2016 Preseason All-American Projections: Running Backs

By Charlie Campbell
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Heading into the 2016 college football season WalterFootball.com will debut our projections for the nation’s leaders during the fall. The All-American teams always have some surprises and the stars of next fall could be the headlining prospects next May in the 2017 NFL Draft.

First-Team Running Backs:

Leonard Fournette, LSU

Fournette (6-1, 230) had a ton of hype surrounding him as a freshman and didn’t disappoint. The Tigers used a committee approach in 2014, but Fournette still produced. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry on 187 rushes for 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns.

As a sophomore, Fournette took his game to another level and was one of the best players in college football. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry for 1,953 yards with 22 touchdowns. Fournette also caught 19 passes for 253 yards with a touchdown. He had a number of long gains called back as well. Plus, teams were selling out to stop Fournette given LSU’s poor quarterback play and defenses were still struggling to keep him in check. Fournette was one of the best, and most dominant, players in the nation. He carried the Tigers and showed that the hype was legitimate.

Even though defenses will be selling out to stop him, Fournette’s talent level is that of a special NFL player playing at a college level. He should be in store for a big season even with teams selling out to stop him. The only thing that could hold Fournette back is injuries. Hopefully, he stays healthy and college football enjoys one more season from this rare superstar.

Christian McCaffrey, Stanford

In my opinion, McCaffrey should have won the Heisman Trophy last year. Obviously, Derrick Henry had a great season and was a worthy player to consider, but McCaffrey carried his team. Henry had a defense filled with NFL talent and a lot of good players around him on offense. McCaffrey’s supporting cast, meanwhile, wasn’t nearly as talented, and Stanford was reliant on him to produce points.

McCaffrey was unstoppable in the last half of the 2015 season. On the year, he averaged six yards per carry for 2,019 yards with eight touchdowns. As a receiver, McCaffrey had 45 catches for 645 yards and five scores. He averaged 29 yards per kick return with a touchdown on 37 kick returns. He also averaged 8.7 yards per punt return with a touchdown. McCaffrey was a speedy play-maker who was threat to break off a long gain every time he touched the ball.

It could be harder for McCaffrey to produce that well this season. Defenses will be selling out to stop him while the Cardinal is breaking in a new quarterback. He also lost some offensive linemen. Still, McCaffrey is so talented I think he will produce another big year and be a clear All-American with his versatile play-making skills.

Second-Team Running Backs:

Nick Chubb, Georgia

Nobody was expecting a backup freshman running back to take the SEC by storm in 2014, especially when the starting running back was superstar Todd Gurley, but that is exactly what Chubb did. Gurley missed time with a suspension before tearing an ACL to end his season early. Chubb was phenomenal in 2014, averaging 7.1 yards per carry for 1,547 yards with 14 touchdowns. He also caught 18 receptions for 213 yards and two scores.

With Gurley in the NFL, Chubb took over as the feature back for the Bulldogs in 2015 and picked up where he left off as a freshman. The sophomore averaged 8.1 yards per carry for 747 yards and seven touchdowns through only five games. In his final complete game of the year, he ran for 146 yards on 20 carries with a touchdown against eventual National Champion Alabama. In the sixth game of the season, Chubb tore his ACL against Tennessee. That caused him to miss the final seven contests.

If Chubb can stay healthy and returns to his previous form, I think he will dominate the competition this season. Chubb is a human bowling ball who is very difficult to tackle, even by defenders who know what is coming. Chubb could dominate once again and be a star this fall.

Dalvin Cook, Florida State

The Seminoles had a drop-off after losing Jameis Winston and a lot of other talented players to the NFL, but Cook was so good on his own, he carried Florida State to a 10-win season. In 2015, Cook averaged 7.4 yards per carry for 1,691 yards with 19 touchdowns. He had 24 receptions for 244 yards and a score as well. Defenses knew that they were going to see a ton of handoffs to Cook, yet they were incapable of stopping him.

Cook has a serious mix of power and speed. As a freshman, he ran for 1,008 yards with an average of 5.9 per carry and eight touchdowns. If Cook (6-0, 203) stays healthy, he should be in store for a huge junior season.

Third-Team Running Backs:

Wayne Gallman, Clemson

While Deshaun Watson got more attention in 2015, Gallman was the workhorse of the Clemson offense as he averaged 5.4 yards per carry for 1,527 yards with 13 touchdowns. He also caught 21 passes for 213 yards with a score. Gallman was clutch down the stretch and made the Tigers very tough to stop. Clemson will spread the ball around in 2016, but Gallman should still produce a huge season as defenses can’t stack the box against him with Watson leading a potent passing attack.

Jalen Hurd, Tennessee

The power runner Hurd didn’t get a lot of attention, but he was a beast for the Volunteers last year. I know NFL evaluators who like Hurd and eager to see him this fall. In 2015, he averaged 4.7 yards per carry for 1,288 yards with 12 touchdowns. The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder could roll over the SEC East competition in 2016. Hurd has a quarterback to help keep defenses honest, and he could end up being a sleeper pick for the NFL.

Honorable Mentions: Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine, Oregon’s Royce Freeman, Wisconsin’s Corey Clement, Georgia’s Sony Michel, North Carolina’s Elijah Hood, Toledo’s Kareem Hunt, Notre Dame’s Tarean Folston, Michigan’s De’Veon Smith and Baylor’s Shock Linwood.

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