College Football Rankings 2011: Top 10 Breakout True Freshman Running Backs

Kraig LundbergAnalyst IIIJune 14, 2011

College Football Rankings 2011: Top 10 Breakout True Freshman Running Backs

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    Every college football season has a Maurice Clarett.

    No, I'm not talking about a guy who utterly wastes his immense talents by getting into trouble with the law (although most years have a couple of those too).

    I'm talking about a true freshman running back that burns up college football stadiums as a mere teenager. You know, an Ahman Green?  An Adrian Peterson?  A Marcus Lattimore?

    Considering these are four of the greatest true freshmen to play the position in two or more decades, I think I've made my point. 

    These breakout performances are few and far between at such a young age, but with 120 college football teams and hundreds of talented high school seniors aspiring to play running back at the next level, one or two of these sensational season performances are bound to pop up each season.

    The 2011 college football season won't likely see a shortage of these brilliant rookies.  The only question is, who will be among the few breakout performers?

    Here are 10 true freshman running backs, ranked in order from 10 to one, who will each be in prime position to perform instantly.

10. Darrian Miller, Kansas

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    5'10", 181 lbs

    It may seem odd that a player from the lowly Kansas Jayhawks kicks off this list. However the speedy Darrian Miller is one of the Jayhawks' prized recruits for 2011 and will very likely be a breakout performer for what should be a considerably improved football team.

    Kansas returns another star running back in James Sims, who was a breakout freshman himself with 168 carries for 762 yards and 9 touchdowns in his first year.  But nobody behind Sims toted the rock more than 71 times or averaged more than 3.9 yards per carry.

    And with 309 carries, 2,798 yards and 37 touchdowns in his senior year, Darrian Miller has earned the opportunity to wrest the back-up position from all other competitors this fall.

    Because Miller was able to enroll early and get a head start this past spring, he should immediately take second-string come football season.  He and Sims will form an excellent duo.

9. Mike Blakely, Unknown*

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    5'9", 194 lbs

    *UPDATE: Mike Blakely has left the Florida Gators program.  Apologies for the oversight.  He could still have a similar impact elsewhere; reports are he will be transferring to Auburn.

    The compact Mike Blakely is comparative to former Virginia Tech star Ryan Williams according to Rivals, which bodes well for whomever he ultimately decides to play for, which at this time looks to be Auburn.

    Assuming that is the case, he won't have an easy time earning carries with Michael Dyer and Ontario McCalebb in front of him.

    But if Blakely is anywhere near as talented as Williams, he already has the tools to do just that.  If Blakely is able to play in 2011, he will get his chances regardless, and I think he'll make the most of them. 

8. Aaron Green, Nebraska

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    5'10", 191 lbs

    Arguably the Cornhuskers' most prized recruit of the 2011 class, Aaron Green will enter the fold behind stud junior Rex Burkhead.

    With 240 carries for 1,717 yards and 19 touchdowns in his final high school season despite being keyed in on by every defense, it's easy to see a reason for the hype surrounding Green. 

    With the departure of Roy Helu Jr., a 3,000-plus yard career rusher, Green will compete for the back-up spot against fellow freshmen Braylon Heard and Ameer Abdullah.

    Despite all the competition, Green has a great shot to play a significant number of snaps and log impressive stats behind Burkhead.  Green's incredible elusiveness will be a great fit for the new Husker offense and the lightning to Burkhead's thunder.

    Although Green will likely share second-string with Heard and/or Abdullah, there's a good chance the San Antonio-area phenom will separate himself from the pack and have a remarkable true freshman season. 

7. Savon Huggins, Rutgers

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    6'0", 190 lbs

    As the seventh rated high school running back in the country according to Rivals, Savon Huggins is easily the Rutgers Scarlet Knights' top '11 recruit and very well may end up being the face of the program in the near future.

    Huggins will have the opportunity to get a big jump on that potential quest in his inaugural college season.

    No Rutgers running backs had 100 carries in the 2010 season, which leads one to assume nobody proved themselves worthy of the starting job.  Perhaps that was one reason Huggins chose Rutgers over a more prestigious football school.

    Regardless, the incoming freshman will have every opportunity to take firm control of the starting running back gig and run with it—literally. 

6. James Wilder Jr., Florida State

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    6'2", 219 lbs

    Widely considered one of the top two running back recruits in the nation, James Wilder Jr. (the son of the former Missouri Tigers star) slid down this list for a couple of reasons.

    First, the Florida State Seminoles have two fantastic running backs in Jermaine Thomas and Chris Thompson returning.  And while neither is the power back that Wilder is, there are only so many carries to go around in the Seminoles offense.

    Second, Wilder was recruited by many teams mainly as a linebacker and would excel at either position.  Chances are he stays at running back, but if he ends up playing defense, he obviously won't belong on this list at all.

    That being said, he was an unstoppable force in high school and his college-ready measurables cannot go unnoticed.

    As talented as Wilder is, look for him to steal some carries from Thomas and Thompson and have a strong first year both statistically and otherwise.

5. Kenny Hilliard, LSU

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    6'0", 218 lbs

    The loss of Stevan Ridley to the NFL Draft may have had the LSU Tigers panicking over the running back situation had they not secured Kenny Hilliard's commitment.

    The unquestioned starter for the Tigers in '10, Ridley received most of the carries and had no proven back-ups.

    The position got a big upgrade with Hilliard, who is compared to former Ohio State star and current Arizona Cardinal Chris "Beanie" Wells.

    Hilliard's senior stats, which totaled 256 carries for 2,377 yards and 34 touchdowns, are as impressive as they come, and this true freshman could be starting from day one in Baton Rouge.

4. Brandon Williams, Oklahoma

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    6'1", 188 lbs

    As stacked at the Oklahoma Sooners are at running back (and at pretty much every position for that matter), it's really hard imagining any true freshman coming in and making an instant impact.

    Young backs Roy Finch and Brennan Clay have both showed a lot of promise and could easily garner most of the carries in 2011. However when a guy like Brandon Williams enters the mix, all bets are off.

    Likened to the supremely talented Darren McFadden, Williams could be the Sooners' best running back recruit since Adrian Peterson, who had himself one of the best freshman seasons in college history.

    His eye-popping 250 carries for 2,438 yards and 33 touchdowns as a senior back up all the hype, plus some.  

    When you take into account his spring football head start, this freshman has the potential to adequately replace departed leader DeMarco Murray in just his first season. 

3. Isaiah Crowell, Georgia

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    5'11", 210 lbs

    Arguably the top running back recruit in the nation according to some services, Isaiah Crowell chose the Georgia Bulldogs over Alabama and will compete with senior Caleb King for the starting job right away.

    Even if the seasoned King wins the job over Crowell, both backs will be counted on to take pressure off of young quarterback Aaron Murray, who now lacks top wideout AJ Green.

    And as good as Crowell is, it wouldn't shock me to see him tear the starting job away from King as the season progresses.

    Either way, Isaiah Crowell will be one of the most productive true freshmen in 2011. 

2. Mike Bellamy, Clemson

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    5'10", 185 lbs

    One of four five-star players hauled in by the Clemson Tigers according to Rivals, Mike Bellamy is a true speedster who dominated at the high school level.

    Said to be very similar to the Tennessee Titans' Chris Johnson, who ran a blazing 4.24 second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine (an official combine record), Bellamy walks into a situation that should be very kind to a young and talented freshman desiring immediate playing time.

    With the departure of Jamie Harper, Clemson has only one legitimate possible starter at running back in Andre Ellington.

    While Ellington and Bellamy have similar styles, the both of them could form a dangerous duo for Clemson; if Ellington isn't careful, however, Bellamy could easily take over the starting job and garner the most carries.

    His 216 carries for 2,153 yards and 31 touchdowns in his senior season suggest that he is ready for such a role right away. 

1. Malcolm Brown, Texas

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    6'0", 220 lbs

    Nobody will forget about the Texas Longhorns' uncharacteristically awful 2010 season, in which they sputtered to a 5-7 record.

    Part of the reason for that dose of humility was the lack of a feature running back.  The collective play of Fozzy Whittaker, Cody Johnson and Tre' Newton was never enough to support the Longhorns' running game, which put a lot of pressure on young quarterback Garrett Gilbert.

    To ensure 2010 doesn't repeat itself, head coach Mack Brown locked up a consensus top-three running back in Malcolm Brown and the top high school back in the nation according to Rivals.

    Although he lacks top-end speed, Brown has nearly every other tool you want in an every-down feature back.

    Reminiscent of Longhorns great Cedric Benson, Brown is an impressive every-down runner who occasionally flashes true brilliance.

    Based on his talent level and the lack of a serious competitor for the starting job, Malcolm Brown will be 2011's Maurice Clarett—without the baggage, of course.