The resurgence of running backs in recent years shows no letting up in college football. Even in a game designed to run through the quarterback with more and more ease, running backs continue to be an essential ingredient of a successful offense. Fortunately, college football has never really been without a healthy dose of talented running backs.
Some years have been leaner than others, but the last few years have shown some tremendous results from the young stable of running backs throughout the country. But where do recent classes that have included the likes of Derrick Henry and Ezekiel Elliott stack up against classes with the star power like Reggie Bush, Adrian Peterson and LeSean McCoy?
Here is a look at how the running back recruiting classes have stacked up against each other since 2002.
1. Class of 2003
Best of the Class: Reggie Bush, Maurice Jones-Drew, LenDale White
Best of the Rest: Austin Scott, Laurence Maroney, Tashard Choice, Alex Woodley, Michael Turner
Since the turn of the century we have not had too many recruiting classes bring with it a Heisman Trophy-winning running back, but 2003's group had one of the best in Reggie Bush. The dynamic running back was one half of a strong running duo during USC’s national title run. LenDale White joined him as two of the top 10 backs in the class. UCLA’s Maurice Jones-Drew proved to be a solid running back as well, especially in the NFL. Between two first-round and two more second-round NFL Draft picks, and a Heisman winner, not to mention a handful of others who would go on to play in the pros – Laurence Maroney, Tashard Choice, Michael Turner – 2003 was a very good year for running backs.
2. Class of 2006
Best of the Class: LeSean McCoy, DeMarco Murray, C.J. Spiller, Toby Gerhart
Best of the Rest: Beanie Wells, Knowshon Moreno, Ben Tate
As good as the Class of 2003 was, 2006’s group was not very far behind. Two of the top NFL running backs today came from this class with Pitt’s LeSean McCoy and Oklahoma’s DeMarco Murray. Clemson’s C.J. Spiller added some sizzle to the class as well before moving on to the NFL, and Stanford’s Toby Gerhart was one of the key players under Jim Harbaugh that helped transform the Cardinal program into what it is today. Throw in Georgia’s Knowshon Moreno and Ohio State’s Beanie Wells and you have the makings of a solid and deep running back recruiting class.
3. Class of 2004
Best of the Class: Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Arian Foster
Best of the Rest: Mike Hart, Ian Johnson, Justin Forsett
The cream of the crop in the Class of 2004 was pretty darn good. A unanimous All-American in Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson, who has gone to become a seven-time Pro Bowler and NFL MVP. Cal’s Marshawn Lynch would earn Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year and a pair of bowl game MVP honors before going on to be a Super Bowl champion and five-time Pro Bowler. Tennessee’s Arian Foster led the league in rushing touchdowns twice before retiring this past season. Mike Hart set a Michigan freshman rushing record and ended his career as the school’s all-time ground gainer. Ian Johnson was an instrumental piece of Boise State’s rise to fame, helping the Broncos stun Peterson and the Sooners in the Fiesta Bowl.
4. Class of 2014
Best of the Class: Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, D’Onta Foreman
Best of the Rest: Samaje Perine, Nick Chubb, Royce Freeman, Joe Mixon, Sony Michel, Elijah Hood, Duke Catalon, Kamryn Pettway, Devine Redding
Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey was a Heisman finalist in 2015 and LSU’s Leonard Fournette was the clear and dominant front-runner for two-thirds of the same season before some late stumbles. Both are leaving for the NFL a year early, which is a shame for college football fans, although each got banged up in 2016. Not to be overlooked is Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, who was on equal footing with both Fournette and McCaffrey, if not above them. This is a deep running back class too with Oklahoma’s duo of Samaje Perine (FBS single-game rushing record holder) and Joe Mixon. Georgia has a one-two punch as well with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, and do not make the mistake of forgetting about Oregon’s Royce Freeman. Much of the class is already turning pro, leaving big shoes to fill.
5. Class of 2002
Best of the Class: Maurice Clarett, DeAngelo Williams, Jerious Norwood
Best of the Rest: DeShawn Wynn, Ciatrick Fason
College football’s Class of 2002 may not have quite the level of achievement as some other classes, but it does carry one of the ultimate “what if” players in Ohio State’s Maurice Clarett. Clarett was arguably the most impressive freshman running back the game had seen since Herschel Walker and was a key player on Ohio State’s BCS title run against Miami. He set the Ohio State freshman rushing record but unfortunately saw his college career come to an end amid controversy. But this class had some strong positives as well, like first-round NFL Draft pick DeAngelo Williams of Memphis and third-round pick Jerious Norwood out of Mississippi State.
6. Class of 2012
Best of the Class: Todd Gurley, Duke Johnson, Ameer Abdullah, Mike Davis, Kenyan Drake
Best of the Rest: Tevin Coleman, Keith Marshall, Mario Pender, KeiVarae Russell, Dennis Norfleet,
How good was the Class of 2012? Georgia’s Todd Gurley, despite a serious knee injury, ended up being a top-10 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. The class also turned out Duke Johnson from Miami, who earned All-ACC honors all three years he was on the field and was named the ACC’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2012. Indiana’s Tevin Coleman also earned unanimous All-American status in 2014. Both Johnson and Coleman would go in the third round of the 2015 draft. Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah also was in this bunch, and he was a second-round draft pick that quickly had an impact in the NFL with his all-purpose abilities. Mike Davis was a standout at South Carolina, carrying the torch from Marcus Lattimore and Kenyan Drake had some key contributions for Alabama.
7. Class of 2005
Best of the Class: Darren McFadden, Ray Rice, Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Stewart
Best of the Rest: Jamaal Charles, Mike Davis, Marlon Lucky, Antone Smith, LaMarcus Coker, Toney Baker
Moving down the list we come to the Class of 2005, which may not have been ripe with all-time talent but certainly had some impactful players. Perhaps no player had as huge an impact on his college program as Ray Rice at Rutgers. Rice finished his freshman season as a 1,000-yard rusher in the first winning season at Rutgers in 25 years and he would later be a valid candidate for the Heisman Trophy and Maxwell Award. Rice would go on to be a second-round draft pick, but this class also had three first-round selections by NFL franchises – Darren McFadden of Arkansas, Jonathan Stewart of Oregon and Rashard Mendenhall of Illinois. Longhorns running back Jamaal Charles was a third-round draft pick, but he has since become a four-time Pro Bowler for Kansas City.
8. Class of 2009
Best of the Class: Montee Ball, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy
Best of the Rest: Bryce Brown, Carlos Hyde, Knile Davis, Stepfan Taylor, Dri Archer, Dion Lewis
Wisconsin’s Montee Ball ended his collegiate career as the FBS’ all-time leader in rushing touchdowns and most career total touchdowns (marks since broken by Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds). For one week, Ball also held the single-game rushing record (now held broken by Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine). Ball was a Heisman Trophy finalist and won the Doak Walker Award in 2012. That same class also turned in another Doak Walker Award winner with Alabama’s Trent Richardson, who made for quite a running combo with Eddie Lacy. Richardson and Lacy helped keep Alabama’s offensive foundation in strong hands and would combine for five BCS championship victories between them. This class also cooked up Knile Davis, Stepfan Taylor, Carlos Hyde and Dri Archer, each of who were huge players for their respective programs.
9. Class of 2008
Best of the Class: Mark Ingram, LaMichael James
Best of the Rest: Kenjon Barner, Andre Ellington, Tauren Poole, Cyrus Gray, Jonas Gray, Chris Polk, Jacquizz Rodgers
The Class of 2008 may not be particularly deep with star players, but the top two help carry the load. That includes Alabama’s first Heisman Trophy winner, Mark Ingram and Oregon’s LaMichael James. Ingram was a rock for Nick Saban and Alabama en route to a BCS championship in 2010, in which the bruising back won title game MVP honors. Ingram would later be the only running back chosen in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft. LaMichael James, who actually beat out Ingram for the Doak Walker Award in 2010 and was a finalist for the Heisman that same year, would end up as a second-round draft pick a year later. The next-level guys in the class have had some NFL success as well, including Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodgers.
10. Class of 2013
Best of the Class: Derrick Henry, Ezekiel Elliott, Alex Collins
Best of the Rest: Wayne Gallman, Derrick Green, Kelvin Taylor, Corey Clement
The Class of 2013 cracks the top 10 this season after witnessing what Ezekiel Elliott did in his rookie season in the NFL. That was enough to help boost this overall batch of running backs up one spot, especially when it includes three key contributors on College Football Playoff championship teams and a Heisman Trophy winner, Derrick Henry of Alabama. You may be hard-pressed to find two more running backs in the same class with that kind of success in a short period of time, and that helps carry what is an otherwise lacking running back class.
11. Class of 2011
Best of the Class: Melvin Gordon, Ka’Deem Carey, Tre Mason, Bishop Sankey, Devonta Freeman
Best of the Rest: De’Anthony Thomas, Isaiah Crowell, Kenny Hilliard, Javorius Allen, Akeem Hunt, Mike Bellamy, Jordan Canzeri
The Class of 2011 was a solid group of running backs, but also one without much fanfare outside of Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, a unanimous All-American, Doak Walker Award winner and Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2014. Washington’s Bishop Sankey was a first-round draft pick in 2014 but played his college years in relative obscurity out west despite setting school rushing records previously held by Corey Dillon. Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey, a fourth-round pick in 2014, was more heralded, earning consensus All-American honors in 2012 and ‘13. Auburn’s Tre Mason helped the Tigers win an SEC title and play for a national title, and LSU’s Kenny Hilliard also won an SEC title. Devonta Freeman won a national title at Florida State and decided to turn pro after posting 1,016 rushing yards.
12. Class of 2015
Best of the Class: Saquon Barkley, Derrius Guice, Mike Weber, Damien Harris
Best of the Rest: LJ Scott, Ronald Jones II, Soso Jamabo, Myles Gaskin
This group is taking some big steps forward and could start to work its way up these rankings the next time this list is updated. LSU’s Derrius Guice took over the bulk of LSU's running game from Leonard Fournette in 2016 due to injury, and ended the year as the SEC’s No. 2 rusher. Penn State’s Saquon Barkley was a key player in a revitalized offense and continues to impress, especially in this year's Rose Bowl Game. And Alabama’s Damien Harris rushed for 1,000 yards in a split role. Keep a real close eye on this class of running backs during the 2017 season.
13. Class of 2007
Best of the Class: Joe McKnight, Noel Devine, Jonathan Dwyer
Best of the Rest: Shane Vereen, Fozzy Whittaker, Omar Bolden
The Class of 2007 was a relative down year for running backs, at least in the long-term view. Joe McKnight was a highly rated recruit for USC but never achieved more than third-team All-Pac-10 and honorable mention status. Noel Devine was a record-setting player at West Virginia and helped make a push for a national title shot in Morgantown and would later went undrafted. The most successful back out of this class might be Cal’s Shane Vereen. Vereen flew under the radar for much of his college career with just one season of more than 1,100 yards on the ground, but he would go on to be a second-round draft pick of the Patriots in 2011 and is still active today.
14. Class of 2010
Best of the Class: Marcus Lattimore, Giovani Bernard
Best of the Rest: Silas Redd, Michael Dyer, Lache Seastrunk, Zach Zwinak
The Class of 2010 looked like a solid crop of running backs at the time, but unfortunately, some of the hype could not be matched for one reason or another. South Carolina landed the top running back with Marcus Lattimore, who was fantastic when healthy. Injuries would become a troubling trend for Lattimore though, both in college and prevented him from ever playing an NFL game. Up across the northern border, Giovani Bernard was busy racking up yards for North Carolina as well after battling back from his own injury woes early on. Bernard would go on to be an early second-round draft pick and the first running back off the board in 2013. The Class of 2010 also included Silas Redd, who split playing time between Penn State and USC. Michael Dyer helped Auburn win a national title before quickly going on another path that eventually led to Louisville. Lache Seastrunk predicted he would the Heisman Trophy, but needless to say that never happened.
15. Class of 2016
Best of the Class: Trayveon Williams, Miles Sanders, Tavien Feaster, Devwah Whaley
Best of the Rest: B.J. Emmons, Demario McCall, Devin White, Kareem Walker, Elijah Hollyfield, Damian Alloway
There is much unknown about a number of the top names from the running back class from a year ago, but the early returns on some are promising. Texas A&M’s Trayveon Williams rushed for 1,057 yards and eight touchdowns in his first season with the Aggies, and he started in three games. Devwah Whaley also got involved early with Arkansas and rushed for 602 yards and three touchdowns. Some of the top name sin this class have yet to be utilized to their full potential, although Miles Sanders has gotten involved on special teams at Penn State (Saquon Barkley leads the way there, of course), and Clemson’s Tavien Feaster will hope to see more of a role for him in 2017 for the defending national champions.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.