As the 2015-16 college football season draws near CPGM offers a list of the top returning running backs in the NCAA broken down by tiers. Little drop off if any between Tier 1 and Tier 2.
*Dalvin Cook – FSU/ Sophomore: Dalvin Cook (6’0 feet, 203 lbs.) is the epitome of dynamic when you watch him play football. He’s the first back to appear on this list that isn’t built like a fullback. This five-star prospect was plucked straight out of the talent laden recruiting hot-bed which is Miami, and is arguably the most talented running back to ever step foot onto Florida State’s campus. He is the complete package, as you’ll be hard pressed to find an area of weakness in his game. His quickness and foot speed are unparalleled, and his strength and toughness are underrated. He broke FSU’s freshman rushing record with 1,008 yards (8 rushing TD’s, 5.9 ypc) while splitting time in the back field with now departed Karlos Williams. Cook is also as versatile as they come adding another 203 yards on 22 receptions through the air. It just seems like a matter of time until he surpasses Warrick Dunn’s single season rushing record of 1,242 yards. With Williams moving on to the NFL, and uncertainty at the quarterback position, Cook will have every opportunity to live up to all of the pre-season hype and Heisman chatter. You can expect to see Dalvin Cook lining up on Sunday’s in someone’s back field in 2017.
*Royce Freeman – Oregon/ Sophomore: Once again another super (true) sophomore finds his way onto our list. Although he is 5’11, 230 lbs, Freeman does most of his best work when attacking the edges. He does everything that a back his size is supposed to do, but adds the elements of sneaky quick feet, with speed to bounce runs to the sidelines and turn the corner consistently. Based on this, you would assume that Freeman has the long speed to take any rushing attempt the distance. However, his longest run of the season only totaled 38 yards. Freeman’s stiff-arm packs some punch (see Utah game), and like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, he is pretty much guaranteed to fall forward after contact. With last year’s Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota being taken with the second overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft, the Ducks will run the ball more frequently than they have during Mark Helfrich’s tenure as head coach. In Oregon’s “blur” offense the running backs that have played in this system have historically flourished statistically. Some might argue that Freeman is just the latest cog inserted into an extremely running back friendly scheme, but the latest installation only managed to rush for 1,365, and an Oregon Duck freshman record 18 touchdowns. All-in-all Royce Freeman’s talent + Oregon’s run-heavy, spread system = Heisman hopeful.
James Conner – Pittsburgh/ Junior: Bowling ball, wrecking ball, bulldozer, tank, steam roller, mac truck, jack hammer, bull, mammoth, bruiser or any other colorfully descriptive adjective that you can use to describe an entity of sheer force is how you would describe James Conner’s style of play. This 6 foot 2, 250 pound force of nature is a decisive runner, and sees the field exceptionally well. While Conner does most of his damage in between the tackles, he has enough speed to turn the corner, and get up the field along the sidelines from time to time. Conner’s sophomore crusade yielded 1,765 yards on the ground with a whopping 26 trips into the end-zone. That’s an impressive feat in and that of itself, but with the passing game struggling behind the middling play of Chad Voytik under center (even with All-American wide receiver Tyler Boyd playing), his gaudy output becomes even more awe-inspiring. Conner offers little in the realm of suddenness or agility. He is a one-cut, down hill runner, who hits the gap with purpose, and is an absolute load to bring down in the open field. There isn’t a lot of flash here, but there is substance in surplus. Conner is an absolute “insert adjective here.”
Corey Clement – Wisconsin/ Junior: The hits just keep on comin’ in Madison, Wisconsin, as the Badgers seem to have an infinite amount of NFL-caliber running backs stashed away on their roster. If Corey Clement doesn’t apply for next year’s NFL draft by season’s end, there is a good chance that he’ll be topping our list in the 2016 iteration of this segment. This kid is truly electrifying, with a jump-cut move that’ll make you fall out of your seat if you’re sitting down. Quickness and speed are Clement’s forte as he cuts his way up the field like a pair of scissors. He can also flat out outrun would-be defenders as if they were standing still. As a ball carrier Clement shows ample strength/power to break through arm and shoe-string tackles, as well as push the pile forward if need be. Last year, Clement was one-half of the all-time NCAA single season rushing yards tandem, gaining a mesmerizing combined 3,536 yards on the ground. Following in Melvin Gordon’s footsteps will be no easy task, as Gordon was responsible for 2,587 rushing yards, on 7.5 ypc, and 29 rushing TD’s all by himself (also scored 3 receiving TD’s). The 5 foot 11, 217 pound New Jerseyan has some very large shoes to fill, and will at least have to double his output from last year (949 rushing yards, 6.5 ypc, 9 rushing TD’s, 14 receptions, 118 receiving yards, 2 TD receptions) in order to quell the memories of Melvin in the hearts and minds of Badgers’ fans. Corey Clement has both the opportunity and the talent to accomplish this exploit.
Devon Johnson – Marshall/ Senior: Devon Johnson is a really good player even though he’s fairly new to playing the running back position. The 6’1, 243 pound big back ran for an impressive 1,767 yards, 17 touchdowns, and tacked on another two scores through the air. His 8.6 yards per carry lead the nation, and was eye popping to say the least. He definitely benefits from the level of competition (or lack thereof) that he regularly faces playing in a non Power 5 conference (Conference-USA). He also runs extremely high. With that being said, he will probably have a more prolific year this upcoming season than he did last year. Three reasons. The 1st reason is continuity. He will be in the same offensive system for another season. This is especially important for him as a player still learning the position. The 2nd reason is because replacing Rakeem Cato is no easy task, and the Herd’s rushing attack will be depended upon even more-so than last season. The 3rd reason is that back up running back Steward Butler who accounted for 798 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns has been dismissed from the team. There are big things on the horizon for this big back.
*Not Eligible for 2016 NFL Draft