College News & Analysis

PFF 2022 Preseason Doak Walker Award Watch List: Best running back in college football

Waco, Texas, USA; Texas Longhorns running back Bijan Robinson (5) is pushed out of bound by Baylor Bears safety Christian Morgan (4) in the first half of an NCAA football game at McLane Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Spillman-USA TODAY Sports

• Texas' Bijan Robinson is the projected top running back in college football entering the 2022 season.

• Ohio State's TreVeyon Henderson is among the top underclassmen vying for the Doak Walker Award.

• Check out even more in-depth coverage with PFF's 2022 College Football Preview Magazine.

As the running back position has evolved in usage and emphasis over the years, so has the way we recognize “the best” in college football at that position.

With the 2022 season just a few weeks away, here is PFF’s official watch list for the Doak Walker Award.

The Top Dog

Bijan Robinson, Texas

Robinson was one of the most impressive backs in all of college football last season. With 1,127 yards and 11 touchdowns, he was the star of that Longhorns offense. His 91.1 rushing grade was a top-10 mark in the FBS, and his 0.41 forced missed tackles per attempt not only led the nation last year, it was the fourth-best average of any running back in the past five years.

If Robinson had been eligible for the 2022 NFL Draft, he would have likely been RB1.

Names In The Spotlight

Sean Tucker, Syracuse

Over the past two seasons, Tucker has turned “right place, right time” into a future NFL career. Tucker, a former three-star running back, was buried on the depth chart as a freshman, but due to injuries and COVID-19 opt-outs during the 2020 season, he found himself as the starting running back. He made the most of it with a solid year: 628 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns.

And Tucker went off this past season to the tune of 1,496 rushing yards, 14 total touchdowns and over 6.1 yards per carry. His 1,024 yards after contact were the most in the ACC and the third-most in the FBS.

Tank Bigsby, Auburn

Bigsby rushed for 1,099 yards and 10 touchdowns last year, and yet he is still talked about as a player who has not reached his full potential. At 6-foot and 213 pounds, Bigsby checks all the physical boxes you want from a running back. His frame is built for power points of contact, yet his lower body shows off some impressive speed when he gets into the open field.

Auburn head coach Brian Harsin called Bigsby’s work ethic “second to none,” which is likely a key factor in his ascension to the top of the depth chart even through a coaching change. 

Devone Achane, Texas A&M

Over the course of his freshman and sophomore seasons, Achane rushed for 1,274 rushing yards and an impressive 7.4 yards-per-carry average, due in large part to speed.

Hailing from Missouri City, Texas, Achane was the 2020 Gatorade Texas Boys Track & Field Athlete of the Year. He also ran an insane 10.14-second 100-meter dash this past March for the Texas A&M track team. Get him the ball and let his home-run speed do the rest. With Isaiah Spiller no longer ahead of him on the depth chart, expect even more opportunities and more highlights from Achane in 2022.

Deuce Vaughn, Kansas State

If Vaughn isn’t one of your favorite backs in college football right now, it’s probably because you haven't watched enough of him. The 5-foot-6, 180-pounder brings back memories of guys like Darren Sproles and Maurice Jones-Drew. Vaughn is small, no doubt, but he makes up for it in many ways: football IQ, elite balance and great field vision. His 93.2 rushing grade in 2021, the highest in the FBS, came after he tallied over 1,400 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground.

Elite Underclassmen

TreVeyon Henderson, Ohio State

Henderson wasn’t the Buckeyes' original starter going into last season, but after rushing for 270 yards and three touchdowns in the Tulsa game, the true freshman showed the team needed to get the ball in his hands more. In the end, Henderson rushed for over 1,200 yards and 15 touchdowns. More experience will serve him well in 2022, and it's scary to think of how good he can be in an incredibly potent offense, assuming he builds on his productive true freshman campaign.

Braelon Allen, Wisconsin

We all know Wisconsin is royalty when it comes to the ground game in college football. Ron Dayne, Jonathan Taylor, Melvin Gordon, Monte Ball and James White have all stuffed the Badgers' stat sheets over the years.

And after a sensational freshman season in which Allen rushed for 1,268 yards and 12 touchdowns on just 186 carries, he looks to be the next in line. His 31 explosive runs (rushes of 10 yards or more) ranked 35th in the nation despite him getting only 186 carries, and his 829 yards after contact ranked 12th-most in the FBS.

Will Shipley, Clemson

Shipley was a five-star running back in the 2021 recruiting cycle, so he already faced high expectations before even playing a snap. In his freshman season, he rushed for 739 yards and 11 touchdowns. Shipley’s most impressive advanced stat was that 16.2% of his rush attempts included a change of position, showing off both his versatility and athleticism. With another year of carries and confidence under his belt, Shipley could become one of the best offensive weapons in the country.

High Expectations

There are a handful of other running backs with high expectations who have a shot at the Doak Walker Award this year. The first on this list (in no order) is Blake Corum. He wasn’t able to rush for over 1,000 yards in 2021 due to splitting carries with senior running back Hasaan Haskins, but Corum finished the year with a 91.1 rushing grade, which placed sixth-best in the FBS. No Haskins in front of him should spell an incredible 2022 season.

Gibbs and Evans, two very highly recruited backs, have since transferred from their original programs. The four-star Gibbs was at Georgia Tech, where he recorded rushing grades above 83.0 in both his freshman and sophomore seasons. He also posted elite receiving grades above 90.0 in each of those years. He’s now at Alabama and, from the looks of it, should be their top back.

As for the five-star Evans, his recruiting journey was a little odd, but it ended with him committing to TCU, where he played the past two seasons. Though Evans hasn’t rushed for more than 700 yards in a single season yet, there should be plenty of opportunities for him to see touches in Lane Kiffin's Ole Miss offense.

UAB's DeWayne McBride, the final name in this tier, enjoyed a fantastic 2021 season during which he rushed for over 1,300 yards and 13 touchdowns. His 90.6 rushing grade was a top-10 mark in the FBS, his 962 yards after contact was in the top five and his 0.38 forced missed tackles per attempt ranked fourth. If you don’t know the name yet, get familiar. 

The Vets

Charbonnet headlines the upperclassman group, as he posted the third-highest rushing grade (91.9) in the FBS last season. The former Michigan Wolverine boasts a 6-foot-1, 220-pound frame and surprising athleticism to boot; he’s not just a big bruiser, as he displayed last season with over 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Mo Ibrahim already had two 1,000-yard seasons under his belt going into last year. He looked well on his way to repeating that with 163 yards and two touchdowns in three quarters in the first game against Ohio State before rupturing his Achilles. A healthy Ibrahim should once again prove to be one of the most productive backs in the country.

Eric Gray transferred to Oklahoma from Tennessee but had a slow start in his first season in Norman.

Dye rushed for 1,271 yards and 16 touchdowns last year while also leading Oregon with 46 receptions. We’re eager to see what he’ll do now at USC in Lincoln Riley’s offense.

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