The college football season draws closer by the day, which means that high-profile transfers and elite freshman talent will begin to emerge on their teams during spring and summer workouts. The three best running back recruits of 2019 — Trey Sanders (Alabama), John Emery Jr. (LSU), and Jerrion Ealy (Ole Miss) — are arriving on campus ready to showcase their five-star talent, but they haven’t proved anything just yet.
There are, however, a ton of proven ball carriers returning this season. The top three running backs in the 2019 NFL Draft were Alabama’s Josh Jacobs, Iowa State’s David Montgomery and Penn State’s Miles Sanders, so the path is clear for several unknown talents to burst onto the scene as well. For your enjoyment (and to curb your appetite without having football), here are my 15 favorite running backs that you need to keep an eye out for this year.
15. Larry Rountree, Missouri
2018 Stats: 1,216 rushing yards, 11 total TDs
The Missouri Tigers haven’t regained their peak form after winning back-to-back SEC East division titles in 2013 and 2014, but that could change with Larry Rountree now the focal point of Barry Odom’s offense. Quarterback Drew Lock is gone to the NFL, but their star running back is back for his junior season after rolling up a career-high 204 yards in the Liberty Bowl.
The SEC’s fourth-leading rusher last season could very easily lead the conference in 2019.
14. Reggie Corbin, Illinois
2018 Stats: 1,085 rushing yards, 176 receiving yards, 9 total TDs
Illinois head coach Lovie Smith is entering his fourth season, and he’s facing a critical stretch. The Fighting Illini need to find their starting quarterback for 2019, which opens up a huge role for running back Reggie Corbin. After averaging 8.48 yards per carry (3rd in NCAA), he’s back for his senior season on a team that needs to grind out wins.
The All-Big Ten Honorable Mention can run and catch the football, which makes him a huge breakout candidate next year.
13. Jermar Jefferson, Oregon State
2018 Stats: 1,380 rushing yards, 147 receiving yards, 12 total TDs
If Jermar Jefferson didn’t play for the 2-10 Beavers, he could be a household name after only one season. College football’s top freshman rusher last year also caught 25 passes out of the backfield and was one of the few bright spots for Oregon State. This 216-pound back is one of the most under-appreciated talents from 2018, but don’t expect that to last long.
What’s amazing is the Freshman All-American might not be the best running back in the Pac-12.
12. Greg McCrae, UCF
2018 Stats: 1,182 rushing yards, 116 receiving yards, 11 total TDs
The national championship dreams might be dashed in Orlando, but the UCF Knights are still an offensive juggernaut that could hang 40 points on any AAC opponent they’ll see. UCF averaged 522.7 yards of offense (5th in NCAA) last year and should continue that trend in 2019 with Greg McCrae returning as a junior.
McCrae had 17 plays go 20 or more yards in 2018. This big-play back is a threat to go the distance ever time he touches the ball.
11. Cam Akers, Florida State
2018 Stats: 706 rushing yards, 145 receiving yards, 8 total TDs
Everybody struggled at Florida State in 2018, and that’s especially true for Cam Akers. After breaking Dalvin Cook’s freshman rushing record, the sophomore slump hit the former No. 1-ranked running back recruit hard. With FSU entering season two under head coach Willie Taggart, Akers should have all the tools he needs to become the game-breaking prospect that Jimbo Fisher recruited out of high school.
10. Pooka Williams, Kansas
2018 Stats: 1,125 rushing yards, 289 receiving yards, 9 total TDs
There hasn’t been much to cheer about when it comes to Kansas Jayhawks football lately, but the emergence of Pooka Williams Jr. as a true freshman last season created a glimmer of hope. On top of that, Kansas made waves during the offseason by luring former LSU head coach Les Miles out of retirement to rebuild their program. Miles churned out 1,000 yard rushers like a factory assembly line in Baton Rouge, so you’d think he’s going with the same formula in Lawrence, Kansas.
Williams could be in for a massive season as a sophomore.
9. J.J. Taylor, Arizona
2018 Stats: 1,434 rushing yards, 133 receiving yards, 6 total TDs
Many believe Arizona QB Khalil Tate is a Heisman Trophy candidate this season, but J.J. Taylor proved he’s the cog that makes the Wildcat offense go. His 255 carries were 11th most in college football a season ago, and this junior is back again with Ka’Deem Carey’s career rushing record at Arizona firmly in his sights.
He’s only 5-foot-6, and that fact alone makes Taylor one of my favorite players for the upcoming year.
8. Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Vanderbilt
2018 Stats: 1,244 rushing yards, 170 receiving yards, 14 total TDs
The 2014 Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year transferred from Illinois to Vanderbilt, and the impact he made during his first season as a Commodore in 2018 was massive. Vaughn racked up the second-most rushing yards in school history despite missing almost two full games, plus he led all SEC running backs with 10 rushes of 40 or more yards and six rushes of 60 or more yards.
Vaughn could hang 100-plus on any defense, and that’s no small feat in the Southeastern Conference.
7. Najee Harris, Alabama
2018 Stats: 783 rushing yards, 4 total TDs
Last year, he split time with Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs. As a freshman, he was buried behind Harris and Bo Scarbrough. This season, Alabama’s rushing attack is Harris’ to handle and there’s few better to do it. Harris ranks fifth on the Crimson Tide’s career yards per carry list (6.7) and 32 percent of his carries went for a first down or touchdown in 2018.
At 6-foot-2 and 227 pounds, Najee Harris should show up on quite a few postseason award lists when 2019 is over.
6. J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State
2018 Stats: 1,053 rushing yards, 263 receiving yards, 12 total TDs
After 1,403 rushing yards a freshman in 2017, Dobbins receded (if only slightly) as a sophomore while quarterback Dwayne Haskins rewrote the Big Ten record book. With transfer Justin Fields joining head coach Ryan Day’s offense this year, Dobbins, entering his junior season with 424 career carries, could easily become the best back in college football.
Quick note: Dobbins needs 1,505 rushing yards to pass Ezekiel Elliott on Ohio State’s career rushing list. At that point he’d still trail two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin by another 1,600 yards…
5. Eno Benjamin, Arizona State
2018 Stats: 1,642 rushing yards, 263 receiving yards, 18 total TDs
In his first season as a head college football coach, Herm Edwards made one thing clear: he’s going to run the football. The Sun Devils finished second in the Pac-12 with 184.0 rushing yards per game, and Eno Benjamin was thrust onto the national stage. Benjamin led the conference in rushing and finished fifth in the country in that category.
Returning as a junior, expect Benjamin to shine in season two as Arizona State could be a dark horse team to go out and win the Pac-12 Conference in 2019.
4. AJ Dillon, Boston College
2018 Stats: 1,108 rushing yards, 11 total TDs
Despite only playing 10 games, Dillon was a First-Team All-ACC running back as a sophomore after rushing for over 1,500 yards and being ACC Rookie of the Year as a true freshman. Last year’s Preseason ACC Player of the Year missed almost a month with an ankle injury, then rushed for 149 rushing yards on 32 carries against the Miami Hurricanes in his first game back. Miami was the ACC’s third-best defense at stopping the run.
A full, healthy season could easily land Dillon in the rare 1,800-yard club for run-heavy Boston College as a junior.
3. D’Andre Swift, Georgia
2018 Stats: 1,049 rushing yards, 297 receiving yards, 13 total TDs
Running Back U resides in Athens, and the Bulldogs are getting another season of one of their best. Swift split time with Elijah Holyfield last year and still ran for over 1,000 yards as a sophomore. This job is Swift’s heading into 2019 and people even believe he’s a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate.
You have to run the ball to succeed in the SEC. Swift is the perfect player to run and catch the football out of the backfield (49 catches in two seasons), which makes him a threat on every single down for Kirby Smart’s offense.
2. Travis Etienne, Clemson
2018 Stats: 1,658 rushing yards, 26 total TDs
Clemson already has college football’s best quarterback (Sorry, Tua), but they might also have the country’s best running back, too. Etienne broke the program’s single season records for rushing yards and touchdowns as a sophomore and somehow could improve on both those marks before he leaves Dabo Swinney’s football team.
At 215 pounds, Etienne is the perfect compliment to Clemson’s dangerous passing attack. He might even find his way onto a few Heisman ballots once again after finishing 7th in the 2018 voting.
1. Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin
2018 Stats: 2,194 rushing yards, 16 total TDs
It’s a shame that the Heisman Trophy is becoming a quarterbacks award because Taylor could’ve won that thing twice already. In 2017, Taylor ran for 1,977 yards, which was the most-ever by a freshman. Last year, he ran for the seventh-most rushing yards in college football history, yet he finished No. 9 in the Heisman Trophy voting.
With 1,829 rushing yards as a junior, Taylor will join Donnel Pumphrey, Ron Dayne, Ricky Williams, Tony Dorsett and DeAngelo Williams as the only players to ever eclipse 6,000 career rushing yards.
The best running back in college football is in Madison. Hell, the best player in college football might be a Badger, but in this day and age of football is just doesn’t seem to matter. The traditional running back is a dying breed. Might as well enjoy the great ones why they’re here dominating the game.