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College Football's Top Running Backs on the Rise for 2023

Athlon Sports 3/23/2023 Steven Lassan
© Provided by Athlon Sports

The countdown to the 2023 college football season is already underway, as spring practices and position battles for spots on the depth chart for all 133 teams across the nation are already in progress or will be soon throughout offseason workouts. Eight of the nation's top 10 leading rushers in yardage from '22 have departed for the NFL, so college football will have several new stars emerge at the running back position this offseason and into the regular season. The next wave of stars at running back could include names like Florida State's Trey Benson, Penn State's Nicholas Singleton, Utah's Ja'Quinden Jackson and Oregon State's Damien Martinez. 

Let's take a look at some running backs on the rise for next season, as well as a handful of names to watch. With spring practice coming up and some of the battles for carries yet to be decided, this list will look a tad different by the fall. If possible, we tried to avoid running backs who already eclipsed 1,000 yards in a season. Defining what is a "running back on the rise" isn't easy, but we tried to pick running backs that had an under-the-radar 2022 season or ones we believe are in for a huge '23 campaign. 

College Football's Top Running Backs on the Rise for 2023

Jovantae Barnes/Gavin Sawchuk, OklahomaEric Gray is off to the NFL, but Oklahoma's backfield is still in great shape thanks to the return of Barnes, Sawchuk and Marcus Major. And the Sooners already got a look at the potential one-two punch of Barnes and Sawchuk in the Cheez-It Bowl, as both players topped 100 yards in a close loss to Florida State. Barnes (519 yards) was more involved in '22 than Sawchuk (105 yards), but both players should be a bigger part of the offense in '23.

Related: College Football's Quarterbacks on the Rise for 2023

Kevorian Barnes, UTSASincere McCormick left big shoes to fill in San Antonio last season, but Barnes eventually settled into the No. 1 role and shined for coach Jeff Traylor. After recording just 20 rushing yards through the team's first six contests, Barnes finished the year with 845 yards and six touchdowns, including 132 against Troy in the bowl game. Assuming the Texas native builds off last season's strong finish, he should rank among the AAC's top backs in '23.

Trey Benson, Florida StateFlorida State coach Mike Norvell has thrived at identifying and developing talent from the transfer portal since arriving in Tallahassee in 2020. Benson was one of those finds, as he arrived after overcoming a major knee injury in '20 at Oregon to emerge as one of the ACC's top running backs. The Mississippi native compiled 990 yards and nine touchdowns in his first year with the 'Noles and recorded four 100-yard efforts over the last six games. According to PFF, Benson ranked sixth nationally with 79 missed tackles forced after a rush.

Shaadie Clayton-Johnson, TulaneFilling the void Tyjae Spears left behind won't be easy, but Tulane has a promising group of running backs vying for snaps this offseason. Clayton-Johnson spent the first two years of his career at Colorado before returning to his home state of Louisiana prior to '22. As the top backup to Spears last year, Clayton-Johnson ran for 333 yards (5.8 per rush) and two scores over 57 attempts. His best outing came against Tulsa, rushing for 106 yards over 14 carries in a 27-13 win by the Green Wave. Speed (reportedly 4.42 in the 40-yard dash) is a key aspect of Clayton-Johnson's game, but his 6-foot-1 frame can take the pounding of a hefty workload. Iverson Celestine is another name to watch at Tulane in '23.

C.J. Donaldson, West VirginiaIn terms of unique storylines from the '22 college football season, Donaldson is certainly high on that list. The Florida native was a three-star tight end prospect from Florida but signed to West Virginia as an all-purpose weapon. Donaldson settled in at running back early in the year, rushing for 125 yards against Pitt in the Backyard Brawl and later posted 106 versus Virginia Tech. However, a leg injury ended his season in late October, putting his final totals at 526 yards and eight scores. With West Virginia entering '23 with uncertainty at quarterback, Donaldson and a deep stable of running backs should be the focal point of coach Neal Brown's offense. 

Related: College Football's Top QB Battles to Watch in Spring Practice

John Lee Eldridge, Air ForceEldridge probably won't assume all of the 345 carries from Brad Roberts after his departure, but it's safe to assume the Falcons need to find more ways to get the Ohio native the ball. In just under 100 rushing attempts last season, Eldridge ran for 766 yards and four scores, averaging a robust 7.7 yards per carry. 

Trevor Etienne, FloridaWith question marks surrounding Florida's quarterback situation for 2023, the focal point of coach Billy Napier's offense should be a ground game that features the one-two punch of Montrell Johnson Jr. (841 yards) and Etienne. As a true freshman last year, Etienne burst onto the scene in Gainesville with 719 yards and six scores over 118 attempts. Look for Napier to find even more ways to get Etienne involved in '23.

Ollie Gordon, Oklahoma StateGordon's overall numbers (308 yards) may not catch much attention going into the spring. However, a closer look at his production shows an uptick at the end of the year, including 136 yards on 17 attempts against West Virginia and 45 against a tough Wisconsin defense in the bowl. If the former four-star prospect continues to progress after a promising freshman season, he should emerge as the No. 1 option for coach Mike Gundy.

Rodney Hammond, PittIsrael Abanikanda (1,431 yards) departed Pitt's backfield after the '22 season, but his absence in the Sun Bowl also created an opportunity for Hammond to showcase what's to come in '23. On 25 attempts, Hammond ran for 94 yards and two scores against the Bruins, upping his season totals to 460 yards and five rushing touchdowns on 109 yards. Earlier in the '22 campaign, Hammond gashed Syracuse for 124 yards and posted 74 in the opener against West Virginia.

Related: Pre-Spring ACC Quarterback Rankings for 2023

Roman Hemby, MarylandWith Mohamed Ibrahim, Chase Brown, Blake Corum and Braelon Allen garnering most of the attention in the Big Ten from the running back ranks, Hemby's '22 season was largely overlooked on a national level. The Maryland native quietly ran for 989 yards and 10 touchdowns and caught 33 passes for 298 yards and a score. A revamped offensive line will create some challenges for '23, but Hemby should be one of the top backs in the Big Ten. 

Jarquez Hunter, AuburnHunter has shined as the No. 2 option in Auburn's backfield over the last two seasons and is slated to take on more of the No. 1 workload with Tank Bigsby off to the NFL. The Mississippi native finished third on the team with 675 yards rushing last fall and has compiled 1,261 yards over the last two years. USF transfer Brian Battie should handle a chunk of the carries for new coach Hugh Freeze too, but Hunter is primed for a larger role in '23.

Ja'Quinden Jackson, Utah

After starting his career at Texas after being ranked as the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback in the 2020 signing class, Jackson seems to have found a home in Salt Lake City at a different position. The Utes moved Jackson to running back last fall, and the Dallas native became a key cog in the offense, rushing for 531 yards and nine scores over 78 attempts. Included in that production was 105 yards versus USC in the Pac-12 Championship, along with 81 yards in the Rose Bowl against Penn State. With a full offseason to work at running back, look for Jackson to become a star in the Pac-12.

Kaleb Johnson, IowaIowa's offense struggled to establish the run as a team (2.9 yards per carry), but Johnson was a bright spot as a true freshman. He played in all 13 games, rushing for 779 yards and six touchdowns on 151 attempts. If the offensive line takes a step forward this offseason, Johnson should push for 1,000 yards in '23.

Damien Martinez, Oregon StateMartinez was one of the Pac-12's top running backs as a true freshman last season, just missing out on 1,000 yards (982) and scoring seven touchdowns over 13 appearances. And in a sign of things to come, Martinez got stronger as the season went on, recording a string of six consecutive 100-yard games in the second half of '22, including 103 against rival Oregon and 178 against Colorado. 

Jase McClellan, AlabamaAs usual in Tuscaloosa, Alabama isn't hurting for talent in the backfield. Jahmyr Gibbs and his all-purpose ability will be missed, but McClellan headlines a talented group that includes Roydell Williams, Jamarion Miller and freshman Justice Haynes. McClellan has to hold off that trio for carries, but as last year's production showed (655 yards and seven touchdowns over 111 carries), he's ready to emerge as the No. 1 option for the Crimson Tide. Also, his physicality (388 yards after contact) should be an asset for an offense looking to establish the run and protect a young quarterback.

Related: Pre-Spring SEC Quarterback Rankings for 2023

Josh McCray, IllinoisChase Brown (1,643 rushing yards last season) leaves big shoes to fill in Champaign this fall. But the cupboard at running back isn't completely bare for coach Bret Bielema. Reggie Love III (317 yards last year) is back, and McCray is slated to return to full strength after missing the bulk of '22 due to injury. With a return to 100 percent, the Fighting Illini should expect the 235-pound back to play closer to the form that saw him rush for 549 yards and two scores (112 attempts) as a true freshman in '21.

Kendall Milton, GeorgiaMilton has waited his turn in Athens, playing behind Kenny McIntosh, Zamir White, and James Cook over the last three years. But with '22 leading rusher McIntosh off to the NFL, Milton appears poised to step into the No. 1 role with support from Daijun Edwards and Branson Robinson. Milton — the No. 54 recruit in the '20 signing class — ran for 592 yards and eight scores on just 85 attempts last year. Standout running back play is usually not an issue at Georgia. Look for Milton to keep the backfield performing at a high level this fall. 

Jaydn Ott, CaliforniaThe transfer additions of Byron Cardwell and Justin Williams-Thomas have clouded Ott's role and overall workload a bit, but it's safe to assume he's still going to be prominently featured in the California backfield after leading the team with 897 rushing yards and eight touchdowns last year. The California native was also a valuable weapon out of the backfield with 46 catches for 321 yards.

Rueben Owens, Texas A&MWith Devon Achane off to the NFL, Texas A&M has a massive hole to fill in the backfield this offseason. Although Owens has yet to take an official carry in an SEC game, the true freshman has the talent (regarded as the No. 3 running back the '23 signing class) and available playing time to make a big-time impact on the Aggies' ground game this fall.

Nicholas Singleton, Penn StateSingleton is an easy pick as one of the top breakout running backs in the nation for '23. High expectations surrounded him as a five-star freshman as soon he stepped on campus last fall, and Singleton didn't disappoint in his Happy Valley debut. The Pennsylvania native ran for 1,061 yards and 12 touchdowns on just 156 carries and capped the year by gashing Utah for 120 yards in the Rose Bowl. Singleton's yards per rush (6.8) ranked second among all Big Ten running backs last fall.

Related: College Football's Quarterbacks on the Rise for 2023

Jalen White, Georgia SouthernGeorgia Southern's offensive philosophy shifted in a big way under first-year coach Clay Helton last season. Instead of deploying the triple option, the Eagles became one of the top passing offenses in college football, finishing third nationally in attempts (612) and fourth in yards per game (329.9). However, Helton and coordinator Bryan Ellis didn't abandon the ground game, as White (914 yards and 10 scores) flashed big-time potential in his first year as the team's go-to back.  

Other Names to Watch

Robert Briggs, Utah StateBriggs is only 5-foot-6, so a 300-carry season seems unlikely this fall. However, his work (353 yards) in a limited role behind starter Calvin Tyler Jr. was promising in '22.

Jonathon Brooks, Texas (or Cedric Baxter)Brooks impressed (197 yards and five touchdowns on 30 carries) last season and could easily become one of the Big 12's top backs. However, he's competing with Keilan Robinson, Jaydon Blue and five-star freshman Cedric Baxter for time. 

Marquis Crosby, Louisiana TechCrosby had a promising freshman season under first-year coach Sonny Cumbie, as he ran for 918 yards and nine touchdowns and caught nine passes over 12 games. He should take on a bigger role in '23, but transfers Craig Williams (Baylor) and Tyre Shelton (Miami, Ohio) will also push for snaps.

R.J. Harvey, UCFHarvey — a converted quarterback transfer from Virginia — ran for 796 yards and five touchdowns last year to showcase why he should succeed Isaiah Bowser as the team's top option. However, Johnny Richardson, Mark-Antony Richards and Florida transfer Demarkcus Bowman will push him for carries.

Malik Sherrod, Fresno StateWith Jordan Mims off to the NFL, the Bulldogs will lean on a proven option (Sherrod) and a transfer (Damien Moore) to battle for carries this offseason.

Dre'lyn Washington, LouisianaThe No. 1 spot in Louisiana's backfield is open with Chris Smith (628 yards) departing Lafayette. Washington (350 yards as a freshman in '22) is a name to remember.

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