There isn’t a position with more returning star power in college football this season than running back, which is why most early listings of the top Heisman favorites have several rushers near the top.
How many yards and touchdowns a back produces can depend heavily on his workload, his team’s offensive scheme, and the performance level of both his quarterback and offensive line. But by isolating things like yards after contact and forced missed tackles, along with our every-snap grading of every FBS college football player, PFF is able to better identify just how good a running back is independent of his circumstances.
That leads us to the following question: Which college running backs are the most difficult for opposing defenses to get on the ground?
Here are the 10 toughest RBs to tackle in college football, entering the 2016 season:
1. Leonard Fournette, LSU Tigers
It takes a lot to beat out Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey at the top of this list, seeing as how McCaffrey was PFF’s pick to win the Heisman Trophy last season. But Fournette is close to an unstoppable force as a runner. No player in college football – not McCaffrey, nor the actual Heisman winner, Alabama’s Derrick Henry — broke more tackles than Fournette last season (85 as a runner, 10 as a receiver), en route to his posting the No. 1 rushing grade among RBs Fournette’s power is obvious, but what earns him Adrian Peterson comparisons is his combination of strength and speed. 834 of his 1,916 rushing yards last season came on runs of 15 yards or longer, making him a true breakaway threat in addition to his between-the-tackles effectiveness (on rushes on either side of the center, Fournette averaged 6.5 yards per carry).
2. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford Cardinal
McCaffrey’s Heisman case was centered around his all-around contributions, from rushing to receiving to the return game. The receiving aspect might be the most impressive, because he produced a yards per route run average of 3.20 that trailed only a few of the nation’s best wide receivers, while catching 43 of his 45 passes on targets nine or fewer yards downfield. McCaffrey was taking a lot of screens and underneath throws and turning them into huge plays with his elusiveness and dynamic open-field running, like on this play:
But if you’re thinking that McCaffrey is merely a slot receiver disguised as a running back whose lean frame (6-foot, 197 pounds) prevents him from doing damage as a runner, think again. He forced 71 missed tackles as a rusher in 2015 (in addition to 15 as a receiver), the fourth-highest total among returning running backs, en route to the top overall grade among running backs.
3. Royce Freeman, Oregon Ducks
It’s an incredibly tough call between Freeman and the next back on this list, but Freeman deserves recognition as one of the best runners in the country. He excelled last season in nearly every measure PFF has to evaluate running backs: He ranked first in number of breakaway runs (with 36), third in overall running back grades, third in elusive rating (how effective a back is at generating yardage independent of his blocking), third in broken tackles as a runner and seventh in yards after contact per attempt. In short, he is a big-play threat due to his speed and elusiveness who also has underrated power as a runner.
4. Dalvin Cook, Florida State Seminoles
Cook is a legitimate Heisman candidate after posting some terrific numbers in 2015. He ranked sixth in PFF grades among returning backs, fifth in elusive rating and third in yards after contact per attempt, and he stands out the most for his ability to break off huge runs. He led the nation in breakaway yards (yards that come on rushes of 15 yards or longer) with 1,066 of his 1,696 total, and put enough plays like the one below on the highlight reel to solidify his standing as one of the nation’s top big-play threats:
5. Nick Chubb, Georgia Bulldogs
We have to go back to Chubb’s 2014 numbers, seeing as how he missed almost all of 2015 due to injury. But he earned the sixth-best running back grade in the country two seasons ago, filling in for an injured Todd Gurley, a higher finish that year than any of the other players on this list. His 2014 elusive rating and yards after contact per attempt average both would have ranked among the top 10 in 2015, and if he returns to full health, his combination of power running with breakaway ability should again make him one of the nation’s best backs.
6. Alvin Kamara, Tennessee Volunteers
Kamara is a bit of a wild card in that he didn’t have as many rush attempts as the rest of these backs did in 2015 (except for Chubb), but his per-snap performance was outstanding. If he translates that efficiency to a larger workload (while working in a rotation with the similarly impressive Jalen Hurd in the Volunteers’ backfield) he will be one of college football’s best runners. His elusive rating ranks would have ranked third ahead of Fournette and Freeman, if he’d had enough rushes to qualify, after breaking 28 tackles as a runner and 13 more as a receiver. He was the second-most efficient receiving threat from the running back position, trailing only McCaffrey, which helped fuel his seventh-highest PFF grade among returning RBs despite his limited workload.
7. Saquon Barkley, Penn State Nittany Lions
As a true freshman, Barkley earned the No. 1 elusive rating in college football last season. He also forced the ninth-most missed tackles as a runner among returning backs, and the sixth-best yards after contact per rush average — all while dealing with some dysfunction in the Nittany Lions’ offense. He needs to improve as a pass-catcher and pass protector in 2016, but he proved with performances like the one against Ohio State in Week 7 – 194 yards on 26 carries (7.5 average, including 4.8 after contact) and 10 forced missed tackles – that he can be one of the best runners in the country.
8. Myles Gaskin, Washington Huskies
Gaskin was one of the nation’s most productive running backs last season. He ranked ninth in elusive rating, and fifth in both yards after contact per rush and overall RB grade. This last stat is most impressive, given that he saw over 150 fewer snaps than either Fournette or McCaffrey, and provided almost nothing as a pass-catcher. And like Barkley, he did it all as a true freshman. If Gaskin delivers the same per-snap performance while taking on a bigger workload in 2016, he will establish himself as one of the best backs in the nation.
9. James Butler, Nevada Wolf Pack
He’s on the smaller side for a running back at 5-9, 200 pounds, and he doesn’t play the same level of competition that the other guys on this list do. But Butler had an outstanding 2015 campaign, ranking No. 1 in yards after contact per attempt with an absurdly high 4.13, and second in elusive rating. He was most effective when running between Nevada’s center and left guard – his 39 attempts yielded 355 yards and three touchdowns, good for a 9.1 yards per carry average.
10. Elijah Hood, North Carolina Tar Heels
It was really hard to leave guys like Clemson’s Wayne Gallman (No. 8 returning RB in PFF grades, after running behind a poor run-blocking line in 2015) and Baylor’s Shock Linwood off of this list. But Hood might be the most underrated running back in the country, and should have a big year alongside a potential rising star at QB in Mitch Trubisky. Only Butler topped Hood’s 4.10 yards per attempt AFTER contact in 2015 among returning backs, and his elusive rating ranks seventh. The only guys to post better overall PFF grades versus Power-5 teams than Hood are the first three players on this list: McCaffrey, Fournette and Freeman.