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2015 College Football Season Will Be the Year of the Running Back

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistFebruary 11, 2015

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 01:  Ezekiel Elliott #15 of the Ohio State Buckeyes runs the ball against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the All State Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 1, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

How many great young college running backs are there? So many that the position can lose a pair of 2,000-yard rushers, Melvin Gordon and Tevin Coleman, and come back even stronger next season.

It can afford to lose Todd Gurley, Ameer Abdullah, Duke Johnson, Mike Davis, Jay Ajayi, T.J. Yeldon, Javorius "Buck" Allen and Cameron Artis-Payne too. Each of those players was great, but most of their teams will be fine without them.

It's not the quarterbacks keeping all those teams afloat, either. In fact, the 2015 season is almost devoid of established passers. There hasn't been this much turnover at the position in a long time:

Top 15 Quarterbacks Returning by Season
QB RatingYards/GameAverage
201543<strong>3.5</strong>
201467<strong>6.5</strong>
2013114<strong>7.5</strong>
201267<strong>6.5</strong>
2011812<strong>10.0</strong>
201076<strong>6.5</strong>
200978<strong>7.5</strong>
Source: cfbstats.com

*Note: Includes all players who were set to return in January; unforeseen complications such as Terrelle Pryor's withdrawal from Ohio State have not been considered (for the sake of consistency). 

This void of established passers, combined with a torrent of established runners, bodes well for the running back position in 2015.

There's a reason six of the top 10 players on the Heisman Trophy oddsboard, courtesy of Odds Shark, are running backs, even though eight of the past nine and 13 of the past 15 winners are quarterbacks.

Here's a quick primer on who to watch:

Legitimate Heisman Front-Runners

Nell Redmond/Associated Press

1. Nick Chubb, Georgia (So.): Chubb ran for 345 yards against Missouri and Arkansas in the first two starts of his career. Then he ran for 266 yards against Louisville in the Belk Bowl. Missouri (12), Arkansas (8) and Louisville (18) each had top-20 run defenses, per the S&P+ ratings at Football Outsiders. No back finished the year hotter.


2. Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State (Jr.): ... Actually, one back finished the year hotter. Elliott ran for 220 yards against Wisconsin, 230 against Alabama and 246 against Oregon, capping his sophomore season by winning the College Football Playoff MVP. Ohio State returns all five offensive linemen from a group that finished No. 2 in adjusted line yards (run blocking), per Football Outsiders.

Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

3. Leonard Fournette, LSU (So.): The best high school running back since Adrian Peterson—and he didn't disappoint in Year 1. He took awhile to get going but had 289 yards on his final 30 carries of the season. With Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard out of the picture, Fournette is the undisputed "Man."

4. Derrick Henry, Alabama (Jr.): T.J. Yeldon's departure means a full workload for Henry. Honestly, it's about time. The 6'3", 241-pounder is a human locomotive in the open field, and he's fresher than he should be thanks to never having been a lead back. Melvin Gordon was the same way before last season.

5. Samaje Perine, Oklahoma (So.): Gordon held the single-game FBS rushing record for less than 200 hours. That was all he got before Perine butter-knifed Kansas for 427 yards on 33 carries. He's 5'11", 243 pounds, ripped out of his mind and—oh—did we mention that he, Fournette and Chubb are all true sophomores?

Legitimate Heisman Dark Horses

Nov 15, 2014; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Florida State Seminoles running back Dalvin Cook (4) runs for a touchdown against the Miami Hurricanes during the second half at Sun Life Stadium.  FSU won 30-26. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

1. Dalvin Cook, Florida State (So.): Cook was FSU's best player down the stretch, which is saying something considering the quarterback. That he was only a true freshman makes it ridiculous. With Jameis Winston gone, the 'Noles will run even more next season.

2. Paul Perkins, UCLA (Jr.): The most underappreciated player in the country? Perkins is up there. He led the Pac-12 with 1,575 rushing yards last season, and he did it as a true sophomore. He finished the year with 194 yards and two scores against Kansas State.

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 1: James Conner #24 of the Pittsburgh Panthers runs with the ball during the game against the Duke Blue Devils at Heinz Field on November 1, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Duke defeated Pittsburgh 51-48 in double overtime desp
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

3. James Conner, Pittsburgh (Jr.): Conner (6'2", 250 lbs) led the ACC with 298 carries last season, finishing with 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns. His new head coach, Pat Narduzzi, has a defense-first mentality that promotes a ball-control offense. Narduzzi's last great workhorse, Le'Veon Bell, led the nation with 382 carries in 2012. That was the most by an FBS running back since (you guessed it!) Narduzzi-workhorse Javon Ringer had 390 in 2008.

4. Corey Clement, Wisconsin (Jr.): Gordon's replacement and former understudy follows a long line of replacements/former understudies—Gordon included—to assume the starting duties at Wisconsin. Based on their history, Clement is on the verge of stardom. He rushed for 949 yards behind Gordon last season.

5. Nick Wilson, Arizona (So.): Wilson rushed for 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns as a freshman—and that was with Terris Jones-Grigsby (121 carries) stealing touches. Before that, former Wildcat Ka'Deem Carey led the nation in rushing yards per game in 2012 and finished second in 2013. Rich-Rod, baby!

Heisman-Worthy Talent in a Timeshare

PASADENA, CA - OCTOBER 11:  Running back Royce Freeman #21 of the Oregon Ducks carries the ball on a two yard run for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against he UCLA Bruins at the Rose Bowl on October 11, 2014 in Pasadena, California.  Oregon won 42-30.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

1. Royce Freeman/Thomas Tyner, Oregon (So./Jr.): Freeman was the No. 37 overall player in the 2014 recruiting class. Tyner was the No. 20 overall player in the 2013 recruiting class. Each has been roughly as good as advertised. There's a reason blue-chip running backs keep flocking to Eugene. 

2. Alex Collins/Jonathan Williams, Arkansas (Jr./Sr.): Bret Bielema took Manball to the SEC, and it's starting to work. It helps to have backs like Collins (204 carries, 1,100 yards, 12 TDs last season) and Williams (211 carries, 1,190 yards, 12 TD last season) to lean on. And no, those Xerox-copied numbers are not a typo. 

Oct 4, 2014; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers running back Jalen Hurd (1) runs the ball against the Florida Gators during the second quarter at Neyland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

3. Jalen Hurd/Alvin Kamara, Tennessee (So./Jr.): Hurd is a Darren McFadden clone who ended his true freshman season with 122 yards and two scores against Iowa. It's almost gluttonous to add Kamara, a former Alabama running back and the No. 2 overall JUCO prospect in the country, on top of him. Either of these guys would be a Heisman candidate if not for the other.

4. D.J. Foster/Demario Richard, Arizona State (Sr./So.): Foster shreds opponents between the 20s, where his quickness out of the backfield (125 receptions since 2013) makes him a matchup nightmare. Richard shreds opponents inside the 20s, as he did en route to scoring four TDs in the Sun Bowl. You set 'em up; I knock 'em down.

5. Jovon Robinson/Roc Thomas, Auburn (Jr./So.): No Cameron Artis-Payne? No problem. Thomas was a 5-star recruit in 2014, and Robinson is a 5-star JUCO transfer. That's one guy who ranked above Chubb and Freeman and another who ranked ahead of Kamara.

 Proven, Tested, Underrated

PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 15:  Devontae Booker #23 of the Utah Utes carries the ball against the Stanford Cardinal in the second quarter at Stanford Stadium on November 15, 2014 in Palo Alto, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

1. Devontae Booker, Utah (Sr.): Best running back most people have never heard of? It's this guy. Booker ran for 1,512 yards and caught 42 passes in his first year over from JUCO, six times topping 140 yards on the ground. He's big (5'11", 203 lbs) and tough and mean, which makes him the perfect fit for a big, tough, mean Utah program.

2. Shock Linwood, Baylor (Jr.): People think Baylor has a pass-happy offense. It doesn't. Starting in 2010, its leading rushers have finished No. 4, No. 1, No. 3, No. 1 and No. 2 in the Big 12 in rushing yards per game. Linwood was that No. 2 after gaining 1,252 yards on the ground last season. He'll be even better as a junior.

Troy Wayrynen/Associated Press

3. Storm Woods, Oregon State (Sr.): Woods is college football's Benjamin Button: His games played, carries, yards and touchdowns have declined each season of his career. But he ended last year on a high note, totaling 186 yards and a score in the Civil War against Oregon. Two weeks prior he rushed for 125 yards on 11 carries against Arizona State.

4. Russell Hansbrough, Missouri (Sr.): The newest Missouri running back who feels like he's been around forever, Hansbrough topped 1,000 yards for the first time in his career as a junior. The Tigers return four starters on the offensive line and should improve if—and this is a big if—Maty Mauk becomes a viable quarterback.

5. Aaron Green, TCU (Sr.): Well look who's starting to reach his potential. Green was the No. 31 overall player in the 2011 recruiting class and came to TCU from Nebraska. He didn't break out until the second half of last season, but once he did, he really didTake it away, Gus Johnson!

Small-School Backs, Big League Numbers

Eric Draper/Associated Press

1. Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State (Jr.): Pumphrey rushed for 1,873 yards as a sophomore—No. 4 in the country behind Gordon, Coleman and Elliott. He's small (5'9", 170 lbs), but he can wiggle through the hole and had 52 runs of 10-plus yards last season.

2. Devon Johnson, Marshall (Sr.): "Rockhead" was one of the best stories of 2014. He's a converted tight end who at 6'1", 243 pounds, appears to have no business playing running back; but he finished No. 5 in the country with 1,767 rushing yards, highlighted by seven runs of 50-plus yards and five runs of more than 60.

David Richard/Associated Press

3. Kareem Hunt, Toledo (Sr.): "If he stays healthy, he could go for more than 2,000 yards in 2015," wrote Adam Kramer of Bleacher Report about Hunt. And Kramer isn't one for hyperbole. Hunt ended the season with 271 rushing yards and five touchdowns in the GoDaddy Bowl, so it's easy to see what has Kramer (and the rest of the college football populace) so giddy.

4. Jarvion Franklin, Western Michigan (So.): I'm on record arguing for the importance of recruiting stars—but man, did we all miss on Franklin. The former 2-star recruit ran for 1,551 yards as a true freshman, keeping Western Michigan in the MAC title race all season. He's 6'0", 220 pounds and a smooth-running athlete.

5. Matt Breida, Georgia Southern (Jr.): Georgia Southern went 8-0 in Sun Belt play last season, only missing a bowl because of FBS transition rules, and Breida was its best offensive player. He finished third behind Coleman and Gordon with eight runs of 50-plus yards and second behind Coleman with six runs of more than 60. 


And that's just a 30-player sample.

We haven't even mentioned the breakout candidates: players such as Brandon Wilds (South Carolina), Joseph Yearby (Miami), Tre Madden (USC), Jeff Jones (Minnesota), Larry Scott (Michigan State) and Jordan Howard (Indiana) who stand to replace outgoing superstars.

We haven't mentioned former top-60 recruits in line for carries such as Derrick Green and Ty Isaac at Michigan, Greg Bryant at Notre Dame, Elijah Hood at North Carolina and Rushel Shell at West Virginia, either.

By all prognostic metrics, 2015 will be the year of the running back.

Buckle up, and strap in for some Manball.

Note: All recruiting info refers to the 247Sports composite rankings.

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeigh35.