With the NFL Combine finished and the draft on the horizon, a lot of focus is on former college running backs who are moving on to the professional ranks. Wisconsin product Melvin Gordon, Georgia’s Toddy Gurley, Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon are all well-regarded talented rushers that project to have solid NFL careers.
There is still a wealth of talent remaining in the NCAA, however. The college game should be full of talent at running back next year across the entire country and multiple conferences.
Below are 10 of the top running backs for next season, in no particular order:
Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State - The crop-topped Elliott burst onto the national scene during Ohio State’s improbable run to the national championship. His long, bursting runs are exciting and seem impossible to stop. Elliott ran for 1,878 yards (third in the country) and 18 touchdowns in Urban Meyer’s offense as a sophomore last season. Whoever starts at quarterback for the Buckeyes next year (Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett or Braxton Miller) will be a star that can help balance the run game. In Elliott’s final five games last season he rushed for 107, 121, 220, 230 and 246 yards.
Nick Chubb, Georgia- Chubb saw his snaps increase after Gurley went down with an ACL injury. The freshman was more than serviceable, rushing for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns for the Bulldogs. He should continue that pace for Mark Richt's offense next season.
Royce Freeman, Oregon - Freeman carried a lot of the load for the Ducks in 2014 as a freshman, despite having a mediocre game in the National Championship. With star quarterback Marcus Mariota moving on to the NFL, more offensive responsibility will likely be doled out to Freeman. He ran for 1,365 yards and 18 touchdowns last year. Freeman is a bit different than the prototypical Ducks back. At 6'1 and 229 pounds, he is more of a bruiser and doesn’t shy away from taking on contact. Running backs flourish in Oregon’s spread offense and Freeman took to the system well in his first season.
Alex Collins, Arkansas - Collins had a solid sophomore season in Brett Bielema’s offense, rushing for 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns. His freshman year was impressive as well, rushing for 1,026 yards and four touchdowns. After a few big games early last year, including a 212-yard explosion against Texas Tech, Collins slowed down a bit. He didn’t rush for more than 93 yards in his final eight games and averaged just 4.05 yards per carry, which was well below his career 5.4 average. The speed and the cutting ability is there, though. Collins, along with teammate Jonathan Williams, could be poised for big things in 2015.
Akeel Lynch, Penn State - Lynch had a unique season in 2014. Splitting carries with senior Bill Benton, Lynch rushed for just 678 yards (4.6-yards-per-carry) and four touchdowns, but provided a glimpse into positive things to come with a strong second half. In his final five games, Lynch rushed for 47, 130, 137, 51 and 75 yards. Lynch saw his carries increase throughout the year, and he would go on to score three of his four touchdowns in the final five weeks. The Penn State offense was plagued by inconsistency on the line, but the unit is expected to benefit from more experience in 2015, which should create more opportunities for Lynch. An improved passing game under junior Christian Hackenburg could also help matters. With some tinkering in offensive coordinator John Donovan's system, Lynch could be the Nittany Lions first 1,200-yard rusher since Silas Redd in 2011.
James Conner, Pittsburgh - Conner led the ACC in rushing last season with 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns (third most in NCAA), and scouts are reportedly drooling over his talents. He failed to rush for at least 75 yards in just one game last season. He also rushed for at least 150 yards on six different occasions. At 6'2 and 230 pounds, Conner is a power back that provides tackling problems for opponents. He should have another big year for the Panthers in 2015.
Nick Wilson, Arizona - Wilson is coming off an impressive freshman season, rushing for 1,375 and 16 touchdowns for a Wildcats offense that exceeded expectations. His standout performance was a 218-yard, three-touchdown outburst against then- No. 17 Utah in Salt Lake City. He followed that game with a 178-yard, three-touchdown performance against rival Arizona State. Defenses won't be sleeping on Wilson, or the Wildcats, next season.
Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State - Pumphrey finished fourth in the NCAA in rushing yards last season with 1,867 along with 20 touchdowns. The diminutive back stands at just 5'9, but makes up for that with crafty running. He never rushed for less than 85 yards in a game in 2014. Pumphrey also rushed for over 100 yards in 10-of-14 games, including outbursts for 182 yards, 246 yards and 261 yards. In other words, Pumphrey is a pretty sure bet to have a big 2015 for the perhaps under-the-radar Aztecs.
Paul Perkins, UCLA - Perkins will have to shoulder a lot of the offensive load for head coach Jim Mora with star quarterback Brett Hundley off to the NFL, and the Bruins should be in good hands. Perkins rushed for a Pac 12-best 1,575 yards last season as a sophomore, after providing some solid efforts in limited opportunities in 2013. He averaged 6.4 yards per carry and finished strong, rushing for 194 yards and two touchdowns in an Alamo Bowl win over Kansas State.
Samaje Perine, Oklahoma - Perine led the Big 12 in rushing with 1,713 yards along with 21 touchdowns as a freshman. He also had the biggest rushing game in history. Perine broke the NCAA record for single-game rushing with a 427-yard performance against Kansas on Nov. 22. He also added five touchdowns in the 44-7 blowout. He even broke Adrian Peterson’s freshman Sooner record for touchdowns. At 5'11 and 243 pounds, he's already a physical force.