News & Analysis

College Football: Ranking the top 10 returning RBs in 2021 and a sleeper to watch

Auburn running back Tank Bigsby (4) runs the ball during Auburn football A-Day spring game at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday, April 17, 2021.

The 2021 college football season kicks off in just over 100 days, and we at PFF are here to get you ready for it. We'll start by ranking the top 10 returning players at each position and naming one sleeper who could make some noise this season.

Below is a list of PFF’s top 10 returning running backs. The list is based on a bevy of factors, including PFF grade and other advanced metrics available to CFB Premium Stats+ subscribers. And remember, this has nothing to do with pro potential.

Subscribe to

Find the rest of PFF’s top returning college players series here:
QB | RB | WR | TE | OT | iOL | DI | EDGE | LB | CB | S

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.

The 6-foot, 204-pound freshman was the third-highest-graded ball carrier in the FBS behind Javonte Williams and Khalil Herbert before suffering an injury in Week 12 against Tennessee.

He is the clear favorite to claim the title of No. 1 running back in 2021.

2. DEUCE VAUGHN, KANSAS STATE

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. Vaughn can take defenders' souls in the open field with his blend of quickness and agility.

3. KENNEDY BROOKS, OKLAHOMA

Brooks opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, but he will be back for the 2021 campaign — 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.

4. BRIAN ROBINSON JR., ALABAMA

Robinson has been a key backup over the last 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 play style 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 3.0 yards after contact (48%).

Jan 2, 2021; Glendale, AZ, USA; Iowa State Cyclones running back Breece Hall (28) against the Oregon Ducks in the Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium. Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

6. BREECE HALL, IOWA STATE

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 back and was one of six backs 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 lands comfortably into this top 10.

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.

7. MAX BORGHI, WASHINGTON STATE

Borghi was only able to play in one game this past season due to injury. It wasn’t all that spectacular, either, as he fumbled on one of his 10 carries en route to a 57.2 PFF grade for the day.

Still, we shouldn't forget who Borghi was back in 2019 when he was fully healthy: a player with immense speed and one of the top receiving backs in the entire country.

Borghi tied for first in the nation with 26 first down/touchdown receptions in Mike Leach’s Air-Raid attack in 2019. He also tied for the lowest drop rate among FBS backs at 2.3% and broke eight more tackles after the catch than any other back in the country (28). He earned an 80.6 receiving grade for the year, making him one of two running backs to generate a grade above 80.0 as both a receiver and a runner.

Nick Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense produces one of the highest pass-play rates in college football (67%, though 14 percentage points lower than Leach's Air Raid). Having a back with Borghi's receiving chops and speed is a huge plus.

Dec 5, 2020; Lexington, Kentucky, USA; Kentucky Wildcats running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. (24) runs the ball down the field to the end zone during the fourth quarter against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Kroger Field. Credit: Arden Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

8. CHRIS RODRIGUEZ JR., KENTUCKY

Rodriguez finished as the second-highest-graded running back of the 2020 season (92.4) and ranked second to UNC's Javonte Williams among Power Five backs in percentage of runs that picked up a first down or touchdown (41%). When it came to those inside-zone runs that Kentucky loves so much, Rodriguez jumped to first in rushing grade nationwide.

9. TYLER ALLGEIER, BYU

BYU produced an impressive list of breakout players in 2020; among them was running back Tyler Allgeier, who walked on to the team back in 2018 and spent most of the 2019 season at off-ball linebacker.

Yes, you read that correctly: Allgeier had only 26 career carries entering the 2020 season but still managed to finish the year with a 93.1 rushing grade, the second-best behind Javonte Williams. The offensive line in front of him was exceptional in 2020, but so was Allgeier’s vision. He ended the year with the sixth-highest rate of runs that resulted in a gain of 10-plus yards (21.5%).

10. FRANK GORE JR., SOUTHERN MISS

After watching Frank Gore Sr. put together a 16-year NFL career — and possibly more, as the soon-to-be 38-year-old hasn’t officially retired yet — we now get to see his son dominate in the collegiate ranks.

Gore finished with the 18th-best rushing grade in the FBS (86.8) as a true freshman this past season. The 5-foot-8, 165-pound back shook defenders on the regular, recording the eighth-most broken tackles per attempt in the FBS (0.33).

He’s right there with Allgeier for the best non-Power Five running back in the country. If Gore can improve upon his 84 snaps on the receiving front, an area where he flashed last season, he can climb even higher up this list come 2021.

ONE MORE NAME TO WATCH: BIJAN ROBINSON, TEXAS

Robinson was a five-star recruit in the 2020 class, according to 247Sports, and dazzled down the stretch of his true freshman campaign. Over his last four games, Robinson produced an explosive 10-plus yard run on 14 of his 47 carries with 21 broken tackles and nearly nine yards after contact per attempt. He owned one of the 10 highest rushing grades in the Power Five from Week 10 on (82.9). Robinson was also productive on the receiving front with 1.63 yards per route run and 10 total receptions resulting in a 10-plus yard gain.

New head coach Steve Sarkisian ought to have a lot of fun incorporating Robinson’s skills into his offense. He has breakout written all over him for the 2021 season.

College Featured Tools

  • PFF's exclusive metrics provide matchup previews, position rankings, grades, and snap counts.

    Available with

    CFB Grades+
  • Our exclusive database, featuring the most in-depth collection of NCAA player performance data.

    Available with

    CFB Prem Stats+
College Subscriptions

Unlock College Player Grades and Preview Magazine

$7.99 / mo
$27.99 / yr

Unlock NCAA Premium Stats & PFF Greenline NCAA

$29.99 / mo
$119.99 / yr