Continuing our positional groups rankings with what proved to be the toughest to sort out -- running backs. I honestly felt like any one of the top six had a strong case for the top spot here.
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I gave plenty of thought to a few schools for this spot because of their top back (Clemson, Washington, USF, San Diego State and Boise State), but ultimately I went with UNC because of Elijah Hood. The Tar Heels, who return four of their five starting O-linemen, should have a very dynamic offense. The star is Hood, who ran for almost 1,500 yards last season on close to a seven-yard average. The 220-pound Hood averaged 7.34 yards a carry on first downs. Senior T.J. Logan, who ran for over 1,000 yards in his first two seasons at UNC, adds to a potent 1-2 punch.
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY SportsJim Dedmon
Saquon Barkley is the most impressive running back to hit State College in years. Last year, the 223-pounder ran for 1,076 yards, breaking a 32-year-old school record for a freshman. He’s a special combination of explosive power and quickness. Andre Robinson is a redshirt freshman bowling ball who had an impressive spring showing off his power and soft hands. He, though, will be pushed hard by freshman Miles Sanders, a guy with fantastic change of direction.
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The deepest position on the Bears’ roster should still be a big weapon for BU and new head coach Jim Grobe. Shock Linwood is back after rushing for over 1,300 yards, and that was despite missing the bowl game with a broken foot. He’s already run for 3,462 yards and 34 TDs in his college career. The Bears’ run game was just fine without Linwood as they ran for like 1,000 yards against UNC in the bowl game with Johnny Jefferson going for a school-record 299 rushing yards that put him up to 1,000 for the season and a lofty 7.4-yard per carry average. The 205-pound Jefferson is even more explosive (44-inch vertical jump) than Linwood. Terence Williams, more of a bruising back at 6-2, 225, ran for 556 yards and seven TDs as a freshman last fall.
Royce Freeman is probably the most underrated great running back in college football. The 230-pounder has had two fantastic seasons in Eugene and had 1,838 yards in 2015. He’s a big, strong back who can do it all. He can run over people, make you miss, has the speed to go the distance and can catch it (26 receptions). Better still, he’s very smart and excellent with pass protections. Behind him, the Ducks have a pair of game-breakers with 4.3 40 speed in Taj Griffin (570 rushing yards in 2015) and Tony Brooks-James (9.0 yards per carry), who is probably the more reliable of the two backs. Oregon also has another back who is more of downhill runner in 210-pound Kani Benoit (364 yards), who showed he also has plenty of speed when he took a carry 62 yards and outran the entire ASU defense last year.
Getty ImagesSteve Dykes
If the Dawgs' RBs are 100 percent, this group probably is a few spots higher. Nick Chubb is a fantastic talent. He essentially ran for 747 yards in five games last fall after rushing for 1,547 in his rookie season. The 5-10, 220-pounder has great feet and vision, but he is coming off a devastating knee injury. Sony Michel, a terrific change-up back, is coming back from a fractured forearm. He ran for 1,181 yards and eight TDs and also caught 26 passes. Senior Brendan Douglas (745 career rushing yards) is reliable and can pick up the slack in a pinch but doesn’t scare defenses the way the two guys ahead of him do.
The Noles have every starter back on their offense from last year, and by far the biggest name of the group is Dalvin Cook, who averaged 141 rushing yards per game, fifth-best in FBS. Cook is a game-breaking talent. He averaged a whopping 11 yards per carry in the first quarter in 2015. If the Noles make a run at the Playoff again, Cook probably will be in the thick of the Heisman race. Behind Cook, the Noles have redshirt junior speedster Ryan Green, a converted DB, and 6-2, 233-pound sophomore Jacques Patrick, a punishing runner who showed his potential when he started in place of Cook against Syracuse and produced 224 all-purpose yards and three TDs.
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Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara almost combined for 2,000 yards last season for UT to go with 19 rushing touchdowns. The 6-3, 240-pound Hurd is a Freak athlete and a very underrated receiver (57 catches the past two seasons). He averaged five yards a carry in the game at Bama; ran for 102 yards at UF; and ran for 130 yards against Northwestern in the bowl game. Kamara is a nice change-up. He’s shifty and also a terrific receiver (34 catches last year) and was good for 6.5 yards a carry last year. Freshman Carlin Fils-Aime, a speedy Floridian, has impressed folks inside the program since arriving. He and sophomore John Kelly (166 yards last fall) will push for carries.
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Any concerns that Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon wouldn’t be good fits in OC Lincoln Riley’s offense proved unfounded. The 235-pound Perine ran for 1,349 yards while the 225-pound Mixon, who has terrific feet for such a big man, went for 753 in his debut season for the Sooners. Better still, both averaged at least six yards and a carry and rushed for a combined 23 TDs. Mixon also reminded folks why he’s such a good receiver, catching 28 passes for 356 yards to go with the hulking Perine’s 15 receptions. Perine led the Big 12 in rushes of 20-plus yards with 14, giving him 34 the past two seasons -- just two fewer than Georgia Southern’s Matt Breida’s 36, which leads the country. Together, they combined for seven plays of at least 50 yards. "They're unusually fast for that size,” said coach Bob Stoops. “They have it all. They got great hands. They're really well-rounded guys that way and complement each other."
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Christian McCaffrey was a revelation last year. The 205-pound junior amassed a staggering 3,864 all-purpose yards, a single-season NCAA record. Iowa’s All-American DB Desmond King, who has faced some special RBs in his career (Melvin Gordon and Jeremy Hill among them), calls McCaffrey the best he’s played. “He really reads his blocks, has that second gear and is elusive to make you miss,” King said. Cardinal coach David Shaw says McCaffrey is stronger, faster and wiser this offseason. Stanford did lose short-yardage back Remound Wright, but expect McCaffrey to become more of a force near the goal line. Some inside the program see McCaffrey as this generation’s LaDainian Tomlinson. Another boost will come from the rise of Bryce Love, a speedster who should be a big-play man with so much defensive attention tilted to McCaffrey. Love had 476 yards on only 44 touches in 2015. "He's a special, special football player,” Shaw said of Love this spring, adding how excited he was at the prospect of having McCaffrey and Love on the field at the same time. Redshirt freshman Cameron Scarlett, a 220-pounder, also figures to get some carries. He had a really good spring. Daniel Marx, Stanford’s 244-pound fullback, is back to help pave the way for all after missing the last month of the season. Cardinal coaches think he’s as good a blocking back as they’ve had there in a while.
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Leonard Fournette rushed for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns as a sophomore, gaining 6.5 yards per attempt, but averaged a full four yards per carry AFTER contact, according to Pro Football Focus. His 85 broken tackles led the country. He is a bruising back who rag-dolls defenders (just ask Auburn), but he also has sprinter’s speed to go the distance. He had seven runs of 40 yards or longer last season, and he’ll be even faster this fall since he’s trimmed down to 228 and is running a 4.42 40 now. His coaches also rave about his leadership. He’s my pick to win the Heisman Trophy this year. Behind him, the Tigers have 222-pound sophomore Derrius Guice, who ran for 436 yards last season and averaged a gaudy 8.5 yards a carry. Darrel Williams, a 232-pounder, has run for almost 600 yards in his first two college seasons, and Nick Brossette, another former blue-chip RB recruit, provides strong depth behind those two. J.D. Moore, a 6-foot-4, 238-pounder who runs a 4.67 40, is a quality fullback who helped pave the way for Fournette for half of last season until being lost for the rest of the season an injury. Moore’s back, and that’s very good news for LSU.