Projecting College Football's Top 10 Running Backs in 2021

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 21, 2021

Projecting College Football's Top 10 Running Backs in 2021

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    Matthew Putney/Associated Press

    Alabama's Najee Harris highlighted the position last season, but college football is set for a fresh group of standout running backs in 2021.

    Heading into the offseason, the most recognizable name is likely Iowa State's Breece Hall. He rushed for an FBS-best 1,572 yards last season, finishing sixth in Heisman Trophy voting. Plus, only Harris ran for more touchdowns than Hall's 21.

    Behind him, though, there are many productive running backs who'll secure some of the spotlight left by Harris, Clemson's Travis Etienne, Buffalo's Jaret Patterson and North Carolina duo Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, among others.

    The following ranking of 2021's top backs is subjective but considers a player's role, overall performance, expected production and impact on team success.

Honorable Mentions

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    • Brian Robinson Jr./Jase McClellan/Trey Sanders, Alabama
    • Tank Bigsby, Auburn
    • Tyler Allgeier, BYU
    • Jerome Ford, Cincinnati
    • Lyn-J Dixon, Clemson
    • Zamir White/James Cook, Georgia
    • Kyren Williams, Notre Dame
    • Master Teague III, Ohio State
    • Kevin Harris, South Carolina
    • Isaiah Spiller/Devon Achane, Texas A&M
    • Max Borghi, Washington State
    • Leddie Brown, West Virginia

10. Deuce Vaughn, Kansas State

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    Small in stature, but large in production.

    Deuce Vaughn, who's listed at 5'5" and 168 pounds, totaled 1,221 all-purpose yards as a freshman at Kansas State last year. He collected 100-plus yards rushing and 80-plus receiving three times each, showing off excellent versatility.

    With a nod to four returning starters up front, Vaughn's biggest key for improvement is that the offense will likely be more balanced in 2021. Quarterback Skylar Thompson threw for 334 yards in an early upset of Oklahoma, but an upper-body injury sidelined him for seven games. In his place, Will Howard managed 7.0 yards per attempt.

    Vaughn should benefit substantially from defenses giving K-State's passing attack a little more respect.

9. Kevin Marks Jr., Buffalo

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    Patterson captured some national attention when he piled up 409 yards and eight touchdowns against Kent State in late November. He cracked the 1,000-yard barrier and scored 19 touchdowns in only six games, but his backup also had a terrific year.

    Kevin Marks Jr. scampered for 741 yards and seven scores, running for no fewer than 90 yards in Buffalo's past six contests.

    For a moment, it seemed Marks may not return, either. He entered his name in the transfer portal but withdrew nine days later. Now that he's locked in, Marks has a great shot at being the MAC's most productive runner in 2021.

8. Jarek Broussard, Colorado

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    Because the Pac-12 didn't start playing until November, Jarek Broussard had a breakout half-season in 2020. Considering his story, though, perhaps it was only fitting that that was delayed too.

    As a senior in high school, Broussard tore his left ACL. Another knee injury sidelined him for all of 2019 too.

    Broussard finally had a chance in the fall and took full advantage. He sliced through UCLA's defense for 187 rushing yards and three touchdowns in his debut, put up 120-plus on Stanford and San Diego State and shredded Arizona for 301 yards. Overall, he ran for 895 yards and five scores in six games.

    Colorado brings back four starting linemen, only losing left tackle William Sherman to the NFL.

7. Jerrion Ealy, Mississippi

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    Including his kick-return touchdown against LSU, Jerrion Ealy scored in eight of his nine appearances last season. There's a whole lot to like about the two-sport standout.

    Formerly a top MLB draft prospect, Ealy is on the baseball team too. (He won't play the latter sport in 2021 because of a shoulder injury.) On the football field, he's posted consecutive seasons of 700-plus rushing yards. Ealy has totaled 2,400 all-purpose yards so far.

    Snoop Conner will also receive consistent snaps, which somewhat limits Ealy's statistical upside. Still, he's an elusive, explosive player who should approach 1,400 yards.

6. Mohamed Ibrahim, Minnesota

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    Injuries to Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith pushed Mohamed Ibrahim into the starting lineup as a freshman in 2018. He became a pleasant surprise with 1,160 yards and nine scores.

    In 2019, however, Ibrahim took a back seat to Smith and shared carries with Brooks. Then in 2020a season shortened to seven gamesIbrahim returned to Minnesota's lead spot and scampered for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns.

    Finally, his role will not change.

    Especially since Minnesota is expected to return five linemen with full-season starting experience (Daniel Faalele and Curtis Dunlap Jr. didn't play in 2020), Ibrahim should be the Big Ten's top runner.

5. Chris Rodriguez Jr., Kentucky

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    Chris Rodriguez Jr. missed late-season games against Alabama and Florida, so it wouldn't be surprising if his hot finish went unnoticed outside SEC country. The sophomore rushed for 480 yards and seven scores in his last four contests.

    Although the Wildcats used Asim Rose regularly at the same time, he's leaving for the NFL. Rodriguez will be the unquestioned featured back next season.

    Left tackle Landon Young and center Drake Jackson are also headed to the NFL, but Luke Fortner (LG), Austin Dotson (RG) and Darian Kinnard (RT) are returning. That experience gives the Wildcats a strong foundation for their run-focused offense.

4. Kennedy Brooks, Oklahoma

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    Kennedy Brooks opted out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19 concerns, but he's returning to the Sooners in 2021 rather than pursuing the NFL right away.

    For two reasons, that's a major boost to the Oklahoma offense. First, Brooks surpassed the 1,000-yard mark as a freshman and sophomore. And second, the Sooners need to replace 2020's leading rusher, Rhamondre Stevenson, who's off to the NFL.

    Although the Sooners must develop a couple of new starters up front, Bill Bedenbaugh is one of the best offensive line coaches in the nation. Plus, Oklahoma added Tennessee transfer Wanya Morris, a two-year starter and 5-star prospect in 2019.

    Brooks has All-American upside in 2021.

3. Sincere McCormick, UTSA

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    2020's leading rusher from Group of Five programs, Sincere McCormick amassed 1,467 yards in his sophomore year. He added 20 receptions while helping UTSA post a 7-5 record.

    And 2021 might be even better.

    UTSA returns all five starters on the offensive line, including three who earned postseason honors in 2020. Left tackle Spencer Burford, center Ahofitu Maka and right tackle Makai Hart each landed second-team All-Conference USA recognition.

    McCormick also rushed for 983 yards, caught 24 passes for 194 yards and totaled nine touchdowns in 2019.

2. Bijan Robinson, Texas

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    Between his production as a freshman and head coach Steve Sarkisian's arrival, Bijan Robinson might be the breakout pick of 2021.

    Robinson arrived with enormous hype because of his 5-star billing but didn't have a key role immediately. He managed only 19 touches in Texas' first four contests. But in the final six, he tallied 733 yards from scrimmage and scored six times.

    Sarkisian, who called plays for national-champion Alabama, helped Najee Harris have an incredible year. Harris rushed for 1,466 yards, caught 43 passes for 425 yards and totaled 30 touchdowns.

    Robinson is a similar kind of versatile talent, and there's no doubt Sarkisian will build the offense around his star running back.

1. Breece Hall, Iowa State

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    When quarterback Brock Purdy and tight end Charlie Kolar announced they'd return for 2021, Iowa State solidified a place in the national-title discussion. Hall, though, is the engine of the offense.

    After recording 209 touches as a freshman, he handled 279 carries last season. Volume is valuable, but Hall's efficiency and production also rose. He jumped from 5.5 yards per touch and 10 touchdowns to 5.8 per touch and 23 scores.

    Iowa State also has the incredibly good fortune of rostering seven experienced linemen. Trevor Downing started at left guard in 2019 but basically missed all of 2020, while Jake Remsburg and Joey Ramos split time at right tackle because of injuries. Tight ends Dylan Soehner and Chase Allen are excellent run-blockers too.

    As with all players, Hall will focus on team success in interviews this offseason. But the first-team AP All-America runner is a proven Heisman Trophy contender on a roster built to showcase him.

                 

    Recruiting information via 247Sports