Running backs have taken their games to a different level over the past couple years, but this year’s group brings a unique versatility we haven’t seen. It’s no longer enough to be a running back that just runs the ball and pass blocks. Nor is it enough for running backs to add a catch on a screen every now and then. Some of these guys are lining up as actual receivers, and showing they can operate at a high level. Kenneth Gainwell and Max Borghi lead the charge in that category, and it’s the biggest reason why they’re getting NFL attention. There are still some traditional runners this year too.
Travis Etienne, Chuba Hubbard, and Najee Harris will all be debated as the top running back in college football this year, and each brings something unique to the table. The Group of 5 boasts a number of elite players, including Gainwell, Boise State’s George Holani, and Buffalo star Jaret Patterson. As a fan, it’s no longer enough to know just the Power 5 talent, because the Group of 5 is producing better players than a lot of those teams. This group will be fun to watch, and not just because they can run the ball well.
NOTE: Click on the players name to read their player profile.
Top CFB Running Backs
Boise State’s had a rich tradition of running backs, and that continues this year. Holani will share the backfield again this year, but he already showed he’s the best back on the roster by rushing for over 1,000 yards last year.
If you liked AJ Dillon, you’ll also enjoy Bailey. At 240 pounds, tackling Bailey is about as much fun as it seems, and the Eagles running game shouldn’t skip a beat with him there. Even as a backup, he rushed for over 800 yards last year, and will run behind one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country.
Marshall’s offense returns a plethora of playmakers, but none more reliable than Knox. Conference USA’s Most Valuable Player in 2019 hopes to retain that award along with improving upon some impressive numbers from last year.
He took a step back in terms of production, but Rountree can be one of the most reliable running backs in the conference. He’ll have to show the new coaching staff what he can do, but they should like what they see.
Matt Campbell convinced Hall to watch more film instead of playing Madden and 2K, and the switch elevated his game. Now he’s one of the best running backs in the country, and he controls how high his ceiling will go. Breaking 1,000 yards should be easy, and he’ll also play a big role as a pass catcher.
North Carolina has a solid 1-2 punch in the backfield, and Carter brings more of the speed to that combination. Both backs can eclipse 1,000 yards this year, and the Tar Heels offense should be as balanced as it’s ever been. Carter’s acceleration helps him get into the open field, and there’s no telling what will happen once he gets there.
A team player who just wants to win, Ingram’s the perfect back to have on a team. Don’t mistake the humility for weakness though, because he’s a great back too. He’ll be the starter for the Longhorns, and the running game could play a bigger role this year with new starters needed at receiver.
Former Last Chance U star is now taking his talents to a new level as one of the best running backs in the SEC. Despite little help from the passing game (or anywhere else), Boyd still managed to rush for over 1,100 yards. With a goal of getting to the NFL becoming a reality, there are a few things he can do better to improve his stock.
UCF has been the most polarizing Group of 5 team over the last few years, and it’s because they have the talent to make a statement. Anderson’s the most versatile of the running backs on the Knights roster, and he’s back for one more year. Sharing a backfield with Greg McCrae and Bentavious Thompson will limit his carries, but he’s a reliable pass catcher, giving UCF versatility and depth out wide.
A rising star in college football, Patterson’s the best player from the MAC. He rushed for 1,113 yards and 15 touchdowns in his last six games, including 663 and 12 in his last three. The Bulls are a New Year’s Six dark horse thanks to a solid group on both sides of the ball, but Patterson’s the star of the team.
Lane Kiffin inherits an offense with a ton of potential and speed. Ealy doesn’t have the typical size for a running back, but he’s a slippery runner who’s not afraid to be the aggressor. He’ll join either Matt Corral or John Rhys Plumlee in the backfield, and a Ealy-Plumlee combination gives the Rebels arguably the fastest duo in the country at their positions.
Scott Satterfield looked for speed and found it early in his tenure with the Cardinals. Hawkins exploded as a freshman for over 1,500 yards on the ground, and his speed gives Louisville one of the best running backs in the country. He’ll compete with Hassan Hall in the backfield, but submitted his resume for why he should be the starter going forward.
An injury ended his final season with the Sooners, but Trey Sermon’s arrival in Columbus keeps the Buckeyes in playoff contention. Analysts are already putting him as one of the top backs for next year’s draft, and he can elevate his draft stock with a big year on his new team.
If you like speed, then Pooka Williams is your guy. There aren’t many defenders that can track him down in the open field, but it’s just a matter of if he’ll get there. While he did rush for 1,061 yards last year, he only had three touchdowns. Kansas isn’t showing many signs of improvement, but the Jayhawks can at least entice fans with their star running back.
He might not be the top fantasy football player, but Javonte Williams will get the attention of NFL scouts soon enough. An incredible leg drive combined with his aggressive mentality running the football make him an intriguing prospect in the future. While Michael Carter brings speed to the offense, Williams gives the Tar Heels a powerful changeup.
Oregon should always recruit undersized but wildly effective running backs forever. It’s just more fun that way. Not only does Verdell have speed to burn, but he’s a patient runner who allows his blockers to create openings (hence the 6.2 yards per carry last year). He’ll share a backfield with Travis Dye and Cyrus Habibi-Likio, but there’s no doubt who the top back is on the roster.
His return to campus was interesting and eventful, but Hill’s already proving that he can send a message on and off the field. How will Mike Leach use his star back? Will he fit into the Air Raid system? It’s a unique challenge for all parties involved, but the Bulldogs will find ways to get the ball in his hands.
Brown’s 202-yard, 12.6 yards per carry game against Memphis in the Cotton Bowl is what people remember, but it might just be the tip of the iceberg for him. He has competition for the starting spot, but he already showed that he has the highest ceiling. With the Nittany Lions trying to topple Ohio State, they’ll lean on him in big games.
The comparisons to Christian McCaffrey continue to pour in, and draft scouts are already loving Borghi’s game. But he’s not trying to live up to the form Stanford great. He’s trying to be one of the Cougars’ best. A natural running the ball and catching out of the backfield, Borghi’s one of the most versatile weapons in the country.
If you like ball security, Kennedy Brooks is your guy. His attention to detail carrying the football is what keeps him on the field and in the good graces of the coaching staff. Now that Trey Sermon’s off to Ohio State, Brooks should see more touches this year after rushing for 1,011 yards (6.5 ypc) in a crowded backfield.
Felton was thrown into the fire last year at running back, but he’s a natural athlete anywhere on the field. Chip Kelly’s plan is to use him at running back this year, but that won’t stop the Bruins from utilizing him all over the field. Speed to burn and great contact balance make him a nightmare for any defender.
Memphis needed a back to step up with Darrel Henderson gone and Patrick Taylor hurt, and the freshman exploded onto the scene. The Tigers will put him anywere, including out wide at receiver, and he thrives. He’s a natural runner, but he could also pass for a receiver. Gainwell produced over 2,000 yards of total offense along with 18 touchdowns, and that was just the start.
Guys who are 6’2″ and 230 pounds shouldn’t be able to do what Najee Harris does, but that’s what makes the Crimson Tide back unique. Hurdles are a staple in his game, no matter how tall the defender might be, and it makes for entertaining runs. Alabma’s offense was pass heavy with all of the talent last year, but Harris still managed to rush for over 1,200 yards. He could improve on those numbers if the Tide need to run more often this season.
Hubbard rushed for over 2,000 yards and 21 touchdowns last year. Surely he can’t beat those numbers, right? It seems the Cowboys will be more balanced this year, but no one should be surprised if he does. Hubbard’s vertical speed and vision allow him to break off big runs at any moment, and Oklahoma State will rely on him in big moments. A College Football Playoff run is possible, and they have the running back to lead them there.
His return shocked many, but now it’s even more important. Justyn Ross’ injury means there’s some uncertainty in the passing game, leaving more potnetial touches for Etienne. After a year in which he averaged 7.8 yards per carry and accounted for 23 touchdowns, he could inherit an even bigger load in 2020.
Kobe Lewis, Central Michigan: Jonathan Ward’s gone, leaving Lewis to himself in the backfield to show off his speed. He rushed for 1,074 yards and 12 touchdowns when sharing with Ward last year.
Stevie Scott, Indiana: Underrated back who has a natural feel for the run game and great size (6’2″, 236) to withstand contact.
Isaiah Spiller, Texas A&M: Broke out as a freshman, and gives the Aggies size (6’1″, 220) at the position. Nearly rushed for 1,000 yards last year.
Tyler Badie, Missouri: Versatile weapon for the Tigers can be used out wide as a receiver (11.1 yards per catch). Imagine what he will do with Larry Rountree’s gone.
Zamir White, Georgia: There are a number of options for D’Andre Swift’s replacement, but White appears to be next in line.
Elijah Mitchell, Louisiana: He’s increased his production every year (1,147 yards and 16 touchdowns last year), and gives the Ragin’ Cajuns a great running back to join quarterback Levi Lewis.
Zach Charbonnet, Michigan: Shared time with Hassan Haskins last year, and will need to prove to the coaching staff that he’s the guy they want. With a new quarterback in the mix, Charbonnet or Haskins will be asked to carry the offense a little more this year.
Rhamondre Stevenson, Oklahoma: In a crowded backfield, Stevenson managed to be the third option for the Sooners. Averaging eight yards per carry on just 64 carries, Oklahoma has a great backup option when Kennedy Brooks needs a break.
Mohamed Ibrahim, Minnesota: Let’s not forget that Ibrahim rushed for over 1,100 yards in 2018. Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks returning limited his chances last year, but he still had 114 carries. Now, he’s the main back and could be around for two more years.
Hassan Hall, Louisville: Elite returner who has blazing speed in the backfield too. He’s in the running for the starting spot, but he has the beat Javian Hawkins. Even if he doesn’t, the Cardinals will find ways to get him the football.
Lyn-J Dixon, Clemson: Dixon could play for any other program, but stuck with the Tigers even with Travis Etienne returning. As a backup, he rushed for 635 yards last year, and he’s shown that he’s ready whenever Clemson needs him.
Justin Henderson, Louisiana Tech: Henderson’s not talked about enough, especially after rushing for 1,062 yards and 15 touchdowns. The Bulldogs might want to find some depth behind him, though.
Bryant Koback, Toledo: If it weren’t for Jaret Patterson, more people would know the name Bryant Koback. In his first two years of college football, he rushed for 2,104 yars and 26 touchdowns. A name to watch for the future.
Amare Jones, Tulane: Green Wave fans think Jones can be to their offense what Kenneth Gainwell is to Memphis. With Darius Bradwell gone, he should see more touches in the backfield and as a pass catcher.
Shamari Brooks, Tulsa: Brooks has been the most consistent player for the Golden Hurricane the last three years, and he’s back to go out with a bang. Tulsa needs to get to bowl game this year, and Brooks can lead them there.
Xazavien Valladay, Wyoming: Valladay broke out last eyar for nearly 2,000 yards of total offense, and returns to lead the Cowobys on a conference title run.
Tyler Goodson, Iowa: The freshman shares a backfield with Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young, but has the most potential of the three. He’s also the Hawkeyes top returning rusher.