The top returning college football running backs for 2017 fill the void of a bevy productive running backs that have either graduated or left early for the NFL Draft.
Last season was dubbed the Year of the Running Back in college football, headlined by the returns of LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook. Cook aside, 2016 didn’t go quite as planned for the game’s top backs. However, a new year brings a new wave of contenders in the quest to become the most dominant running back of 2017.
Top Returning Running Backs
10. Rawleigh Williams, Arkansas
Midway through his freshman season in 2015, there were fears Williams would never play the game again. But he rebounded from a dangerous neck injury to rush for 1,360 yards and a dozen touchdowns on 245 carries as a sophomore last fall. At a thick 5-foot-10 and 226 pounds, Williams is constructed like a prototypical Bret Bielema feature back, shouldering the load and softening defenses between the tackles. Williams also has soft hands out of the backfield and just enough wiggle and quickness to make defenders miss in space.
9. Ronald Jones II, USC
When Justin Davis got dinged last fall, Jones was given an expanded role. Now that Davis has exhausted his eligibility, Jones will be the feature back in the Trojan offense. He’s one of the nation’s most explosive weapons, a slasher with the jets to erupt through the secondary. Give No. 25 a sliver a daylight and he’s off to the races. Jones rushed for more than 100 yards in four of USC’s final five regular season games, a trend that’ll continue as defenses focus on stopping Sam Darnold and the passing game.
8. Kamryn Pettway, Auburn
Before suffering a quad injury in early November, the 240-pound Pettway was trucking everything that dared to step into his path. In the four games before getting hurt, he rumbled for no less than 169 yards in each outing, all against SEC opponents. Now, the Tigers are excited to see what Pettway can do with a full slate of games and a steady diet of carries. Unlike a year ago, he’ll also have considerably more support from the passing game now that gifted quarterback Jarrett Stidham has transferred over from Baylor.
7. Justin Jackson, Northwestern
Without a lot of national fanfare or headlines, Jackson has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons in Evanston. Last year, he sprinted for 1,524 yards and 15 touchdowns, with a career day in the Pinstripe Bowl serving as the exclamation point. Yeah, there are flashier backs around the country, but very few are more productive, and Jackson runs a lot bigger than his modest frame. With he and quarterback Clayton Thorson together again in the backfield, the Wildcats could be particularly dangerous in 2017.
6. Myles Gaskin, Washington
In two seasons as a Husky, Gaskin has served as an incendiary backfield complement to QB Jake Browning. Gaskin has rushed for at least 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns in both years, his legs always churning for additional yards. He runs low to the ground, which allows him to take on and bounce off would-be tacklers, and he can cut in an instant to leave defenders grasping for air. And if not wrapped up properly, he won’t stop running until he breaks the tape on the other end of the field.
5. Bo Scarbrough, Alabama
Scarbrough only scratched the surface of his significant potential as a sophomore. He was slow out of the gate, falling behind Damien Harris in the pecking order, and he missed two November games with an injury. But the light went on late in the year, resulting in 454 yards and six scores on only 63 carries in the final four games. Plus, Scarbrough was revelatory in the Peach Bowl win over Washington. When healthy, he possesses the size-speed combo to be the second coming of Derrick Henry in Tuscaloosa.
4. Royce Freeman, Oregon
Little went right for Freeman in 2016. He was hamstrung by injuries, his Ducks sunk to 4-8 and the staff was fired. But 2017 represents the dawn of a new day and a chance to recapture the old form. The real Freeman, a next-level blend of downhill power, speed and agility, rushed for more than 3,000 yards and 35 touchdowns in his first two seasons in Eugene. Now that Willie Taggart is in charge and everyone is a year older, a healthy Freeman is well positioned to make a run at the Pac-12 rushing title and All-America contention.
3. Nick Chubb, Georgia
When Chubb is at full strength, he’s as good as any back in the country. But he must still prove that he’s all the way back from the devastating knee injury that cut short his sophomore season in 2015. Chubb returned last fall, but he wasn’t quite as explosive or confident in his cuts, turning 224 carries into 1,130 yards and eight touchdowns. However, he rushed for 142 yards against TCU in the Liberty Bowl, which Kirby Smart hopes was a launch into 2017. Prior to getting hurt, Chubb was one of the nation’s finest runners, averaging 7.4 yards per carry.
2. Derrius Guice, LSU
Filling Leonard Fournette’s sizable cleats? No worries, as far as Guice was concerned in 2016. As a precocious sophomore, he came off the bench to rush for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns on only 183 carries, including a single-game school record 285 yards versus Texas A&M on Nov. 24. Guice is a complete back, with the speed to run past defenders and the leg drive and low center of gravity to power through them. However, it’s his determination and willingness to fight for every yard that elevates him into the upper tier of this year’s backs.
1. Saquon Barkley, Penn State
It’s been a very long time since the Nittany Lions boasted a back the caliber of Barkley. Although he’s rushed for 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons in Happy Valley, he’s still a long way from his ceiling. As a freshman, he enjoyed little support from the line and the passing game. And late last season, he was hampered by an ankle injury. Barkley’s elite elusiveness can be traced to his vision, his soft hips and his penchant for cutting so fast that defenders are unable to administer a clean shot.