College football: Eight of the best returning running backs in FBS
Running backs reigned supreme in college football last season. Alabama’s Derrick Henry captured the Heisman, and his biggest competition was Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, one of the best combinations of running and receiving we’ve ever seen. That doesn’t even take into account Leonard Fournette at LSU, who is more physically impressive than both of them.
So if you like smash mouth football, well, the guys below are probably a cut above your tastes. Sorry. These players are game breakers, capable of taking a simple toss 80 yards to the end zone.
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Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
Many thought McCaffrey deserved the Heisman Trophy in 2015, but he’ll have another crack at the award in 2016.
Kevin Hogan is gone, so the Cardinal will need to rely on the run more than ever. Let’s just say they’re in good hands.
McCaffrey rushed for 2,019 yards in 2015, and he’s a lethal receiving weapon out of the backfield. The junior-to-be caught 45 balls for 645 yards last season, and at 6-1, he could easily be one of the best wide receivers in college football if he wasn’t so special as a running back.
McCaffrey has plenty of style to go with his substance.
He’s one of the most electrifying college football players we’ve seen in the past decade.
Leonard Fournette, LSU
If McCaffrey is lightning, Fournette is thunder. Well, Fournette is awfully, quick, too. Perhaps he’s just both.
Fournette looked like he had the Heisman wrapped up in the middle of last season, but ultimately, LSU went in a tailspin and the stud rusher couldn’t recover. Still, that doesn’t take anything away from Fournette’s 2015 campaign, or what he should do in 2016.
Often facing eight defenders in the box, No. 7 in purple and yellow averaged more yards per carry (6.5) than McCaffrey or Henry. His 24 rushing touchdowns ranked fourth in the country, only behind Henry, Keenan Reynolds and Ezekiel Elliott.
That’s some good company.
Dalvin Cook, Florida State
Cook isn’t being put in the same class as guys like McCaffrey and Fournette, but by the end of this season, it’s easy to envision him getting there.
Of the nation’s top-nine rushers in 2015, the Florida State speedster was the only one to average more than seven yards per carry. He also had the lowest amount of attempts of any player in the top 10 (229), but still managed to run for 1,691 yards, good for sixth in the country.
Cook is dynamic coming out of the backfield, too, having caught more than 20 passes in each of his last two seasons. Expect him to see more action in the passing game this year given Florida State’s uncertainty at the quarterback spot.
Royce Freeman, Oregon
It’s tempting to think you or I could run for 1,500 yards in Oregon’s offense, but Freeman is a special player.
It’s clear that Freeman was more than just a product of Marcus Mariota’s greatness. As the featured back in the Ducks’ offense a year ago, the then-sophomore scampered for 1,836 yards, finishing fourth in college football. He racked up 17 touchdowns, too, and constantly kept the sticks moving for Oregon.
Freeman rushed for more than 100 yards in his final nine games of 2015. That tells you his best is yet to come.
Wayne Gallman, Clemson
Deshaun Watson gets a ton of publicity at Clemson, and rightfully so. But don’t sleep on the guy who lines up behind him in the pistol formation.
Gallman is relentless. He seeks out contact, and he’s willing to go one-on-one against a linebacker in order to get a first down. Gallman generally wins that battle.
The upcoming junior struggled against Alabama in the national championship game, but in the two games prior, he ran for 337 yards and three scores in huge outings against North Carolina and Oklahoma.
Gallman isn’t a huge factor in the passing game, but given the Tigers’ depth and star-power at the receiver spot, does he really need to be? Probably not. He just needs to keep plunging past the goal line for touchdowns, and he’s elite in that regard.
Elijah Hood, North Carolina
After an ugly season-opening loss against South Carolina last season, people forget that the Tar Heels were absolutely magnificent in 2015. Specifically, their offense was absolutely magnificent. And Hood was their best offensive player.
Hood started every game in the Tar Heel backfield and finished the season with 1,463 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. That’s a far cry from when he ran for 259 yards and averaged 3.9 yards per carry as a freshman; he posted a 6.7 mark as a sophomore.
With quarterback Marquise Williams off to the NFL, this is Hood’s offense. If anyone’s up to that task, it’s him.
Jalen Hurd, Tennessee
Good luck tackling this guy. Hurd is the definition of a workhorse, and at 6-4, 240 pounds, there’s nobody else quite like him in college football.
Hurd’s greatest attribute (beyond sheer power, of course) is his durability. The rising junior carried the rock 20-plus times on seven occasions in 2015, and was generally successful in doing so.
If Josh Dobbs can take the next step, as he’s pegged to, SEC defenses will be spread out. If that happens, Hurd can vault into an elite class of running backs.
Nick Chubb, Georgia
After suffering a gruesome knee injury, health is a question mark with Chubb. But before that setback last season, he was nothing short of electrifying.
On a per-carry basis, Chubb was the best running back in the country last year. His 8.1 yards-per-tote mark topped all other backs, and his worst rushing total of the season was 120 yards vs. Louisiana Monroe. Not too shabby.
Georgia has a stable of capable tailbacks, but Chubb is the most talented when healthy. Here’s to hoping he comes back at full strength.