A total of 21 running backs were drafted in 2018, compared with 30 in 2017 and 23 in 2016. The 2019 running backs are an above-average crop where 30+ of the RBs listed below could end up in NFL training camps. I’ll circle back to update this list of 50 running backs during the season, and move players up or down. I put a red boldface “BillsMafia” label on players who mesh with the Bills’ archetype, which I wrote about here.
LeSean McCoy (5’11”, 207, 4.5 forty, 85% 3-cone), currently under investigation, and his backup Chris Ivory (5-11, 222, 4.48 forty, 16%ile 3-cone) are both age 30, and the Bills will be looking to upgrade from now until April 25th’s draft party in Nashville. –Dean Kindig (@TCBills_Astro on Twitter)
(*=current junior 2020 class, **= current RS soph 2021 class)
The Top Ten:
Many thought Love would declare early for the NFL after his stellar junior season, but the Cardinal would love to see him win the Heisman. Over 13 games last season, Love rushed for 2,118 yards and 19 TDs, at an 8.1 yards-per-carry clip. The explosive Love had 13 rushes for 50+ yards this past season alone, many of them like this one. His 76 missed tackles forced in 2017 was third among his draft class, behind Montgomery and Singletary. He has the Bills’ Brain Trust’s intelligence factor; he works in a stem cell research lab. Love’s speed is otherworldly, and could blow up the Combine. He’d be the Bills’ RD1 pick.
Breaking Eagles’ UDFA Corey Clement’s records, Taylor set a new FBS freshman record by rushing for 1,977 yards and added 13 scores on 299 carries. He had three 200-yard games and put up 3 digits in ten games. He’s a load to bring down; there are many plays like this one where you can count 4 would-be tacklers who simply failed to do so. He uses stiff-arms well to ward off tacklers, which will remind you of Thurman Thomas. Taylor’s won his state 100-meter dash twice in a row, so I’d look for an improved forty at the Combine. Taylor has the smarts ‘McBeane’ seems to be looking for —Yale and Harvard recruited him. For these reasons, I’m adding him to the BillsMafia draft board.
Ohio State had to run with J.K. Dobbins when an injury slowed Mike Weber early in the 2017 season. It worked out well; Dobbins put up 1,403 yards on the ground with 7 rushing TDs, averaging an impressive 7.23 yards a carry. Dobbins eclipsed 100 yards against some of the Big Ten’s top competition –Michigan, Wisconsin, and Michigan State– and is set to “dot the i” once again in 2018. Weber wants his touches, too, so stats scouting won’t help you with either. Whether Dobbins is receiving the ball on a wheel route or using his McCoy-like elite jump-cut athleticism to make defenders miss, Dobbins is fast enough and talented enough to make the Buckeyes’ backfield a two-horse race. He’s smart, too: RB Coach Tony Alford: “in my 22 years this guy has picked it up faster than anybody I’ve ever been around….He’s picked it up, he understands the offenses, the nuances of it.” –Another guy on the McBeane RBs Menu.
Dobbins and Weber will be compared early and often, but that is a scenario that will give Offensive Coordinators Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day Weber the luxury of numbers. Weber, you may recall, led the Buckeyes’ offense with 1,096 rushing yards in 2016, but his hammy limited Weber early in the 2017 campaign, forcing Dobbins, the freshman, to be tapped for the 2017 starter role. Weber still finished the year with 626 yards (5.2 ypc vs AP-ranked teams), 10 TDs, and 10 receptions for 94 yards, but might have lost the starting nod. We’ll see. When comparing both OSU runners, I like Weber’s burst through the hole.
I’m dubbing Singletary as this year’s Rashaad Penny (RD1#27, Seahawks). A small-conference back on a team not loaded with weapons, Singletary was the single spark plug in FAU’s engine this year as he rushed for 1,920 yards and an amazing 32 TDs –the third-most in a season in FBS history– and did it in only 9 games. Singletary’s obscenely-high 87 Missed Tackles Forced in 2017 was 2nd only to Montgomery, and could move Singletary into the RD1 conversation. Singletary can move (spin move, leap move, balance move) so it’s not out of the question.
Harris, Jacobs, and Harris at Alabama and Dobbins-Weber at Ohio State might argue the point, but Clemson’s Etienne and his teammate Tavien Feaster should form one of the nation’s top RB tandems in 2018. As a freshman last year, Etienne led the offense with 766 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. Adding to those impressive totals was the fact that Etienne received only 107 carries, with his 7.2 yards-per-carry ranking first in the ACC. Etienne just bounces off tacklers like a pinball off the bumpers. He’s fast and tough to bring down if you don’t wrap up. He could be the Bryce Love consolation prize –they’re both fast playmakers who refuse to go down.
Harris, who many draftniks thought would be declaring for the 2018 NFL Draft with a portfolio of impressive plays, returned to Tuscaloosa for another year. He’d already notched two straight 1,000-yard campaigns and averaged 7.4 yards per rush on 135 carries last fall. What Harris wants to do is get out from under Bo Scarbrough’s shadow (RD7, Cowboys), but he’s on a popular team that has Najee Harris and change-of-pace back Josh Jacobs also waiting their turn. Harris The Elder is a force in his own right, though, and should be the bell cow. Damien has the highest yards-per-carry average against AP-ranked teams (7.7) among my top 18 draft-eligible backs, and he’s productive after contact. He’ll need to demonstrate his ability as a receiver to move up.
Gaskin begins the 2018 season with the FBS’s top career rushing yardage with 4,055 over three seasons,. He’s eclipsed at least 1,000 yards in all 3 seasons for the Huskies, and wants to be the only Husky to do it four times.. Gaskin has shown a nose or the end zone, reaching pay dirt 21 times in 2017, and is already the career touchdowns leader at Washington with 45. Most impressively, in my opinion, though, is that on any play, Gaskin can bang it, bounce it, bend it, and catch it.
Feaster is a combo plate of size, burst, and missed tackles galore. He was 247Sports’ No. 1 all-purpose RB, and you see oodles of potential. As the understudy to Wayne Gallman (RD4, Giants), the freshman recorded 669 yards and 7 TDs, despite having to split the backup role with Travis Etienne. Etienne’s talented, too, so their combined stats will both be diminished. However, this stat won’t: Feaster had 2 runs of 60+ yards last season (here’s one and you should really watch both). His 4.0 yards per carry average against AP-ranked teams was a stat not equalled by Love, Taylor, Dobbins, Dillon, or Singletary.
Dillon finished his 2017 journey with 1,589 yards and 14 TDs. He had two 200+ efforts last season, including 272 yards and 4 TDs vs Louisville and 200 vs Connecticut.. Over the final 7 games in 2017, Dillon averaged 179.4 ypg against the likes of NC State, Syracuse, Florida State and the Pinstripe Bowl opponent, Iowa. His coach, Steve Addazio, says Dillon is a Heisman dark horse: “He’s humble and he’s smart and he knows he has a ways to go. He’s pretty damn good, but that speaks to where he can be. If he’s healthy, he’s a unique player. A.J.’s going to be a beast.”
The Middle Ten:
Joe Mixon (RD2, Bengals) and Samaje Perine (RD4, Redskins) left after the 2016 season, but OK just slotted in next-man-up Rodney Anderson. He responded by rushing for 1,161 yards and 13 TDs, an average of 6.2 ypc. His running style has some Karlos Williams in him, but Anderson is more svelte (and less stupid). He looked superhuman against Georgia in the Rose Bowl. Against Georgia’s vaunted run defense (only 8 rushing TDs in 2017), Anderson scored twice, ran for over 200 yards, and averaged 7.7 yards per carry. Anderson is top three in this draft class in elusive rating, and Lincoln Riley’s Air-Raid offense will look very similar to Mike Leach’s, one that led every major-conference team in yards per game (583) and passing plays of at least 40 yards (27). The pass will set up the run here, so watch Anderson make plays like this off of draws and play-action, then work his missed-tackle magic downfield. Anderson won’t face charges of rape, but it’s likely enough to keep him off the ‘McBeane’ draft board.
Mason Rudolph (RD3) and James Washington (RD2) are now Steelers, so will Mike Gundy and Offensive Coordinator Mike Yurcich be able to lean on Hill? After 1,142 yards as a freshman in 2016, Hill put up 1,467 yards and 15 TD in 2017. Hill led all Big 12 rushers by averaging 112.9 yards a game last fall, as well as in carries (268), plays from scrimmage (299), rushing yards (1,467), rushing TDs (15) and yards from scrimmage (1,657). Here’s a stat for Bills fans: Hill is on pace to surpass Thurman Thomas’s 4,847 yards, the OK State record, this year. Hill is receiving some buzz because he plays bigger than he is: watch this play as an example. Here, taking the handoff three yards deep in his own end zone, Hill makes a first down with good hand use, vision, burst, and determination.
The shifty Williams has paced the Texas A&M backfield in rushing yardage in each of the last two seasons, and could see an uptick in carries (173 last year) under new (and rich) Head Coach Jimbo Fisher. The Houston native rushed for 798 yards in 2017, which was down from the 1,057-yard mark he hit as a freshman in 2016, but Trayveon is 9th in this draft class in rushing average against AP-ranked teams (203 yards, 9.2 ypc vs UCLA is worth a look), so he might be bound for my Top Ten. He’s not what I’d call a smooth runner, but he breaks ankles with the best of them. He’s also caught 39 passes over the last two seasons.
A redshirt junior, Barnes is rushing against AP-ranked teams at a 8.7 ypc rate, which is tops in his draft class, better than runner-ups Tony Brooks-James (8.1) Damien Harris (7.7), Ryquell Armstead (7.6), Damarea Crockett (7.6), and Trayveon Williams (7.5). What’s more, a Kansas State RB hasn’t broken through the 1,000-yard ceiling since 2013. Barnes will likely crack that ceiling in 2018, the second-fastest Wildcat to do so (Sproles got there fastest). He’s a nifty receiver and shows flashes of brilliance. Things are in flux at QB (Alex Delton, Skylar Thompson) and at RB (Barnes, Dalvin Warmack, Justin Silmon) so far, but Barnes makes a compelling argument for more snaps.
When McMillian graduated from Virginia Tech, he transferred to Colorado for an extra year, taking Denver Broncos UDFA Phillip Lindsay’s place. A 1,000-yard rusher for the Hokies, McMillian is likely to get most of the snaps for the Buffaloes. In Blacksburg, McMillian tallied 2,153 yards and 16 touchdowns in three seasons. He’s steadily improved as a receiver, besting his season average every year. Here, McMillian shows his receiving ability on a screen pass, and here, he catches a clever play action pass. McMillian not only can use his speed to get to the edge, but he can also follow his blockers too.
Akers, a capstone of the 2017 signing class, was worked right into the mix sharing snaps with Jacques Patrick. With 1,025 yards and seven TDs, Akers broke the Florida State freshman rushing record set by Dalvin Cook (RD2, Vikings), and yet insisted on going over game film to see how he could improve. Yes, he’s on the McBeane-O-Meter for that. Akers also caught 16 passes for 116 yards and a score. I’d expect a new coach (Willie Taggart) to take notice and run Akers early and often. Akers can cut on a dime like you-know-who, and runs tough. I have issues with where Akers is looking at times; watch the two plays starting here. Then you see this kind of burst through the hole and all is forgiven. As a RB coach I’d rather teach vision than burst.
Montgomery delivered a breakout season for coach Matt Campbell’s Cyclones last fall, rushing for 1,146 yards and 11 TDs. Montgomery also caught 36 passes for 296 yards and eight scores. According to Pro Football Focus, Montgomery led all FBS rushers by causing 109 missed tackles last fall. When you watch Montgomery’s videos, you sometimes wonder if the defense remembers what their one job is. Other times, like in Iowa State’s defeat of Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma this year, you think this guy’s for real and should be higher by April. The backfield could be crowded at Iowa State this fall, but Montgomery’s numero uno. Watch, and agree that this is the prettiest cutback run you’ll ever see.
In 2017, this understudy to Nick Chubb (RD2, Browns) and Sony Michel (RD1, Pats) ran for just 618 yards and three TDs, the most important being this 64-yard jaunt in the SEC Championship Game. Swift’s 7.6 ypc might be appealing enough to keep Dalvin Cook’s brother on the sidelines riding pine. The Bulldogs do have a 4-star roomful of rushers who could usurp Swift’s position in an instant, but the Philly native seems to have the inside track.
Don’t be fooled if Cam Akers, not Jacques Patrick, starts for the Seminoles this fall. Patrick, a senior, would be the starter on most FBS squads. Patrick would be the “thunder” back to go with a “lightning” back. The Bills will have neither in 2 years. The 231-pound Patrick will remind some of a taller Trent Richardson: a big load with light feet that’s hard to bring down, is money in goal-to-go situations, and can catch the ball. Stacking the box against him doesn’t work particularly well, either. Patrick has plenty of tread left on them tires, as he was the understudy for Dalvin Cook (Vikings RD2) in 2015 and 2016. When it came to be his time in 2017, Patrick’s 132 carries netted the Seminoles 735 yards (5.6 ypg) and 7 rushing TDs.
LJ Scott begins his fourth season for the Spartans with a career of 2,481 rushing yards and 23 TDs. He caught a career-high 18 passes this year for 120 yards (6.7 avg.) to lead the team in all-purpose yards with 908 (82.5 ypg). However, Scott has yet to record a 1,000-yard season, he averaged only 4.3 yards per carry in Big Ten games last fall, and his offensive line should get credit for giving him holes like this. He’s not a burner, either, but he has above-average open-field skills and balance.
The Bottom Ten:
The Kentucky offense will surely run through Snell this season. The QB battle, Terry Wilson vs Gunnar Hoak, should tell you that the passing game isn’t set in concrete yet, and that Snell should expect another 1,000-plus season (1091 as a freshman, 1333 yards and 19 TD last year). Snell’s 4.7 yards-per-carry average against AP-ranked teams shows what he can do. As a sophomore, Snell had 100+ yard games against Eastern Kentucky, South Carolina, Missouri, Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Vanderbilt, and a 29-carry, 211-yard (7.3 ypc) day against Louisville. Consistency and improving his speed should be objectives for 2018. He’s uber-competitive, and he has a nice spin move, a nose for the end zone, and a one-cut-run-angry style that invites missed tackles.
Najee Harris and Jacques Patrick are going to be compared for their bulldozer running styles. I think Harris was the beneficiary of a better OL, so I have him rated just behind Patrick. I also noticed a lack of vision on some of his plays. I actually hope he stays in school.
After a shoulder injury sidelined Crockett for 2017, the junior’s due to return with a vengeance. Crockett’s freshman season netted him 1,062 yards and 10 TDs on just 153 attempts (6.9 ypc), showing jukes like this one. And this one. He has a physical running style to complement those jukes. Crockett seemed to be on his way in 2017 before the injury, averaging a high-end 7.6 ypc against AP-ranked teams. Like Benny Snell, Crockett will need to work on speed, receiving skills, and consistency this season before he decides to declare for the NFL.
The tough, nasty Moss, in his first year as the team’s starter, put up 9 TDs and recorded 1,173 yds and 10 TDs on 214 attempts (5.5 ypc). He also caught 29 passes for 243 yards. Moss rushed for 196 yards versus Colorado and tallied 150 against West Virginia in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Moss led the team in all-purpose yards (1,257) and had a consistent 5.6 ypc average vs AP-ranked teams. Moss is a load to bring down. He’s been described as a ‘violent runner’ but you see enough wiggle to make defenders miss. Moss is a home-run threat; he had 21 runs of 15+ yards last season.
In addition to standout Rodney Anderson, Sermon should see more opportunities in his second year on campus. He collected 744 yards and five scores on 121 carries and caught 16 passes for 139 yards and two TDs as a freshman in 2017. The former four-star recruit is a rising star in the Big 12. Think of a tall Marshawn Lynch and his relentlessness as you watch Exhibit A, the first play here. Still not convinced? Here’s Exhibit B. Sermon on Sunday…how perfect is that?
A walk-on for the Cal Bears, Laird seized the opportunity to claim Cal’s top RB spot in 2017 when their starter was lost due to a season-ending knee injury. After only 11 career carries prior to 2017, Laird handled 191 attempts for 1,127 yards and eight TDs (7.5 ypc vs AP-ranked teams). His receiving is a strength; he caught 45 passes for 322 yards. Laird makes it on my BillsMafia target list because he’s the RB class’s top human being, as he encourages summer reading. Laird was a two-way player in high school, as he played both RB and S. He rested in the classroom? Nope. He had a 4.35 gpa despite all of his community work. The offense needs a community guy like Horrible Harry.
A season-long suspension in 2017 made Scarlett more humbled and hungry for a bounce-back year. I don’t usually rank suspended collegians in Day-3 range, opting to put them as UDFAs. Watch Scarlett’s video and see why I decided to include him among the RBs who’ll likely be taken next April. An astounding 588 of Scarlett’s 795 rushing yards during the regular season were after contact. That’s 74%. Scarlett has been all about crediting his teammates in the early going. His “unfinished business” is already evident in the spring game (5.7 ypc, 2 TD). Scarlett rushed for 889 yards in 2016 and was expected to have a 1,000-yard season last fall before he was suspended.
Homer stepped in and showed up after the Hurricanes lost Mark Walton (RD4, Bengals) with a season-ending injury vs Florida State, with 1185 yards from scrimmage and 9 touchdowns in 2017. He’s certainly a tacklebreaker. But teammate Shaq Quarterman says Homer likes to “lower his shoulder, rather than dance around opponents,” which is double indemnity for defenders. It’s possible that Homer could rank higher on this list by the end of the 2018 season; however, Homer will have to hold off touted sophomores Lorenzo Lingard and DeeJay Dallas for snaps, and they’re no slouches.
James transferred to Wisconsin from Pitt, following Paul Chryst, with whom James had been so successful. He had to redshirt the 2016 year, so his 5.0 yards-per-carry stat vs AP-ranked teams is from 2015. James plays tough, and is willing to run between the tackles. He is even more valuable than his 4.44 forty time would indicate due to his quickness. The Bills will like his infectious personality, smarts, and that toughness, so we’ll put him on the BillsMafia radar. James is planning to be more involved in the passing game this year. He’ll likely have to share the ball with Bradrick Shaw, another back I really like. With 9 tailbacks on the Badger roster, Shaw and James’s stats won’t tell the whole story. Add balance and vision to James’s toolkit; watch this.
Brown is the key element of UAB’s power-rushing game. Brown runs angry and loves to punish defenders, and you don’t need physics class to know that 235 pounds times low 4.5’s equals a world of hurt. As a freshman, Brown was already inflicting pain: 1,329 yards and 10 TDs (107.7 ypg) was the nation’s third-best stat among freshmen ballcarriers. Brown was already squatting almost 600 pounds as a freshman, so he has muscle to go with the gristle. You’d expect a more grisly personality from that runaway locomotive, but no: He’s humble and affable outside the lines. Sounds like a high reading on the ‘McBeane-O-Meter’. Add him to the list.
Henderson could easily end up being higher on my list. He had the top rush yards per attempt in the AAC in 2017: 8.8 yards a carry, beating Love, Michel, and Penny. Henderson amassed 1,154 rush yards (1,380 scrimmage) and 11 touchdowns in 2017. He had 7 rushes of 50+ yards this season, with lots of missed tackles forced by his bulk and style, but his vision is outstanding, too. I hope he stays in school to gain seasoning and draft status.
Sanders is a big question mark, as he didn’t show major production, especially vs AP-ranked teams (1.3 ypc). He also lost his OC Joe Moorhead and RB Coach Charles Huff to Mississippi State. Sanders played in 13 games as a true freshman in 2016 (184 yards and two TDs on just 25 carries, 7.4 ypc), and he did special teams. He’s a Pittsburgh native, and has a McCoy-like jump-cut move that he ought to use more than he does, and should vary his jump cut to the left and right (he always seems to jump right).
Gilbert was played just three games in 2017 due to a thumb injury, netting only 207 yards and 3 TDs on 48 attempts. In 2016, though, he was the best RB in the MAC with 1,332 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 251 attempts (5.3 ypc). He showed no let-up against AP-ranked teams, reeling off the same 5.3 yards at a clip. If Gilbert returns to optimum performance, Ball State can go from the outhouse to the penthouse. Give his guy a tiny opening, and he’ll take full advantage with a burst like a dragster.
With Shannon Brooks already sidelined for 2018 due to a leg injury, Smith will get plenty of touches. Smith had a mediocre 977 yards and three TDs on 229 carries in 2017, but he had 1,158 yards and 16 TDs in 2016 with a monster game vs Nebraska in 2017 that needs watching start to finish. He also factored into the passing game by catching 40 passes over the last two years, and he’s been a strong kick return guy. He won’t likely be coming to Buffalo, though: On the first time he saw snow: “I was nervous. The first time I saw actual snow, I called [his strength coach Eric Klein] and said, ‘It’s snowing. What do you want me to do?’ ” You shovel, kid, and show up on time to practice.
Johnson already stands as Maryland’s 12th all-time rushing and all-purpose yards leader. He returns to a loaded backfield for his 4th season under Matt Canada. A Maryland native, Johnson posted 7.1 yards per carry on 35 attempts as a freshman. He eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in 2016, averaging a whopping 9.1 yards per carry, but don’t write his name on your draft card yet; he had a dismal 2.2 yards per carry vs AP-ranked teams. Johnson only posted 875 yards in 2017, but averaged a decent 6.4 ypc, padded vs non-conference foes. He’s produced 15 rushes of 40+ yards over the last two years, and added more as a kick returner. He’s a good receiver with 12.9 ypr for his career, but to move higher on this list, he’ll have to show all-around consistency. Putting up 124 against Towson, then 25 against UCF the following week is not the definition of consistency.
Mostly unimpressive in 2017, Armstead amassed just 553 yards (3.9 YPC) and 3 TD across the 12 games he played after posting an encouraging 919 yards and 14 TD in 2016 with a 7.6 ypc vs AP-ranked teams (that was when Dion Dawkins was there). My advice: when you watch Armstead, look at the 2016 video, not only the 2017. The good news is that Ryquell has nice COD skills and vision. The bad news is that he’ll use those skills too often; the Owls will have 2 new OTs this year.
Williams was one of the SEC’s underrated players and led the way for Mississippi State’s ground game last season. He rushed for 1,107 yards and six touchdowns, including a 97-yard effort against Alabama’s NFL-ready DL in mid-November. He always keeps his legs moving when he’s stopped, which leads to plays like this one. Williams averaged 5.4 ypc against AP-ranked teams.
Shaw has the bang, bend, and bounce to move up this year if his left ACL is fully rehabbed. That’s a big if, though. Shaw is a redshirt junior who may not even be ready until conference play begins, so we’ll keep him on our bench for now. The med staff says he’ll be ready when they use live bullets, but Shaw may lose the starter role if another RB steps up in a big way (and his name will be Jonathan Taylor). Shaw missed three games in 2017 due to injury, but logged 365 yards and three TD on 96 carries (3.8 ypc). More encouraging is the 5.1 ypc average Shaw put up against AP-ranked teams.
App State churns out 1,000-yard rushers; it’s what they do. Jalin Moore is no exception. He’s notched back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, and led the Sun Belt Conference with a 94.3 ypg average in 2017. He’s also impresses as a receiver on swing passes. Moore is tough on defenders that try to tackle him, and his work ethic is full-on, so I nominate him for a slot on the BillsMafia draft board.
Hmmm…name sound familiar? Lamical’s the cousin of Samaje Perine (RD4, Redskins) and cousin of the uncle of Myles Jack (RD2, Jaguars). Lamcal works hard on his liabilities. In fact, he fumbled in the first game he played, so he watched the tape, worked hard in practices, and in the next game they entrusted him to carry the ball (2016, Kentucky), he rushed for a team-high 105 yards and caught a touchdown pass. Over the off-season, Lamical has worked on his body fat, and he looks faster and quicker than last year, eager to get downhill. Perine’s vision has not gone unnoticed, either. He is a second-effort tackle-breaker and above-average receiver who could make a big climb this year.
I have to give the Gamecocks’ O-Line and downfield blocking a majority of the credit for springing Turner, but there’s some speed to help him get to the edge and make him a weapon in a play-action receiving game. Muschamp’s up-tempo offense will ramp up his already-high numbers (5.9 ypc against AP-ranked teams). Blend in Turner’s significant role on kickoff returns (11) and special teams tackles (6), plus his fumble recovery against Michigan, and you have a versatile player at the next level.
West is another RBC –DraftTek’s term for the “Running Back. Change-of-Pace”. West’s best quality is his darting, quick stop-start, jump-cut style, which he has leveraged to make Athlon Sports’ All-American Athletic Conference preseason squad as a kick returner. West’s touches will be severely limited by first- and second-team backs Xavier Jones and Ke’Mon Freeman. With Courtland Sutton (RD2, Broncos) in the NFL, it stands to reason that the Mustangs will run more this year. Among our RBCs, West has been the most successful so far vs AP-ranked teams (6.2 ypc), and SMU has used him very creatively to get him the ball on throw-back passes, ball fakes, trick plays, bluffs, screens, draws, and special teams.That’s the kind of offensive-coordinator thinking it will take to give West a shot in the NFL.
You’ll find a lot of information on Hillman from his Boston College days. He is now a graduate transfer to Rutgers, which is near his home of Plainfield NJ. IT was a smart move. Hillman saw the handwriting on the wall with the emergence of freshman sensation A.J. Dillon at Boston College and he moved on. Hillman’s forte has been tough running between the guards, but he has improved his agility and foot speed to bounce it outside. His last year at BC showed emergence as a receiver out of the backfield. His effort, balance, power, and downhill running style make Hillman one to watch this year. I’d like to see him do better than 2.4 ypc against AP-ranked teams and show more consistency from game to game. He may get that opportunity at Rutgers’ he wasn’t going to get it riding the pine watching Dillon.
Western Michigan, seemingly always strong in the run game, saw Jarvion Franklin move to the NFL (UDFA, Steelers). Enter Franklin’s roomie, Jamauri Bogan, who rushed for 589 yards as Franklin’s backup in 2017. Bogan had more work the previous years, 1,051 yards in 2015 and 923 in ’16, averaging 5.3 ypc to Franklin’s 5.4, Bogan’s burst and fearless runs up the gut could get him a look in the UDFA stanza after the draft.
You do have to like Washington’s mettle. He wants to beat the school records just set by Rashaad Penny (RD1, Seahawks). Washington has some tools (toughness, physicality, speed, receiving chops) , but size isn’t one of them. Penny was 5’11”, 220. While he has Penny’s 4.4 speed, Washington would need a backpack of bowling balls to pack Penny’s punch. Think of Juwan Washington as a heavier Donnel Pumphery (RD4, Eagles), not Penny. Washington rushed for 759 yards and seven scores on 127 attempts (5.9 ypc). He’s a returner, too, so he adds value on special teams. He’s run two kicks back for touchdowns.
Royce Freeman (RD3, Broncos) is now in the NFL; his 60 touchdowns is tops in PAC-12 history. The Oregon running back room is crowded with Brooks-James, CJ Verdell, Darrian Felix, Cyrus Habibi-Likio, and Taj Griffin, but Brooks-James has accumulated 1,557 yards and 14 TDs over the last 3 years and has the early edge to replace Freeman as Oregon’s No. 1 back. TB-J’s best-in-the-draft-class 8.1 yards-per-carry average could help him, but that’s Oregon’s offensive scheme and Oregon’s easiest FBS schedule inflating the numbers. I’m afraid Brooks-James’s size could limit him to slot and kick-return duties in the NFL. He could be more, though: plays like this that show darter qualities and relentlessness that could land him a role-player position. He’s Chase Goodbread’s 2nd-fastest player in pro football.
When Charles Williams went down, Lexington “Lightning” Thomas stepped in and stepped up, with 1,336 yards and 17 TDs on just 211 attempts (6.3 ypc). Lexington has the speed and agility to play on Sundays, and the opposition usually needs to gang tackle him despite the fact he weighs a mere 170 pounds (For a point of reference, De’Anthony Thomas was 5’9″, 176, and was drafted in RD4 by the Chiefs). Lexington’s much better than his stats will show this year; that’s because he’ll likely share carries with a healthy Williams in 2018. Lexington is already known for his shiftiness (47 missed tackles forced).
When James Conner (Steelers, RD3) was sidelined with a knee injury in 2015, Ollison saved the season by putting up 212 carries, 1,121 rushing yards and 11 TD. Nathan Peterman threw Ollison’s way 14 times that year, netting 77 yards. A deep backfield group may limit his snaps, and he’s registered no AP carries yet, but Ollison has nice size, burst and acceleration, and he’s faster than the 4.63 forty time would suggest. Qadree’s best hope is a solid Combine and/or Pro Day, which would move him up significantly.
Pitt’s workhorse back partners with Quadree Ollison, also on this list, Hall had a 254-yard day with 3 TD on 24 carries (10.6 ypc), including the longest run in Pitt history of 93 yards, eclipsing Dorsett and McCoy’s runs. He also had this 4-touchdown day. This is extra impressive given Hall’s forty time of 4.63. He compensates for that lack of 4th gear with vision, consistency, effort, receiving skills, ability to make tacklers miss, and “shut-up-and-work” mentality. He improved his rushing and receiving average every season. We’ll put him on the Bills’ radar.
With Josh Adams (Eagles, UDFA) now in the NFL, it might be Dexter Williams’s turn to pace the Irish run offense. Averaging 9.2 yards a carry on 39 attempts for 360 yards in 2017, Dexter’s limited action makes it difficult to predict his role as #1 RB, especially with his embarrassingly-low (actually negative) net yards vs AP-ranked teams (-0.3 ypc). But if Williams can stay healthy, he has a good shot at 1,000+ yards behind an impressive Top Ten Notre Dame OL.
Fairport High School is just down the road from St. John Fisher, and Marquis Young graduated from Fairport. Could Young soon be applying his vision, sick cutbacks, and balance 12 minutes down the road? Young has the complete resume that ‘McBeane’ is always after: 3,346 yards from scrimmage over the past 3 years, nice kid, vocal leader, plays special teams, works on his blocking, and is already one of the better receiving backs in the class (76 passes for 498 yards and two TDs). Young might easily have had the Bills watching his best game so far, UMass’s 2015 game against the University of Buffalo: 240 yards and three TDs on 35 carries (6.8 ypc), with 215 of those yards in the first half. We’ll add Mr. Young to our Bills’ board.
Following the departure of Jeremy McNichols to the NFL (RD5, waived by T-Bay in final roster cuts, then signed by the Niners), Mattison reeled off 1,086 yards (5.1 ypc) and 12 TDs in 2017 as the team’s feature back. He showed he can catch the ball, tallying a 28 for 284 (10.1 ypc) stat line in 2017. He demonstrates not-too-shabby change-of-direction skills. I like that he runs with a won’t-be-denied authority. Bigger than McNichols and almost Ajayi-sized, Mattison will have to show he can excel in pass protection and run between the Guards to get drafted. Mattison has no runs vs AP teams yet. He did overrun Colorado State for 242 yards. He’s a great human being, as well: Mattison is crazy smart (graduated from San Bernardino High School summa cum laude, can read and speak Spanish), articulate, and more than grateful for a loving and intact family despite the rough neighborhood. It didn’t take much convincing to make him a BillsMafia pick.
Benson saw limited action as a freshman in 2016 but did not record a carry, then emerged in a big way in 2017, recording 1,053 yards and six TDs, with an average of 5.4 ypc. Benson had 100+ yards in 5 contests, with an impressive 129 against Clemson.(albeit with 1 fumble). Benson’s low center of gravity plus refusal to go down equals an above-average 4th-quarter back and an inside-the-tackles pounder. He’s an objective critic of his own play, and works hard on his flaws.
Whaley had a below-average second season in 2017 and Arkansas’ 4-win season was an embarrassment. Two other running backs, TJ Hammonds (8.2 ypc) and Chase Hayden (5.3 ypc), both had a higher yards-per-carry average than Whaley (4.4 ypc). Then a hot new JUCO transfer, Rakeem Boyd (6’0″, 200) was added to the Razorbacks’ RB Room. (You may have seen Rakeem on Netflix’s “Last Chance U”). All of this portends fewer touches for Whaley this season. He has had his moments, but Whaley’s days may be over. No relation to Bills’ ex-GM Doug Whaley. Other than his days are over.
Pronounced “ooo-LET”, A.J. Ouellette missed nearly all of the 2016 season due to a foot injury, but in 2017 in 13 appearances, Ouellette led Ohio with 1,006 yards and 7 TDs. The 1,000-yard campaign was the first in his career. Ouellette became known for his lack of fumbles, and when the other Ohio RBs turned the ball over, the freshman walk-on got more touches. Ouellette prefers to “be the hammer, not the nail” in that he likes to run between the tackles rather than get to the edge. I expect he won’t set the Combine and/or Pro Day ablaze with his forty time.
Jones’s 2016 season was practically over before he started (hamstring and shoulder injuries), but he returned with a vengeance 2017 with a 20-for-175 (8.8 ypc) stat line vs Memphis. If my old math is right, I count 8 of Xavier’s 12 starts with 5+ yards per carry, along with 1,075 rushing yards and 9 rushing TDs. Jones can help in the pass game (14 receptions for 84 yards), too. His offensive line is iffy this year with the loss of their Center and offensive coordinator, but it’s still early and jelling. Graduate transfer OT Brinkley Jolly and OT commit King McGowen could change this before fall. Jones has amassed a nice portfolio of 1,849 yards and 22 TD over 3 years –including 2 TD passes. His favorite NFL player is Shady McCoy. Good taste.
Fitzgerald Toussaint, back in 2011, was Michigan’s last 1,000-yard rusher. Karan Higdon missed by a hair this year, six yards short. Higdon had 11 TDs on just 164 carries, an impressive ratio. Consider that Higdon wasn’t the lead back until mid-October, he has a great shot at the Thousand-Yard Club. Higdon’s 6.1 yards per carry average was third in the Big Ten (behind J.K. Dobbins and Jonathan Taylor). Like many of the backs in this grouping, he’s been underwhelming versus AP-ranked teams (7 carries, 8 yards in 2016), and his size limits the ways he can be used.
After a collarbone kept him out for 2017, Brooks is ready to pick up where D’Angelo Brewer (1,517 yards) left off. Brooks rushed for 687 yards and 10 TDs as Brewer’s backup last season and is poised to assume the No. 1 role in 2018. He should push for first-team All-AAC honors. Brooks knows how to bend it at the right moment, which takes vision. Brooks also has determination, seen in these next two plays. You see Brooks’ ability to carry defenders with him time and again. Brooks needs defenders to wrap up better than this, and at the NFL level he’ll experience that.
CMU will need Ward in 2018. Ward was a reserve in 2016 as a true freshman, then assumed the bulk of the carries in 2017, accumulating 1,017 yards and 10 TD on 179 attempts. He’s one of the best two-way backs in the MAC with over 1500 yards from scrimmage this year. Ward is one of the best early-Day-3 receivers, catching 48 passes for 470 yards and 3 TDs. His 1.7 ypc against AP-ranked teams suggest that level of competition skewed his stats.
Witter is small but creative with the football. He has nice jukes, can burst through the hole, and gets to the open field quickly. He is an excellent cutback runner who forces missed tackles. He’s patient enough to let blocks set up, smart enough to digest a playbook, and hard working enough to catch on for a team that doesn’t need to have him start right away. On the other hand, he has difficulty with blocking (mainly due to size). He’s not a bad receiver. In fact, Witter’s yards per catch has steadily improved over his four years’ body of work. He uses his hands to snatch the ball. An imaginative OC would be able to get the ball to Witter in space. I think Witter’s best shot is on special teams. If Witter makes it to a roster, it might have to be due to his kick-return ability. I would worry about Witter’s bottom-of-class forty time.
Editor’s babble: Holy crap Batman, this write up on CFB running backs should be bookmarked and followed throughout the college football season. This is the best up-to-date summary I’ve ever read, all in an easy format with appropriate links to each player’s past performance. We are blessed to have Dean Kindig contribute his vast knowledge to our blog. You can (and should!) find Dean on Twitter @TCBILLS_Astro.