Now that we know who's coming back, a way-too-early ranking of the top 10 running backs for 2020
My goodness, the running back position is loaded next year.
That was my first thought when the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL Draft passed. The backs who announced that they’re staying in school for another year are good. Really good. And the backs who couldn’t declare yet are in line to make themselves some serious coin.
Because of my excitement for the running back position in 2020, I decided to rank my top 10 returning backs in America. Part of that is based on what we’ve seen from them already and a small part of that is projecting. It’s not entirely based on their 2019 numbers. If you want that, here’s a link to the ESPN page that list the 2019 rushing leaders.
This is based on which back I’d most want starting on my team in 2020. It’s a subjective ranking.
So here are my top 10 tailbacks for 2020:
10. Zamir White, Georgia
Again, this isn’t based on his 2019 numbers (he did have 92 rushing yards and a score in the Sugar Bowl). Every back on this list had a better 2019 than White, who was the understudy for D’Andre Swift (Brian Herrien also shared that role). Now, though, the backfield belongs to White. With a full year under his belt after 2 major knee surgeries, I expect White to explode from the jump. Sure, it’s an extremely inexperienced offensive line, but it’s also a more mobile quarterback and a new offense that should provide better spacing.
White has the makings of college football’s breakout star in 2020.
9. Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis
No Darrell Henderson? No problem. I don’t know if enough was made about the fact that the guy racked up 2,069 yards from scrimmage last year. He’s a proven dual-threat already having capped off a season in which he had:
- A) Over 1,400 rushing yards
- B) 50-plus catches
- C) 600-plus receiving yards
- D) 37 plays of 15-plus yards
- E) All the above
It’s “E.” It’s always “E.”
The guy is crazy talented. Not many tailbacks have separate games with 200 rushing yards and 200 receiving yards. Even with Mike Norvell gone, Gainwell is going to get a ton of work in a promising Memphis offense.
8. Kylin Hill, Mississippi State
I couldn’t believe Hill returned.
Part of that was because he announced that he was declaring for the NFL Draft in December. Even after Mike Leach was hired, I thought that … check that. Especially after Mike Leach was hired, I thought that Hill would leave following a breakout season in which he ran for 1,350 yards. But he changed his mind after Leach was hired, which tells me that Hill is ready to be used more in the passing game in 2020.
That ability is there. Hill was needed so much to move the sticks on the ground that Joe Moorhead had to preserve him more than he would’ve liked. But make no mistake, Hill is plenty capable of doing for MSU this year what Max Borghi did for Leach’s offense at Washington State last year.
7. C.J. Verdell, Oregon
It wasn’t quite the year that Verdell was hoping for. A nagging ankle injury could’ve contributed to that. But we still saw in flashes why Verdell, who racked up 1,220 rushing yards, is one of the nation’s best. That Pac-12 Championship game was as impressive of an individual performance as you’ll see from a back. Verdell ripped off 208 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns against that vaunted Utah run defense:
C.J. Verdell is gone!!! Looked like Terrell Burgess met him in the hole and just didn’t wrap up. pic.twitter.com/iF4AOmfp67
— Jake Schyvinck (@JakeNFLDraft) December 7, 2019
Besides getting healthy, Verdell will run behind the Outland Trophy winner, Penei Sewell. Verdell will also get the benefit of playing in Joe Moorhead’s offense, which saw a back have a minimum of 260 touches for 1,530 yards in 7 of the last 8 years. And that was with 4 different tailbacks, not just Saquon Barkley.
6. Journey Brown, Penn State
I’m a big Noah Cain believer. I think he has a bright future in Happy Valley and in the NFL. But man, it’s going to be awfully difficult for him to get serious looks after Brown finished the season the way he did.
In case you missed it, his sophomore season ended with 5 games in which he totaled 593 rushing yards and 9 touchdowns. That included his 202-yard game against Memphis in the Cotton Bowl.
Penn State fans hated the committee approach for much of the season, and Brown absolutely capitalized on Cain getting a bit banged up down the stretch. Now, he returns to a backfield that’s loaded with talent, and new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca showed he knows a thing or 2 about establishing the run.
5. Javian Hawkins, Louisville
Admittedly, I was a bit late to appreciate just how good Hawkins was in Year 1 of the Scott Satterfield era. He was 8th in FBS in rushing as a redshirt freshman playing in a somewhat predictable offense. His close to 2019 was impressive, especially with 2 of those last 3 games coming against SEC defenses. In that stretch, Hawkins averaged 160 rushing yards. That doesn’t include him running for 120-plus against Clemson and Notre Dame.
Hawkins is a bit small compared to others on this list — he was listed at 5-9, 182 pounds — but Satterfield put a lot on his plate in 2019. He was 9th in FBS with 264 carries for a surprisingly effective Louisville offense. But that speed and his slippery ability to never take the big hit allowed him to be the backbone of an 8-win team. In Year 2 in Satterfield’s offense, I wouldn’t bet against Hawkins earning All-America love.
4. Jaret Patterson, Buffalo
Remember how Derrick Henry had that crazy workload to end the season in 2015? Patterson did his best impression of that at Buffalo. In his last 6 games alone, he had 181 carries for 1,113 yards and 15 touchdowns. That’s an all-conference season by itself. In the entire 2019 season, Patterson was 5th in FBS with 1,799 rushing yards on 312 carries. That’s pretty impressive for someone who isn’t even weighing in at 2 bills.
According to Pro Football Focus, Patterson was the highest-graded runner in America on RPOs with 6.7 yards per carry. He has a combination of patience, balance and speed that very few backs in college football possess.
— Steve Helwick (@s_helwick) October 31, 2018
3. Najee Harris, Alabama
When Mac Jones started against a pair of Top 25 defenses to end the year, Alabama leaned on Harris to do a lot of heavy lifting. In other words, he got exactly what he’d been waiting his entire career for. In the final 2 games, Harris had an average of 25.5 carries for 141 yards. In total, he averaged 27.5 touches for 154 yards. Before those games, Harris averaged 16 touches per game.
Call me crazy, but I think Harris appreciated the love.
His surprising decision to come back could spark a slight shift in Alabama’s pass-happy approach with Tua Tagovailoa. With what we expect to be at least slightly fewer quick scores via the passing game, Harris should benefit. A lot. And yes, he’ll have a healthy Trey Sanders by his side, but what’s to say that Harris can’t get closer to 275 touches? Steve Sarkisian is going to try and dial up plenty of ways to get Harris involved, and dare I say, we’ll get a couple more moments like this:
Najee Harris is NOT HUMAN
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) September 14, 2019
For my money, that was the best play a running back made in 2019.
2. Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State
Yeah, the numbers are ridiculous. The FBS leading rusher ran for 2,094 yards and added another 198 in the passing game. Look a little deeper and you’ll see that Hubbard was incredibly productive with 1,300 yards after contact and he had an FBS-best 15 runs of 30-plus yards (Pro Football Focus). The big-play ability was what separated Hubbard, who had a play of 40-plus yards in over half of Oklahoma State’s games this year. He had 120 scrimmage yards in every game against an FBS opponent.
And for those saying “well how would he do against an SEC defense,” the guy had 173 scrimmage yards against Texas A&M in the Texas Bowl. Many assumed Hubbard would leave for the NFL. But like the other top 3 backs on this list, he’s back to terrorize defensive coordinators for another year.
Speaking of those guys who elected to return …
1. Travis Etienne, Clemson
What a massive announcement that was for Dabo Swinney. Etienne is, pound for pound, the best back in America. He does everything you could want, and he’s now an impactful pass-catcher, which he wasn’t heading into 2019 … when I still had him as the No. 1 running back in the country.
His burst, his vision and his ability to finish runs make him the perfect back for a championship team. He doesn’t get the work that others do (he was only 35th in carries), but that’s usually because Clemson is dominating games. Etienne returns to school as the 2-time ACC Player of the Year. That’s for a team who already returns Trevor Lawrence, AKA the biggest household name in college football.
How in the world do you defend Clemson with that 1-2 punch? Good luck with that.