It may not be quite as important as it once was, but the ability to run the football continues to be a critical part of any team’s success, regardless of level. Right now, the talent at the position continues to impress with a line of terrific young running backs coming out of high school, performing on the college football field and heading off to the NFL. But as far as recruiting is concerned, the top running backs aren’t necessarily always the best ones coming out of high school.
The 2020 season saw a number of freshmen break onto the scene, elevating that freshman class ahead of its predecessor. Could the Class of 2021 get off on a similar footing? Will this be the big year for the Class of 2019 to break out as some notable running backs move on to the NFL? We'll have to wait to know for sure, but here is how the running back classes stack up over the years 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 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 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. That is highlighted by 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 in October 2016. 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.
3. 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. One of the top NFL running backs over the past decade came from this class with Pitt’s LeSean McCoy and Oklahoma’s DeMarco Murray left his mark with the Sooners and in the NFL as well. 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.
4. Class of 2014
Best of the Class: Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, D’Onta Foreman, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel
Best of the Rest: Samaje Perine, Royce Freeman, Joe Mixon, 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 left for the NFL a year early and had nice rookie seasons in 2017, as Fournette helped Jacksonville reach the AFC Championship game. Florida State’s Dalvin Cook was on equal footing with both Fournette and McCaffrey in college but his rookie season in the NFL was cut short due to injury. This is a deep running back class with Oklahoma’s duo of Samaje Perine (FBS single-game rushing record-holder) and Joe Mixon. Georgia's one-two punch of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel powered Georgia to an SEC title and an appearance in the College Football Playoff national championship game to end the 2017 campaign before heading off to the NFL. Both were among the first running backs off the board in the 2018 NFL Draft.
5. Class of 2013
Best of the Class: Derrick Henry, Ezekiel Elliott, Kareem Hunt
Best of the Rest: Wayne Gallman, Derrick Green, Kelvin Taylor, Corey Clement
The Class of 2013 continues to impress over time. Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry have gotten off to solid starts in the NFL and each was instrumental in winning national titles at Ohio State and Alabama, respectively. Henry also won a Heisman Trophy, while Elliott powered Ohio State to a national title. Joining the national title parade is Wayne Gallman at Clemson. Corey Clement continued to carry the running back legacy at Wisconsin and has become a nice back with the Philadelphia Eagles, helping the Eagles win their first Super Bowl to cap off the 2017 season.
One of the top running backs, however, played for Toledo before going on to have a rookie of the year type of season in the NFL. Kareem Hunt was a two-time first-team All-MAC running back and led the NFL in rushing in his first season in the pros with the Kansas City Chiefs. However, like Ray Rice, Hunt’s pro career took a sudden turn following a domestic abuse situation.
6. Class of 2017
Best of the Class: Jonathan Taylor, J.K. Dobbins, Travis Etienne, AJ Dillon, D'Andre Swift
Best of the Rest: Najee Harris, Chuba Hubbard, Cam Akers, Larry Rountree, Stephen Carr, Jaret Patterson
The Class of 2017 is making a big jump up in this year's evaluation because it is proving to be full of talent and accomplishments. Jonathan Taylor of Wisconsin was a two-time Doak Walker Award winner who carried on the legacy of Wisconsin running backs with grace. Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins finished his college career in a big way by helping to get the Buckeyes into the College Football Playoff, and Clemson’s Travis Etienne was a major reason for Clemson’s success in consecutive trips to the national championship game. Etienne, Boston College’s AJ Dillon, and Florida State’s Cam Akers made for a dynamic trio of running backs in the ACC over the past two years. Georgia’s D’Andre Swift was arguably the best offensive player Georgia has had in the last couple of years. We're also throwing Buffalo's Jaret Patterson into the mix now. Patterson led the nation in rushing in 2020 after being a top-five rusher in 2019 as well.
7. 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 and ran wild in the NFL in '17 and '18, including helping the Los Angeles Rams make the Super Bowl this season. 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.
8. Class of 2002
Best of the Class: Maurice Clarett, DeAngelo Williams, Jerious Norwood
Best of the Rest: DeShawn Wynn, Ciatrick Fason
The Class of 2002 may not have quite the level of achievement as some others, 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 part of 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-rounder Jerious Norwood out of Mississippi State.
9. 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 school's first winning season in 25 years and he would later be a valid candidate for the Heisman Trophy and Maxwell Award. Rice would go on to being a second-round draft pick, but this class also had three first-round selections — 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 went on to become a four-time Pro Bowler for Kansas City before moving onto Denver.
10. Class of 2015
Best of the Class: Saquon Barkley, Derrius Guice, Mike Weber, Damien Harris
Best of the Rest: Josh Adams, LJ Scott, Ronald Jones II, Soso Jamabo, Myles Gaskin
The Class of 2015 is moving up the list once again this year following terrific seasons by a few backs of note. Penn State’s Saquon Barkley was the second overall pick of the New York Giants last year and instantly became one of the most exciting young players to watch in the NFL. LSU’s Derrius Guice was one of the top running backs in the SEC, and USC’s Ronald Jones II became more of a household name following a strong run to help the Trojans win the Pac-12. Myles Gaskin of Washington and Mike Weber of Ohio State each wrapped up solid college careers as they head to the NFL this year. Josh Adams was a reliable running back for Notre Dame and found some success as an undrafted free agent his rookie season in Philadelphia.
11. Class of 2016
Best of the Class: Trayveon Williams, Miles Sanders, Benny Snell Jr., Elijah Hollyfield, Tavien Feaster, Devwah Whaley
Best of the Rest: B.J. Emmons, Demario McCall, Devin White, Kareem Walker, Damian Alloway
The Class of 2016 changed the way we looked at it after the '18 season. Trayveon Williams of Texas A&M and Benny Snell Jr. of Kentucky were 1-2 in the SEC in rushing yardage this past season. Penn State’s Miles Sanders turned in a 1,200-yard season in his first and only year replacing Saquon Barkley. Georgia’s Elijah Hollyfield helped continue to give the Bulldogs a fierce running back duo. And at Alabama, Najee Harris was a steady contributor to the Crimson Tide running game after being the nation’s top-ranked running back in the class.
12. 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 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 RB tandem 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.
13. 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 and he has been a key member of the New Orleans Saints. 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.
14. Class of 2011
Best of the Class: Melvin Gordon, Ka’Deem Carey, Tre Mason, Bishop Sankey, Devonta Freeman, Jay Ajayi
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 '12 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. At Boise State, Jay Ajayi racked up 50 rushing touchdowns in three seasons.
15. 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.
16. 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. Just up the road, 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.
17. Class of 2018
Best of the Class: Pooka Williams Jr., Stevie Scott III, Jermar Jefferson, Max Borghi
Best of the Rest: Kenneth Gainwell, Javian Hawkins, Elijah Collins, Javonte Williams
At this point, the Class of 2018 is still more potential than production though there have been a few members that have stood out. Pooka Williams Jr. has turned in a pair of 1,000-yard seasons for Kansas and is heading to the NFL. Stevie Scott was a key part of the success for Indiana. Jermar Jefferson was slowed by injuries in 2019 but he's averaging 5.4 yards per carry for his career while fellow Pac-12 back Max Borghi's pass-catching abilities have helped him score 28 total TDs in his first two seasons at Washington State.
This could be the season the Class of 2018 takes a big step forward as top recruits such as Zamir White and James Cook (Georgia), T.J. Pledger (Oklahoma), and Master Teague III (Ohio State) are positioned to take on bigger roles for their respective teams. Additionally, Nakia Watson and David Bailey are in line to serve as the primary ball carriers for Wisconsin and Boston College, respectively, following the early departures of their predecessors.
18. Class of 2020
Earliest Impact: Bijan Robinson, Tank Bigsby, Keyvone Lee, Ty Jordan
Others to Watch: Zach Evans, Demarkcus Bowman, Jase McClellan, MarShawn Lloyd, Kendall Milton, Chris Tyree
The Class of 2020 had some players have an early impact with their programs, and it unfortunately suffered tragedy as well. Utah's Ty Jordan was among the Pac-12's leading rushers in his freshman season. Sadly, Jordan was killed by an accidental shooting after the season. Auburn's Tank Bigsby was a breakout player in the SEC and Penn State's Keyvone Lee flourished in a year where Penn State was beat-up early with running back depth concerns. Bijan Robinson was the Big 12's third-leading rusher as well.
19. Class of 2019
Earliest Impact: Isaiah Spiller, Breece Hall, Zach Charbonnet, Noah Cain, Jerrion Ealy
Still Waiting On: Trey Sanders, John Emery Jr., Devyn Ford, Tyrion Davis-Price
The 2021 season could be the breakout year for the Class of 2019, so we still are waiting to see more out of this recruiting class. But there are some good signs of what this class can offer. As for those that did get a chance to play right away, Isaiah Spiller took advantage of an injury to teammate Jashaun Corbin to run for nearly 1,000 yards for Texas A&M while Breece Hall became Iowa State's most productive skill position player. Others who could take a big step forward this season include Zach Charbonnet (Michigan), Jerrion Ealy (Ole Miss), Eric Gray (Tennessee), and Tyler Goodson (Iowa). We should know a lot more about the potential of this class this time next year.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. 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.