SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Paul Myerberg breaks down his college football offseason rankings
USA TODAY Sports is getting ready for the 2019 college football season by breaking down the best players at each position in the Bowl Subdivision. Up next: the running backs.
The list includes an AJ (Dillon), a J.K. (Dobbins) and a CJ (Verdell) but just one senior, a former Power Five transfer who might lead the SEC in rushing. As at quarterback, it’s a top-heavy group: Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor and Clemson’s Travis Etienne are the consensus top players at the position.
1. Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin (Jr.)
Taylor has cracked 100 yards in all but five of his 27 career games and has run for 4,171 yards across his first two seasons, setting the All-America product on pace to become the leading rusher in FBS history. He’ll shoulder an even bigger load in 2019 as the Badgers break in a first-year starting quarterback.
2. Travis Etienne, Clemson (Jr.)
Etienne is no longer flying under the radar after his sophomore successes, which included an FBS-best 24 rushing touchdowns on 8.13 yards per carry during the Tigers’ perfect season. He combines with sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence to give Clemson the best backfield in college football.
3. D’Andre Swift, Georgia (Jr.)
Swift’s talent has outweighed his touches across his first two years with the Bulldogs, though his production saw a significant uptick across the second half of last season. He’s in line for even more carries as a junior, which should give Georgia another Heisman Trophy contender to go with Jake Fromm.
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4. AJ Dillon, Boston College (Jr.)
Injuries slowed Dillon in 2018, though he still ended up edging Etienne by a hair to lead the ACC in rushing yards per game. The centerpiece of the Eagles’ offense — and a tone-setter for the program’s physical approach — Dillon is in line for 1,500 yards and double-digit scores behind a line that’s inexperienced but loaded with potential.
5. Eno Benjamin, Arizona State (Jr.)
Benjamin’s superb 2018 came on the heels of a little-used freshman campaign, making him one of the great breakout stars of last season. Likely the best back out West, he is a very strong NFL candidate due to his talent as a runner and developing skills as a receiver. Look for Benjamin to approach or pass 2,000 yards in total offense in 2019.
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6. Kennedy Brooks, Oklahoma (So.)
Even as he’s not likely to earn 200-plus carries, Brooks showed as a redshirt freshman why he’s among the most productive per-touch players in the FBS, rushing for 1,056 yards and 12 scores on just 119 carries. He’ll again be one of several options among Oklahoma’s plethora of offensive talent and serve as a security blanket while the Sooners’ scheme adapts to fit new quarterback Jalen Hurt’s skill set.
7. Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Vanderbilt (Sr.)
The lone senior on the list, Vaughn caught fire down the stretch of 2018, rushing for 749 yards across Vanderbilt’s last five games and going for 243 yards in a narrow bowl loss to Baylor. Look for this to carry over to September. A former transfer from Illinois, Vaughn could carry the Commodores back into the postseason.
8. Cam Akers, Florida State (Jr.)
Once a trendy Heisman contender, Akers’ sophomore swoon matched Florida State’s sluggish debut under coach Willie Taggart. Whether Akers rebounds in 2019 depends in no small part on the production of the Seminoles’ maligned offensive line and whether Taggart can cobble together solid quarterback play from an unimposing list of options. If FSU gets improvement from both areas, however, Akers will recapture the hype that joined his fantastic freshman year.
9. J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State (Jr.)
Dobbins might be not the best fit for new Ohio State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich and his scheme, which at Oklahoma State was built around shiftier and more explosive backs with speed to hit and turn the corner. But Dobbins is steady and reliable — almost 2,500 yards during his first two years — and a safe bet to again crack 1,000 yards and earn all-conference honors.
10. CJ Verdell, Oregon (So.)
Verdell ended his freshman year as the only player in the FBS with 1,000 yards on the ground and another 300 yards as a receiver. Along with fellow sophomore Travis Dye — he ran for 739 yards in 2018 — Verdell provides Oregon with balancing production to go with potential All-America quarterback Justin Herbert.
Five also just missing out
Spencer Brown, Alabama-Birmingham; Najee Harris, Alabama; Jermar Jefferson, Oregon State; Greg McCrae, Central Florida; J.J. Taylor, Arizona.