Breakout Running Backs Primed to Shine in 2014

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It’s a quarterback’s game. Star running backs are obsolete. Yada yada yada.

These are the prevailing narratives in today’s football landscape, driven primarily by NFL-focused outlets. While the proliferation of spread offenses has certainly opened the field to passing attacks, the star running back is very much alive and well in college football.

Plenty of stud running backs command the national spotlight heading into the 2014 season: Georgia’s Todd Gurley, Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon and USC’s Buck Allen, to. But new, breakout running backs are positioned to make splashes in the coming year.

None of the following backs manned his team’s featured role for any considerable length of time. Though some have more impressive collegiate credentials than others, none have hit the 1,000-yard mark for a season. But whether reserves taking over the No. 1 spot or newcomers with high expectations, these breaking running backs should indeed shine in 2014.

Cameron Artis-Payne, Auburn

The highly anticipated breakout of Cameron Artis-Payne may have been delayed a year by Tre Mason’s monstrous 2013, but he’ll have the opportunity to shine in Gus Malzahn’s offense in 2014.

Artis-Payne is perhaps the most obvious of the breakout running backs. From former Auburn BCS Championship hero Michael Dyer, to Arkansas State’s David Oku and last year’s Heisman Trophy finalist Mason, Malzahn’s system fosters 1,000-plus-yard ball-carriers.

But Artis-Payne has big-time potential that exceeds his merely being plugged into the Tigers’ prolific system. He generated plenty of buzz last offseason with a stellar spring and contributed 610 yards and six touchdowns in his debut campaign.

He’s currently embroiled in a three-man competition with Peyton Barber and Corey Grant for the starting job. Artis-Payne told Ryan Black of the Ledger-Enquirer the ongoing race to win Mason’s role is pushing him:

“It’s a good thing. You’ve got a bunch of a good running backs in a room and everybody’s trying to push each other. Everybody wants to be the guy to step up and be the lead back. It’s a healthy competition. We all feed off of it.”

D.J. Foster, Arizona State

Marion Grice’s late-season injury thrust D.J. Foster into Arizona State’s feature back role amid the Sun Devils’ final push for the Pac-12 championship. His impressive play in that stretch landed Foster on my Heisman Sleeper list, so obviously I’m high on his potential as Arizona State’s No. 1 ball-carrier.

Foster is multitalented, as demonstrated in his performance the last two seasons. Sun Devils offensive coordinator Mike Norvell lined up Foster as a slot receiver, and he should be equally adept catching passes from the backfield. Foster also has remarkable breakaway speed, which he can turn on after shaking defenders in space.

His ability to create separation is perfectly suited to Arizona State’s spread style. And with stud wide receiver Jaelen Strong and veteran quarterback Taylor Kelly in the mix, opposing defensive coordinators cannot simply key in on the running back Foster. He should put up monster numbers in his first year as Arizona State’s primary running back.

Joe Hill, Utah State

Coinciding with (or contributing to) Utah State’s recent run of success is a string of reliable running backs. Robert Turbin, Kerwynn Williams and Joey DeMartino all surpassed 1,200 yards in the last three seasons, and Joe Hill is primed to continue the streak in 2014.

Hill was Utah State’s initial featured back in 2013, but suffered an early-season injury that shelved him for nine games. His rushing outputs prior to his knee injury were pedestrian, totaling a little over 250 yards. However, Hill was a favorite receiving target of quarterback Chuckie Keeton, who returns from his own injury.

Hill and Keeton complement each other well, and their mutual returns promise to bolster the Aggie offense. As both a clear No. 1 in the run game and a dangerous threat catching out of the backfield, Hill will challenge Boise State’s Jay Ajayi as the Mountain West’s premier running back.

Shock Linwood, Baylor

Not exactly going out on a limb with this projection, as Shock Linwood rushed for almost 900 yards, scored eight touchdowns and averaged a ridiculous 6.9 yards per carry as Baylor’s second (and sometimes third) option last year. But with Lache Seastrunk and Glaso Martin gone, Linwood moves into the featured role in Art Briles’ wide-open system.

Linwood’s potential as one of the nation’s breakout running backs is anything but a well-guarded secret. He’s on the watch list for the Doak Walker Award, while 247Sports is touting him as a possible Heisman contender.

Nick Wilson, Arizona

There’s no guarantee the true freshman from Fresno even sees the field in 2014. But with 4-star billing and an impressive background, Nick Wilson could be the replacement for Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year Ka’Deem Carey.

Carey leaves some enormous shoes to be filled. He also leaves behind well over 600 carries in the last two seasons since Rich Rodriguez arrived at Arizona–carries that must be divvied up among a new-look backfield.

All those carries translate to opportunities. And in Rodriguez’s offense, opportunities often translate to impressive stat lines. Even if he plays in 2014, Wilson won’t touch the All-America numbers Carey produced.

But with veteran Jared Baker still recuperating from a late-season injury, and fellow newcomer Jonathan Haden still seeking clearance from the NCAA, Wilson should be able to jump to the forefront of a potential running back-by-committee immediately. If he’s able to establish himself early against a nonconference slate that includes the No. 108 and No. 124-ranked rush defenses–UNLV and Nevada–Wilson could find himself on his way to an impressive freshman campaign.

Kelsey Young, Stanford

When Toby Gerhart left Stanford following his Heisman Trophy-finalist (and probably should have won) season, the Stanford ground game is thrown into uncertainty. Then Stepfan Taylor stepped up for the first of three straight seasons with more than 1,100 yards.

Taylor’s departure after the 2012 season left a huge void in the offense that was filled by Tyler Gaffney and his 1,709–the most for a Stanford ball-carrier since Gerhart in 2009.

With Gaffney gone, Stanford head coach David Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren are once again left to hand an answer. But as it has been in the past, the Cardinal ground game should again be fine. Kelsey Young is the most senior of a platoon of backs vying the job–a platoon that includes the son of 1988 Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders.

Had Gaffney not returned from a sabbatical playing minor league baseball, Young may very well have been the Cardinal’s primary ball-carrier last year. Instead, he appeared in spot-duty and averaged an impressive 7.9 yards per carry, albeit on just 14 rushes.

His proven ability to catch passes could give him a leg up in the ongoing competition for the starting job. Moreover, Young could develop into a dangerous, two-way threat for a Stanford offense in need of more playmakers.