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College Football's Top 30 Running Backs on the Rise for 2016

Ronald Jones

Ronald Jones

Running back is one of the easiest positions to find a new standout each year, and there always seems to be a wave of stars ready to emerge in offseason workouts. Last season, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey finished second in the Heisman voting in his first year as the starter, while Alabama’s Derrick Henry went from sharing time with T.J. Yeldon to finishing as the nation’s leading rusher and the Heisman Trophy winner. Regardless of whether teams use a committee approach or rely on one back, spring practice is the first opportunity to find the next star at the position. Players like Penn State's Saquon Barkley, USC's Ronald Jones, Washington's Myles Gaskin, Alabama's Bo Scarbrough and Michigan State's LJ Scott are just a few of the next wave of players ready to emerge as stars at the running back position. 

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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.

Let’s take a look at 30 running backs on the rise for 2016, followed by a few other names to watch:

College Football's Top 30 Running Backs on the Rise for 2016

Saquon Barkley, Penn State

Despite running behind an inconsistent offensive line, Barkley became the first Penn State rusher to reach 1,000 yards since 2012. Barkley recorded 1,076 yards and seven scores on 182 attempts and posted five 100-yard efforts. His best performance of the season came against Rutgers (195), but Barkley also found running room against tough defenses in Ohio State (194) and Michigan State (103). After a standout debut as a true freshman last year, Barkley is due for more opportunities in 2016.

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Related: College Football's Pre-Spring 1-128 Team Rankings for 2016

Shannon Brooks, Minnesota

Minnesota has churned out plenty of standouts at running back in recent memory, and Brooks looks like the next star for new coach Tracy Claeys. Brooks made 12 appearances as a true freshman last year and finished the season with 709 yards and seven scores. He eclipsed the 100-yard mark two times, including 176 yards against Purdue in a 41-13 victory for the Golden Gophers. Brooks will share carries with Rodney Smith, but the Georgia native should threaten the 1,000-yard mark in his sophomore campaign.

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James Butler, Nevada

The Mountain West has a solid stable of running backs returning in 2016, and with names like Donnel Pumphrey (SDSU), Brian Hill (Wyoming) and Jeremy McNichols (Boise State) grabbing national attention, Butler’s name gets lost in the mix. The Illinois native recorded 1,345 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and averaged a healthy 6.5 yards per carry. Additionally, Butler posted 100-yard efforts in eight games, including 189 against Colorado State in the Arizona Bowl and 107 against Texas A&M.

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Duke Catalon, Houston

Houston is losing a sizeable chunk of its ground attack with the departure of Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson. The duo combined for 1,365 yards last season, and Kaliq Kokuma is the only returning running back on the roster that recorded a carry (18) in 2015. Catalon is expected to make an immediate impact for coach Tom Herman and should assume the top spot in the backfield. After a redshirt year at Texas in 2014, Catalon – a four-star recruit coming out of high school – chose to transfer to Houston and is poised to be a difference maker for the Cougars in 2016.

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Matthew Dayes, NC State

Dayes was off to a fast start last season but a foot injury limited him to just eight games. Prior to the season-ending ailment, Dayes rushed for 865 yards and 12 touchdowns and recorded at least 100 yards in five contests. His best effort of the year came against Wake Forest (205 yards). Dayes should open the season as NC State's No. 1 back, but he will face competition from talented redshirt freshman Johnny Frasier. A committee approach would not be a surprise for the Wolfpack.

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Keith Ford, Texas A&M

The Aggies won’t drastically alter their scheme for 2016, but this team might play more to its defense and the ground game than it has since joining the SEC. New coordinator Noel Mazzone’s offense generated a 1,000-yard rusher in three out of his four seasons at UCLA. Mazzone won’t have Tra Carson at his disposal, but the Texas A&M ground attack should be in good shape with Ford leading the way. Ford was a five-star recruit in the high school ranks and spent two years at Oklahoma, recording 503 yards and six rushing scores.

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D’Onta Foreman/Chris Warren, Texas

Transitioning to a new offense and sorting out the quarterback situation is a tough challenge for new coordinator Sterlin Gilbert in his first season in Austin. But the cupboard isn’t completely bare for Gilbert. Foreman and Warren were a bright spot last year, as the duo combined for 1,237 yards and eight scores. Foreman brought more of a big-play element to the offense, as he gashed opponents for 7.2 yards per rush. Will this duo share carries once again? Or will Foreman emerge as the clear No. 1 back?

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Myles Gaskin, Washington

Washington is poised to challenge Stanford for Pac-12 North supremacy this season, as the Huskies are a team on the rise behind talented sophomore quarterback Jake Browning and one of the nation’s top defenses. Additionally, the offense found a spark on the ground last year with the emergence of Gaskin. As a true freshman in 2015, Gaskin rushed for 1,302 yards and 14 scores. Additionally, he eclipsed at least 100 yards in each of Washington’s last four games.

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Soso Jamabo, UCLA

Paul Perkins’ decision to leave for the NFL opens the door for Jamabo to take over as UCLA’s No. 1 back. The five-star recruit from Texas impressed in limited action last season, recording 403 yards and four touchdowns on 66 carries. Jamabo’s best performance came against Oregon State (90 yards), and he also posted two outings of 79 yards (Virginia and California). Expect the sophomore to lead the way for UCLA’s ground attack and push for at least 1,000 yards in 2016.

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Related: Pac-12's Pre-Spring Top 25 Players for 2016

Jordan Johnson, Buffalo

Second-year coach Lance Leipold faces a rebuilding project on offense, as just two starters are back for 2016. However, the offense has a good place to start the rebuilding effort at running back with the return of Johnson. As a backup to starter Anthone Taylor last season, Johnson rushed for 811 yards and 12 scores on 172 attempts. Despite the limited action, the New York native showcased the necessary talent to handle the every-down role for the Bulls. He recorded 147 yards on 28 attempts against Ohio and posted 123 yards against Miami (Ohio) in late October.

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Xavier Johnson, South Alabama

Getting the ball to Johnson more often in 2016 should be a priority for coordinator Bryant Vincent. Johnson showed big-play ability and explosiveness in 12 games for the Jaguars last year, rushing for 956 yards and seven touchdowns on 145 attempts. Johnson posted five 100-yard games but only attempted at least 20 carries two times in 2015. With a few more opportunities next season, Johnson should eclipse the 1,000-yard mark and push for All-Sun Belt honors.

Markell Jones, Purdue

Coach Darrell Hazell is looking for a spark on offense after Purdue averaged 22.5 points a game in Big Ten action last season. Even though the Boilermakers have room to improve on offense, the emergence of two freshmen last season – quarterback David Blough and running back Markell Jones – provide hope for 2016. Jones led the Boilermakers with 875 rushing yards and 10 scores. His best performance came against the rugged Michigan State defense, recording 157 yards on 22 attempts. With more help up front and opportunities, Jones could become Purdue’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2008.

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Ronald Jones, USC

With quarterback Cody Kessler expiring his eligibility, it’s safe to assume the Trojans will utilize their ground attack more in 2016. New coach Clay Helton and coordinator Tee Martin aren’t hurting for options at running back, with Jones returning as the lead back after a strong freshman campaign. In 14 games last year, Jones recorded 987 yards and eight scores. He posted just one effort of more than 100 yards, but the Texas native also never attempted more than 19 carries in a contest. With more opportunities and a solid offensive line leading the way, Jones should easily eclipse 1,000 yards next season.

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Devante Mays, Utah State

Mays was a key pickup from the junior college ranks last season and provided some punch to Utah State’s ground game late in the 2015 campaign. After recording less than 12 carries in each of the first six contests, Mays recorded at least 15 attempts in five out of the last seven games. Additionally, Mays posted three 100-yard efforts in the second half of the season, including 176 against Wyoming and 124 against Akron in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

Travon McMillian, Virginia Tech

New coach Justin Fuente inherits a talented group of running backs in Blacksburg, and this unit will help the first-year coach alleviate some of the pressure on the quarterback. McMillian had a breakout year as a redshirt freshman last season, and all signs point to an even better 2016 campaign. McMillian rushed for 1,042 yards and seven scores on 200 attempts and recorded three straight 100-yard efforts in the second half of the year. The return of Marshawn Williams and Shai McKenzie adds depth to this backfield, but McMillian should remain the go-to back for Fuente.

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Joe Mixon, Oklahoma

Opportunities could be limited for Mixon with Samaje Perine clearly entrenched as Oklahoma’s No. 1 back. However, as Mixon showcased in his first year of playing time with the Sooners, he’s got plenty of big-play ability and is a valuable receiver out of the backfield. In 13 games last season, Mixon ran for 753 yards and seven scores and grabbed 28 passes for 356 yards and four touchdowns. Exceeding those totals by a lot in 2016 won’t be easy, but coordinator Lincoln Riley should find a few additional ways to get Mixon more involved.  

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Ryan Nall, Oregon State

“The Wrecking Nall” is still a bit of a mystery after recording only 73 carries last season. Despite the small sample size, there’s a lot to like about the converted tight end. Nall rushed for 455 yards and three scores on 73 attempts and caught seven passes for 109 yards in 2015. Nall was more involved in the offense late in the year, including a 174-yard effort against Oregon and 122 yards against Colorado. Coach Gary Andersen inherited a major rebuilding project, but Nall is a player that could help spark an Oregon State offense that managed only 19 points a game last year.

Devine Redding, Indiana

Jordan Howard’s one-year stint at Indiana was a successful one, but the drop-off at running back for coach Kevin Wilson should be minimal. Redding was a solid No. 2 option last season, rushing for 1,012 yards and nine scores on 226 attempts. He also filled in as Indiana’s No. 1 back when Howard was injured late in the year and recorded three consecutive performances of at least 130 yards in each of the final three games. Redding gashed Duke for 227 yards and one touchdown in the Pinstripe Bowl and is poised to build on those totals in 2016.

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Jovon Robinson, Auburn

This is the second year in a row Robinson makes an appearance in this list. The junior college product rushed for 639 yards and three touchdowns last season and finished the year on a high note with 126 yards against Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl. With Peyton Barber departing to the NFL, combined with Robinson’s strong close to the 2015 season, all signs point to a breakout year in his second year at Auburn.

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Bo Scarbrough, Alabama

Derrick Henry will be missed, but as usual in Tuscaloosa, Alabama isn’t hurting for talent at running back. Scarbrough looks like the next star for coach Nick Saban after rushing for 104 yards and one score on 18 attempts last season. The Alabama native was a five-star prospect coming out of high school, and at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, Scarbrough has a physical build similar to Henry. Scarbrough needs to prove he can stay healthy for a full season, but the sophomore will be one of the SEC’s top breakout stars at running back. 

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LJ Scott, Michigan State

With quarterback Connor Cook off to the NFL, the Spartans are expected to lean more on their ground attack in 2016. Coach Mark Dantonio has assembled a deep backfield for the offense to utilize, as three players return that recorded at least 500 rushing yards in 2015. Scott led the way with 699 yards and 11 scores, including 73 yards and the all-important game-winning score to beat Iowa in the Big Ten Championship. Gerald Holmes, Madre London and Delton Williams will see carries, but the guess here is Scott emerges as the team’s go-to back in 2016.

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Ito Smith, Southern Miss

New coach Jay Hopson inherits six returning starters from an offense that averaged 39.9 points a game in 2015. Quarterback Nick Mullens is the headliner, but the ground attack shouldn’t be overlooked. Smith quietly rushed for 1,128 yards and 10 scores last season and was a key target in the passing game with 49 catches for 515 yards. He also led all Conference USA running backs with nine rushes of 30 yards or more in 2015.

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Justin Stockton, Texas Tech

DeAndre Washington capped a solid career in Lubbock with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. While the Red Raiders lean on the passing attack and quarterback Patrick Mahomes to generate points and yards, the ground game is far from an afterthought. Stockton is slated to get the first opportunity to replace Washington at running back, and the junior has already showcased big-play potential in limited snaps. Stockton rushed for 367 yards (6.02 ypc) last season and added 22 receptions for 341 yards and six scores in 2015. Corey Dauphine and Quinton White are also expected to push for carries this offseason.

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Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Illinois

New coach Lovie Smith is just getting acclimated to his new team, but Smith has to like the start the Fighting Illini has on offense. Quarterback Wes Lunt and receiver Mike Dudek return, and the ground attack should be in good shape with Vaughn leading the way. As a freshman last year, Vaughn led the offense with 723 rushing yards and six scores and caught 16 balls for 119 yards. The Tennessee native is poised for a breakthrough campaign in 2016.

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Mike Warren, Iowa State

Warren is the centerpiece of new coach Matt Campbell’s rebuilding effort at Iowa State. In 12 games last year, Warren rushed for 1,339 yards and five scores and posted one 200-yard effort (245 against Texas Tech). Campbell nearly landed Warren as a recruit at Toledo, so there is plenty of familiarity between Warren and the new coaching staff. Additionally, Campbell’s offenses (as a head coach) at Toledo generated a 1,000-yard rusher in three out of the four seasons. If a rebuilt offensive line meshes early in the year, Warren could challenge for the Big 12’s rushing title.

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Mike Weber, Ohio State

This spot could go to a couple of Buckeyes, but the guess here is Weber ends up leading the team in rushing yards by the end of 2016. Weber was slated to play as a true freshman last season, but a knee injury kept the Detroit native on the sidelines. The potential and upside is there for Weber to step in and soften the blow from Ezekiel Elliott’s early departure to the NFL. Weber was a four-star recruit and ranked as the No. 78 overall prospect in the 2015 signing class. Antonio Williams and Bri’onte Dunn are also in the mix for carries.

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Boom Williams, Kentucky

Williams has been a solid player for coach Mark Stoops in each of the last two seasons, but the Georgia native is capable of elevating his game to another level. Despite missing two games last year, Williams rushed for 855 yards and six scores last season. Additionally, Williams recorded 7.1 yards per rush – the most by any SEC running back with at least 100 carries. With four starters back on the offensive line, can Williams hit the 1,000-yard mark in 2016?

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David Williams, South Carolina

One of the biggest concerns for new coach Will Muschamp has to be the skill players on offense. The Gamecocks lose running back (Brandon Wilds) and three of the top four receivers from 2015. Williams was rated as a four-star recruit out of high school but has only worked in a reserve role in each of the last two years. The Philadelphia native has never recorded more than 14 carries in a game, but 2016 should be his time to step forward as South Carolina’s go-to running back.

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Jarveon Williams, UTSA

New coach Frank Wilson certainly knows all about finding and developing good running backs. After all, Wilson comes to UTSA after tutoring standouts Leonard Fournette, Stevan Ridley and Jeremy Hill at LSU. Wilson should find plenty to like in Williams, as the Texas native is UTSA’s top weapon on offense. In 11 games last year, Williams recorded 1,042 yards and eight scores on 173 attempts. Expect Wilson to utilize Williams even more in 2016.

Joe Williams, Utah

Utah got an early glimpse of its 2016 backfield after Devontae Booker was lost for the year in mid-November with a knee injury. Williams filled in admirably late in the year, recording 399 yards and three touchdowns over the final three games and finished the season with 477 yards on 104 attempts. After a strong showing in his first year on campus, Williams is poised for even bigger things in 2016 as Utah’s No. 1 running back.

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Others to Watch

Josh Adams/Dexter Williams, Notre Dame

Tarean Folston is back from a season-ending knee injury, but the Fighting Irish could spread the wealth in carries in 2016. Adams finished second on the team in 2015 with 838 yards, while Williams chipped in 81 yards on 21 carries. Both players should see plenty of opportunities next fall.

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Warren Ball, Akron

Ball was a four-star recruit but never found consistent playing time with the Buckeyes. The Columbus native could realize his potential as a graduate transfer with the Zips.

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Jamauri Bogan, Western Michigan

Bogan supplanted Jarvion Franklin (1,551 yards in 2014) as Western Michigan’s No. 1 back in 2015 and finished the year with 1,051 yards and 16 scores. Will Bogan remain in the lead role or will Franklin reclaim the starting job?

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Mike Boone, Cincinnati

Three Cincinnati backs rushed for 700 yards last season, but only two – Boone and Tion Green – return for 2016. Boone rushed for 749 yards and nine scores in 11 games last season and showed the most big-play ability (7.2 ypc) in the Cincinnati backfield.

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Fred Coppet, Bowling Green

New coach Mike Jinks won’t have quarterback Matt Johnson or dynamic receivers Roger Lewis or Gehrig Dieter at his disposal, but Coppet returns after working as the No. 2 option to Travis Greene last year. Coppet rushed for 825 yards and five touchdowns on 145 carries last fall.

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Justin Crawford, West Virginia

Crawford should play a key role in West Virginia’s ground attack after Wendell Smallwood left early for the NFL. Crawford ranked as the No. 34 overall junior college recruit in the 247Sports Composite.

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LeShun Daniels/Akrum Wadley, Iowa

With Jordan Canzeri out of eligibility, the focus in the Iowa backfield shifts to Daniels and Wadley. Derrick Mitchell is also in the mix, but Daniels and Wadley worked in the backup role to Canzeri in 2015. Will the Hawkeyes find a clear No. 1 back or is a committee approach coming in 2016?

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Dontrell Hilliard, Tulane

It’s no secret new coach Willie Fritz likes to run the ball. Hilliard only rushed for 646 yards last year, but his 5.6 per carry average provides promise for 2016.

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Xavier Jones, SMU

Coach Chad Morris is starting to put the pieces into place for improvement on SMU’s offense. Jones was a three-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and finished second to quarterback Matt Davis in rushing yardage (632) and tied for the team lead in rushing scores (10).

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C.J. Leggett, Georgia Tech

Leggett was poised for a huge role in Georgia Tech’s backfield last season but an ACL tear in April ended his 2015 season. Leggett is expected to return at full strength to help anchor the ground attack for coach Paul Johnson in 2016.

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Robert Martin/Josh Hicks, Rutgers

Martin and Hicks earn a mention in this column for the second year in a row. This duo combined for 1,437 yards and 10 scores last season and will be the focal point for the offense under new coach Chris Ash.

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I’Tavius Mathers, MTSU

Ole Miss transfer is eligible after sitting out 2015 due to NCAA transfer rules. Mathers recorded 290 yards with the Rebels in 2014 and should provide some punch to a MTSU ground attack that ranked 12th in Conference USA last year.

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Izzy Matthews, Colorado State

Dalyn Dawkins is still the lead back in Fort Collins, but Matthews will get more opportunities after rushing for 590 yards as a true freshman last season.

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Timothy McVey, Air Force

McVey doesn’t have a huge sample size of stats, but the Ohio native showcased a knack for creating big plays last year. He caught 10 passes for 307 yards (30.7 ypc) and four touchdowns and gashed opposing defenses for 435 yards and nine touchdowns on just 51 carries. Will the Falcons get McVey more involved in 2016?

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Jalin Moore, Appalachian State

The Mountaineers are loaded at running back – led by standout Marcus Cox – but Moore could find a few additional opportunities after rushing for 731 yards on just 99 carries (as a freshman) last fall.

Khalfani Muhammad, California

With Jared Goff departing, the focus of California’s offense could shift more to the ground attack in 2016. Muhammad leads a solid trio of backs for coach Sonny Dykes and finished with 586 yards and one score on 87 rushes last year.

Arkeel Newsome, UConn

The ground attack is the strength of UConn’s offense, and Newsome is the headliner for coach Bob Diaco after recording 792 yards and six touchdowns on 183 carries in 2015.

A.J. Ouellette, Ohio

Ouellette has been a steady performer for the Bobcats over the last two seasons and rushed for 785 yards on 160 carries in 2015. Will the junior get more opportunities in 2016?

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Devine Ozigbo, Nebraska

The Cornhuskers are hoping to generate more from their ground attack in 2016, but will a clear go-to option at running back emerge for coach Mike Riley? Ozigbo is one to watch after he rushed for 87 yards on 21 attempts in the Foster Farms Bowl win against UCLA.

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Jordan Scarlett/Mark Thompson, Florida

The Gators are searching for a new No. 1 back after Kelvin Taylor left Gainesville to head to the NFL. Scarlett was a four-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and rushed for 181 yards and one score on 34 attempts. He will be pushed for snaps by incoming junior college product Mark Thompson.

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Alonzo Smith, Miami, Ohio

The RedHawks struggled to establish their ground attack last season, but Smith showed promise late in the year by recording 93 yards against Eastern Michigan and 109 against UMass.

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Shaq Vann, Eastern Michigan

Vann should be a key cog in the Eastern Michigan offense this season. As a backup to starter Darius Jackson last year, Vann recorded 586 yards (5.8 ypc) and five touchdowns. He also posted one 100-yard effort (Wyoming) and is the go-to back with Jackson out of eligibility.

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Kareem Walker, Michigan

The top three running backs from 2015 are back for coach Jim Harbaugh, but the Wolverines could have trouble keeping Walker on the sidelines. The New Jersey native was a four-star recruit and ranked No. 100 in the 247Sports Composite. Early playing time is certainly possible in 2016.

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Warren Wand/Johnston White, Arkansas State

Michael Gordon (1,063 yards in 2015) will be missed, but Arkansas State’s ground attack shouldn’t miss a beat with Wand (707 yards last year) and White (14 TDs, 616 yards) back in Jonesboro. 

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Devwah Whaley, Arkansas

Who will be the next star running back for Bret Bielema at Arkansas? Whaley – a top 100 recruit in the 247Sports Composite – is a name to watch when he hits campus this summer.

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Jeffrey Wilson, North Texas

Wilson should be one of the top playmakers for new coach Seth Littrell in 2016. Wilson showed flashes of promise last year by recording for 830 rushing yards and one score (5.4 ypc) on 155 attempts.

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Marquis Young, UMass

Young quietly finished the 2015 season on a high note by recording 472 yards over the final three games for the Minutemen. He should be more involved with the ground attack as a sophomore next fall.