College football's top 25 running backs: Close race between Jonathan Taylor, Travis Etienne for No. 1
Quarterbacks may dominate the spotlight, but no top-tier offense is complete without a solid running back. That's especially true in college football, where high-level backs can still be game-changers.
That said, college football once again lost several talented backs to the NFL last year, including Alabama's Josh Jacobs, Stanford's Bryce Love, Washington's Myles Gaskin, FAU's Devin Singletary and Memphis' Darrell Henderson, among others. That leaves plenty of open spaces for the next great crop of backs to make their names known.
So, who are the new top 25 college football running backs in 2019? Sporting News' rankings feature 14 new faces — not as many as last year's 19, but still a sizable amount. And, much like last year, having a good running back in an offense is typically an indicator of success. Four running backs featured on this list last year were significant contributors on three of the final College Football Playoff teams in Clemson, Alabama and Oklahoma. Chances are a back on this list could contribute to a 2019 Playoff run.
With that, SN reveals its top 25 running backs for the 2019 college football season.
(Editor's note: This ranking does not include Kansas' Pooka Williams, who remains indefinitely suspended from the program.)
1 Special mentions
— Tavien Feaster (Transfer)
— Salvon Ahmed (Washington)
— Jordan Cronkrite (USF)
— B.J. Smith (Troy)
— Mohamed Ibrahim (Minnesota)
— Stevie Scott (Indiana)
— Darius Bradwell (Tulane)
2 Benny LeMay, Charlotte
LeMay made history for Charlotte in 2018, becoming the program’s first 1,000-yard rusher since it joined the FBS in 2015. He is a solid, every-down back who can be counted upon to get tough yards. He did just that last year, rushing for 1,243 yards (good for second in Conference USA) and 11 touchdowns.
3 Spencer Brown, UAB
Brown saw dips in rushing yards (1,227) and yards per carry (4.5) last year but rushed for 16 rushing touchdowns, a single-season record for UAB and good for second in Conference USA in 2018. He also delivered in the Blazers' biggest moments, scoring the game-winning, 17-yard touchdown against Southern Miss in overtime to secure the C-USA West Division title and earning 156 yards against Middle Tennessee in the C-USA championship game. The junior is 261 yards shy of UAB’s career rushing record.
4 Anthony McFarland, Maryland
If you want to see the talent Maryland has in its backfield for 2019, look no further than McFarland’s two-week stretch against Indiana and Ohio State last year. He combined for 50 carries, 508 yards (6.4 yards per carry) and two touchdowns. That said, he’ll need to be more consistent in 2019 after rushing for fewer than 100 yards in eight games and only scoring four touchdowns all season.
5 Reggie Corbin, Illinois
Corbin last year became Illinois' first 1,000-yard rusher since Mikel Leshoure in 2010, rushing for 1,085 yards and nine touchdowns in 12 games. More impressive was his 8.5 yard-per-carry average. Count on the redshirt senior to be a key component in Illinois' offense in 2019.
6 Darrynton Evans, Appalachian State
Evans was a versatile weapon for App State last year, using his time as a freshman utility player to help him make plays on the ground, through the air and in the return game. That resulted in 1,274 yards and eight touchdowns from scrimmage in 2018, not to mention 490 yards and another score as a kick returner. Most impressive? He accomplished all this after a season in which he redshirted due to injury.
7 Trey Sermon, Oklahoma
It seemed like disaster struck early for Oklahoma in 2018 when running back Rodney Anderson was lost for the season against UCLA. Luckily for the Sooners, Sermon was a stabilizing force in the run game. Despite ceding the spotlight to explosive fellow running back Kennedy Brooks, Sermon still rushed for 947 yards and 13 touchdowns on 5.8 yards per carry in 2018. Look for Lincoln Riley to continue leaning on Sermon as Alabama transfer quarterback Jalen Hurts acclimates to the offense.
8 CJ Verdell, Oregon
Verdell continued Oregon’s tradition of explosive, dynamic running backs in 2018 with a 1,018-yard, 10-touchdown season. The redshirt freshman helped keep defenses honest for quarterback Justin Herbert and still made them pay for it with his speed. He had five 100-yard games last season, saving the best for last with a 187-yard, four-touchdown performance against rival Oregon State. He, Herbert and fellow running back Travis Dye will form one of the Pac-12’s best backfields in 2019.
9 Joshua Kelley, UCLA
Kelley was solid throughout 2018 for UCLA, racking up four consecutive 100-yard games starting in Week 3 and scoring at least one touchdown in every game from Week 5 on. But that’s not the reason Bruins fans will remember Kelley; that would be his 289-yard performance against USC, a single-game rivalry record. The former walk-on will always be remembered for that heroic effort, but UCLA will want the redshirt senior to replicate that success in 2019.
10 Jermar Jefferson, Oregon State
Jefferson was a bright spot on a 2-10 Oregon State team last year, bursting onto the scene in Week 2 with a 238-yard, four-touchdown performance against Southern Utah. He also put up 392 combined rushing yards and six touchdowns against Arizona State and Washington State, both losses. He failed to reach the end zone in the Beavers’ final six games, however. That will be an area in which to improve in 2019.
11 Larry Rountree III, Missouri
Rountree enjoyed his first season as Missouri’s lead back with a 1,216-yard, 11-yard touchdown campaign. He’ll need to be more consistent in 2019, but the fact that he finished with 100 rushing yards in each of Missouri’s final three games (including a 204-yard outing against Oklahoma State) suggests good things for the future. How will he perform in an offense alongside mobile Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant?
12 Greg McCrae, UCF
McCrae didn’t crack his first 100-yard game until Week 9 last year, but he came on when the Knights needed him most. He rushed for 188 yards in a 52-40 win against Temple, 181 yards and three touchdowns against South Florida (after McKenzie Milton was lost to injury) and 206 yards and a touchdown against Memphis in the AAC championship game. That’s part of the reason McCrae tied Memphis’ Darrell Henderson and Oklahoma's Kennedy Brooks for a nation-leading 8.9 yards per carry in 2018 — and why he’ll be counted upon even more in 2019.
13 Cam Akers, Florida State
For as fast as he is, Akers couldn’t escape the widespread woes Florida State suffered in Year 1 of the Willie Taggart era. He saw fewer rushes (161), yards (706), yards per carry (4.4) and touchdowns (six) in 2018 than he did as a freshman, a product of FSU’s dysfunction on offense. That said, he showed occasional flashes of brilliance, reminding everyone he has the speed, strength and athleticism to make an impact for the Seminoles.
14 J.J. Taylor, Arizona
Taylor showed a knack for big highlights and high-flying hurdles last season, rushing for 1,434 yards and six touchdowns (5.6 ypc) with his burst and ability to make tacklers miss in the open field. Taylor had two games of at least 212 rushing yards last season, and three more of at least 144 yards. There’s no reason to expect there won’t be more of the same in 2019.
15 Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Vanderbilt
The transfer from Illinois made an immediate impact for Vanderbilt in 2018, using his quick twitch and blazing speed to rush for 1,244 yards and 12 touchdowns on 157 carries. He also proved dangerous out of the backfield, catching 13 balls for 170 yards and two touchdowns. Derek Mason made the right decision when he promised he’d give Vaughn more carries in 2019.
16 Patrick Taylor Jr., Memphis
Taylor has been remarkably consistent at Memphis, never averaging fewer than 5.4 yards per carry in a season, increasing his rushing total every year and totaling 29 rushing touchdowns in 2017 and '18. That has culminated, thus far, in a 1,122-yard, 16-touchdown season in 2018 (all the more impressive when you remember he shared the backfield with 1,900-yard rusher Darrell Henderson). It will be interesting to see what Taylor does as the feature back in Mike Norvell’s offense.
17 Michael Warren II, Cincinnati
Warren is a pick-your-poison type of back out of Cincinnati. He is built low to the ground, so he is happy to move the pile or knock defenders aside in short-yardage situations. But he also has great vision, patience and lateral movement, allowing him to bounce outside and maneuver around defenders en route to the end zone (as evidenced by his 19 rushing touchdowns in 2018). If the Bearcats continue enjoying success under Luke Fickell in 2019, then Warren will be a key reason.
18 Najee Harris, Alabama
It’s Najee Harris' turn to lead Alabama's running game now that Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris are off to the NFL. The former No. 2 overall recruit from the 2017 class will enjoy an offense that features elite O-line talent and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to take pressure off him. Even as part of a three-man rotation, Harris proved how dangerous he is by rushing 117 times for 783 yards (6.7 ypc) in 2018. He’s tremendously powerful, routinely dragging multiple defenders, but also has the speed, athleticism and agility to simply evade them. Harris is a first round-caliber talent if he lives up to his billing in 2019.
19 Kennedy Brooks, Oklahoma
Brooks in 2018 stood out on his team as an explosive running back — and at a place like Oklahoma, that's saying something. The redshirt freshman rushed for 1,056 yards and 12 touchdowns on just 119 carries after missing three of Oklahoma's first four games, but will have to prove he can do it again now that four of OU's starting offensive linemen from 2018 have moved on to the NFL. But as long as the Sooners play in the Big 12, they’ll have a back ready to make defenders pay. Brooks is next in line for that.
20 AJ Dillon, Boston College
Dillon was once again one of college football’s best power runners in 2018, rushing for 1,108 yards and 10 touchdowns on an improved Boston College team. That’s a slight drop-off from his 2017 freshman totals, but that’s no fault of his: He missed two games early in the season with an ankle injury, did not play in the second half of the Virginia Tech game (having already rushed for 96 yards) and didn’t get to participate in the Eagles’ bowl game, which was canceled due to weather. Expect him to get back on track with his rumbling running style in 2019.
21 Zack Moss, Utah
Engage Moss at your own peril. The Utah running back, who enjoyed his second straight 1,000-yard rushing season in 2018, is not afraid to initiate contact with defenders. He uses his 5-10, 222-pound frame and vicious running style to shrug off — or bowl over — would-be tacklers. The Utes were happy to hear Moss would return for his senior season, and that is a big reason why they are favorites to win the Pac-12 South.
22 Eno Benjamin, Arizona State
Benjamin was Arizona State’s workhorse in 2018, rushing 300 times for 1,642 yards, good for third and fifth in the nation, respectively. He refuses to go down on first contact and always manages to lean forward for a few extra yards. A big chunk of Benjamin’s stats came in a 52-24 blowout of Oregon State, against whom he rushed 30 times for 312 yards and three scores. He put that same durability on display down the stretch with five 100-yard performances in ASU’s last six games — and never on fewer than 21 carries.
23 J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State
Dobbins suffered a slight drop-off in productivity in 2018, but that’s no reflection of his talent. It’s just that Ohio State went to the pass more, as evidenced by quarterback Dwayne Haskins’ record-setting year in the Big Ten. Count on Dobbins to play a bigger role for the Buckeyes in 2019 with mobile quarterback Justin Fields running the offense. He can make plays on the ground and through the air and boasts the vision, power and straight-line speed to make a lasting impression in Columbus.
24 D’Andre Swift, Georgia
Swift lived up to his name in 2018 as one of the most explosive, versatile backs in college football. The fleet-footed, multi-tool back used his speed and agility to put up 1,346 yards from scrimmage, including 297 receiving yards off 32 receptions. He had a slow start to the season but showed what he’s capable of in Georgia’s four-game stretch against LSU, Florida, Kentucky and Auburn, rushing for 518 yards and four touchdowns on 9.1 yards per carry. Swift didn’t have the best finish to the season against Texas, but count on him to use that as extra motivation in 2019.
25 Travis Etienne, Clemson
There might not have been a more efficient back in college football last year than Etienne, who amassed 1,658 yards, a nation-leading 24 touchdowns and an absurd 8.1 yards per carry on only 204 rushes. He did that while sharing the backfield with four backs who had at least 60 rushes and a phenomenal quarterback in Trevor Lawrence. And considering the pervasive offensive talent the Tigers return in 2019, there’s no way opponents can afford to stack the box against Etienne.
26 Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin
Was there ever any doubt that Taylor is the top back in the country? The rising junior not only crossed the 2,000-yard mark in 2018 — a feat he was only 23 yards away from achieving as a freshman — but he also rushed for 217 more yards than he did in 2017 (on just eight more carries!) despite defenses knowing he would get the ball.
Taylor is a powerful, north-south runner whose subtle moves can make defenders miss in the first and second level. Perhaps that’s why he improved his rushing yards (2,194), yards per carry (7.1) and touchdowns (16) as a sophomore. He should be No. 2 among Wisconsin’s all-time rushers after his junior campaign, behind only Ron Dayne. If he decides to stay for his senior year, he’ll have a chance to finish No. 1. But for now, there's no doubt he's No. 1 in college football.
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