The ACC is losing a good bit of star power from the running back ranks from last year’s group. Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, Pitt’s James Conner and Clemson’s Wayne Gallman decided to leave early for the NFL, while NC State’s Matt Dayes and Virginia’s Taquan Mizzell expired their eligibility. The departure of last year’s top backs leaves just one player – Miami’s Mark Walton – that rushed for 1,000 yards from the running back position. But this league also features plenty of promising talent, including Florida State freshman Cam Akers and junior Jacques Patrick, along with Georgia Tech sophomore Dedrick Mills.
Having two running backs is almost essential for every college football team. While some teams have workhorse options that can handle 275 or 300 carries, most programs want to have at least two (and sometimes three) running backs to split up the workload. The thought process is pretty simple: Take the workload off one player and spread it around to keep everyone fresh. This concept seems to gain more steam each year, as a running game is no longer about just one go-to back. Instead, most teams need at least two solid ball-carriers to lead the way on the ground.
Ranking the running back tandems by conference is no easy task. How do you weigh two solid options versus one standout and a question mark at backup? Here are the ACC teams ranked by the running back tandems (projected No. 1 and No. 2 rushers and not the entire backfield depth chart) for the upcoming year. Note: We did take into account some projection for the 2017 season and how the running backs will perform - not strictly based on what they have done in their career so far.
Ranking the ACC Running Back Tandems for 2017
14. Virginia: Jordan Ellis and Daniel Hamm
The Cavaliers are essentially starting over at running back after Taquan Mizzell and Albert Reid expired their eligibility following the 2016 campaign. Mizzell and Reid combined for 285 of Virginia’s 384 carries last fall, with another 60 credited to quarterback Kurt Benkert. Second-year coach Bronco Mendenhall will lean on the veteran duo of Jordan Ellis (135 career yards) and Daniel Hamm (253) to lead the way on the ground, but freshmen Lamont Atkins and Jamari Peacock will also factor prominently into the mix. Ellis has yet to eclipse more than 10 carries in a game, while Hamm’s highest total in a contest was 11 against Georgia Tech in 2015.
13. North Carolina: Michael Carter and Jordon Brown
Similar to their Coastal Division counterparts (Virginia), North Carolina is starting over at running back. Elijah Hood (858 yards) and T.J. Logan (650) formed one of the ACC’s top tandems in 2015, but an injury to Hood limited this duo’s effectiveness in 2016. With both players drafted to the NFL, Carter and Brown become the new one-two punch in Chapel Hill. Brown saw limited work last season by accumulating 45 yards and one touchdown on 20 attempts. Carter enrolled early to compete in spring practice and should be a key cog in the ground attack in 2017. Another name to watch: Auburn graduate transfer Stanton Truitt.
12. Syracuse: Dontae Strickland and Markenzy Pierre
Second-year coach Dino Babers is looking for more production out of his ground game after Syracuse managed only 119.6 yards per game in 2016. Another sign of concern for Babers: The Orange averaged only 3.2 yards per contest in ACC games and failed to generate a rush longer than 50 yards. A big reason for the struggles on the ground rests with an offensive line that was hit hard by injuries in 2016. Strickland is back as the lead back after rushing for 566 yards and four scores last year. However, true freshman Markenzy Pierre provides more of a physical presence at 220 pounds and is expected to push for playing time. Moe Neal is listed as a running back on the fall roster after working as a receiver in the spring. If the line improves, expect to see Strickland’s totals climb in 2017.
11. Duke: Shaun Wilson and Brittain Brown
After finishing fifth in the ACC in rush offense for three consecutive years (2013-15), the Blue Devils slipped to eighth last season and averaged only 3.9 yards per carry. Additionally, big plays on the ground were lacking in 2016, as Duke managed only two plays of 40 yards or more last season. With Jela Duncan and Joseph Ajeigbe no longer in Durham, Wilson should see an increased workload. He’s accumulated at least 424 yards in each of the last three years and led the team with 623 yards last fall. Brown – a three-star prospect in the 2016 signing class – rushed for 24 yards on five carries in the spring game. Fellow redshirt freshman Elijah Deveaux is also expected to push for time as a backup.
10. Wake Forest: Cade Carney and Matt Colburn
The Demon Deacons snapped a three-year streak of finishing last in the ACC in rush offense last season. While moving from 14th to 12th in the conference in rush offense may not seem like much, Wake Forest averaged 40 yards more per game on the ground and improve its yards per rush to 3.6 – up from 3.0. In addition to a solid stable of running backs recruited by coach Dave Clawson, the Demon Deacons have also improved up front on the offensive line. Matt Colburn (626) yards led the team in rushing last fall and returns as one of the key contributors for 2017. Cade Carney was limited to 10 games due to injury but still finished with 589 yards and six scores. Redshirt freshman Arkeem Byrd is a name to watch this fall.
9. NC State: Nyheim Hines and Reggie Gallaspy
Matt Dayes finished his NC State career by rushing for 1,166 yards and 10 scores last season and leaves big shoes to fill for coach Dave Doeren’s team in 2017. This group was dealt another setback in the offseason after Johnny Frasier decided to transfer. But the cupboard isn’t completely empty for Doeren and coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz. Gallaspy rushed for 234 yards and two scores on 49 carries last fall and is expected to take on a bigger role in 2017. Hines originally started his career in Raleigh as a running back but moved to receiver for the last two seasons. Hines has rushed for 287 yards and has 63 receptions in his career.
8. Louisville: Jeremy Smith and Reggie Bonnafon
The Cardinals must replace last year’s No. 1 running back, as Brandon Radcliff expired his eligibility following a solid senior year (903 yards and six scores). But quarterback Lamar Jackson is back to help anchor the ground game, and coach Bobby Petrino has a solid collection of backs to utilize. Jeremy Smith worked as the backup to Radcliff last season and finished 2016 with 382 yards and eight scores. The senior has never attempted more than 14 carries in a game in his two years on campus. The backup situation is unsettled with four backs vying for snaps. Senior Malik Williams, sophomore Trey Smith and true freshman Colin Wilson are all in the mix for the No. 2 role. However, that spot could go to converted quarterback Reggie Bonnafon. He only had five carries for seven yards in 2016 but showcased his mobility as a quarterback in 2015 by recording 175 yards and in 2014 with 164 yards. Redshirt freshman Dae Williams suffered a torn ACL in spring practice and will miss the 2017 season.
7. Clemson: C.J. Fuller and Tavien Feaster
Make no mistake: Wayne Gallman is going to be missed. After posting back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns, Gallman left Clemson for the NFL following the national championship victory over Alabama. But like most positions in Death Valley, the Tigers aren’t hurting for talent at running back. Fuller has been steady in a relief role the last two years, which included 211 yards on 47 carries last fall. Feaster ranked as the No. 30 recruit in the 2016 signing class and played in 12 contests in 2016, rushing for 221 yards and two touchdowns. He could be a breakout candidate for coach Dabo Swinney in 2017.
6. Boston College: Jon Hilliman and Davon Jones
The ground game has been the strength of coach Steve Addazio’s offenses at Boston College and that’s not expected to change in 2017. The Eagles return three of their top four options at running back, including Jon Hilliman who paced the team with 542 yards and six scores. Hilliman missed most of 2015 due to injury but previously rushed for 86 yards and 13 touchdowns during the 2014 campaign. Davon Jones chipped in 361 yards and two touchdowns last season and is expected to work as the No. 2 option to Hilliman. While these two players appear set as the top two options, true freshman A.J. Dillon was the No. 1 recruit in Boston College's 2017 class and will be tough to keep on the sidelines.
5. Virginia Tech: Travon McMillian and Steven Peoples
With quarterback Jerod Evans off to the NFL, the Hokies enter 2017 looking for more production out of their running backs to pick up the slack on the ground. Evans led the team with 846 yards and 12 scores last fall. While the top spot will fall to McMillian once again, expect coach Justin Fuente to utilize a handful of players on the ground. McMillian rushed for 671 yards and seven touchdowns last season and posted 1,042 yards and seven touchdowns in 2015. Peoples – a converted fullback/h-back – accumulated 16 carries in a backup role last fall. He’s expected to compete with Delshawn McClease, D.J. Reid and true freshman Jalen Holston for the No. 2 role.
4. Pitt: Qadree Ollison and A.J. Davis
While James Conner is going to be missed, Pitt’s backfield is still one of the deepest in the ACC. Ollison rushed for 1,121 yards and 11 scores as the No. 1 running back after Conner was forced to miss the 2015 season following a knee injury in the opener. Ollison wasn’t quite as effective last year (127 yards), but he’s one of just two returning ACC running backs to post a 1,000-yard season in their career. The No. 2 role could go to a couple of different options. Davis and fellow freshman Todd Sibley were regarded as four-star recruits by the 247Sports Composite for the 2017 signing class. Sophomore Chawntez Moss recorded 227 yards last season, while fullback George Aston scored five rushing touchdowns on 22 attempts. Regardless of which running back starts or works in as the No. 2 option, coach Pat Narduzzi has one of the ACC’s top depth charts at running back.
3. Miami: Mark Walton and Travis Homer
Walton is the ACC’s top returning performer at running back after rushing for 1,117 yards and 14 touchdowns last fall. The breakout season from Walton included 100-yard games against Pitt, NC State and Virginia in league play, as well as a four-touchdown performance against FAU in early September. He also added 27 receptions for 240 yards and a receiving score. Walton is the unquestioned No. 1 option for coach Mark Richt, but the No. 2 spot is unsettled. Trayone Gray is returning from an ACL tear, Joseph Yearby declared for the NFL, and Travis Homer returns after posting 44 yards on seven carries last season. Homer is the frontrunner for the No. 2 spot, but incoming freshman Robert Burns could push for snaps in the fall.
2. Georgia Tech: Dedrick Mills and Clinton Lynch
The Yellow Jackets lost two out of last year’s top four rushers, but coach Paul Johnson’s option attack isn’t going to miss a beat on the ground. Mills is a breakout candidate after rushing for 771 yards and 12 touchdowns in nine contests last fall. Mills finished last season on a high note by gashing Kentucky for 169 yards and a score in the TaxSlayer Bowl victory. Lynch has been a big-play threat for Johnson over the last two years, averaging a healthy 11.2 yards per rush on 37 attempts last fall. The Yellow Jackets have additional support coming from senior J.J. Green and junior Qua Searcy.
Related: ACC Football Predictions for 2017
1. Florida State: Jacques Patrick and Cam Akers
Dalvin Cook is gone, but Florida State’s backfield is still loaded with talent. Five-star recruit Cam Akers recorded 5,103 yards and 71 scores in his high school career at Clinton High School in Mississippi. He also enrolled early to compete in spring practice and is expected to have a significant role in the offense from the opening snap. But Akers is going to have plenty of competition for the starting job, as Patrick – a 6-foot-2, 231-pound junior – has accumulated 664 yards and nine scores as a reserve over the last two years. He’s plenty capable of handling the No. 1 workload and performing at an All-ACC level this fall.