The Next Christian McCaffrey: CFB RBs Who Are Dangerous Runners and Receivers
Christian McCaffrey was a multitalented college football star who won't soon be forgotten, but there are a bunch of running backs hoping to replicate for their teams in 2017 what McCaffrey did for Stanford over the past two seasons.
Factoring in his 1,200 combined kick-return and punt-return yards, McCaffrey accounted for more total offense in 2015 (3,864 yards) than the total yards from scrimmage that six entire teams had that season. He was a one-man wrecking crew who had nearly five times as many yards from scrimmage as any teammate.
Which running backs have the best shot at racking up rushing and receiving yards like he did?
Players on the following slides are ranked in ascending order of likelihood of amassing at least 1,600 rushing yards and 400 receiving yards in 2017. Bonus consideration was given to any player who is also involved in the return game (kick and/or punt), as that was a significant part of what made McCaffrey so special.
Note: Though Najee Harris, Cam Akers, Kareem Walker and others have a chance to immediately be special, freshmen were not considered for this list, as there was not a single freshman among the 23 players who recorded at least 600 rushing yards and 250 receiving yards last season.
Jarvion Franklin, Western Michigan
1,353 rushing yards, 288 receiving yards
Franklin is a great running back who will possibly eclipse 5,000 career rushing yards this season, but he hasn't been all that involved in the passing game thus far. With Western Michigan losing its head coach, starting quarterback and all three of last year's leading receivers, though, perhaps he will take on more of a do-it-all role as a senior.
Arkeel Newsome, Connecticut
715 rushing yards, 315 receiving yards, 464 kick-return yards
Though he didn't even eclipse 1,000 total yards from scrimmage, Newsome was given serious consideration for playing a big part in Connecticut's return game and for putting up 1,253 yards from scrimmage the previous year. He's virtually the only offensive weapon the Huskies have, and they figure to ride him hard in his final season.
Duke Catalon, Houston
528 rushing yards, 281 receiving yards
Catalon missed one game due to a sprained ankle and three others due to a concussion, never getting much of a chance to live up to the hype after transferring from Texas. But the potential is there for a breakout year, and we know he can play a huge part in the passing attack. Catalon had at least four receptions in all but one game in his first season with the Cougars.
Arizona State's Duo
Kalen Ballage (536 rushing yards, 469 receiving yards)
Demario Richard (593 rushing yards, 136 receiving yards)
Richard had 172 touches last season while Ballage had 170, and neither one averaged better than 4.3 yards per carry. But both are heavily involved in the passing game, and either could blossom into the feature back at a moment's notice.
Washington State's Trio
James Williams (585 rushing yards, 342 receiving yards)
Jamal Morrow (575 rushing yards, 488 receiving yards)
Gerard Wicks (475 rushing yards, 184 receiving yards)
If you're not part of the passing offense, you're not part of Mike Leach's offense. Plain and simple. So it's no surprise that Washington State's three running backs had a combined 125 receptions for 1,014 yards last season. If one member of the trio were to emerge early in the season as the clear alpha dog, he could put up some impressive stats.
10. Mark Walton, Miami (FL)
2016 Stats: 1,117 rushing yards, 240 receiving yards, 15 total TDs
Rushing ability: There are only two returning players in the ACC who ran for 800 or more yards last season: Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson (1,571) and Mark Walton. The Hurricanes speedster rushed for at least 110 yards six times as a sophomore, pacing Miami's offense to a 6-0 record and 44.2 points in those contests. Can he do it more consistently in 2017, though? Walton averaged 8.4 yards per carry in his first three games, 3.0 in the next five, 7.3 for three games and 3.8 in the final two.
Receiving ability: Walton ranked fifth on Miami in both receptions and receiving yards last year, so he wasn't anything close to the receiving weapon that McCaffrey was as a sophomore at Stanford. But he was still an important piece out of the backfield. Walton had three receptions in six consecutive games midway through the season and saved his best performance—four catches for 46 yards and a score—in the regular-season finale.
What to expect in 2017: With both backup running back Joseph Yearby and primary receiving target Stacy Coley out of the picture, Walton could be headed for a monster year. But will Miami need as much out of its running back while (likely) starting Malik Rosier at quarterback? The increase in mobility under center could minimize's Walton's potential boost. Then again, perhaps he'll get more touches as a checkdown option than he did with Brad Kaaya at QB.
9. Kyle Hicks, TCU
2016 Stats: 1,042 rushing yards, 417 receiving yards, 40 kick-return yards, 14 total TDs
Rushing ability: Kyle Hicks put on one heck of a show in a must-win, late-season road game against Baylor, rushing for 192 yards and five touchdowns. Outside of that performance, though, he put up modest numbers in a pass-heavy offense, averaging 70.8 yards per game and only twice carrying the ball more than 18 times.
Receiving ability: Rather than one or two primary targets, TCU's receiving options were almost entirely interchangeable. There were 11 different Horned Frogs with at least 10 catches, and Hicks was the leader of the bunch with 47 receptions. His targets tapered off a bit later in the season, but he averaged 5.2 receptions for 60.4 yards through the first five games. He finished the year with at least one catch in all 13 games.
What to expect in 2017: TCU has 17 returning starters, including 10 on offense. It's one of the most intact units from last season, which means there's no good reason to anticipate any drastic changes. Maybe Hicks' yards per carry jumps from 5.1 to something more like 5.7, resulting in an increase of at least 100 rushing yards, but the breakdown of touches should be similar to what it was in 2016.
8. James Butler, Nevada
2016 Stats: 1,336 rushing yards, 381 receiving yards, 15 total TDs
Rushing ability: James Butler ran for at least 119 yards in half of his games last season, including a 196-yard, three-TD performance in the season finale against UNLV. It was Butler's second consecutive season rushing for at least 1,300 yards, and he was even more impressive the previous year, averaging 6.5 yards per carry as opposed to 5.1 in 2016. If he can reharness that sophomore-year efficiency while carrying the ball close to 300 times, he could lead the nation in rushing.
Receiving ability: It wasn't until the move from Tyler Stewart to Ty Gangi at quarterback that Nevada's passing offense started to come alive. And in those final five games of the season with the guy who will battle Alabama transfer David Cornwell for the starting QB job in 2017, Butler averaged 3.4 receptions and 31.6 yards per game. When this 5'9" bowling ball catches the ball in the flat and has a chance to build up a head of steam, he can be a huge piece of the passing game.
What to expect in 2017: Butler had more than 2.5 times as many total yards from scrimmage as any teammate in 2016. But the switch to Jay Norvell at head coach—a QB/WR/TE coach for nearly three full decades—likely signals a philosophical shift toward more downfield passing. Butler will still be Nevada's primary source of offense, but don't expect too much more than last year's 1,717 total yards.
7. Phillip Lindsay, Colorado
2016 Stats: 1,252 rushing yards, 493 receiving yards, 74 kick-return yards, 17 total TDs
Rushing ability: After a good-not-great first half of the season, Phillip Lindsay put up big numbers in the middle of the Pac-12 schedule. He had a five-game stretch of averaging 137.2 rushing yards with nine touchdowns. But he did struggle to shine in the big moments. In Colorado's four losses to Michigan, USC, Washington and Oklahoma State, Lindsay averaged just 56.0 yards per game and 4.0 yards per carry.
Receiving ability: It didn't matter whether Sefo Liufau or Steven Montez was at quarterback, Colorado loved to get to ball to Lindsay in the passing game. Over the final nine games, he averaged 4.7 receptions for 44.7 yards. He had two games with at least 100 receiving yards and a third with 11 catches. Only I'Tavius Mathers of Middle Tennessee (66 receptions for 633 yards) had a bigger impact in the passing game from the backfield.
What to expect in 2017: With the exception of Liufau graduating and leaving Montez as the primary QB, next to nothing has changed about Colorado's offense. All five of the primary receiving targets are back for another year. But with eight defensive starters leaving, will the Buffaloes be good enough on defense to be able to run the ball 45 times per game again? If not, Lindsay's numbers would take a bit of a hit, but he should still be one of the top dual-threat running backs.
6. Ito Smith, Southern Mississippi
2016 Stats: 1,459 rushing yards, 459 receiving yards, 19 total TDs
Rushing ability: Ito Smith averaged 5.5 yards per carry, topped the century mark in eight of 13 games and had at least one rushing touchdown in 11 games as a junior. In the season-opening win over Kentucky, Smith set career highs with 36 carries for 173 yards. In case he wasn't already in the conversation after rushing for 1,128 yards as a sophomore, this set the tone for him to become one of the top running backs in Conference USA.
Receiving ability: Probably the best receiver on this list, Smith has averaged 3.4 catches and 36.1 yards per game over the past two seasons. He had at least three catches in 10 games in each of those years, including six receptions, 83 yards and two scores in a 2015 game against Rice. Smith only has five of Southern Miss' 66 receiving touchdowns during that time, but his ability to advance the ball as a receiver often leads to an opportunity to punch it in as a rusher.
What to expect in 2017: Smith had at least 100 yards from scrimmage in each game last season and will undoubtedly remain the focal point of this offense. But unlike the higher-ranked guys who get a boost from return yards and/or a roster change that benefits them, Smith's situation may have actually gotten a little worse. Leading receiver Allen Staggers is still on the roster, but quarterback Nick Mullens is not. Whether it's Keon Howard or Kwadra Griggs replacing him, only time will tell if he'll be as eager as Mullens was to find Smith in the flats.
5. Akrum Wadley, Iowa
2016 Stats: 1,081 rushing yards, 315 receiving yards, 13 total TDs
Rushing ability: Where Akrum Wadley ran, Iowa followed. The 2016 Hawkeyes were 7-1 when he rushed for at least 80 yards, but they were 1-4 when he fell short of that mark. Wadley averaged 6.4 yards per carry as a junior—this after posting marks of 5.6 as a freshman and 6.0 as a sophomore. He has been a sensational asset for this team, and he will just now be getting the chance to prove what he can do as the No. 1 guy.
Receiving ability: It took a while for Iowa to recognize Wadley's potential as a receiver out of the backfield, but he put up solid numbers late in the 2016 season. In three consecutive games against Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan, Wadley had a combined 17 receptions for 156 yards and two scores. He also had four catches against Florida's stingy defense in the Outback Bowl.
What to expect in 2017: After three years of falling behind Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri and Leshun Daniels Jr. on the depth chart, it's finally Wadley's time to shine. Both Daniels and Wadley rushed for at least 1,000 yards and 10 TDs last year, and Wadley should pick up a lot of the slack left from Daniels graduating. The Hawkeyes also lost QB C.J. Beathard and three of their top four wide receivers/tight ends, which means it could be Wadley or bust for much of the season.
4. Jarred Craft, Louisiana Tech
2016 Stats: 1,074 rushing yards, 340 receiving yards, 45 kick-return yards, 14 total TDs
Rushing ability: Early on in Jarred Craft's first season as Louisiana Tech's No. 1 running back, he was almost unstoppable, averaging 103.1 yards per game and 6.7 yards per carry through the first seven games. He had at least one 20-yard carry in each of those games. But then he didn't have a single 20-yard rush in any of the final seven games while his averages dropped to 50.3 per game and 4.2 per carry. The Bulldogs need him to remain effective for the entire year in 2017.
Receiving ability: Louisiana Tech's quarterbacks threw for more than 5,000 yards last year. Most of it went to Trent Taylor (1,803) or Carlos Henderson (1,535), but Craft was third in the pecking order with more receptions, yards and touchdowns than anyone aside from that WR duo. He had at least one catch each week and finished games with at least 20 receiving yards more often than not.
What to expect in 2017: Taylor, Henderson and QB Ryan Higgins are all gone, leaving Craft as the singular established weapon in this offense. Backup RB Boston Scott will almost certainly take on a bigger role as a senior, but Craft should be a huge focal point. He might even partake in some return duties, which were previously handled by Taylor and Henderson. If he's conditioned well enough to handle a full workload for an entire season, Craft will easily surpass 2,000 total yards from scrimmage.
3. Saquon Barkley, Penn State
2016 Stats: 1,496 rushing yards, 402 receiving yards, 74 kick-return yards, 22 total TDs
Rushing ability: There were a couple of duds against Indiana and Michigan State that negatively impacted his overall numbers, but when Saquon Barkley was feeling it, watch out. There was a four-game stretch in the middle of the season—which even included the game against Ohio State—in which Barkley averaged 168.8 yards per game and 8.3 yards per carry. Factor in the 194-yard performance against USC in the Rose Bowl and it's no wonder this stud is among the 10 favorites to win the Heisman Trophy, per OddsShark.
Receiving ability: Though Barkley didn't have nearly as many receptions (28) as some of these guys, he's the best big-play threat of the bunch with four touchdowns and 14.4 yards per reception. He had five catches go for at least 30 yards and had multiple receptions in each of his final five games—including five for 55 in the Rose Bowl.
What to expect in 2017: Last year's leading receiver Chris Godwin (59 receptions, 982 yards, 11 TDs) is now in the NFL, but expectations are still high that Trace McSorley will throw for well over 3,000 yards for a second straight season. Translation: Look for Barkley to be even more involved in the passing game this year while still occasionally ripping off a 50-yard carry as a dynamic running back. If he had a significant role in the return game, he would be No. 1 on this list.
2. Quadree Henderson, Pittsburgh
2016 Stats: 631 rushing yards, 286 receiving yards, 914 kick-return yards, 252 punt-return yards, 10 total TD
Rushing ability: Technically, Quadree Henderson is listed as a wide receiver. However, he had more than twice as many carries as receptions last season and did a ton of damage with them. Henderson rushed 60 times for 631 yards, making him one of just three players since 2000 to average at least 10.3 yards on at least 50 carries. Eight of those rushing attempts went for 30 or more yards, including a 50-yarder in each of his final three games last year.
Receiving ability: At 5'8" and 190 pounds, Henderson is the furthest thing from a big downfield target. But he's a solid flex guy who can make receptions either in the slot or out of the backfield. He only had 26 receptions last year, though, and did not top 47 receiving yards in any game. We'll see if he can develop a better rapport with new QB Max Browne than he had with Nathan Peterman.
What to expect in 2017: Henderson had more than 2,000 all-purpose yards in his first season as a legitimate part of Pittsburgh's offense, including three kick-return TDs and one score off a punt return. He's involved in every aspect of the game and averaged more than 10 yards from scrimmage per touch—and that was before starting running back James Conner graduated, which means the door is wide-open for even more carries.
A repeat of McCaffrey's 276.0 all-purpose yards per game in 2015 is highly unlikely, but expect Henderson's yards per carry to decrease, his yards per reception to increase and his total number of touches to at least double.
1. D'Ernest Johnson, South Florida
2016 Stats: 543 rushing yards, 293 receiving yards, 231 kick-return yards, 213 punt-return yards, 14 total TD
Rushing ability: Though he has returned more than 50 combined punts and kickoffs in his career, D'Ernest Johnson is more of a bruiser than a cruiser. As just mentioned above, Quadree Henderson ran for at least 30 yards on more than 13 percent of his carries, but in 228 career carries, Johnson has not had a single run go for more than 24 yards. And yet, he was a consistent source of good yardage last year, averaging 4.9 per carry with eight scores.
Receiving ability: Over the past two seasons, Johnson has 54 receptions, with nine of them going for touchdowns. The last time he was on the field was his most impressive performance of all, finishing the Birmingham Bowl win over South Carolina with six receptions for 95 yards—setting a new career high in both categories. And with 2016 No. 1 target Rodney Adams out of the picture, Johnson had more receptions last year than any other returning Bull.
What to expect in 2017: After three years of patiently waiting while Marlon Mack rushed for more than 3,600 yards, it's finally Johnson's turn to shine. He may well still finish behind dual-threat QB Quinton Flowers on USF's rushing board, but there's no question that Johnson will enter the fall as the No. 1 RB and one of the top options in the passing game.
Whether he continues to serve as the primary kick- or punt-return man remains to be seen, but he should put up big numbers regardless. And considering South Florida is one of the top candidates for an undefeated season, it just might be worth your time to look up Johnson's odds of winning the Heisman.
Kerry Miller covers college football and college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.