magee (7.3 ypc in 2013) and Kenny Hilliard (310 yards, 7 TDs last year) in 2014.
Tre Mason will be missed, but Gus Malzahn’s high-powered offense still has options at running back. Corey Grant averaged 9.8 yards per carry on 66 attempts last year and will team with Cameron Artis-Payne to handle a bulk of the carries. Freshmen Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber also factor into the rotation.
If Johnathan Gray returns to full strength from an Achilles injury, the Longhorns should rank much higher on this list by the end of 2014. Gray rushed for 780 yards and four scores in nine games last season. If healthy, Gray could be the best running back in the Big 12. Malcolm Brown returns after rushing for 904 yards and nine scores last season, but depth is a question mark after Joe Bergeron and Jalen Overstreet were dismissed.
15. Ohio State
Carlos Hyde is gone, but the Buckeyes aren’t hurting for options. Sophomore Ezekiel Elliott is in for a breakout season after averaging 8.8 yards per carry as a backup last year. Elliott is expected to be the leading rusher, but Rod Smith, Bri’onte Dunn, Curtis Samuel and Warren Ball will each see their share of opportunities.
16. Texas A&M
Johnny Manziel led the team in rushing over the last two seasons, but it’s likely the focus on the ground shifts to the running backs with a new quarterback under center. The Aggies have an underrated trio of backs, headlined by two transfers Tra Carson (329 yards in 2013) and Brandon Williams (269 yards). Trey Williams is a big-play threat (7.0 yards per carry last year) and should see more carries after recording only 58 last year. Redshirt freshman James White rounds out the backfield.
17. Penn State
New coach James Franklin inherits a backfield that returns two players (Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton) that combined for 1,792 yards last season. Zwinak scored 12 rushing scores in 2013, while Belton averaged 5.1 yards per touch. Akeel Lynch recorded 358 yards in his freshman campaign last year and should work in the No. 3 role once again in 2014.
Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin will be missed, but thanks to improved recruiting under Art Briles, the Bears are in good shape in the backfield. Sophomore Shock Linwood headlines the rushing attack after recording 881 yards (6.9 ypc) in 2013. Linwood will have plenty of competition for carries, including sophomore Devin Chafin and freshmen Terence Williams and Johnny Jefferson.
19. West Virginia
Considering coach Dana Holgorsen’s track record of high-powered offenses and quarterback play, it seems odd to suggest the Mountaineers will be a run-first team in 2014. However, West Virginia’s offense could lean more on its ground attack this year, as Pittsburgh transfer Rushel Shell is eligible after sitting out 2013, and Wendell Smallwood and Dreamius Smith return after combining for 715 yards last year. Freshman Dontae Thomas-Williams is another name to watch in 2014.
Quarterback Taysom Hill led BYU in rushing yards with 1,344 yards last season, but Jamaal Williams wasn’t far behind with 1,233 yards. Williams will miss the opener against UConn due to suspension. However, Williams is ticketed for another 1,000-yard season. Backing up Williams should be Paul Lasike, Algernon Brown and Adam Hine. Each of those three backs accumulated at least 200 rushing yards last year.
21. Boise State
Depth is a concern, but the Broncos have an All-America candidate in Jay Ajayi. He rushed for 1,425 yards and 18 scores last season, averaging an impressive 5.7 yards per touch. With Aaron Baltazar leaving the team, Jack Fields and Devan Demas are the top backups to Ajayi.
The strength of Virginia’s offense rests with its ground attack. Senior Kevin Parks has rushed for at least 700 yards in three consecutive years, including a 1,000-yard effort in 2013. Sophomore Taquan Mizzell was the No. 60 overall recruit in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100 and should take on a bigger role in the offense after rushing for 184 yards last season. Senior Khalek Shepherd rushed for 304 yards in 2013 and will factor into the backfield mix once again.
23. North Carolina
The Tar Heels might have one of the nation’s most underrated group of rushers. True freshman Elijah Hood is too talented to sit on the bench and should push sophomore T.J. Logan (533 yards) for snaps. Romar Morris and Khris Francis also return after combining for 532 yards in 2013.
The Cardinal probably won’t have a clear No. 1 back in 2014, but a committee approach should work behind a deep group of options. Barry Sanders, Ricky Seale, Remound Wright, Kelsey Young and true freshman Christian McCaffrey will all factor into the backfield.
The Sooners are a hard team to rank. There’s talent, but also a lot of question marks. Will Joe Mixon play in 2014? Keith Ford, Alex Ross and Samaje Perine are a capable trio if Mixon is out indefinitely.
26. Notre Dame
Three of the Fighting Irish’s top four leading rushers from 2013 are back, and former top 50 recruit Greg Bryant returns after redshirting due to injury. Sophomore Tarean Folston should see a bigger role in the offense after rushing for 470 yards on just 88 carries last year.
Yes, Bobby Petrino likes the forward pass, but don’t forget about the successful running attacks during his Louisville and Arkansas tenures. Dominique Brown is back after rushing for 825 yards last year, while Michael Dyer is poised to make an impact in his senior season.
The Hawkeyes go four-deep at running back. Mark Weisman led the team with 974 yards last season, but Jordan Canzeri should see more carries after averaging 6.5 yards per carry in 2013. Damon Bullock (467 yards last year) also returns, while sophomore LeShun Daniels is another promising option for coordinator Greg Davis.
Kelvin Taylor had a promising freshman campaign, rushing for 508 yards and four scores. He should see an increased role in 2014, while Matt Jones and Mack Brown contribute as the No. 2 and No. 3 backs.
30. Bowling Green
Travis Greene could be one of the best all-purpose backs in the nation after recording 1,749 yards in 2013. Greene is the unquestioned starter, but he will be spelled by backups Andre Givens (255 yards last year) and Fred Coppet (214 yards).
The Next Five
32. UL Lafayette
34. Arizona State