College Football: Top 10 running backs heading into spring

Nov 19, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Washington Huskies running back Myles Gaskin (9) rushes past the Arizona State Sun Devils defense for a 45-yard touchdown run during the fourth quarter at Husky Stadium. Washington won 44-18. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

College football saw a lot of running backs leave early for the NFL Draft. But that’s okay, as there’s still a talented crop of running backs returning this spring.

The 2016 college football season was full of talent at the running back position. The season saw two players run for over 2,000 rushing yards and both of them are off to the NFL Draft.

San Diego State Aztec running back Donnel Pumphrey returned for his senior season in 2016, rushing for 2,133 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns. He broke Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk’s career rushing record of 4,589 rushing yards, finishing with 6,405 rushing yards of his own. Pumphrey finished 10th in Heisman voting after a strong season with the 11-3 Aztecs.

Texas Longhorns running back D’Onta Foreman was the other 2,000-yard rusher. He ran for 2,028 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns despite the Longhorns’ 5-7 record. Foreman finished eighth in Heisman voting last season for his performance, leading to his early entree into the 2017 NFL Draft.

Foreman joins running backs Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette among others to form a strong running back class in this year’s NFL Draft.

But that doesn’t mean 2017 will feature an underwhelming class of running backs in the college ranks. The SEC returns a plethora of running back talent this spring as does the Pac-12 and Big Ten Conferences.

With more games on the way in April, here’s a look at the top 10 running backs heading into spring.

Nov 19, 2016; Fort Collins, CO, USA; New Mexico Lobos running back Tyrone Owens (25) carries the ball against the Colorado State Rams at Hughes Stadium. This is the final game played in Hughes Stadium, which opened in 1968. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Brenner/The Coloradoan via USA TODAY NETWORK

10

Tyrone Owens

RB, New Mexico

The New Mexico Lobos had a strong year in the Mountain West Conference finishing 6-2 last season, 9-4 overall. Much of that had to do with their rushing attack, which averaged 350.0 rushing yards per game.

While they lose leading rusher Teriyon Gipson who rushed for 1,269 rushing yards, they return running back Tyrone Owens. Owens ran for 1,097 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns in 12 games last season. His 8.0 rushing yards per carry ranked fourth in the FBS in 2016, just two spots behind Gipson (8.8).

Owens shared carries with Gipson last season, finishing with 137 rushes. Gipson had 145 rushing attempts, but he wasn’t the only speedy running back.

Technically, the Lobos used four running backs in the pistol formation. All four running backs carried the ball at least 100 times. Owens should still see a boost in numbers as the featured back.

We’ll see how Owens performs this spring. He was a Spring Camp Hard Hat winner after a strong spring in 2015. After a having a big 2016, Owens could be ready to turn a corner as the Lobos look to win the MWC.

Dec 28, 2016; Bronx, NY, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers linebacker Mike Caprara (30) goes to tackle Northwestern Wildcats running back Justin Jackson (21) during 2nd half of The Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium. Northwestern defeats Pittsburgh 31-24. Mandatory Credit: William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

9

Justin Jackson

RB, Northwestern

Northwestern Wildcats running back Justin Jackson returns this spring with a lot of promise. Jackson has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in three seasons so far with the Wildcats.

He was a first team All-Big Ten selection after leading the conference with 1,524 rushing yards. His 15 rushing touchdowns to finish the season were third in the conference and his 298 rushing attempts were second.

Jackson had six games last season with 100 rushing yards or more. In the Pinstripe Bowl on December 28, he carried the ball 32 times for a career-high 224 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns. He also had three games last season where he ran for at least three rushing touchdowns.

Entering his final spring season with a 7-6 record in his rearview, the expectations for Jackson will certainly rise in 2017. With some key senior wide receivers to replace on offense, his usage could produce some good results.

Sep 24, 2016; Oxford, MS, USA; Georgia Bulldogs running back Nick Chubb (27) runs the ball during the second quarter of the game against the Mississippi Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

8

Nick Chubb

RB, Georgia

Georgia Bulldogs Nick Chubb returns this spring looking to show his opponents he’s healthy as he was back in 2014. That season, he ran for 1,547 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns. In 2015, his season was cut short due after six games to a torn PCL injury in his left knee.

Last season, however, Georgia went 4-4 in SEC play, 8-5 overall. The Bulldogs began 2016 with a 3-0 record before dropping four of their next five conference games. They finished with five wins in their final six games and Chubb still ran for 1,130 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns. But with a Georgia Tech loss in Athens 28-27 to end the regular reason, Chubb’s return takes on a lot more meaning.

With his return, it gives the Bulldogs certainty in the rushing game along with fellow running back Sony Michel. Chubb opened the season with 32 carries for a career-high 222 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns against the North Carolina Tar Heels in a 33-24 victory. After that, things slowed down for him. With a full spring of reps, Chubb has the opportunity to return to his old form.

Nov 5, 2016; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks running back Rawleigh Williams III (22) rushes for a touchdown in the second half against the Florida Gators at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Arkansas defeated Florida 31-10. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

7

Rawleigh Williams III

RB, Arkansas

Arkansas Razorbacks Rawleigh Williams III returns this spring looking to push for the SEC’s best running back. He’s one of the top running backs returning in a conference chock full of talent at the position.

Williams III had a sophomore campaign in 2016 as the starting running back. He ran the ball 245 times for 1,360 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns. He averaged 104.6 rushing yards per game a season ago for the Razorbacks, 29th in the FBS.

The rising junior was third in the SEC in total rushing yards and fourth in rushing yards per game. He rushed for over 100 yards in seven of 13 games last season. He ran for a career-high four rushing touchdowns and 205 rushing yards in just 16 carries last season against Mississippi State on Nov. 19.

Williams III had just 18.9 rushing attempts per game, with a heavier workload. He could come closer to 2,000 rushing yards if his improvement continues this spring.

Sep 10, 2016; Eugene, OR, USA; Oregon Ducks running back Royce Freeman (21) reacts against the Virginia Cavaliers during the third quarter at Autzen Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Cole Elsasser-USA TODAY Sports

6

Royce Freeman

RB, Oregon

The Oregon Ducks didn’t have the greatest of seasons in 2016. The Ducks went 4-8 last year, winning just two of their final 10 games of the season after starting 2-0. Head coach Mark Helfrich was fired at the end of the season and replaced by former South Florida head coach Willie Taggart.

Taggart’s hiring gave Freeman a reason to return for his senior season. He rushed for 945 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns last season. Freeman rushed for 100 over yards in the Ducks final three games of the season in 2016. He was the lone bright spot in an otherwise abysmal season overall for Oregon. He ran the ball 21 times for 207 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns in Week Two against Virginia.

Entering the NFL Draft wasn’t on Freeman’s plans for 2017. In 2015, he rushed for 1,848 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns. With a new coach and fresh playbook, he’ll look to improve upon his 2015 production as the featured back this spring.

Jan 9, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Bo Scarbrough (9) runs for a touchdown in the first quarter against the Clemson Tigers in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

5

Bo Scarbrough

RB, Alabama

With a new offensive coordinator, things could change for Crimson Tide running back Bo Scarbrough and the Alabama offense. Scarbrough had a decent year at starter in 2016.

He rushed for 812 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns for the Crimson Tide last season. Scarbrough had a bit of a slow start to the 2016 season but he picked things up towards the end. In the last four games of the season, he ran the ball for 454 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns. He averaged 8.3 rushing yards per carry on 11 carries for 91 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the team’s 54-16 SEC Championship victory over the Florida Gators. The following week, he had 19 carries for 180 rushing yards (9.5 yards per carry) and two rushing touchdowns.

Despite not winning the National Championship, the Crimson Tide still finished 14-1 last season. With former New England Patriots offensive coordinator Brian Daboll now taking on a similar position at Alabama, the Crimson Tide offense could have new plans this spring. It bodes well for Scarbrough at 6-foot-2 and 228 pounds. He’s got the size and speed to do more than just run the ball out of the backfield.

Oct 8, 2016; Starkville, MS, USA; Auburn Tigers running back Kamryn Pettway (36) runs the ball as he is defended by Mississippi State Bulldogs defensive back Jamoral Graham (9) during the second quarter of the game at Davis Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

4

Kamryn Pettway

RB, Auburn

Auburn Tigers running back Kamryn Pettway returns this spring looking to have a much bigger year with transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham, formerly of Baylor, possibly under center. Fellow teammate running back Kerryon Johnson ran for 895 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns last season along with Pettway.

Pettway had 1,224 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns of his own in eight games in 2016. He was fifth in the SEC in rushing yards and 11th in the FBS in rushing yards per game (122.4). Pettway is the lone underclassmen at running back returning who was in the Top 25 in the FBS in rushing yards per game last season.

The rising junior ran for 100 rushing yards in seven of nine games for the Tigers last year. He ran the ball 30 times for a career-high 236 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown against Ole Miss in a 40-29 victory last season. With a bigger opportunity this spring, he’ll have an opportunity to increase his numbers next season.

Dec 2, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Washington Huskies running back Myles Gaskin (9) carries the ball against the Colorado Buffaloes during the Pac-12 championship at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

3

Myles Gaskin

RB, Washington

The Washington Huskies did good things in 2016, making the College Football Playoff in the end. Running back Myles Gaskin did his part for the Huskies in the running game. This spring he has a chance to lead once again.

Gaskin ran the ball 237 times for 1,373 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns for the 12-2 Huskies in 14 games last season. He had six games where he rushed for at least 100 yards. Gaskin ran for a career-high 197 rushing yards on just 16 carries against the Oregon Ducks back on October 8.

Washington’s offense ranked eighth in the FBS in scoring (41.8) in 2016. It also helped their defense only allowed 17.7 points per game, also eighth in the FBS.

It may be tough for their defense to return to that form, but with Gaskin, quarterback Jake Browning and receiver Dante Pettis returning on offense, the Huskies may just be able to outscore everybody next season. They’ll preview what’s in store for Gaskin and company soon enough this spring.

Nov 19, 2016; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers running back Derrius Guice (5) carries the ball against the Florida Gators during the second half at Tiger Stadium. The Gators defeat the Tigers 16-10. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

2

Derrius Guice

RB, LSU

The LSU Tigers hit a rough patch in their first few games in 2016, firing head coach Les Miles after a 2-2 start. However, they finished 6-2 under current head coach Ed Orgeron. Running back Derrius Guice returning this spring should help the offense a ton next season.

Guice ran for 1,387 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns, playing much of the season ahead of running back Leonard Fournette who had an ankle injury for much of the year. Fournette played in just seven of the Tigers 12 games, also sitting out the Citrus Bowl to close out the season.

The Tigers still got good production out of Guice. He had two games where ran for over 250 rushing yards in 2016. He had 252 rushing yards and two touchdowns against Arkansas and 285 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns against Texas A&M.

Guice was first in the SEC in rushing yards and rushing yards per game (115.6). However, they still have some quarterback issues to iron out which means they could rely heavily on Guice. This spring should give fans an idea of what to expect.

Oct 29, 2016; West Lafayette, IN, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley (26) runs for a TD in the first half at Ross Ade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

1

Saquon Barkley

RB, Penn State

The Penn State Nittany Lions surprised everyone and won the Big Ten Championship Game against the Wisconsin Badgers. Running back Saquon Barkley was part of the surprise season as well, ending the season ranked 14th in the FBS in rushing yards.

Barkley finished with 1,496 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns in 14 games for Penn State in 2016. He rushed for a touchdown in the team’s final seven games of the season. He had over 200 rushing yards twice as well, showing he’s one of the up and coming stars at the running back position.

Barkley returns along with quarterback Chase McSorley. The duo has a chance to put the Nittany Lions in the College Football Playoff pending a strong spring camp. Their 11-3 season was the team’s first 10-win season since 2009. They lost in the Rose Bowl to the USC Trojans 52-49 but with experience on their side, there’s no need to panic next year. Barkley should bring them similar success as a top back very soon.

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