August 12, 2022

College Football’s 20 best running backs of 2021

College football's best running backs of 2021

Iowa State running back Breece Hall. Photo courtesy of Iowa State Athletics

It’s a position that requires the most trust from a coaching staff because fumbling the ball is not an option.

Having vision, elusiveness and durability is always a plus. Successful rushers come in different packages, from workhorses, to sideline burners and the pounders between the tackles. Solid blocking and soft hands out of the backfield helps against the pass rush.

Last season these 20 individuals made a name for themselves in the trenches and delivered for their team in the clutch. Now College football fanatics are wondering what they’ll have in store for an encore this fall.

20. Christopher Rodriguez Jr., Kentucky: The former three-star prospect led the Wildcats in carries, rushing yards and touchdowns on the ground last season. He also eclipsed the century mark in rushing against Ole Miss, Georgia, Vanderbilt and South Carolina. Rodriguez carved out 11 rushing scores in nine games, including three against the Gamecocks. At 5-foot-11 and 224 pounds, Rodriguez is a punishing bruiser, who wears down defenses through four quarters. The Georgia native has racked up 1,318 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll get the bulk of the carries this fall for the Wildcats and Mark Stoops loves to pound the ball.

19. Deuce Vaughn, Kansas State: He’s arguably the most versatile running back in the Big 12. Vaughn is an elusive slasher, who makes defenders pay out in space. The former three-star prospect went over 100 yards rushing against Texas Tech, Baylor and Texas. He also had over 100 yards receiving in the upset win over Oklahoma. Last season Vaughn scored nine total touchdowns, was named the Big 12’s Offensive Freshman of the Year and earned all-conference honors. The Wildcats’ coaching staff will have to keep coming up with ways to get the ball in his hands. The Texas native could very well be Kansas State’s most explosive rusher since Darren Sproles, which is saying a lot.

18. Eric Gray, Oklahoma: The former Tennessee Volunteer can hurt defenses with his legs and great hands. Gray displayed that as a true sophomore in SEC play last season. He went over 100 yards rushing against Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas and Auburn. Gray also hauled in 30 passes. Sooner fans are hoping he’ll duplicate that production in Norman this fall. So far he has looked promising, with 1,311 rushing yards and 11 total touchdowns over the past two seasons. The former four-star prospect has yet to reach his full potential. However, Coach Lincoln Riley is an offensive guru and his units score a ton. Riley should bring out the best in Gray against those leaky Big 12 defenses.

17. Ty Jordan, Utah: The Utes only played five games last season, but the true freshman made his mark in the Pac-12. Jordan finished ninth in the FBS in rushing yards per game and was named the Pac-12’s Freshman Offensive Player of the Year. He closed out the season on a high note and went over 100 yards rushing against Oregon State, Colorado and Washington State. Not too shabby for a former three-star prospect to earn second-team All-Pac-12 in his first year. Coach Kyle Whittingham always utilizes his running backs. Unfortunately, Jordan was killed from a gunshot this past December, but he deserves to be ranked. Imagine the numbers Jordan could’ve put up through a full season of 12 games.

16. Camerun Peoples, Appalachian State: The former two-star prospect is one of the best returning rushers in the Group of Five. He had a breakout year in 2020 as a true sophomore, and steamrolled for 1,124 yards, to go along with 12 touchdowns. Peoples also averaged 102 rushing yards per game. The six-foot-two, 210-pounder eclipsed the century mark in rushing against Charlotte and Coastal Carolina. However, Peoples saved the best for last, with a career-high, 317 rushing yards and five touchdowns in the bowl win over North Texas. The Alabama native is poised for another 1,000-yard campaign this fall. Don’t be surprised if he’s in the Heisman conversation when December approaches.

15. Zamir White, Georgia: The former five-star prospect led the Bulldogs in carries, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns last season. White scored in nine of the 10 games he played in. The North Carolina native finished with 11 rushing touchdowns, including 10 in SEC play, which was fourth-best in the league. White rushed over 100 yards against Kentucky, Florida and Missouri. Georgia finished fourth in the SEC at running the ball in 2020 and the six-foot, 215-pounder will likely be the focal point of the offense again. 2021 could potentially be the breakout season Georgia fans been waiting for White to deliver on all that hype as a recruit. Regardless, Georgia will attack again on the ground.

14. Tyler Goodson, Iowa: The Georgia native is one of the best returning running backs in the Big Ten. As a true sophomore Goodson was the Hawkeye’s workhorse, and finished third in the conference in carries last season. The former three-star prospect put up those numbers despite sharing the load in Iowa’s backfield. He had over 100 rushing yards against Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Goodson rumbled for seven scores in eight games and finished with 762 yards, which ranked fourth in the league. He also earned first-team All-Big Ten and has 1,400 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns over the past two seasons. Goodson is a productive and very underrated Hawkeye.

13. Bijan Robinson, Texas: He was the Longhorns top recruit last year and looked promising. Robinson struck lightning late in the season and went over 100 rushing yards in three of Texas’ last four games. He dazzled against West Virginia, Kansas State and Colorado. Not to mention Robinson averaged over eight yards per carry and scored six total touchdowns in 2020. Fellow teammate Keontay Ingram entered the transfer portal during the offseason, so Robinson should get more carries this fall. He’ll have to adjust to Steve Sarkisian’s scheme in a short period of time, but should continue to blossom. Robinson demands attention from defenses and will keep the pressure off the new quarterback.

12. Jerrion Ealy, Ole Miss: Last season as a true sophomore he finally lived up to his five-star billing. He had 112 yards on the ground against Arkansas. Not to mention Ealy and teammate Jarod Conner were the only running backs to eclipse 100 rushing yards against Alabama last season. The five-foot-eight, 190-pounder finished 2020 with 745 rushing yards, scored nine touchdowns and earned second-team All-SEC. The Mississippi native is also a standout in baseball. Ealy had offseason shoulder surgery, but should be fully healthy in time for fall camp. In Lane Kiffin’s first season in Oxford the Rebels led the SEC in rushing yards. Ealy again will be a vital weapon in Kiffin’s offense this fall.

11. Tank Bigsby, Auburn: He was the Tigers top recruit last year and rushed for 834 yards, which ranked fifth in the SEC. Bigsby surpassed the century mark in rushing against Arkansas, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and had a career-high, 192 yards at South Carolina. The six-foot, 205-pounder scored five touchdowns and was named the SEC’s Co-Offensive Freshman of the Year. The new coaching staff will have to get Bigsby more involved in the passing attack, after he finished with no receptions over Auburn’s last seven games of the regular season. He didn’t play in the Tigers’ bowl game. Still, there’s no denying Bigsby is a rising star and will be one of the best rushers in the SEC in 2021.

10. Tyler Allgeier, BYU: The California native had no stars behind his name out of high school. Still, Allgeier had a breakout season in 2020 and racked up 1,130 yards on the ground, which were the most by a BYU rusher since 2016. His 13 rushing touchdowns tied for 10th-best in the FBS and were the most by a Cougar running back since Harvey Unga accomplished that feat in 2007. The 5-foot-11, 220-pounder also averaged 7.5 yards per carry, which ranked seventh in the FBS. BYU won 11 games last season with a balanced attack on offense. However, this time around there won’t be a Zach Wilson lined up behind center to keep defenders from stacking the box to stop the running game.

9. Sincere McCormick, UTSA: He had a monster year in 2020 and finished second in the FBS, with 1,467 rushing yards. McCormick was a workhorse and carried the ball 249 times, which ranked third in the country. The former three-star prospect averaged 133.4 rushing yards per game, which ranked sixth in the FBS. He also caught 20 passes and scored 11 touchdowns. McCormick’s been underrated the past two seasons, but has 2,450 rushing yards and 19 scores during that span. Despite not playing in a Power Five conference, McCormick has been one of the nation’s most productive running backs. Don’t be surprised if he leads the country in rushing and becomes a household name by December.

8. Leddie Brown, West Virginia: The former four-star recruit finished second in the Big 12 in rushing last season. Brown steamrolled for 1,010 yards and helped the Mountaineers to a bowl win. He had over 100 yards rushing against Eastern Kentucky, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Kansas State and TCU. Not to mention Brown hauled in 31 passes and scored 11 total touchdowns. The Philadelphia native averaged 101 rushing yards per game and earned first-team All Big 12. So far in his career Brown has 14 rushing scores, 18 total touchdowns and 1,823 yards on the ground. The Mountaineers are improving each year under Neal Brown. The rushing attack will be a team strength this fall, which benefits Brown.

7. Master Teague, Ohio State: Despite sharing carries with Trey Sermon last season, he still managed to carve out eight rushing touchdowns through seven games, which ranked third in the Big Ten. Teague went over 100 yards rushing against Penn State and Indiana. The former four-star recruit finished with 514 yards and earned second-team All-Big Ten. The Buckeyes led the Big Ten in rushing last season. With a new quarterback behind center, Teague may have to carry the load on offense early on this fall. In return his numbers should double. However, he’ll have to remain healthy as Ohio State navigates through the Big Ten meat grinder. Teague has 1,409 career rushing yards and 13 scores.

6. Jarek Broussard, Colorado: The former three-star prospect was the Pac-12’s biggest surprise last season. Broussard rumbled for 895 yards and five scores through six games. He averaged 149.2 rushing yards per game, which ranked third in the FBS. Broussard eclipsed the century mark in rushing through Colorado’s first four games, including a 301-yard outing at Arizona. The Dallas native earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors. Not to mention Broussard was named the Pac-12’s Offensive Player of the Year. The five-foot-nine, 185-pounder is Colorado’s spark plug and can take it to the house on any given play. However, Brossard won’t be sneaking up on anyone in 2021, so we’ll see how he adjusts.

5. Kevin Harris, South Carolina: Last year as a true sophomore he was the SEC’s regular season rushing champion. Harris racked up 1,138 yards on the ground and scored 16 total touchdowns through 10 games. He hit the century mark in rushing against Florida, Vanderbilt and LSU. He also eclipsed the 200-yard mark against Ole Miss and Kentucky. The former three-star prospect caught 21 balls out of the backfield and earned second-team All-SEC. Not to mention his 15 rushing touchdowns ranked second in the league. The Gamecocks’ new coaching staff will need to continue utilizing Harris. This season Harris has a chance to be the Gamecocks first back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher since George Rogers.

4. Kyren Williams, Notre Dame: The St. Louis native led the ACC with 211 carries last season. Williams was a big reason why the Fighting Irish made a Playoff run. He finished ninth in the FBS after he rushed for 1,125 yards. Williams displayed a nose for the endzone, with 13 rushing scores, which tied for 10th in the FBS. He went over 100 yards rushing against Duke, Florida State, Louisville, Clemson, North Carolina and Syracuse. The five-foot-nine, 195-pounder also hauled in 35 passes on his way to earning second-team All-ACC. Williams has a chance this fall to become Notre Dame’s first back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher since Darius Walker accomplished that feat under Charlie Weis.

3. Isaiah Spiller, Texas A&M: As a true sophomore the former four-star recruit finished third in the SEC in rushing and rushing yards per game last season. Spiller is a physical running back, who used his six-foot-one, 225-pound frame to rumble for 986 yards and seven rushing scores. He eclipsed the century mark in rushing against Vanderbilt, Florida, Mississippi State, South Carolina, LSU and Auburn. Spiller also caught 20 balls out of the backfield and earned first-team All-SEC. Despite a decline in production over the Aggies’ final two games, he’s arguably the best returning running back in the SEC. Spiller could potentially be Texas A&M’s first Heisman Trophy contender since Johnny Manziel.

2. Mohamed Ibrahim, Minnesota: He’s the only returning running back in the Power Five with two 1,000-yard rushing seasons under his belt. Last season Ibrahim averaged 153.7 rushing yards per game, which ranked second in the FBS. The former three-star prospect also led the Big Ten in carries and stockpiled 1,076 rushing yards in just seven games. He went over the century mark in rushing against Michigan, Iowa, Purdue, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Not to mention the 5-foot-10, 210-pounder had a pair of 200-yard performances against Maryland and Illinois. He earned third-team All-America honors and was named the Big Ten’s Running Back of the Year. Ibrahim could break records this fall.

1. Breece Hall, Iowa State: The former four-star prospect took the country by storm last season and led the FBS in rushing yards. As a true sophomore Hall had 1,572 yards on the ground and 23 total touchdowns. The Kansas native went over 100 yards rushing through the Cyclones first eight games. His video game numbers earned him first-team AP All-America honors. He was also named the Big 12’s Offensive Player of the Year. The six-foot-one, 215-pounder failed to go over 100 yards rushing in Iowa State’s final four games. It’s probably why he didn’t win the Doak Walker Award. Regardless, Hall is a legit Heisman contender in 2021 and should carve up some Big 12 defenses again in the process.

Honorable Mention

Rachaad White, Arizona State: In the Sun Devils last two games he combined for 291 rushing yards and five scores.

Zonovan Knight, NC State: He rushed for 788 yards, scored 10 touchdowns and earned third-team All-ACC last season.