College News & Analysis

College Football: The top-10 returning running backs for the 2024 season

2W9G9HB HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 27: Oklahoma State Cowboys running back Ollie Gordon II (0) attempts to get to the edge as Texas A&M Aggies linebacker Sam Mathews (12) gives chase during the TaxAct Texas Bowl between the Texas A&M Aggies and Oklahoma State Cowboys at NRG Stadium on December 27, 2023 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

• Oklahoma State’s Ollie Gordon II: The reigning Doak Walker Award winner is the clear choice to be the top returning running back in college football.

• Ohio State’s Quinshon Judkins: The Ole Miss transfer leads all Power Five running backs since 2022 in rushing yards, yards after contact and forced missed tackles.

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With the 2023 college football season in the books, it’s time to turn our attention to 2024 by ranking the top returning players at every position. 

Next up is perhaps the most loaded position in college football for 2024: running back. Of the 15 leading FBS rushers from this past season, 12 are returning to school. That group doesn’t even account for five of the players mentioned in this article.

Below is a list of PFF’s top-10 returning running backs in college football in addition to an honorable mention nominee. Please note that NFL projection was not taken into account in these rankings.

(Click here to view PFF’s top-10 returning quarterbacks list)

1. Ollie Gordon II, Oklahoma State Cowboys

As the reigning Doak Walker Award winner, Gordon was the obvious choice to lead this list. The true sophomore led the nation this past season with 1,732 rushing yards while placing second in rushing touchdowns (21) and yards after contact (1,056). Gordon did all of that while only receiving 19 total carries over the first three games, averaging nearly 150 yards over the final 11 contests. Oklahoma State also finished just 103rd in team PFF run-blocking grade (55.3), making his dominance even more impressive. Gordon was also relied on heavily in the Cowboys’ passing game, as his 330 receiving yards were the third-most by a Power Five running back in 2023. 

Next year, he’ll attempt to join Jonathan Taylor, Darren McFadden and Ricky Williams as the only running backs to win the Doak Walker Award twice.

2. Quinshon Judkins, Ohio State Buckeyes

Judkins is the only running back on this list who’ll be playing for a new school in 2024, transferring to Ohio State from Ole Miss in January. He's been the most productive back over the last couple seasons. Since 2022, Judkins leads all Power Five running backs in rushing yards (2,726), yards after contact (1,800) and forced missed tackles (154). Those also happened to be his first two years of college football. Judkins will likely be relied on heavily as a junior to carry Ohio State back to prominence, along with his teammate further down this list. 

3. Omarion Hampton, North Carolina Tar Heels

Hampton had a massive breakout season as a sophomore, leading the nation with 1,072 yards after contact. Like Gordon, Hampton’s production came behind an offensive line that was outside of the top-100 in PFF run-blocking grade (101st). With star quarterback Drake Maye off to the NFL, Hampton should be relied on even more in his junior campaign. 

4. Jaydn Ott, California Golden Bears

Similarly to Judkins, Ott dominated his first two seasons of college football. Since 2022, his 1,394 yards after contact and 108 forced missed tackles rank third among returning Power Five running backs while his 2,201 total rushing yards are fourth. He’s also proven to be a capable receiver out of the backfield with 517 receiving yards over the last couple years (sixth among Power Five running backs). Ott will be the driving force for California’s offense as it makes its way into the ACC.

5. Tahj Brooks, Texas Tech Red Raiders

Brooks possesses a stocky build at 5-foot-10, 230 pounds that defenders routinely bounce off of. The senior led the nation this past season with 96 forced missed tackles and was fourth in the country in both yards after contact (998) and rushing yards (1,547). He also moved the chains more than anyone else in the country in 2023, with 96 of his carries going for a first down or touchdown. Brooks will once again be the bell-cow for Texas Tech’s offense in 2024.

6. TreVeyon Henderson, Ohio State Buckeyes

Between Judkins and Henderson, Ohio State has far and away the best backfield in college football next season. After an injury-plagued sophomore season, Henderson began to look more like himself as a junior. His 90.0 PFF grade in 2023 was seventh among Power Five running backs. Henderson’s 5.9 yards per attempt were second among Big Ten running backs in 2023. 

He still missed three games due to injury as a junior, so the addition of Judkins should hopefully keep Henderson fresh in his senior year as the Buckeyes use more of a committee backfield. 

7. Devin Neal, Kansas Jayhawks

Neal has been one of the most productive running backs in the nation over the last couple seasons. Since 2022, the junior’s 2,373 rushing yards trail only Quinshon Judkins and Blake Corum among Power Five rushers. His 25 rushing touchdowns in that span are third in that same group to Corum, Judkins and Audric Estime. He’s an incredibly shifty back with elite change-of-direction ability, frequently breaking defenders’ ankles. He and Jalon Daniels combine for one of the best returning quarterback/running back combinations in college football next season. 

8. Ashton Jeanty, Boise State Broncos

Jeanty is the only Group of Five player on this list, but it’s well-deserved considering how elite he’s been through his first two seasons of college football. In 2022, he led all FBS true freshmen with an 89.5 PFF grade. Jeanty proceeded to lead all FBS running backs in 2023 with a 94.9 PFF grade and was the most valuable back according to PFF’s wins above average metric. He was the only running back in America with 90-plus PFF grades as a runner and receiver.

Jeanty was third among FBS running backs with 82 forced missed tackles while leading them all with 578 receiving yards. Based on how his first two years have gone, it’s fair to expect a dominant 2024 from the junior as well.

9. RJ Harvey, UCF Knights

Harvey had his best year yet as a redshirt senior in 2023, placing sixth among FBS running backs with 1,417 rushing yards. He’s a home-run threat every time he touches the ball, with 17 carries of 20-plus yards. The only running back in the country who had more was Ollie Gordon II, who led the nation in rushing yards and was the top player on this list. While Harvey is a smaller back at 5-foot-8, 195 pounds, that low center of gravity allowed him to force 74 missed tackles which were tied for the sixth-most in the FBS. 

Harvey enters his sixth season of college football as one of many superstar running backs in the Big 12, as the conference leads the way with four players on this list.

10. Damien Martinez, Oregon State Beavers

Martinez has quietly been one of the most productive running backs in college football over his first two seasons. Since 2022, his 1,304 yards after contact are fourth among returning Power Five backs. In that same span, 68 of his carries have gone for 10-plus yards, trailing only Quinshon Judkins among Power Five rushers. 

It should be noted that Oregon State led the Power Five in run-blocking grade this past season and was sixth in the FBS the year before, so Martinez has had the privilege of running through some massive holes. With the Beavers losing some stars along the offensive line like Taliese Fuaga, more pressure will be placed on the junior to create for himself next season.

Honorable Mention: Donovan Edwards, Michigan Wolverines

Edwards had a disappointing junior campaign, rushing for just 497 yards on 119 attempts as he served as the complementary back to Blake Corum. He’s flashed superstar ability before though, especially in the biggest games of the season last year when Corum went down with a knee injury. 

Donovan Edwards in Michigan’s final three games of the 2022 season:
Game Rushing Yards Rushing Touchdowns Yards Per Carry
at Ohio State 216 2 9.8
vs Purdue (Big Ten Championship) 185 1 7.4
vs TCU (College Football Playoff Semifinal) 119 0 5.2

In the national championship game against Washington this year, Edwards had six carries for 104 yards and two scores, averaging a ridiculous 17.3 yards per attempt. He’s a proven receiver as well, with 456 receiving yards over the last two seasons. With Corum and quarterback J.J. McCarthy moving on to the NFL, Edwards has a chance to finally show what he can do as Michigan’s bell-cow back.

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