College football award watch season has finally arrived, which means it’s time for PFF to reveal preseason picks for the most prestigious honors in the game. Today, we dive into the Doak Walker Award, which is given each year to the nation’s top running back.
With the help of PFF’s College Football Preview Magazine, PFF grades, advanced stats and, of course, the tape, here is a look at PFF’s favorites and a list of other names to watch to be said player by season’s end.
Editor's Note: This is a PFF preseason watch list that is in no way affiliated with the Doak Walker Award.
1. TANK BIGSBY, AUBURN
Bigsby was one of the most impressive true freshmen of the 2020 class, finishing as the fifth-most valuable first-year non-quarterback in the country, per PFF Wins Above Average (WAA). For those who don’t know, running backs actually do matter in college football.
The 2020 four-star recruit — who ranked 40th nationally, according to 247Sports — was easily among the most elusive ball carriers in college football last year. His strong contact balance was on full display, as he came away with the fifth-most broken tackles per attempt (0.34) in the FBS.
Like Bigsby, Vaughn was also one of the top first-year players in college football this past season. The 5-foot-5 running back made it known from the get-go that he is going to be in the conversation for the best dual-threat back in the country. Only Vaughn and North Carolina’s Michael Carter earned grades above 85.0 as both a runner and receiver in 2020. He can take defenders' souls in the open field with his quicks and is bound for a monstrous Year 2.
Brooks opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, but he will be back for the 2021 campaign, which is very good news for the Sooners. Brooks was the third-highest-graded ball carrier in the FBS from 2018 to 2019 and established himself as one of the top breakaway threats at the position. No FBS running back churned out 10 or more yards on a higher rate of carries over that period than Brooks (23.4%). He doesn’t have electrifying speed, but he is elusive and fights through contact as well as anyone.
Robinson has been a key backup over the past four years and is set to take on a starting role in his “super senior” season this fall. The 2020 season was his best yet, as he recorded an 89.5 rushing grade — 11th-best in the FBS — on 91 carries. Robinson runs violently and will be one of the toughest guys to bring down in 2021. He averaged over 4.0 yards after contact per attempt and broke 23 tackles in 2020.
5. JERRION EALY, OLE MISS
Ealy was a 2019 four-star recruit who didn't put up monstrous box score numbers in 2020, but he consistently showed up and got the job done. He was the sixth-highest-graded runner in the Power Five, at 90.0, and logged 147 carries without fumbling the football, the second-most in the nation.
The 5-foot-8, 190-pound back also showed off the elusiveness, athleticism and physical playstyle we saw from him on a limited basis as a true freshman in 2019. He produced two of the 15 highest single-game broken tackle rates from the 2020 season and ranked eighth in the Power Five in percentage of runs that picked up at least three yards after contact (48%).
Some might consider this ranking disrespectful, as Hall led the country with 1,562 rushing yards in 2020, but let’s not forget that he also saw 28 more carries than any other running back and was one of six with over 200 carries.
Of his 280 carries on the year, only 13.6% resulted in a 10-plus-yard gain, 86th of 140 qualifiers. But despite the discrepancy between the box score and the play-level production, Hall still sits comfortably in this watch list.
The Iowa State running back has the explosiveness to ramp up that big-run rate and proved on a number of occasions that he has an uncoachable ability to make something out of nothing. Among the 68 FBS backs who totaled at least 50 carries on which they were contacted behind the line of scrimmage in 2020, Hall ranked third in PFF rushing grade.
OTHERS TO WATCH (ALPHABETICAL ORDER)
DEVON ACHANE, TEXAS A&M
TYLER ALLGEIER, BYU
MAX BORGHI, WASHINGTON STATE
LYN-J DIXON, CLEMSON
ZACH EVANS, TCU
JAHMYR GIBBS, GEORGIA TECH
FRANK GORE JR., SOUTHERN MISS
MOHAMED IBRAHIM, MINNESOTA
ZONOVAN KNIGHT, NC STATE
BIJAN ROBINSON, TEXAS
CHRIS RODRIGUEZ JR., KENTUCKY
ISAIAH SPILLER, TEXAS A&M
KENNETH WALKER III, MICHIGAN STATE