In an era where throwing the football has revolutionized the game, many would argue that the running back position has taken a backseat to more flashy offensive firepower in college football.
The 2015 college football season would beg to differ.
14 different running backs tallied over 1,500 yards rushing, while former Oklahoma Sooner and current Minnesota Viking Adrian Peterson led the NFL with 1,485 yards on the ground.
This upcoming season will continue the college trend in proving that running the football wins games for high-level programs. Especially since depth at the position is at a peak point in recent memory.
Stars like Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffery, Wayne Gallman, Dalvin Cook, James Connor, Samaje Perine, Royce Freeman, Nick Chubb, and Jalen Hurd return to perform in the encore of their collegiate careers.
Running the football is still embedded in the identity of college football and will be on full display with the top contenders in the country.
Here are five of the most underrated running backs to keep an eye on heading into the 2016 college football season.
5. Marcus Cox, Sr. — Appalachian State Mountaineers
The Mountaineers finished sixth in the country in rushing offense last season, and a majority of that yardage came from the undersized, yet very talented Marcus Cox. At 5’10”, 185 pounds, the Georgia native torched opposing defenses last season, rushing for nearly six yards per carry and nine touchdowns. His 20 carries per game and 1,423 rushing yards were 16th best in the country. In their first year being FBS bowl eligible, the Mountaineers went 11-2, defeating Ohio in the 2015 Raycom Media Camellia Bowl. Their only losses were to perennial conference power Arkansas State and national championship runner-up Clemson.
Cox rushed for over 100 yards in eight of Appalachian State’s 13 games last season. The strongest of performances coming in the final two games of the season, where Cox combined to rush for 354 yards against Ohio in the bowl game and South Alabama to run the season.
The Mountaineers should be a favorite in the Sun Belt with 16 returning starters and though there is plenty of depth at running back for head coach Scott Satterfield, Marcus Cox stands out as one of the best running backs in the country that nobody is talking about.
4. Larry Rose III, Jr. — New Mexico State Aggies
They are projected to be one of the worst teams in the country in 2016, but New Mexico State fans still have a reason to watch the Aggies in 2016. Larry Rose III is the shining light in a dark hole of winning just seven times during the three years of the Doug Martin area.
Last season, Rose became the first Aggie running back to run for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons since Denvis Manns in the late ’90s.
The Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year and Associated Press All-America Third Teamer accounted for 76 percent of the Aggie’s rushing yards in 2015.
His 240 carries were 27 percent of the New Mexico State offense last season.
The speedster is also a bit undersized, but makes up for it with his speed and power. New Mexico State uses him in a lot of delay and draw plays and despite being just 5-11 and 186 pounds.
Rose broke the NMSU single-season rushing record as a sophomore, despite having five games with less than 20 carries. The Texas native finished eighth in the country in rushing yards last season.
Look for an even more impressive junior campaign from the only bright spot New Mexico State’s 2016 season.
3. Brian Hill, Jr. — Wyoming Cowboys
I love watching a downhill runner lower his shoulder and set momentum for his offense by continuing to move the chains.
The 6-1 bruiser set the Wyoming single-season record a season ago, rushing for 1,631 yards as a sophomore. Yet, he was slighted as a first-team All-Mountain West back and was not selected to the Doak Walker preseason watch list.
This frequent snubbing has only made Hill want to be an even better player. He added ten pounds of muscle in the off-season according to Holmgren, who also talked to running backs coach Mike Bath about Hill’s continued all-around progression.
“He looks probably a little bit more explosive, which is a great thing,” Bath said. “You can see he looks good. It’s a compliment to how much work he’s put in. It’s a compliment to (strength) coach (Russell) Dennison and the new staff. The thing I like about him is that even with the physical gains and stuff, he’s shown mental gains. He’s continued to mature.”
Hill rushed for 1,631 yards a year ago and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. The Cowboys won just two games in 2015, despite the Illinois native rushing for over 200 yards in four games.
Wyoming was just 1-3 in those contests.
The next step for the all-purpose runner is to improve on his consistency. That’s tough to do with defenses only needing to key in on you as the primary play maker on offense.
Hill had five games last season in which he averaged less than four yards per carry.
2. Marlon Mack, Jr. — South Florida Bulls
Size. Speed. Arguably the best afterburners in college football. Good luck trying to catch Marlon Mack after he breaks from the line of scrimmage.
Hidden in the shadows of Tom Herman’s Houston Cougars, Paxton Lynch, and the Memphis Tigers, and the unbelievable final season for Navy all-time great Keenan Reynolds — head coach Willie Taggart truly unleashed one of the hidden gems in college football last season.
Now that the Bull is out of the bucking chute, all that opposing defenses can hope to do in 2015 is to hang on as long as possible during the ride, while defensive coordinators pray that he doesn’t make them look like rodeo clowns.
What makes Marlon Mack one of the most underappreciated backs in the country is his vision and burst out of the lane he chooses to run through.
Especially in secondary situations, where the original hole closes or collapses.
And now that Taggart knows he has such an elusive player in the backfield, you can guarantee he will become even more of the offensive game plan in 2016.
Mack finished 19th in the country in rushing with 1,381 yards on over 6.5 yards per carry. That’s despite only averaging 17.5 carries per game, which was 37th best in 2015.
What’s unbelievable is that Mack still remains one of the top underrated running backs, despite being 309 yards away from setting the school record for rushing yards in a career.
Good luck to defenses this season as they try to stop the two-time First Team All-AAC selection.
1. Saquan Barkley, So. — Penn State Nittany Lions
An argument could be made that Penn State’s Saquon Barkley is the best returning back in the Big Ten.
Debating whether or not he’s the most electrifying runner in the conference would be more difficult than building a wall near the Mexican border and asking their government to pay for it.
Barkley averaged over six yards per carry and rushed for over 100 yards in five games last season. Despite not being the full-time back, he was able to carve out a niche for himself in the first half of the season as Penn State’s only weapon.
He struggled with consistency in the second half last season. The Nittany Lions lost four of their last six games. In those contests, Barkley ran for a total of 509 yards and less than 4.5 yards per touch.
Heading into his sophomore season though, James Franklin’s offense will be tailored more towards his strengths.
The spread offense that is being installed by newly-hired offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead will open up more holes and attempts in the passing game — where he can get more open space.
If anyone can average over nine yards per carry in back-to-back contests with the offensive line Barkley played behind a year ago, anything is possible in 2016.
Opposing coaches will have to be worried about the dual-threat possibility even more in 2016, especially with a no-huddle component being added to the Nittany Lion offense.
Barkley had only 20 receptions in 2015, but was severely underused as a check down receiver with Christian Hackenberg under center. Especially in the first half of the season, when he had only one reception through the month of October.
The Pennsylvania native averaged eight yards per catch in 2015, despite having only three or more catches in only four games.
Expect him to post much bigger numbers in 2016.