While the group of underclassmen running backs that entered the 2020 NFL Draft was a strong group that featured names such as Jonathan Taylor, D’Andre Swift, and J.K. Dobbins, the position is still strong throughout college football, and the 2021 NFL Draft running backs class should be a good group that Pro Football Magazine will be keeping an eye on.
Multiple running backs that could have declared for the draft and likely would have been selected in the top 100 picks decided to return to school, and will be looking to compete for the Heisman Trophy next season. Here are the top 5 returning running backs in college football in 2020. These names are 2021 NFL Draft running backs that you’ll likely be hearing a lot more of soon.
5. Pooka Williams, Kansas
Pooka Williams burst onto the scene as a true freshman back in 2018, rushing for 7.0 yards per clip, and 7 rushing touchdowns on a struggling Kansas team. Williams missed last offseason and served a one-game suspension to start 2019, but once again rushed for over 1,000 yards and continued to prove his pass catching ability with another 27 receptions. Williams was dominant last season against the Jayhawks’ best opponents, producing 721 combined rushing and receiving yards against Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa State, and Baylor.
4. Najee Harris, Alabama
The former No. 1 running back recruit coming out of high school, Najee Harris looks like he was built in a lab at 6’2″ and 230 pounds with elite-level explosiveness. His production has steadily risen throughout his college career, and he’ll have legitimate workhorse potential upon entering the NFL. Harris accounted for 20 touchdowns last season on 236 offensive touches, with his best rushing performances coming against LSU (146 yards), Auburn (146 yards), and Michigan (136 yards).
3. Journey Brown, Penn State
Journey Brown is in line to be the next great Penn State running back prospect after his dominance down the stretch of last season. Brown was Pennsylvania’s state champion in the 100-meter and 60-meter dash in high school, and he’s approached legendary status in the Penn State weight room (395 pound bench press, 4.29s forty-yard dash, 500 pound squat). On just 78 carries over the Nittany Lions’ final five games of the season, Brown ran for 593 yards and 9 touchdowns.
2. Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State
Chuba Hubbard finished 8th in the Heisman voting last season after rushing for over 2,000 yards and 21 touchdowns, but decided to forego the NFL Draft and return to Oklahoma State. On top of the rushing yards, he has 45 receptions through two seasons as a part of the Cowboys high-flying attack. Hubbard is a sprinter on the Oklahoma State track and field team, and his speed creates explosive plays when he breaks into space.
1. Travis Etienne, Clemson
Speaking of speed and Heisman candidacy, Travis Etienne will pair with Trevor Lawrence to create the best backfield in the country next season. Etienne has consecutive seasons with over 1,600 rushing yards and at least 23 offensive touchdowns, and his pass catching chops improved last season (37 receptions). He’s been the ACC offensive player of the year for consecutive seasons, and already owns the conference record for rushing touchdowns. He has a complete NFL running back skill-set and will be in line for another All-American nod next season.
Honorable Mentions: Kennedy Brooks (Oklahoma), CJ Verdell (Oregon), Kylin Hill (Mississippi State), Max Borghi (Washington State), Jaret Patterson (Buffalo)
(Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)