Although the 2022 running back class found itself lacking a headliner throughout the draft process, the 2023 class of college football ball carriers is an embarrassment of riches and superstar talent at the position. Many inside the league believe teams will be able to grab high-impact, three-down athletes moving into day three of the draft next spring.
With excitement building just a few months away from college football kick-off, here is my list of the top 10 running backs in the country—including some not yet eligible for the NFL draft.
Lew Nichols III, Central Michigan
A 5-foot-10 do-it-all talent for CMU, Nichols shoulders the offensive workload unlike any back within any offense in the country. With 42 more carries than that of ball carrier Brad Roberts out of the Air Force Academy last fall, where their triple-option-based offense hasn’t changed since the dawn of time, Nichols led the country in yards (1,848). Expectations won’t vary much this season.
A native of Southfield, Michigan who received offers from Cincinnati and Indiana (among others) during the recruiting cycle, the former 3-star recruit entered his freshman campaign with a massive chip on his shoulder. After redshirting in 2019, Nichols’ role was limited in 2020 where he saw just 78 carries of work behind lead back Kobe Lewis. While he showed pop in games against Eastern Michigan and Toledo during the back half of the season where he combined for 297 yards and three touchdowns—games that highlighted his campaign—his role as RB2 didn’t sit well and Nichols looked to improve, and in bunches.
After focusing his offseason training on adding healthy weight while maintaining his breakaway speed, Nichols has reaped the benefits of remaining dedicated to a strict offseason regimen. For Nichols—a talent who will have to swim upstream this fall in comparison to names in Texas’ Bijan Robinson and Auburn’s Tank Bigsby—when it comes to the potential of the MAC’s premier ball carrier, he’s no slouch. A sub-6-foot combination of burst, patience, and pass-catching versatility out of the backfield, Nichols has boatloads of room to progress and a platform, unlike any before, to showcase his finesse.
Eric Gray, Oklahoma
The Robin to Kennedy Brooks’ Batman for the Sooners last season, it’s full steam ahead for Gray as the de facto bellcow for the new-look Sooners this fall. A stoutly built talent at 5-foot-9, and a tick over 200 pounds, the spotlight on Gray’s game will be the brightest it’s been entering his senior season.
He’s got all the tools in the bag to be special and if all comes to fruition, teams won’t hesitate to snatch him come draft day. A former five-star prep talent and a transfer from Tennessee, it’s full steam ahead for Gray who has everything to prove with no clear threat challenging him for carries.
10. Mohamed Ibrahim, Minnesota
Don’t forget about Ibrahim, a talent who could have been the first running back off the board this past spring. While a torn Achilles delayed that notion, he’s poised to be back and healthy for the Gophers in what should result in his third 1,000-plus yard season for Minnesota.
The lone bright spot within a sub-standard offense, it won’t take long for Ibrahim to flash and make his way up draft boards as a result. A physical, downhill runner who can maneuver his way both inside and outside the tackles, he’s tough, rugged, and touts the necessary juice to burst past the third level.
9. Devon Achane, Texas A&M
One of the fastest players in the nation regardless of position, Achane could very easily be higher on this list, but I need to see more than just breakaway speed against defenders from mid-major programs or the basement occupants of the SEC. He’s the lead back in what is a stacked Aggies roster and Isaiah Spiller isn’t there to steal touches, but I want to see Achane progress into a well-rounded talent moving into next spring before I slot him over the names higher on the list.
8. Braelon Allen, Wisconsin
From the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher in Ron Dayne to James White, Melvin Gordon, and Jonathan Taylor, the University of Wisconsin has churned out quite the list of backfield talents over the years. A program most well-known for its flourishing pipeline of trench prospects, a ball carrier no more than a few months out of high school is one of the country’s brightest stars.
At 17 years old last fall, Allen is an exception to the rule. To think the Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin native was dominating the prep scene just two calendar years ago is laughable considering the success he’s enjoyed as the bell-cow back for a Power 5 program. A recruit initially set to enter Wisconsin’s program as a 2022 graduate, Allen reclassified last fall, skipped his senior season at Fond Du Lac High School, and has quickly become an anchor for the Badgers’ offense.
An athletic specimen compared to Derrick Henry at the same age, Allen initially made his name at the linebacker spot at the prep level as a downhill, violent tackler with the ability to range sideline to sideline. While many were unsure of the position he would ultimately slide into at the college level, it’s safe to say Badgers head coach Paul Chryst played his cards right when he moved Allen to the opposite side of the ball last summer.
A unique blend of power and speed, Allen looks to possess all the traits necessary to represent the “next big thing” out of the Badgers’ backfield in a few years’ time. With the ball in his hands, Allen, like Taylor, is “one cut away” from taking it the distance. Behind one of the country’s premier offensive lines—a yearly constant for Wisconsin—Allen recorded eight 100-plus yard performances in eleven appearances and failed to record a rushing touchdown in just four games last fall.
What’s most impressive about his game, besides the fact that he’s 18 years old, is his production under a “limited” workload in comparison to some of the country’s most run-strict offenses. While his carries slowly increased due to his consistent pop, and rightly so, Allen is a YPC monster, averaging nearly eight yards a touch and 10 or more yards a carry against both Nebraska and Purdue last year. He’s next up, and it took everything in me to keep him out of the top six.
7. Sean Tucker, Syracuse
Flashes of Jim Brown during his time with the Orange, anyone? Ok, I digress, but man, Tucker is impressive.
In what was a down season for the ACC as a whole last fall, little publicity has been directed toward Tucker. But after totaling nearly 1,500 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground last year, overlooking his game should be a thing of the past. He’s as talented as they come and should see his draft stock enter warp speed as one of the premier offensive weapons in the nation this season.
While other names on this list trump Tucker athletically, he’s impossible to take down alone in the open field, understands the optics of making defenders miss in a phone booth, and will produce gaudy numbers on the ground this fall for the Orange before hearing his name called by the commissioner next April.
6. TreVeyon Henderson, Ohio State
Just a redshirt freshman compared to the onslaught of upperclassmen on this list, Henderson is a bonafide stud and is arguably the favorite to be the first running back off the board in 2024. He finished fourth in the Big Ten in rushing last fall and has all the tools in the bag to lead the conference in 2022. Eyes will remain focused on C.J. Stroud, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and tackle Paris Johnson as day-one talents to scout this season, but Henderson deserves his spotlight as one of the country’s elite bellcows.
5. Zach Charbonnet, UCLA
After a standout campaign in 2019 at Michigan, Charbonnet fell victim to the injury bug in 2020 and subsequently into the shadows of Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins as they were thrust into bigger roles moving into the 2021 season. A transfer to UCLA followed and similarly to 2019, Charbonnet was unstoppable for the Bruins, amassing more than 1,100 yards with 13 touchdowns on the ground this past season.
A bowling ball with juice whose contact balance and vision make him a tall task to take down in open space, don’t be surprised this winter when Charbonnet is receiving looks as the top running back other than Robinson in the class. At 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, he’s NFL-ready right now.
4. Tank Bigsby, Auburn
Molded similarly to Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs (6-foot, 200 pounds), rushing for 1,100 yards in his sophomore campaign had scouts flooding to Auburn to get a glimpse of another potential day-one selection next spring. With multiple changes within the Tigers’ offense, Bigsby will be tasked once again to lead Auburn through the treacherous waters of the SEC.
An impressively-framed talent with the necessary body armor to holster a massive touch workload from week to week, he’s only getting better and will be must-watch TV once again this fall. A fleet-footed ball carrier with an innate ability to change direction on a whim, that agility and vision will serve him well both this fall and on NFL-branded turf down the road.
3. Zach Evans, Ole Miss
Despite ranking third, Evans has a lot yet to prove to me—his ranking is a credit to how doggone talented he is. A highly-recruited talent and another transfer on this list, Evans’ game—and draft stock—should skyrocket this fall working within Head Coach Lane Kiffin’s playmaker-friendly offense.
A five-star prospect out of high school with the ability to do it all, having a high-impact 2022 campaign should place Evans firmly in the conversation to be no lower than a second-round pick. The reins placed on him at TCU are no longer there and he has the chance to put up gaudy numbers for the Rebels in the coming months.
2. Jahmyr Gibbs, Alabama
A transfer from Georgia Tech, it won’t take long for Gibbs to become a household name. If you followed college football in any capacity last fall, you already know who he is. While his numbers at Georgia Tech won’t blow you away, he was a one-man show—one on 11, if you will—at times for the Yellow Jackets during the last two seasons. Once teams were able to limit Gibbs, the Georgia Tech offense faltered, as exemplified by their three-win campaigns in consecutive years. However, with his days in the ACC now in the past, the first glimpse of Gibbs donning Alabama threads showcased a highlight-reel type of athlete with the ability to take it the distance on every touch.
A true three-down back whose burst is often the first topic of conversation when discussing his game, Gibbs is a ground-and-pound style of ball carrier who can run through, around, and over defenders. Where Gibbs separates himself is in the passing game, where his receiving ability not only has NFL scouts drooling over his potential not only on Sundays but what he can do this season alongside 2021 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young.
Although his game flew under the radar a tad with limited success around him during his time at Georgia Tech, a realization of his performance ceiling behind a formidable front five and within an offensive system that will allow his skill set to thrive could see him become not only the SEC’s most formidable rusher but one of the country’s most elite offensive weapons in his junior season.
1. Bijan Robinson, Texas
“I see so much of myself in the way Bijan plays the game,” former USC standout Reggie Bush said of Robinson. “I see a young, humble kid who’s destined for greatness that has the world at his fingertips.”
While it’s high praise from the 2005 Heisman Trophy recipient, it may not be enough, as Robinson has already begun to draw massive hype toward his draft stock, and represents the poster child of a DEEP talent pool of ball carriers. A 6-foot, 214-pound combination of breakaway speed and elite power, Robinson is everything scouts desire in a bell-cow back on Sunday. The ability to not only shoulder a massive workload but to produce when 11 sets of eyes are centered on you presents a whole different breed of running back prospect.
Where Robinson sets himself apart is in the pass game, his willingness to block in pass pro, and shiftiness in his allotted route tree presents a weapon completely unique to the college game. While the value of the position has decreased as teams have opted to acquire backs via trade or free agency instead of the annual draft in late April, game-changing talent is hard to come by even in a day in age where impact players have entered the professional ranks in waves.
An exception to the narrative, his name has been a popular topic within NFL circles for quite some time. Arguably the nation’s top pound-for-pound offensive prospect, Robinson has all the makings of the next big thing out of Texas and could be the first Longhorns back to be taken in the first round since Cedric Benson in 2005.
- Jun 24, 2022