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The ACC was absolutely loaded at running back last season. Unfortunately, a lot of the talent is now gone. Of the top 6 rushers last season, five of them — Travis Etienne, Javonte Williams, Michael Carter, Khalil Herbert and Javian Hawkins — have left for the NFL.
So does that mean the ACC is hurting for rushing talent? Absolutely not, which proves just how deep the conference has been at the running back position in the last few years.
As we continue to work our way through the top 5 returning college football players by position and conference, the next group up on the docket includes those who will now be stepping into the spotlight after all those departures from the ACC last season. Enjoy.
Honorable mention: Cam’Ron Harris, Miami; Sean Tucker, Syracuse
5. Mataeo Durant, Duke
Mataeo Durant isn’t going to get the attention he deserves because of the program he plays for, but he’s a damn good running back. At 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, his build is similar to former Alabama running back Kenyan Drake. We also know he’s extremely productive.
Durant wasn’t even Duke’s starter last year. That role belonged to Deon Jackson, who got 171 touches to Durant’s 132. Still, Durant was the more productive player, turning those 132 touches (120 carries, 12 receptions) into 924 total yards (817 rushing, 107 receiving) and nine touchdowns in 11 games.
With Jackson now gone, Durant should assume an even bigger workload, which should lead to his first 1,000-yard season as a Blue Devil. Don’t even think about stacking the box with this guy either. According to CFB Film Room, Durant averaged 7.7 yards per carry against 7-plus man boxes.
— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) May 12, 2021
4. Christian Beal-Smith, Wake Forest
After Jamie Newman left Wake Forest before last season, the Demon Deacons had to rely heavily on their run game. Lucky for them, they had productive duo Christian Beal-Smith and Kenneth Walker III. The two combined for 261 carries, which they turned into 1,311 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Of that production, Beal-Smith was responsible for 732 of the rushing yards and five of the touchdowns. Walker has chosen to transfer to Michigan State to finish out his career, and that means that Beal-Smith will add at least some portion of Walker’s touches to his own workload.
That bodes well for a guy who is already the second-leading returning rusher in the ACC when it comes to yards per game (81.33). He looks like he would be a good receiver out of the backfield, but the sample size is too small (12 career receptions in three years).
At 5-10, 170, he isn’t a big running back at all. But he finds a way to be productive, and that should continue moving forward. His lack of size occasionally hinders him in pass protection, but he isn’t terrible in that facet.
3. Jahmyr Gibbs, Georgia Tech
Honesty time: I am a huge fan of Jahmyr Gibbs. He was a highly-touted running back coming out of high school who was rated as a four-star, top-100 prospect by the 247Sports Composite Rankings. And in his first season, he lived up to the hype.
Gibbs is an effective runner. In only seven games, he turned 89 carries into 460 yards and four touchdowns. But his ability as a receiver sets him apart, as he also added 24 catches for 303 yards and three more scores to his stat line. For those out there who don’t want to do the math, that’s 763 yards and seven touchdowns in only seven games.
His receiving stats ranked second on the team, trailing only wide receiver Jalen Camp, who is now a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Gibbs should be one of the top running backs in the ACC this season, and could even be one of the best running backs in the entire country before all is said and done.
2. Zonovan Knight, NC State
If we’re strictly keeping this list to current ACC running backs, then Zonovan Knight would check in at the No. 1 spot. But I found it unfair to leave Notre Dame players off these lists, as they were technically in the ACC last year. Still, Knight still almost qualified for the top spot anyways.
He’s that good, folks.
Now that all the other talent in the conference has moved on, don’t be surprised to hear Knight mentioned more often. Last season, he rushed for 788 yards and 10 touchdowns and also added 20 catches for 136 yards as a receiver. It was the second consecutive season that he led the Wolfpack in rushing stats.
He’s got adequate size at 5-11, 210 with impressive explosion and physicality. Plus, he forced more missed tackles per attempt than any other returning running back in the country last season outside of Frank Gore Jr. of Southern Miss.
Of all FBS RBs returning in 2020, these 5 players forced the most missed tackles/attempt, per @pff (Min 100 carries)
— Mike Tannenbaum (@RealTannenbaum) June 24, 2021
With NC State returning one of the conference’s best offensive lines, expect plenty of success from Knight and the rest of the Wolfpack running game.
1. Kyren Williams, Notre Dame
Yes, I cheated. And no, I don’t care.
Kyren Williams deserves to be on one of these lists, but the Fighting Irish have returned to independent status after spending last season in the ACC. So I decided to stretch the rules and include him amongst the top returning running backs in the conference.
Trust me, he deserves the recognition. If Notre Dame were still in the ACC, Williams would be the conference’s returning leader in carries (211), yards (1,125) and rushing touchdowns (13). Throw that on top of his 35 catches for 313 yards and a score last season, and he’s easily one of the most productive players at his position.
At only 5-9, 195 pounds, the rising junior isn’t the biggest guy out there, but he’s a do-it-all weapon who can make Notre Dame’s offense tough to defend. As a runner, receiver and even in pass protection, Williams is one of the most notable running back names in college football right now.
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Follow Clint Lamb on Twitter @ClintRLamb.