Ranking the Running Back Recruiting Classes Since 2002

After a big 2018 season from Trayveon Williams and others, the Class of 2016 has vaulted into the top 10

It may not be quite as important as it once was, but the ability to run the football continues to be an 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 last couple of recruiting classes appear to have been pretty strong with the running backs with players like Travis Etienne, Trayveon Williams, Benny Snell Jr., D'Andre Swift and J.K. Dobbins highlighting two recent classes. The Class of 2018 is looking to make some moves in '19, and the Class of 2019 may have a few players who could get their feet wet carrying the football as well.


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 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 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.


6. 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.


7. 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.


8. 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.


9. 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.


10. 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


After coming in behind the pack in our ranking a year ago, the Class of 2016 has certainly changed the way we look at it after the 2018 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.


11. Class of 2017


Best of the Class: Jonathan Taylor, J.K. Dobbins, AJ Dillon, Travis Etienne


Best of the Rest: D'Andre Swift, Stephen Carr, Najee Harris, Cam Akers, Larry Rountree


The Class of 2017 continues to look to be a loaded class. Jonathan Taylor once again has piled up massive yardage at Wisconsin, and Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins is among the best players in the Big Ten. Clemson’s Travis Etienne carried the Tigers at times he needed to as Clemson went on to win a national title in 2018. The ACC is also home to Boston College’s AJ Dillon, who has been a steady workhorse for the Eagles. Etienne and Dillon led the ACC in rushing in 2018.


Georgia’s D'Andre Swift is coming off a 1,000-yard season with 10 touchdowns, and Missouri’s Larry Rountree had a breakout season to be the SEC’s fourth-leading rusher. Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim had a brilliant debut in 2018, finishing seventh nationally in rushing yards per game, after redshirting his first season.


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: Zamir White, Lorenzo Lingard, Ricky Slade


Best of the Rest: Jaelen Gill, James Cook, Brian Snead, T.J. Pledger


The top players from the Class of 2018 are largely still waiting for their opportunities to carry the ball more, and the 2019 season will see some of these players take on those larger responsibilities. Among them will be Ricky Slade at Penn State and Lorenzo Lingard at Miami.


At Oregon State, Jermar Jefferson has already gotten started by finishing his freshman season in the top 10 nationally in rushing yardage with 1,380 yards in 12 games. Kansas freshman Pooka Williams also turned in a solid debut season before running into some legal trouble.


We’ll see how this class performs in 2019 before considering bumping them up this ranking, but there is some really good potential to watch here.


— 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.

Event Date: 
Saturday, January 27, 2018 - 13:09
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