While air raid offenses are growing in popularity, run games are still vital in college football. This season, many offenses will revolve around superstar running backs.
Elite college tailbacks are show-stoppers who can break tackles and leave defenders in the dust. There are many running backs to keep an eye on this year, but 11 stand out.
11. Lew Nichols, Central Michigan
Central Michigan’s Lew Nichols is perhaps college football’s most underrated back. In his first full season starting, Nichols led the country with 1,848 rushing yards. This was over 200 yards more than one-time Heisman candidate Kenneth Walker III. Also, Nichols averaged 5.4 yards per carrying and scored 18 touchdowns.
Nichols has an ideal frame at 5-foot-10, 220 pounds. The Michigan native is the total package. He is a patient runner, finding open holes at the line of scrimmage. Nichols has good speed and impressive cuts combined with the strength to run through would-be tacklers.
This guy, @LewNichols_ , is special. 😤
— CMU Football (@CMU_Football) September 4, 2021
With another great season, Nichols could head to the NFL or transfer to a more prominent school.
10. Chris Rodriguez, Kentucky
The Wildcats have averaged more than 195 rushing yards per game in consecutive seasons; Chris Rodriguez was a vital piece. From 2019-20, Rodriguez shared his carries with a deep running back room. Last season, he was the lead man. The 5-foot-11 tailback seized the opportunity, rushing for 1,378 yards and 10 touchdowns. In addition, Rodriguez ranked 18th with 6.13 yards per carry.
Rodriguez does not have elite speed, but he refuses to go down. Kentucky has one of college football’s best power-backs. The yards after contact quickly pile up for Rodriguez with his aggressive North-to-South running style. His game is similar to former Wildcat star Benny Snell.
After pleading guilty to a DUI charge in May, a potential suspension looms over Rodriguez. Kentucky could be without its starting halfback to begin the season.
9. Tank Bigsby, Auburn
Tank Bigsby was a big-time high school recruit, ranked as the fourth-best running back in the 2020 class. Auburn won the recruiting battle over heavyweights like LSU and Georgia. Since his arrival, the former 4-star recruit has not disappointed. Bigsby has averaged 5.4 yards per carry on 361 attempts in two seasons with Auburn. In 2021, he totaled 1,099 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.
This season, the Tigers’ offense will need a huge year from their star RB. With more touches, Bigsby could put up huge numbers. He lacks receiving skills and game-changing speed, but Bigsby is a workhorse. The junior RB is a downhill runner that seeks contact.
The 2021 Auburn offense will run through Bigsby — who projects as a second-day pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.
8. Zach Evans, Ole Miss
The SEC is loaded with running back talent. Zach Evans is the first transfer on the list. He’s had an interesting path, to say the least. Evans was a 5-star recruit in 2020, but rumors claimed he had off-the-field issues. He silently signed with Georiga but asked out of his Letter of Intent. After numerous visits, Evans landed at TCU.
Following two seasons with the Horned Frogs, Evans silenced his critics. His elite talent has translated to the field; he rushed for 648 games in six games last season. A toe injury kept Evans out for the second half of the season. But when he did play, the former 5-star shined.
Ole Miss gets star power in its backfield alongside transfer QB Jaxson Dart.
7. Braelon Allen, Wisconsin
Heading into 2021, Jalen Berger was the next running back in line at Wisconsin. The season began on a sour note with the Badgers going 1-3. Berger played poorly and was dismissed from the team after off-the-field problems. Then, Braelon Allen came to the rescue.
At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Wisconsin projected Allen as a defensive prospect, possibly a linebacker or safety. The Badgers were desperate for running back help and turned to the 17-year-old Allen. In 12 games, Allen rushed for 1,268 yards and 12 touchdowns at 6.8 yards per carrying — which ranked third nationally. The reclassified freshman only had 12 touches in his first three appearances, meaning most of his stats were totaled in nine games.
Following the 1-3 start, Wisconsin finished the season on an 8-1 stretch. The streak immediately started once Allen became the lead back. Allen showed he has a natural feel at tailback, his ceiling is sky-high.
6. Sean Tucker, Syracuse
Syracuse struggled last season, going 5-7 and 2-6 in the ACC. Sean Tucker was the bright spot. Tucker recorded 1,496 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns while averaging 6.1 yards per carrying.
Like Nichols of Central Michigan, Tucker is an incredibly underrated half-back. Clemson was down last year but still ranked second nationally in allowed points per game (15.8). Tucker tore the Tiger defense apart, totaling 157 rushing yards on 7.1 yards per carrying.
The Orange will lean on Tucker’s production. He’s capable of carrying the load with his all-around game. Tucker has a good burst paired with the ability to make defenders miss.
5. Blake Corum, Michigan
Blake Corum is one of the most talented running backs to go through Michigan in years. Last year, Corum was the lightning to Hassan Haskins’ thunder. The former 4-star recruit is one of the most explosive RBs in the country. If a safety takes one wrong angle, Corum will make them pay with a 75-yard run to the house.
In 2021, Corum rushed for 952 yards and averaged 6.6 yards per carry. Plus, he’s solid in the receiving game. When in open space, Corum is dangerous with unbelievable speed. Per PFF, he was one of six backs in 2021 to total at least four runs of 50 or more yards.
The Wolverines’ backfield will be split, with Donovan Edwards replacing Haskins. However, Corum is the clear lead back for the 2022 Michigan squad.
4. Jahmyr Gibbs, Alabama
After becoming one of college football’s most dynamic backs at Georiga Tech, Jahmyr Gibbs took his talents to Alabama. Last season, Gibbs finished with 746 rushing yards, 465 receiving yards, 5.2 yards per rush and 13.3 yards per reception. He even returned kickoffs, averaging 25.6 yards per return.
Since Nick Saban revamped his offense, the Tide have done an incredible job of utilizing their skill players. Alabama could be the best team in college football at getting its players out in space. For instance, DeVonta Smith and Jameson Williams were used perfectly.
Gibbs found an ideal destination where he should become the SEC’s best RB.
3. Deuce Vaughn, Kansas State
With 1,404 rushing yards and 468 yards receiving, Deuce Vaughn showcased his all-around game in 2021. He ranked sixth nationally averaging 144 all-purpose yards per game. Vaughn is one of college football’s most unique players. It’s rare to see a 5-foot-6 running back torch defenses the way Vaughn can.
There’s a reason Deuce Vaughn is PFF’s #1 returning RB 😬pic.twitter.com/uZ1YLvrFeM
— PFF College (@PFF_College) January 30, 2022
As expected when considering his frame, Vaughn is an elusive back with great speed. He has excellent patience with outstanding cuts. There’s a suddenness to his game, when Vaughn sees a hole there’s no hesitation.
Vaughn will be one of college football’s most entertaining players in the 2022 season.
2. TreVeyon Henderson, Ohio State
Coming in as the top running back from the 2021 class, Ohio State had high expectations for TreVeyon Henderson. Fans formed lofty expectations, claiming he was the next Ezekiel Elliott. In Week 1, Henderson showed his jaw-dropping speed as he took a screen 70 yards to the end zone. From there, the true freshman steadily saw his workload increase until he became the starter.
Henderson finished with 1,560 all-purpose yards and 19 touchdowns, plus, he ranked second with 6.8 yards per carrying. And this was with Ohio State’s inconsistent run blocking. In 2022, the Buckeyes are expecting improved run blocking, which means a huge year for Henderson.
1. Bijan Robinson, Texas
If Texas has a good season, it will likely be on the shoulders of Bijan Robinson. As a sophomore on a 5-7 team, Robinson put up 1,422 scrimmage yards along with 15 touchdowns. Entering the 2022 season, the former 5-star recruit has the highest Heisman odds for any running back. BetUS Sportsbook has Henderson listed with +3300 odds to win the Heisman. This award has become a QB award, simply becoming a finalist would be impressive.
Robinson is a do-it-all back. He’s a freak athlete with a 6-foot, 220-pound frame. The Arizona native has breakaway speed, exceptional elusiveness, and good strength. According to PFF, Robinson led the country with 0.4 forced missed tackles per attempt. Think about that… almost 50% of tacklers whiffed when attempting to bring Robinson down.
Running backs are becoming more and more replaceable in the NFL, so franchisees have avoided using first-round picks on tailbacks. However, Robinson is good enough to be a first-rounder. Keep an eye on the talented back from Texas, he could be the next star RB in the NFL.