The 2016 college football season is being heralded as the year of the running back, but it isn't until we really dig into the position that we can truly have an appreciation for the depth and talent of the group. What is truly striking is just how many physical, workhorse backs are on this list despite the trend of teams favoring quickness over power at the position.
This is not a list previewing the 2017 NFL Draft, but a look at running backs that are generating interest from NFL scouts and/or are expected to post big seasons for their teams. Here are 10 to watch in 2016.
1. Leonard Fournette, LSU
Fournette was being hailed as the next Adrian Peterson when he arrived at LSU. He got off to a good, not great, start his freshman season. As a sophomore? Fournette took it to his competition "All Day" and was the Heisman front-runner for much of the season. While the Tigers will have to break in new offensive tackles, they are solid along their interior offensive line and have returning starters at quarterback and wide receiver to keep defenses a little more honest. Fournette runs with intimidating power and understands when to challenge tacklers with brute force and when to show some shake in the open field. Fournette isn't going to dazzle many with his work out of the backfield, but his combination of size and speed could produce record-setting rushing numbers that land him a Heisman Trophy.
2. Dalvin Cook, Florida State
Just how good was Cook last season? Chew on these stats. Cook ran for no gain or a loss of yards in one out of every four carries last season and still averaged 7.4 yards per rush while adding 19 rushing touchdowns. He had a carry of 30 yards or more in nine of his 12 games. Cook is decisive. He runs with good vision and elusiveness at the line of scrimmage and on the second level. He's able to change direction without gearing down much at all, and his short acceleration through the line of scrimmage changes games. Cook isn't much of a tackle-breaker and needs to improve his ball security.
3. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
McCaffrey runs with great body control and a controlled stride length for sudden cuts and change of direction. He forced 51 missed tackles last season and is elusive on all three levels of the field. McCaffrey is well-built but lacks the natural power to move piles in tight quarters and averaged just 1.7 yards per carry after contact, which is a very low total for a high-end college running back. As a receiver out of the backfield, McCaffrey might be peerless. Stanford appears set to ride McCaffrey yet again, which makes him one of the Heisman favorites.
4. Saquon Barkley, Penn State
I didn't watch much Penn State football last year. The only time I locked in on them was to study tape on Christian Hackenberg, and that didn't include much of Barkley. However, after watching his tape recently, I can say that he's one of the most talented pure runners in college football after just his freshman season. Barkley plays with elite vision and instant change-of-direction ability. He runs with burst and anger. Penn State's offensive line was very inconsistent in 2015, so Barkley had his hands full in trying to create opportunities for himself. But his combined 43 carries for 297 yards against Ohio State and Michigan State show what he's capable of.
5. Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
Perine is a powerfully built, compact ball of fury when he runs, breaking free from defenders who attempt to grab-and-drag or arm-tackle him. Perine doesn't have much wasted motion as a runner and he's able to create yardage for himself through force and foot quickness. Despite his frame, Perine has fluid hips and plays with great bend in his hips. He gained more yardage per carry after first contact than he did before first contact, which speaks to his running style. Perine shares carries with Joe Mixon, so his overall stats might not approach those of players like Fournette or Cook. I believe he belongs in the same conversation with those two as an NFL prospect, though.
6. Royce Freeman, Oregon
Last year in this space, I wrote that Freeman might approach 300 carries and that if it he did, he could end up around the 1,800-yard mark with 25 touchdowns. Freeman finished with 283 carries for 1,836 yards and 17 touchdowns. In other words, he's good. Oregon's up-tempo, spread-option offense will continue to feed Freeman and open good-sized rushing lanes for him thanks to its friendly spacing. He should continue to post big numbers. The tape shows a runner who doesn't always play to his size and could use more aggressiveness as a finisher. Freeman has surprising speed once he gets to top gear, and his work in the passing game adds to his value.
7. Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State
Pumphrey is a decisive, instinctive runner who proved he could excel in a pro-style rushing attack featuring plenty of outside zone and gap plays. He has exceptional burst to tear around the edge and away from tacklers. He's able to get separation fairly easily as a receiver. Pumphrey is very small for a runner (5-foot-9, 180 pounds, per school measurements) and averaged just 1.7 yards after first contact, which is a very low number. Pumphrey could hit the 2,000-yard mark and score 20 touchdowns again this season.
8. Wayne Gallman, Clemson
Gallman turned in an impressive effort in helping to provide tempo and aggressiveness in the rushing attack for Clemson's run to the national championship game. Gallman runs with a reckless abandon -- it's as though every carry is his last -- and he certainly won't shy away from contact. Quarterback Deshaun Watson figures to take a step forward as a passer, but Clemson might ask Gallman to pick up more of the rushing slack that might have been reserved for Watson in the past. Gallman runs a little too upright and had a surprisingly low explosive-touch rate (6.58 percent of his touches were considered "explosive" -- receptions of 25 yards or more and rushes of 15 yards or more).
9. Elijah Hood, North Carolina
When looking for RBs to watch, there are two indicators that can be extremely helpful in finding a runner primed for a huge season: returning offensive linemen and a new quarterback. North Carolina returns four starters along its O-line and will be breaking in a new signal caller. In other words, look for the Tar Heels to lean heavily on Hood's well-muscled build, and look for the offensive line to hit the ground running as it pertains to opening holes for the junior, who had 17 rushing touchdowns and 1,463 yards on the ground last season. Hood is an instinctive runner with limited speed, but he has an ability to run through arm tackles with his power and balance.
10. Nick Chubb, Georgia
Chubb dominated when Todd Gurley missed time due to injury and a suspension in 2014. He was off to another fine start last season before he suffered a significant knee injury in October. There's uncertainty about whether he'll be ready to play when the season gets underway. Pre-injury, Chubb showed off plus play speed, balance and an ability to run with power when called on. While Chubb's success this season will be tied to his recovery, his breathtaking talent makes him one to watch if he makes it back.
Others to watch
James Conner, Pitt: Conner was one of the premier RBs in college football in 2014, breaking a whopping 28 tackles that season. After being declared cancer-free following his battle with Hodgkin lymphoma, Conner will be one to watch as he attempts to pick up where he left off.
Jalen Hurd, Tennessee: Hurd averaged just 1.9 yards per carry before first contact, which means he had to work overtime last season to make up for some of his offensive line's deficiencies. At 6-4, 240 pounds, he's big, athletic, fast and no fun to tackle when he squares up his pads and drives through contact. Hurd has some physical attributes that are fairly rare, so 2016 could be a special season for him.
Joe Mixon, Oklahoma: While there are some on this list who will outproduce Mixon thanks to his committee situation with Samaje Perine, Mixon has tremendous potential as an NFL running back. Mixon's darting and slashing style will make you forget that he's a big running back ... until he lays into a tackler.
Larry Rose III, New Mexico State: Rose III led the Sun Belt in all-purpose yardage with 1,934 and ran for 180 yards or more in half of the games he played. Rose boasts great suddenness in the open field and has the ability to hit the big play both on the ground and through the air. With more experience and more carries, he could finish with close to 1,800 yards and 20 touchdowns this year.