Running back is a position in transition in the ACC.
Miami’s Duke Johnson should contend for All-American honors, but there’s not much in the way of proven, all-conference options outside of the sophomore. Florida State’s James Wilder and Syracuse’s Jerome Smith rank as the next two players, but Virginia’s Kevin Parks and Clemson’s Roderick McDowell could have breakout seasons in 2013.
Although the ACC doesn’t have a lot of proven all-conference options, there’s some quality depth with names like Wake Forest’s Josh Harris, Virginia Tech’s J.C. Coleman and Boston College’s Andre Williams capable of reaching 1,000 yards – if they have the opportunities.
College football’s 2013 season is still months away, but it’s never too early to start thinking about some of the top players in the nation. With spring practice coming to a close around the nation, Athlon will rank the top running backs in each conference.
Ranking the ACC's Running Backs for 2013
1. Duke Johnson, Miami (SO)
In one short season of action, the Miami (Fla.) Norland speedster already has a litany of accolades. He earned Freshman of the Year, Rookie of the Year and Special Teams Player of the Year honors in the ACC and was a Freshman All-American last season. He played all 12 games as a true freshman, rushing for 947 yards on the ground, along with 221 yards receiving and leading the ACC in kickoff returns (33.0 ypr). He scored 13 times and even threw a touchdown pass against Virginia. As the season went along, Al Golden trusted The Duke more with the ball in the backfield as Johnson rushed for 492 yards in the last four games. Look for Golden to give the 5-foot-9, 195-pounder as many carries as his smallish frame can handle in 2013.
2. Jerome Smith, Syracuse (JR)
After rushing for only 134 yards in 2011, Smith burst on to the scene in 2012. In 13 games, he recorded 1,171 yards and three touchdowns on 227 attempts. Smith didn’t factor much into the passing attack, catching only eight passes for 83 yards. The Delaware native emerged as a bigger factor in Syracuse’s offense over the second half of last year, recording four straight 100-yard efforts and posting his best performance against West Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl (152 yards). Looking ahead to the fall, Syracuse's offense will be led by a new coordinator, new quarterback and also must revamp its offensive line after the departure of tackle Justin Pugh. With a lot of uncertainty on the Orange’s offense, look for Smith to see a heavy workload in 2013.
3. James Wilder Jr., Florida State (JR)
With Florida State expected to hand the quarterback duties to redshirt freshman Jameis Winston, the rushing attack will be counted on to carry the offense early in 2013. Wilder Jr. rushed for only 160 yards as a true freshman but recorded 640 yards and 11 touchdowns on 110 attempts in 2012. The Tampa native’s best performance came against Murray State (106 yards), while recording 65 yards on nine attempts against Clemson. After Chris Thompson’s injury against Miami, Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman became the focal point for the ground attack, and the duo should build on that success in 2013. Wilder Jr. was a big-time recruit in the 2011 signing class and is poised for a breakout season.
4. Kevin Parks, Virginia (JR)
The Cavaliers' rushing attack took a major step back in 2012 and the junior-to-be from Salisbury (N.C.) West Rowan is looking to reestablish the ground attack this fall. One of the most prolific rushers in American prep football history, Parks has been contributing since the first game of his career. He is only 5-foot-8 but has a compact and physical frame (around 200 pounds). He is tough at the goal line, and after leading the team in rushing a year ago, is poised for his best season. Parks has topped 700 yards in each of his first two seasons and owns the single-season school touchdown rushing record (9). He could be in for a big season as the Cavaliers' workhorse in 2013.
5. Devonta Freeman, Florida State (JR)
After Chris Thompson’s season-ending knee injury against Miami, Freeman became Florida State’s No. 1 back. He rushed for 104 yards against Duke, 148 against Maryland and recorded 59 yards in the ACC Championship victory over Georgia Tech. Freeman finished the year with 660 yards and eight scores, which was a slight improvement from his numbers as a freshman – 579 yards and eight rushing touchdowns. The Miami native is expected to split time with James Wilder Jr. and with a career per carry average of 5.9 yards, should provide plenty of pop for the Seminoles' rushing attack in 2013.
6. David Sims, Georgia Tech (SR)
Paul Johnson’s triple option attack once again led the ACC in rushing and the St. Matthews (S.C.) Calhoun County native is Georgia Tech's leading return rusher. The 6-foot, 220-pounder missed two games early in the year last fall but was given double-digit carries — a rarity for running backs in Johnson’s offense — in eight of the last nine games. He capped the season with his four best performances, topping 70 yards in each of the final four games. Sims enters his third season starting as the B-Back and is poised for his best year in 2013.
7. Roderick McDowell, Clemson (SR)
With Andre Ellington expiring his eligibility after the Chick-Fil-A Bowl win over Clemson, McDowell is set to become the No. 1 back for the Tigers in 2013. The South Carolina native has only been a reserve so far in his career, recording 674 yards and seven rushing scores on 129 attempts. McDowell showed promise late in 2012 as he rushed for 83 yards on 13 attempts against Duke and posted 83 yards on 12 carries against NC State. McDowell probably won’t be as effective as Ellington, but he should have a solid year if he can hold off Zac Brooks and D.J. Howard for playing time.
8. Shadrach Thornton, NC State (SO)
Thornton became a key contributor as a true freshman last season, finishing 2012 with 694 yards and three scores. He also was a factor in the passing attack, catching 30 passes for 274 yards and one score. Thornton had three 100-yard efforts over the final four games, including 114 yards and one touchdown against Clemson. With a new quarterback taking over at NC State, the rushing attack will be needed to help take the pressure off of the passing game. Thornton and teammate Tony Creecy could be one of the ACC’s top running back combinations at the end of the year.
9. Josh Harris, Wake Forest (SR)
Harris could be higher on this list, but he has struggled to stay healthy over the last two years and has yet to capitalize from the potential of a standout freshman season – 720 yards and seven scores – in 2010 . Harris had only one 100-yard effort in 2012, recording 129 yards and two touchdowns on 12 attempts against Army. He also rushed for 84 yards against Duke and Boston College. Wake Forest’s offensive line also is a huge concern going into 2013. But if the Demon Deacons can give Harris more room to run, he could top the 1,000-yard mark.
10. A.J. Blue, North Carolina (SR)
The senior-to-be from Dallas (N.C.) North Gaston appears poised to take over for the departing Giovani Bernard. The 6-foot-2, 215 pounder had some legal issues early in his Tar Heels career and has played sparingly in three season. He didn’t get his first start until last season (at Wake Forest) and showed flashes of ability by delivering his first and only 100-yard game. It isn’t likely that just one name takes over for Bernard but fans can expect heavy doses of Blue in 2013.
11. Romar Morris, North Carolina (SO)
The Salisbury (N.C.) High prospect debuted in college last season and is poised to complement the bigger A.J. Blue in the Chapel Hill. Morris is a much smaller (5-10, 185), all-purpose player who will be used out of the backfield, on third downs and in the return game. He brings excellent speed and burst to the offense and will be the lightning to Blue’s thunder for Larry Fedora.
12. Tony Creecy, NC State (JR)
Creecy was a key part of NC State’s rushing attack in 2012, finishing with 476 yards and five scores. He also caught 34 passes for 182 yards and one touchdown. Although Shadrach Thornton is poised to lead the Wolfpack ground game this year, Creecy should see plenty of carries and will be a factor in catching passes out of the backfield.
13. J.C. Coleman, Virginia Tech (SO)
The top returning running back for Virginia Tech is the 5-foot-7, 170-pound Chesapeake (Va.) Oscar Smith product. The sophomore-to-be missed time this spring with leg and ankle issues but he should be ready to go come fall camp. Look for Coleman to build on his 492-yard freshman campaign.
14. Prince Tyson-Gulley, Syracuse (SR)
Tyson-Gulley is the perfect complement to Jerome Smith’s power in the Syracuse backfield. The Ohio native rushed for 830 yards and nine scores and caught 33 passes for 282 yards and two touchdowns last year. With Smith and Tyson-Gulley returning, Syracuse should have one of the ACC’s top backfields in 2013.
15. Andre Williams, Boston College (SR)
New coach Steve Addazio wants to improve the rushing attack, and with Deuce Finch’s departure, the starting spot should go to Williams. The senior has 1,562 yards and 10 scores in three seasons in Chestnut Hill, including 191 yards and two touchdowns against Army in 2012. With an emphasis on the run for Boston College, the potential is certainly there for Williams to have a solid year.
16. Wes Brown, Maryland (SO)
The Terrapins averaged only 103 rushing yards per game last season. Getting more production from the ground attack is a must, and Brown, Brandon Ross and Albert Reid will likely share carries. Brown flashed potential last year, rushing for 121 yards against NC State.
17. Isaac Bennett, Pitt (JR)
With Ray Graham departing for the NFL and Rushel Shell transferring to UCLA, Bennett appears to be the heir apparent in Paul Chryst’s backfield. The Tulsa (Okla.) Booker T. Washington product has just 87 career rushes and 22 career receptions but filled in admirably for an injured Graham in 2011.
18. Jela Duncan, Duke (SO)
From famed Charlotte (N.C.) Mallard Creek, Duncan led the Blue Devils in rushing a year ago as just a freshman. He tallied just 533 yards and four scores and with Sean Renfree moving on, more should be expected from the 5-foot-10, 200-pound runner.
19. Zach Laskey, Georgia Tech (JR)
Sims’ partner at B-Back last year, Laskey is the Yellow Jackets' No. 2 leading returning rusher. The dependable Georgia native posted two 100-yard efforts against lowly opponents Presbyterian and Boston College and should be counted on in 2013 for a bigger contribution this fall.
20. Khris Francis, North Carolina (FR)
With the departure of Giovani Bernard, the Tar Heels will turn to A.J. Blue, Romar Morris and Francis to carry the workload. Francis is a true freshman but made an impression in the spring and will be in the mix for time in the fall.