The diminished role of the running back in college football was greatly exaggerated.
In some respects, the position is as strong as ever.
Alabama’s Derrick Henry became the first running back to win the Heisman Trophy since 2009 last year and was one of five players to run for 1,800 yards as rushing averages nationwide surged to record levels. Henry has moved on to the NFL, but three 1,800-yard rushers are back this season: LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Oregon’s Royce Freeman.
The surge in star power at the position flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that college football has become a quarterback-dominated game.
“The running game, I wouldn’t say it had gotten lost necessarily, because there have been a lot of good runners,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “But the emphasis has been on the spread passing attacks. But really good spread teams always have a good back. It’s good to see in college football, guys turn around and hand it to a runner and be physical. I think those guys are fun to watch — and we have a pretty special one, too.”
The notion that a running back’s value was fading gained credence when no players at that position were drafted in the first round in either 2013 or 2014. Quarterbacks won the Heisman eight times in a nine-year stretch from 2006-14, the exception being Alabama running back Mark Ingram in 2009.
“People have definitely advised me to pick another position,” said Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd, who’s a bit taller than the average running back at 6-foot-4. “I’ve got people all the time just looking at me like, ‘Dude, are you sure you want be a running back?’ But that’s my position.”
Hurd stayed in the backfield and enters his junior season just 891 yards shy of Travis Henry’s school rushing record.
The emergence of Fournette, Hurd and Georgia’s Nick Chubb, who is recovering from a knee injury that sidelined him for the second half of the 2015 season, has helped the Southeastern Conference maintain its elite status during a stretch when it has struggled to produce top quarterbacks.
“I think definitely if it didn’t change last year, the running back value is going to change this year,” Hurd said.
This running back resurgence goes well beyond the SEC and stretches from coast to coast.
The Atlantic Coast Conference returns three players who ran for more than 1,400 yards last season — Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, Clemson’s Wayne Gallman and North Carolina’s Elijah Hood. The league also welcomes back 2014 ACC player of the year James Conner of Pittsburgh after his successful fight with cancer.
On the West Coast, the Pac-12 has the Heisman Trophy runner-up in McCaffrey as well as Freeman.
“There are a lot of good-looking running backs out there,” said Dave Warner, Michigan State’s co-offensive coordinator/running backs coach.
“In the NFL, they’re not as premium anymore because they don’t last very long,” Warner added. “(In) college, they last with us.”
Many of those running backs are competitive enough to keep tabs on one another.
“I watch all of those guys,” Cook said. “Fournette, McCaffrey. … Chubb will come back 100 percent. Jalen. Royce. I watch all of those guys. Great backs. (I) take little lessons from their game, try to tweak my game a little bit because all of those guys have different running styles. You can’t ever stop learning, no matter what.”
Defenses haven’t quite learned how to slow them down.
Football Bowl Subdivision teams averaged 178.3 yards rushing per game last season, the most since 1980. That’s at least partly due to the increased number of snaps that have come from the rise in up-tempo offenses.
But teams also are running more effectively than before. FBS schools averaged a record 4.5 yards per carry last season
“I think it’s a byproduct of spread offenses,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “I think it’s the byproduct of play-action passes and all the run-pass options that offenses are doing now where a quarterback has three or four options on a run play in every single play.”
The soaring totals have left some running backs fighting for attention.
Hood’s track record would make him a legitimate Heisman candidate many other years, but McCaffrey, Fournette, Freeman and Cook are coming off even better seasons. The North Carolina standout said he didn’t worry about the lack of attention and, “my play speaks for itself.”
San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey has rushed for more than 3,500 yards over the last two seasons, yet he isn’t particularly well known outside the Mountain West Conference. Gallman rushed for 1,527 yards last year while being overshadowed by Cook and Hood in the ACC and by quarterback Deshaun Watson in his own backfield.
“That’s an extra chip. I have to go out there and prove myself every play,” Gallman said.
Recent history suggests they shouldn’t expect a payoff down the road.
At least two running backs were drafted in the first round every year from 1985 to 2010, but the NFL doesn’t hold that position nearly in the same regard anymore. A total of three running backs have been first-round selections over the last four years, including Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick in the most recent draft.
But at least in college, running backs have become increasingly vital. It’s no coincidence the nation’s most prolific runners play on some of college football’s top teams.
AP Sports Writers Aaron Beard, Josh Dubow, Pete Iacobelli, Joe Reedy, Noah Trister and Kurt Voigt contributed to this report.
AP college website: collegefootball.ap.org