Projecting CFB's Top 10 Running Back Superstars in 2020

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJanuary 22, 2020

Projecting CFB's Top 10 Running Back Superstars in 2020

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    There's a loaded class of running backs coming out of college football to the NFL this year. While there may not be any can't-misses such as Saquon Barkley, there is a deep, talented stable of playmakers.

    One thing that shows how terrific the runners are this year is that there's an elite group returning to college, too.

    With the news that Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard, Clemson's Travis Etienne and Alabama's Najee Harris will be back for another season, that ensured the contingent will be elite at the top. There are plenty of other outstanding running backs, too. So many that it's hard to hammer out a top 10.

    When Michigan's Zach Charbonnet, Oklahoma's Kennedy Brooks and Arkansas' Rakeem Boyd miss the list, you know it's a strong group. And there are representatives from all over the Power Five and a few from the Group of Five conferences, too.

    Most of these players already have proved themselves on a weekly basis; others have the top-notch ability to break out and become stars.

    The terrific trio sits atop the list, but there are plenty of other great running backs coming back. Let's take a look at college football's top runners for the 2020 season.

10. Zamir White, Georgia

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    The Kirby Smart-led Georgia teams have looked a little like early-tenure Nick Saban's Alabama squads, only the Bulldogs don't have the championships to show for it.

    UGA has been led by its defense and rushing attack over the past few years, and with a bunch of great defenders returning in 2020, the Bulldogs are going to be strong on that side of the ball. But where is the rushing prowess going to come from?

    D'Andre Swift has been the guy in the backfield for the past two years, and Brian Herrien is gone, too, leaving a big void.

    Enter redshirt sophomore-to-be Zamir White.

    After two knee injuries, the former 5-star prospect from North Carolina is healthy, and another year in the weight room and further removal from the last injury in August 2018 will only help him. With plenty of eligibility left and lots of talent, he has the chance to be special.

    The 6'0", 215-pound bruiser had 78 carries for 408 yards and three touchdowns in 2019, averaging 5.2 yards per carry.

    Against a good Baylor defense in the Sugar Bowl, White had the chance to really get going for the first time and finished with 18 carries for 92 yards and a touchdown. It was the first glimpse of what is to come. Though UGA has plenty of talent in the backfield, White should get his chances.

    He will team with James Cook, but White has the ability to be the next great Dawgs back. Georgia has experienced electric comebacks by former runners Nick Chubb and Todd Gurley II, who overcame ACL injuries. White will be next.

9. Mohamed Ibrahim, Minnesota

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    College football was full of phenomenal stories in 2019. From Joe Burrow's magical ride to the unbelievable turnaround seasons of Baylor and Minnesota, it was a terrific season.

    The Golden Gophers were as good a story as any, going 11-2 and proving P.J. Fleck knows how to walk the walk.

    That offense had playmakers at quarterback, in the receiving corps and in the backfield. Senior Rodney Smith led the team with 1,163 rushing yards, but Mohamed Ibrahim was a sturdy No. 2, finishing with 604 yards and seven touchdowns.

    With Smith out of eligibility, it's Ibrahim's turn to be the primary runner for a team that is going to return plenty of players. In 2018, Ibrahim's 1,160 yards led the team, so he has proved he can carry the load.

    Interim offensive coordinator Matt Simon called the plays in Minnesota's 31-24 Outback Bowl win over Auburn, and Ibrahim had a season-high 140 yards and a touchdown.

    With Simon moving into a co-coordinator role with former Notre Dame offensive coordinator and Western Kentucky head coach Mike Sanford Jr., Ibraham should be the top option again in 2020.

    Entering his redshirt junior season, Ibrahim has the potential to do big things for another couple of years. The Gophers will need to find him some help, but he'll be the primary ball-carrier and should thrive in that role.

8. C.J. Verdell, Oregon

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    With Justin Herbert flinging darts all over the field and Oregon flexing its defensive muscle with a bunch of young playmakers in 2019, it was easy for running back CJ Verdell's monster season to get lost in the shuffle.

    He wasn't mentioned among college football's top running backs, and much of the country perhaps didn't get to watch him shred defenses for the Pac-12's powerhouse because of so many late games. But Verdell is coming back for his junior year, and he is primed to have an even better season.

    Herbert is off to the NFL, and the Ducks need to find their next signal-caller. Of course, that could mean defenses will key on Verdell a little more, but he will also get a lot more opportunities.

    In 2019, Verdell finished with 1,220 yards and eight touchdowns. Those may not be mammoth numbers, but he torched Utah for 208 yards and a trio of touchdowns in a Pac-12 Championship Game beatdown.

    Though he didn't have a big Rose Bowl against Wisconsin, Verdell should do just fine against conference opponents in 2020.

    "If he continues on the track he's on, he's going to be at the top of the record books for everything," running backs coach Jim Mastro told the San Diego Union-Tribune's Bryce Miller before the Rose Bowl. "At the end of the day, he's going to be one of the best to ever play here."

    Oregon's quarterback situation is worth watching, especially considering former Wake Forest signal-caller Jamie Newman had the Ducks on his list before choosing Georgia. Who plays that position for the Ducks—and how well—could impact Verdell's production.

    But if head coach Mario Cristobal can find a signal-caller who provides a little balance, Verdell is going to have another big year.

7. Journey Brown, Penn State

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    The Penn State backfield may be the most diverse and fullest house in the country. That's big news for head coach James Franklin, who can match up with any team, keep his runners fresh-legged and mix up home run hitters and between-the-tackles grinders.

    The player who can do both and emerged as the lead back in 2019 was 5'11", 206-pound rising senior Journey Brown, who should only get better in his second full season.

    Yes, Noah Cain gets better with more carries, and Ricky Slade has game-breaking speed. But Brown can do it all.

    He finished 2019 with 890 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 6.9 yards per carry. He obliterated Memphis in the Cotton Bowl, running 16 times for 202 yards and two touchdowns. That's 12.6 yards per carry.

    Brown proved he could do more than just burst free for big gains, as he told the Philadelphia Inquirer's Tyler King after his breakout day against Memphis.

    "To get proof that I'm a balanced back, it feels good," Brown said. "People thought I was just a runner, but I feel like I've been showing that I can do it all. I take a lot of pride in it."

    With quarterback Sean Clifford, tight end Pat Freiermuth and much of the running attack returning, all Brown needs is touches to do big things in a balanced, dangerous offense. He showed Franklin and Nittany Lions fans he deserves the opportunity.

    If Brown is the bell cow, PSU will be better for it.

6. Jaret Patterson, Buffalo

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    The best running back on this list you've never heard of is one you'd better familiarize yourself. Buffalo's Jaret Patterson is making a name for himself.

    NFL scouts have taken notice even though he plays in the Mid-American Conference, as the 5'9", 195-pound rising junior is posting huge numbers.

    As a matter of fact, 2020 may be your final chance to catch him in a college uniform before he's off to the NFL.

    Last season, Patterson finished with 312 carries for 1,799 yards and 19 touchdowns on a 5.8 average for head coach Lance Leipold's Bulls. Buffalo was 8-5 despite being expected to rebuild after quarterback Tyree Jackson left a year early (he is about to suit up for the DC Defenders in the XFL).

    Instead, the team went from pass-first to letting Patterson shoulder much of the load. He had proved he could do it as a freshman with Jackson on the roster, running for 1,013 yards and 14 touchdowns.

    "When you look at what he's doing this late in the season and how well he's playing, it goes into the preparation and how he takes care of himself and how special he is," Leipold told the Buffalo News' Rachel Lenzi after the Bahamas Bowl, a win over Charlotte in which Patterson was named MVP for his 173-yard, two-touchdown performance.

    "The stats are great. What he does on the field is great, but what he does in the program, in the locker room and in his work ethic and what it can do for our other younger players as we move forward, it's going to be pivotal for us, to be able to be this type of team."

    Buffalo is arguably the favorite to win the MAC next year, and Patterson may get a few more headlines. Then we'll see how NFL general managers value him.

5. Javian Hawkins, Louisville

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    One thing head coach Scott Satterfield always seems to have is a dynamic, consistent running back who is a steadying force. He did during a successful five-year tenure at Appalachian State, and as he turned around Louisville in his first season in 2019, nothing changed.

    The Cardinals found a scampering playmaker in redshirt freshman Javian Hawkins, and though Satterfield didn't recruit the Florida product, the youngster thrived in his system.

    Just how strong was Hawkins' first year? His 105 yards in a Music City Bowl win over Mississippi State elevated him to the only running back in program history with 1,500 yards in a season. The only other player to do that for Louisville? Quarterback Lamar Jackson in 2016 and '17.

    His NFL career is going pretty well, in case you haven't heard.

    Hawkins ran for at least 100 yards eight times, finished the season eighth nationally with 1,525 yards and scored nine touchdowns.

    "He runs as big as anybody I've been around," offensive coordinator Dwayne Ledford told the Louisville Courier-Journal's Cameron Teague Robinson. "Every time he touches the ball, he touches it like he has something to prove. He is a physical, downhill runner, but at the same time he has speed where he can get outside and make things happen in the open field. He's a special back that has a lot of tools."

    Hawkins is only going to get better, and, if Satterfield's Mountaineers runners who put up big numbers year after year are any indication, he is in for a huge career. He has the potential to be an all-conference runner in 2020.

4. Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis

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    Remember how Memphis used Darrell Henderson in 2018 and how he became one of the most-discussed running backs in the country despite playing in a lower-tier conference?

    He finished his career with 4,303 yards from scrimmage and 44 touchdowns.

    Then came redshirt freshman Kenneth Gainwell last year. He, like Henderson, is a Mississippi product who didn't catch the attention of Power Five programs until late in the recruiting process. He'll be the offensive centerpiece next year for new head coach Ryan Silverfield.

    With Silverfield at the helm, Memphis shouldn't change its offense too much. He was, after all, the running game coordinator under Mike Norvell, so he knows how to utilize Gainwell.

    Just how good was the freshman? He finished 12th nationally with 1,459 rushing yards, averaged 6.3 yards per carry and scored 13 touchdowns. Gainwell's huge first season in the Bluff City was enough to win him the Football Writers Association of America's Freshman Player of the Year award.

    What will he do for an encore?

    Well, with quarterback Brady White and receiver Damonte Coxie returning, the Tigers should be explosive yet again. Gainwell is going to get bigger with an offseason in the weight room—he added eight pounds to his 5'11", 183-pound frame last offseason—and could be more able to absorb hits.

    With so much eligibility remaining, he may shatter Henderson's career numbers. He's that good. Expect a monster sophomore season.

3. Najee Harris, Alabama

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    When Najee Harris was a 5-star prospect and one of the top playmakers in the country coming out of California, huge things were expected.

    Three years later, the 6'2", 230-pound do-it-all runner perhaps hasn't posted any of the huge numbers some pundits predicted, but the main reason is because Tua Tagovailoa was directing one of the most prolific passing attacks in college football history.

    With Tagovailoa off to the NFL, Alabama may look more like the traditional run-heavy Crimson Tide teams of the recent past.

    Of course, it'll still be able to throw the ball with elite pass-catchers in DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle and quarterback Mac Jones, Taulia Tagovailoa or Bryce Young. But the running back room should be deep and strong with Trey Sanders and Brian Robinson Jr.

    Harris will be the star, though, after deciding to spurn the NFL for one more chance at a national title. Alabama got one during his freshman season, but he can help lead it to another.

    In 2019, Harris finished with 1,224 yards and 13 touchdowns. At times when Tagovailoa was hurt, the soon-to-be senior carried the team, proving for the first time he can. He added 304 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, and NFL teams covet that versatility.

    The Crimson Tide are going to be just fine in the post-Tua era, and Harris could be another superstar with him gone. It's not out of the realm of possibility he could also be a Heisman Trophy candidate.

    He's that good, and he should have the opportunities.

2. Travis Etienne, Clemson

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    One of the biggest shocks of the offseason (if not the biggest) came when Clemson's Travis Etienne decided millions of dollars can wait a year.

    He has unfinished business at Clemson, where he'll return for his senior season in hopes of helping the Tigers win another national championship, and he can bring home some individual hardware that's escaped him.

    It's not that Etienne is disrespected. Even with quarterback Trevor Lawrence getting many of the headlines, Etienne has long been lauded as the Atlantic Coast Conference's top running back and one of the nation's best. He will attempt to churn out more than 1,600 yards for the third consecutive season in 2020.

    The 5'10", 210-pounder may have stunned everybody when he elected to come back to Dabo Swinney's team, but the Tigers are going to be loaded on offense once again because of that decision.

    He rushed for 1,614 yards and 19 touchdowns and averaged 7.8 yards per carry in 2019 and is among the top five players in the nation.

    Next year, he's going to again battle for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the nation's top runner. Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor won it in 2019, and he was worthy, but it wouldn't have been wrong for Etienne to get the accolade.

    It looks like he'll face off against the top player on this list for the honor next season.

    "We are super excited about Travis' decision to come back," Swinney said (via 247Sports' Anna Hickey). "Was really pumped when he called and could hear the excitement in his voice when he told me he's coming back. You know, he wants to be an example to his family and he wants to have his senior year, and he wants to basically leave no doubt with his legacy and what he wants to achieve at the next level."

    The NFL is going to have to wait for Etienne.

1. Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State

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    Najee Harris is an electrifying, do-it-all runner. Travis Etienne is a consistent workhorse for the best college team in the country over the last three years.

    But Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard is special, and he's going to keep proving that during another season in Stillwater.

    If he played for Clemson, Alabama or even hated rival Oklahoma, Hubbard probably would have more hardware, and you certainly would have heard more about him than you did in 2019. Of course, still, everybody knows his name.

    The 6'1", 207-pounder from Canada made sure of that with his monster year for head coach Mike Gundy's team.

    Hubbard led the nation with 2,094 yards during his redshirt sophomore year, running 328 times and scoring 21 touchdowns. He averaged 6.4 yards per carry and made highlight-reel run after highlight-reel run no matter the competition.

    Before the Texas Bowl, Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher discussed Hubbard's abilities with the Houston Chronicle's Brent Zwerneman.

    "He's got power, he's got speed, and he can make you miss. He's just a complete back and knows how to 'tempo' run," Fisher said.

    "He can accelerate, decelerate, get that shoulder down, not take shots and deliver shots. He's extremely natural in everything he does."

    With star receiver Tylan Wallace and dual-threat quarterback Spencer Sanders returning and expected to be healthy (according to the Oklahoman's Scott Wright), the Cowboys could do a better job contending for the Big 12 championship. Hubbard will be the centerpiece, and he's capable of doing whatever is needed.

    He's big enough to be a between-the-tackles, every-down back, but he can also create yards on his own and turn plays into huge gains. Hubbard is, simply put, the best runner in college football, and he may earn a Heisman Trophy in his encore season.