Every new college football season typically brings with it a pack of players who make leaps in their game.
Sometimes this is due to development, and that player honing their skill set. Sometimes it’s because of a coaching change, and that player thrives in a new system better suited for their abilities. Sometimes it’s from that player being given more chances.
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When it comes to running backs, several players had breakout seasons in 2018. Clemson’s Travis Etienne nearly doubled his carry numbers from his freshman season and rushed for 1,658 yards and 24 touchdowns en route to winning ACC Player of the Year honors and helping the Tigers win a national championship. Cincinnati’s Michael Warren II went from scoring one touchdown as a freshman to piling up 19 as a sophomore. Arizona State’s Eno Benjamin saw his carries jump from 23 as a freshman to 300 as a sophomore — and with that came 1,642 yards and 16 touchdowns.
So, who’s poised for their own breakout campaigns in 2019? We took a look at three candidates who could be ready to make the leap into college football stardom.
Ricky Slade, Sophomore - Penn State
Leading rusher Miles Sanders is gone, having been selected in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. Sanders was a second team All-Big Ten selection and was 15th in the nation in rushing with 1,274 yards. Scrambling quarterback Trace McSorley is also gone, now a member of the Baltimore Ravens. He was second for the Nittany Lions in rushing with 798 yards and 12 touchdowns.
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Sanders and McSorley combined for 390 of Penn State’s 521 rushing attempts last season. Those carries are going to go to somebody, and Ricky Slade seems like a good candidate to pick up a bulk of the work.
A 5-foot-9 product of Woodbridge, Virginia, Slade appeared in nine games as a true freshman and finished third on the team in rushing with 257 yards and six touchdowns on 45 carries. With more chances, Slade should have an opportunity to post big numbers.
Najee Harris, Junior - Alabama
Harris was part of Alabama’s core group of running backs last season, finishing second on the team in rushing with 783 yards and four touchdowns on 117 carries. And while his yards per-carry average of 6.7 was the team’s best, he was third in total carries, trailing Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs.
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Those two have gone on the NFL, leaving Najee Harris as the leading in the Alabama backfield. Harris has been able to produce for Alabama in a big way with limited touches so far in his career. For example, against LSU, he scampered for 83 yards on just six carries. In 2019, we might get to see what Harris can do with a bigger workload.
Anthony McFarland, RS Sophomore - Maryland
McFarland had a solid 2018 season, rushing for 1,034 yards and four touchdowns on 131 carries. His per-carry average of 7.9 yards was tied for sixth best in the nation. But despite McFarland’s achievements, the Terps limped to a 5-7 record.
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McFarland broke LaMont Jordan’s freshman rushing record at Maryland, was voted as a freshman All-American and made the All-Big Ten second team.
But McFarland — and Maryland — is looking to have a bigger and better season in 2019. McFarland is a year older, now has a full season of college ball under his belt, and is likely a little faster and a little stronger. He’ll also be playing under the guidance of new head coach Mike Locksley, who was Alabama’s offensive coordinator last season. If McFarland keeps getting the bulk of the carries for the Terps, his stats could see a major boost next season. If he flourishes under Locksley’s schemes, he could be the next feared Big Ten running back.
Mitchell Northam is a graduate of Salisbury University. His work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Orlando Sentinel, SB Nation, FanSided, USA Today and the Delmarva Daily Times. He grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore and is now based in Durham, N.C.