Written By: Ryan Lippert|@lippert42
Last week, I kicked off a new series leading up to the (hopeful) 2020 college football season. For this series of articles, I will focus on the top five returning college football players at each position. The first part of the series focused on the quarterbacks and now this week, I will turn my attention to the top ball carriers for the 2020 season. With that being said, here are my top five returning running backs for the 2020 college football season.
1. Travis Etienne - Clemson
There should be no question as to why Clemson is listed as one of the early favorites to win the National Championship this season as this is now the second Tiger to be at the top spot in the position rankings. Etienne shocked a lot of people when he announced that he was returning for his senior season as he would’ve easily been in the discussion as one of the top running backs in the 2020 NFL Draft. He is a complete back that has tremendous top-end speed, can run through tackles, make defenders miss, and is reliable as a receiver. In 2019, he was a huge part of the Tigers’ offensive attack, running the ball 207 times for 1,614 yards and 19 touchdowns along with 37 receptions for 432 yards and four touchdowns. These numbers helped him earn ACC Player of the Year, Second Team All-American, and First Team All-ACC honors. Him and quarterback Trevor Lawrence should push Clemson to another College Football Playoff berth this season.
2. Najee Harris - Alabama
Najee Harris is yet another running back from Alabama that will be looking to make his mark at the next level. Like Etienne, his decision to return to college took some by surprise. After losing quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to injury, the Crimson Tide focused more on the ground game, allowing Harris to shine as their lead back. He finished his junior year with 209 carries for 1,224 yards and 13 touchdowns. Harris also showed that he can produce in the passing game, catching 27 receptions for 304 yards and seven touchdowns. Those numbers earned him Second Team All-SEC honors. I like how Harris projects at the next level as he is a bigger, more physical back at 6’2”, 230 pounds that also has solid speed and athleticism with the ball in his hands. Harris looks to be due for another big year as a senior as he will try to get Alabama back in the playoff picture.
3. Chuba Hubbard - Oklahoma State
Hubbard was another surprising returning decision for the upcoming season. This surprise is due to a monster redshirt sophomore season in 2019. He led the FBS in rushing yards with 2,094 off 328 carries and scored 21 touchdowns on the ground. He also caught 23 passes for 198 yards. His outstanding rushing numbers helped him earn a unanimous spot as a First Team All-American along with Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, Walter Camp and Doak Walker finalist, and First Team All-Big 12 honors. He is a very patient runner that can hurt defenses with his speed once he gets around the edge or in the open field. If he can show more athletically and in the passing game, he could very well move his way up to the top running back spot for the 2021 NFL Draft.
4. Kenneth Gainwell - Memphis
Next on this list is a player that has been making the rounds on Draft Twitter and after watching his film, the hype is very real. Gainwell is a fast, elusive running back with great vision and tremendous ability as a receiver that is a threat to find the end zone at any given moment. As a redshirt freshman, he ran the ball 231 times for 1,459 yards and 13 touchdowns. He was just as impressive in the passing game, catching 51 passes for 610 yards (FBS leader among running backs) and three touchdowns. These numbers earned him AAC Freshman of the Year, First Team All-AAC, and National Freshman of the Year honors. If he can build on that impressive season, don’t be surprised to see Gainwell’s name as an early entry for the 2021 NFL Draft.
5. Kylin Hill - Mississippi State
To wrap up my list, I have a running back who basically carried his team’s offense last season and surprisingly decided to return for his senior year. Kylin Hill was one of the very few bright spots in a disappointing 2019 season for the Bulldogs. He finished the season with 1,350 yards and ten touchdowns on 242 carries along with 18 receptions for 180 yards and a touchdown. This earned him First Team All-SEC recognition by the Associated Press and Second Team All-SEC by the coaches. He is more of a physical, downhill back but has shown the ability to make defenders miss in the open field as well. If he can get faster during this offseason and next offseason and also show improvements as a receiver with an improvement at quarterback in transfer KJ Costello, Hill should find himself rising up draft boards in 2021.
Honorable Mention: Jaret Patterson (Buffalo), Rakeem Boyd (Arkansas), Javian Hawkins (Louisville), Journey Brown (Penn State), CJ Verdell (Oregon), Trey Sermon (Oklahoma), Max Borghi (Washington State)