With spring practice kicking off across the nation, the race to win college football’s 2013 national title has officially started. Although it’s hard to learn everything about a team in spring practice, the next few months are a good opportunity to get a look at how some of the open position battles are shaping up, along with how some of the underclassmen have improved since the end of 2012.
After taking a look at some quarterbacks on the rise last week, Athlon stays in the backfield with some names to watch at running back. Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey and Nevada’s Stefphon Jefferson finished at the top of the nation in rushing last season and neither were on the radar for All-American honors at the start of 2012.
Developing a criteria to determine which running backs are on the rise is never easy. Miami’s Duke Johnson had a standout freshman year, rushing for 947 yards and 10 scores, along with earning second-team All-ACC honors. While Johnson is due for a significant bump in yardage, he doesn’t make our list since he already earned all-conference honors.
Considering running back is one of the easiest positions to find new starters, don’t be surprised if some of the names on this list make a huge impression in 2013.
College Football’s Top 5 Running Backs on the Rise for 2013
Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
The Cornhuskers got an early glimpse of their 2013 backfield when Rex Burkhead suffered a knee injury in the opener against Southern Miss. Burkhead returned later in the year but finished with just 98 carries and missed six complete games. With Burkhead sidelined, the Cornhuskers turned to Abdullah as their feature back. The Alabama native finished the year with 1,137 yards and eight rushing scores, while catching 24 passes for 178 yards and two scores. With Burkhead out of eligibility, the torch will officially be passed to Abdullah. The junior earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last season and could be a first-team all-conference selection by the end of 2013.
Brendan Bigelow, California
Despite being a potential dynamic playmaker for California and posting an eye-popping 9.8 yards per carry, Bigelow was limited to just 44 rushing attempts and seven receptions last year. The Fresno native did play a key role on special teams, averaging 23 yards per kickoff return in 2012. With a new coaching staff taking over in Berkeley, along with C.J. Anderson and Isi Sofele expiring their eligibility, Bigelow will get an opportunity to secure the No. 1 spot in the backfield this preseason. New coach Sonny Dykes and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin built an offense at Louisiana Tech that averaged 227.2 rushing yards and 51.5 points per game in 2012, and both coaches should better utilize Bigelow’s talents. The junior will likely miss spring practice due to knee surgery, but if he’s healthy this fall, Bigelow is due for a breakout season.
Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
In addition to restocking the defensive line, the Buckeyes’ top priority this spring will be finding playmakers for quarterback Braxton Miller. Although the quarterback will play a key role in the rushing attack in Urban Meyer’s offense, Ohio State would probably like to decrease Miller’s workload from last year (227 carries). With Jordan Hall returning to full strength and a top recruiting class on the way, the Buckeyes should have more help for Miller in 2013. However, the key cog in the offensive attack will be the continued emergence of Hyde. The Florida native recorded four 100-yard performances over the final seven games of 2012 and finished the year with 16 rushing scores. Even with Hall taking on a bigger role in the backfield, Hyde should have no trouble eclipsing 1,000 yards and should serve as Ohio State’s top rushing threat in 2013.
Rushel Shell, Pittsburgh
With Ray Graham coming back from a torn ACL last season, the Panthers expected and needed a big contribution from Shell. And considering he ranked as the No. 5 running back in the 2012 signing class, it was no surprise Shell was one of the Big East’s top freshmen last year. In 12 games, the Pennsylvania native recorded 641 yards and four scores, while catching nine passes for 103 yards. Shell’s best game came against Virginia Tech, posting 157 yards on 23 attempts. With Graham expiring his eligibility, the job is Shell’s to lose for 2013. The sophomore will be running behind an offensive line that returns three starters but loses All-Big East center Ryan Turnley and guard Chris Jacobson. Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst molded some of the nation’s top rushing attacks at Wisconsin, and with Shell leading the way in 2013, look for the Panthers to feature a ground and pound approach.
Jeremy Smith, Oklahoma State
Joseph Randle was one of college football’s most underappreciated players during his career at Oklahoma State, rushing for 3,085 yards and 40 scores and catching 108 passes. With Randle leaving early for the NFL, Oklahoma State will have a new go-to back in 2013. However, Mike Gundy’s cupboard is far from bare, as the Cowboys have two potential standouts waiting in the wings. Smith has served as Randle’s backup the last three years, rushing for 1,439 yards and 25 touchdowns during that span. The Tulsa native has yet to tote more than 15 carries in a game but has already displayed a knack for the end zone and is averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Desmond Roland is another promising back that will see significant action in 2013, but the Cowboys will likely lean on Smith as their feature back.
Others to Watch in 2013
Jay Ajayi, Boise State
Rushed for 548 yards and four scores as a backup last season. With D.J. Harper gone, this sophomore will have a chance to threaten 1,000 yards in 2013.
Greg Bryant, Notre Dame
With Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood leaving South Bend, the Fighting Irish are looking for a new No. 1 back. Bryant ranked as the No. 8 running back in the 2013 signing class and will be pressed into immediate action this year.
Brian Kimbrow, Vanderbilt
With Zac Stacy expiring his eligibility, the Commodores may turn to a committee approach to pick up the slack on the ground. Kimbrow may not edge Jerron Seymour, Warren Norman or Wesley Tate to be the feature back. However, the Memphis native could add big-play ability to the offense after averaging 6.3 yards on 66 carries in 2012.
DJ Foster, Arizona State
Will share time with Marion Grice but is due for a bigger role with Cameron Marshall expiring his eligibility. Foster rushed for 493 yards on 102 attempts and caught 38 passes for 533 yards and four scores in 2012.
Johnathan Gray, Texas
Faces hefty competition for carries in Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown, but Gray finished his freshman year as Texas’ leading rusher (701 yards).
Derrick Green, Michigan
With Fitzgerald Toussaint coming off of a significant leg injury, Michigan won’t waste any time in getting Green involved in 2013. He ranked as the No. 5 running back in the class of 2013 and could start for Michigan in its season opener against Central Michigan.
Savon Huggins, Rutgers
Huggins will get a chance to live up to his recruiting hype this year, as Jawan Jamison left early for the NFL, leaving the junior as the No. 1 option in Rutgers’ backfield. Huggins has 556 yards and seven touchdowns through his first two years on campus.
Storm Johnson, UCF
The former Miami Hurricane rushed for 507 yards and four scores on 113 attempts last year, including 75 yards in the Knights’ 31-16 loss to Ohio State. Johnson is due for a bigger role with Latavius Murray and Brynn Harvey expiring their eligibility at the end of 2012.
Senorise Perry, Louisville
A torn ACL ended a promising 2012 campaign, as Perry rushed for 705 yards and 11 touchdowns in 11 games. With Jeremy Wright leaving the team, Perry should be handling over 200 carries next season.
Alex Ross, Oklahoma
Damien Williams had a solid debut in his first season in Norman (946 yards and 11 touchdowns), but the Sooners will have trouble keeping Ross – widely considered a top-10 running back in the class of 2012 – off of the field in 2013.
James Wilder Jr., Florida State
Shared time with Chris Thompson and Devonta Freeman last year, yet finished with 640 yards and 11 scores. With a new quarterback taking over for Florida State, expect Wilder and Freeman to see even more carries in 2013.
Jamaal Williams, BYU
After Michael Alisa suffered a broken arm against Hawaii, Williams was forced into the No. 1 role in 2012. He finished with 775 rushing yards and 12 scores and caught 27 passes for 315 yards and one score. Alisa is back for 2013, but Williams showed enough down the stretch that he could win the top spot on the depth chart.
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