The ACC comes into the 2016 season boasting some of the best rushing talent in the country. The top eight rushers from 2015 all return to the field, including seven 1,000+ yard rushers – more than any other conference. Factor in the return of 2014 ACC Offensive Player of the Year James Conner and the ACC is poised to lead the way on the ground this season.
Head of the Class
Dalvin Cook, Jr., Florida State
2015: 229 carries, 1,691 yards, 19 TDs
Cook sets the gold standard for ACC running backs – leading the conference in both rushing yards (1,691) and touchdowns (19) in 2015. A triple-threat runner, Cook can to make defenders miss, shed tackles and has great breakaway speed. He’s a top ACC Player of the Year and Heisman Trophy candidate, leading some talking heads and Seminole fans to believe he could be the best running back in Florida State history.
Gallman is one of the top weapons in a Clemson offense that is absolutely loaded. Last season, he ranked second in the ACC in rushing yards (1,527), third in rushing touchdowns (13) and was named First-Team All-ACC. His 1,740 yards from scrimmage broke C.J. Spiller’s 2009 school record. Expect Gallman to continue to emerge as a pass-catching option out of the backfield, where he caught 21 passes in 2015 for 213 yards and a touchdown a season ago.
Elijah Hood, Jr., UNC
2015: 219 carries, 1,463 yards, 17 TDs
Hood’s sophomore season solidified his reputation as the most physical running back in the ACC, if not the entire country. He punished opposing defenses for 1,463 yards, 17 touchdowns and countless broken tackles. Hood has good open-field speed, but his biggest attribute is his overall strength.
“He squats almost 700 pounds,” UNC wide receiver Ryan Switzer said. “The numbers he puts up in the weight room are ridiculous and it translates to the field.”
The Budding Stars
Qadree Ollison, R-Soph., Pitt
2015: 212 carries, 1,121 yards, 11 TDs
There’s an All-ACC running back returning for the Pitt Panthers this season – and I’m not talking about James Conner.
After redshirting as a freshman, Qadree Ollison came into the 2015 season as the third running back on Pitt’s depth chart. James Conner’s season-ending injury in the Panthers’ opener threw Ollison into significant carries and he took full advantage. In that season opener against Youngstown State, Ollison carried the ball
16 times for 207 yards and a touchdown – all in the second half – in the first action of his college career. Ollison would be voted ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year and with Conner back from injury the Panthers could have one of the best running back combos in the country.
Travon McMillian, R-Soph., Virginia Tech
2015: 200 carries, 1,042 yards, 7 TDs
Another back that wasted no time showing out in his first season on the field, Travon McMillian carried the Hokie running game in 2015. He played in all 13 games (seven starts), carrying the ball 200 times for 1,043 yards and seven touchdowns. In his first full season as the Hokie’s number one back, McMillian will look to meet the hype that’s landed him on the Maxwell Award Preseason Watch List.
Joseph Yearby, Jr., Miami
2015: 205 carries, 1,002 yards, 6 TDs
With a new head coach and a Heisman candidate quarterback, Joseph Yearby has flown a little under the radar this offseason. One of just four Miami players to start every game in 2015, Yearby eclipsed the 1,000 yards rushing marker for the first time in his career. The versatile back was also fourth on the team in receptions, catching 23 passes including a pair of touchdowns. Bruising back Gus Edwards is back from injury, giving Miami the potential to gash you both between and outside the tackles.
Deshaun Watson, Jr., Clemson:
2015: 207 carries, 1,105 yards, 12 TDs
"That guy is the most significantly dominant player that we've played against since Cam Newton in 2010."
That was Alabama head coach Nick Saban talking about Deshaun Watson on ESPN’s College Gameday Live in July. Like Newton, what makes Watson the best quarterback in the country is his ability to make plays with his arm and legs. Watson was one of just three quarterbacks to rush for more than 1,000 yards in 2015 and was the only quarterback to also throw for more than 2,900 yards. He’s seen by most as the Heisman front-runner, where his legs could make the difference.
Lamar Jackson, Soph., Louisville:
2015: 163 carries, 960 yards, 11 TDs
Lamar Jackson runs the ball so well he started the Cardinals 2015 opener versus Auburn at running back. Jackson then transitioned to quarterback, where he started eight of the Cardinal’s remaining 12 games. On his way to a standout true freshman season, Jackson set a new Louisville quarterback rushing record with 960 yards and added 11 touchdowns on the ground. With a full season as starter and a year of experience under his belt, Jackson is primed to be one of the biggest breakout players of 2016.
The Second Coming
James Conner, Jr., Pitt
2014: 298 carries, 1,765 yards, 26 TDs
There’s no better story in college football than the return of Pitt running back James Conner. Just months after he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Panthers’ season opener, Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. On September 3, Conner will run out of the tunnel at Heinz Field cancer-free.
With the biggest battle of his life already won, Conner says he feels like nothing can stand in his way. Every yard he churns out will add to what is certainly one of the most uplifting stories in college sports, but don’t forget that Conner was the 2014 ACC Offensive Player of the Year – because he certainly hasn’t.