College Football's Top RBs Entering 2014 Spring Practice
The 2013 season was a mixed year for the running back position. Andre Williams from Boston College went over 2,000 yards, while six more running backs went over 1,700 yards a year ago. However, as Bleacher Report's NFL draft analyst Matt Miller points out, not one running back is in the top 32 of his latest big board.
While 2014 may not produce as many 1,700-plus yard rushers, the year does seem better suited for those with NFL ambitions. This crop of backs is stout, boasting speed, power, vision and versatility, all of which give defenses problems.
Here is a look, in alphabetical order, at some of the top backs for the upcoming season with respect to talent, expected production and opportunity for success.
A workhorse in 2013, Ameer Abdullah was a steady performer, churning up yards for a Nebraska team that had questions at the quarterback spot and an up-and-down season. His touchdowns did not match his yardage production, but he went out and battled for the Cornhuskers in all 13 games.
The Nebraska rising senior, who elected to return for his final season, will again be one of the best in the nation where production is concerned. For the Huskers to take the next step, the back, and his teammates, have to find the end zone more consistently.
For Bo Pelini and his program, Abdullah is a welcomed staple who is returning to the fold. The coaches and team know that he will be productive; the key will be getting that same type of contribution from the defense and quarterback position.
Boise State's Jay Ajayi is another workhorse back who was a grinder in 2013 and is looking to do the same in 2014. He wants the football, and with Boise State being led by new head coach Bryan Harsin, look for Broncos to lean on the rising junior again.
A season ago at Arkansas State, Harsin rode both Michael Gordon and David Oku at the running back position. This coming year, with a consistent back in Ajayi, expect the coach to stick with one horse. With a 20-carry-per-game back in the mix, whoever wins the quarterback job will have help in establishing the run and working play action off the ground game.
Harsin's system, which is rooted in the ground game, will need Ajayi to have another big season. The team has questions at quarterback, new terminology to learn and the adjustment to the varied-tempo approach. Having Ajayi lead the way is going to help make the transition a little easier.
Javorius Allen, better known as "Buck" in college football circles, burst onto the scene in a major way for the Trojans in 2013. He piled up four 100-yard games and 12 touchdowns in the final six contests for USC. This year, he enters as a known commodity, and with new head coach Steve Sarkisian looking to be balanced, the back's impact should continue to grow.
Tre Madden, the converted linebacker, was the story of the first half of USC's season running the ball. Injuries slowed him down and gave Allen the chance to get carries. Now, entering 2014, Allen is just one of several talented running backs at Sarkisian's disposal.
Allen and Madden will be a strong one-two punch for the Trojans, with Justin Davis and Ty Isaac pushing to get carries as well. USC's issue in the run game will not be finding production, but rather, only having one football to spread among its talented backfield.
The Gamecocks' feature back is a bowling ball that has the speed to roll away from defenders when he sees daylight. In the SEC, which is filled with big-time stars, Mike Davis flies under the radar at times, but his opponents know him when he hits the field.
Without Connor Shaw, another wildly underrated player, the Gamecocks will have to lean more on Davis to power the ground game. New quarterback Dylan Thompson has seen plenty of action for the garnet and black, but he is not the rushing threat that made tough man Shaw so dangerous.
Davis is active in the passing game as well, and with Thompson being more of a traditional quarterback, look for Davis' production in that avenue to increase. If the Gamecocks can win the SEC East and stay in the Top 10, he could earn an invitation to New York City.
Many expected James White to set the pace for the Wisconsin Badgers after Montee Ball left for the NFL a season ago. White was solid, but it was Melvin Gordon who burst into the spotlight and hit the ground running. As a redshirt sophomore, he ran for 1,609 yards while adding 12 touchdowns and elected to return to Madison for his redshirt junior year.
Gordon, the fourth-year player, is looking to build on the Badgers' nine wins from a season ago while increasing his draft value in the process. On the ground, expect to see him get behind Wisconsin's big offensive line and likely improve on his yardage total from a season ago as the true feature back. In addition, look for him to improve his impact through the air.
In 2013, the redshirt sophomore was a non-factor in the passing game, catching just one football. This year, with White headed to the NFL, watch for Gordon to hurt defenses with his pass catching—a skill he has to demonstrate to show advancement in his game.
When Georgia running back Todd Gurley is healthy, he is the best running back in the nation. He has an elite blend of speed, size and strength that makes tackling him a problem for defenders at every level. The only question is if he can stay healthy for the entire season.
There are issues concerning his health, as Chip Towers at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. Prior to spring ball, no one is sure if the rising junior will be full-go or limited in his activities. Even his own coaches cannot decide on what to expect out of Gurley.
Georgia is also hoping to get his running mate Keith Marshall back into the fold, as well as wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who missed all of 2013. This team needs its weapons back, especially Gurley, as new quarterback Hutson Mason prepares to grow into the starting role.
Last season, Duke Johnson was proving that despite his 5'9", 196-pound frame, he could be an every-down feature back at the major college football level. Then, a broken ankle cut his season short against Florida State. The injury stopped a quality campaign by the sophomore and turns 2014 into another shot for the Miami back to show he can be an every-down player.
Although the nation will not see him at practice this spring, he is one of the top returners due to the dynamism that he brings to the position. He is as comfortable catching the football as he is taking a handoff and looking for yards between the tackles. This year, the back is hoping to have that 1,000-yard season he was destined for in 2013.
As he sits out the spring, the Hurricanes get to focus on the battle that will be critical for the 2014 campaign: quarterback. With the uncertainty at the quarterback position, a healthy Johnson is a must for Al Golden's team.
The Oregon Ducks have lost one quality running back after another and simply replaced the backs, and their production, at every turn. Byron Marshall was the latest back to step in and fill the void for an Oregon team that loves to run the football.
While many expected De'Anthony Thomas to be the focal point for the Ducks in 2013, it was Marshall who took the bulk of the action on the ground. Now, with DAT gone, it means more carries for Marshall and rising sophomore Thomas Tyner.
And for Oregon, more Tyner and Marshall is a good thing.
Both of these players will be fixtures for a Ducks offense that is set for a playoff push. Marcus Mariota, a likely top draft pick in 2015, is back in the fold, and receiver Bralon Addison is ready to build on 2013. With Marshall leading the way and Tyner being part of a truly dynamic duo, Oregon will be formidable in 2014.
Karlos Williams was a converted defensive back who was playing the running back position and sitting third on the depth chart to start 2013. Over the course of the Seminoles' season, the former safety proved that he had the talent to make the position switch work, flashing talent that made observers excited for 2014.
As Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. head to the NFL, more carries will open up for the dynamic athlete who has finally found a position to call home. Williams is comfortable catching out of the backfield and solid between the tackles or on the edge, and he can be a home run hitter. This spring will be about him ensuring he is an every-down player by replacing Freeman's hidden value as a blocker in pass protection.
Florida State returns a Heisman-winning quarterback, an 1,100-yard receiver and a talented running back into the mix for its 2014 campaign, so there is a reason the 'Noles are favorites to make the College Football Playoff.
Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon set the pace for the Crimson Tide in 2013, and the rising junior is set to try and do the same in Tuscaloosa in 2014. However, while he is the incumbent starter, 2014 will be about him setting the tone more than carrying the load by himself.
In fact, even as he enters 2014 as one of the nation's top running backs, he will also have to fight to keep his starter's carries this season.
Both Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake will be nipping at his heels, and the versatile Alabama junior will have to play well to maintain his lead role. For Yeldon, that means not fumbling the ball—a problem that he tried to fix in 2013 but still manifested at inopportune times.
As long as Nick Saban's rising junior can hold onto the ball and continue to break big runs out of the zone plays, he'll remain at the top of a very deep group of running backs. Yeldon will be pushed by the Tide's depth, and if he sticks at the top, he'll be among the nation's best for next year.
Other Notable Running Backs
Duke Johnson and Karlos Williams will not be the only ACC running backs to watch in 2014. T.J. Logan at North Carolina hit his stride in the final stretch of the 2013 campaign and is looking to pick up where he left off. In the same league, Virginia's Kevin Parks will be seeking to build on last year as well.
Another back who showed promise and deserves to be on everyone's radar is Baylor's Shock Linwood. Forced into heavy action a season ago, he responded well, including logging back-to-back 180-plus yard games against Oklahoma and Texas Tech. This year, he will have to be consistent as he looks to top 1,000 yards as the Bears' feature back.
Linwood is not the only back to look forward to in the Big 12, as Texas returns its stable for new head coach Charlie Strong to use in an effort to grind opponents down. Malcolm Brown led all Texas rushers a season ago, coming on strong with three 100-yard games to end the season. He got the carries after then-leading rusher Johnathan Gray went down with an injury.
Brown and Gray are back in the mix, and as long as Gray is healthy, the Longhorns should have one of the country's best duos at the position.
Other players that the nation will get to know include Jamaal Williams at BYU and Jeremy Langford at Michigan State. Additionally, this could be a breakout season for Notre Dame's Tarean Folston. He showed promise once he received steady touches in 2013. Now the primary back, he should be ready for a heavier load.