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When diving into the top returning running backs by conference, I noticed something interesting about the Pac-12. The conference, despite some of its faults, has done a pretty good job of developing lowly-rated talent into quality players.
The top 5 returning running backs list is included below, and there are two things to note: 1) all but one of them were rated a three-star prospect coming out of high school and 2) none of them have the size of a typical running back.
Still, they have all produced at a high level so far, and should continue to do so during the 2021 season. Based off that oncoming production, I’ll compile a new list at the end of the season and compare it to what I have now. So let’s get to it, shall we?
Honorable mention: Travis Dye, Oregon; Brittain Brown, UCLA
5. Austin Jones, Stanford
Even if he isn’t spectacular, Austin Jones is a steady, rock solid running back in the Pac-12. A four-star, top 150 prospect coming out of Oakland, Calif. in 2019, Jones immediately assumed a role of rotational running back in Stanford’s offense.
As a true freshman, he finished second on the team in rushing yards (227), but it wasn’t until last season that he became a true workhorse runner for the offense. Of the 159 carries given to Cardinal running backs in 2020, Jones accounted for 126 of them, giving him a 79.2 percent share. He also added 21 catches.
With his 147 touches, the 5-foot-10, 201-pound Jones produced 706 total yards (550 rushing, 156 receiving) and nine touchdowns in just six games. Those nine touchdowns ranked most for teams who played in six games or fewer, so it wasn’t a shock to see him earn some All-Pac-12 love.
Will the loss of Davis Mills, a second-round pick by the Houston Texans, hurt Jones this season? Maybe, but it could also help him. Mills had the second-most passing attempts per game in the Pac-12, and with a new quarterback at the helm, Jones could see a much larger workload in 2021.
4. Rachaad White, Arizona State
Rachaad White is a guy I’m really excited to watch this upcoming season. The former three-star running back ranked outside the top 50 for JUCO prospects in 2020, but he made an instant impact for the Sun Devils last year.
At 6-2, 195 pounds, his long, lean frame doesn’t accurately reflect his impact as a runner and receiver. White led Arizona State in rushing yards (420) and rushing touchdowns (5) while averaging a staggering 10 yards per carry. He also led the Pac-12 with five plays over 50 yards.
With 571 total yards (420 rushing, 151 receiving) and six touchdowns in only four games of action, White has proven that he can be one of the top running backs in the conference. In all honesty, I wouldn’t be surprised if he finished much higher than No. 4 by the end of this season.
And while he shares a backfield with quarterback Jayden Daniels, it’s going to be difficult for opposing defenses to key in exclusively on the run game. The Daniels-White combination is one of the main reasons people are high on Arizona State, even with the looming NCAA issues.
3. CJ Verdell, Oregon
Going into the 2020 season, CJ Verdell probably wouldn’t have been a top running back on this list. Unfortunately, he had a down year after producing back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2018 and 2019.
After overcoming leg ailments in 2019, Verdell suffered a broken thumb in 2020 and missed his first action in the Pac-12 Championship and the Fiesta Bowl. In the five games in which he did play, the do-it-all running back racked up 381 total yards (285 rushing, 96 receiving) with three scores.
For comparison, his previous two seasons included a combined 2,238 rushing yards, 440 receiving yards and 20 rushing touchdowns. He can still be that guy for the Ducks, but he’s going to have to prove that he can stay healthy. If not, more of the workload will fall on Travis Dye.
The good news for Oregon is Dye stepped up in a big way last season. He led the team in rushing yards (443) while also turning nine catches into an impressive 239 yards and four touchdowns. Folks, that’s a 26.56-yard-per-catch average, proving his big-play ability.
Oregon has a couple quality options in its backfield, but Verdell is a more complete back when healthy.
2. Max Borghi, Washington State
There are going to be plenty who argue that Max Borghi deserves the No. 1 spot on this list. In some ways, I agree with those people, but the back injury that kept him out for most of last season, ahem, holds him back. When he’s healthy, he’s dynamic — both as a runner and a receiver.
When we talk about ultra-productive players, the all-purpose back has to be included. In the two seasons prior to 2020, Borghi combined for 2,154 total yards (1,183 rushing, 971 receiving) and 28 touchdowns. And that includes him playing behind former Cougars running back James Williams in 2018.
This is a guy who was named to multiple 2020 preseason award watch lists, including the Doak Walker Award (for top running back), Biletnikoff (for top wide receiver) and Maxwell (most outstanding player). That alone should tell you everything you need to know about his versatility.
The only question that remains is how effective he will be without Mike Leach. We got only a one-game sample size in 2020 before his injury. And once again, he put up over 100 yards in a 45-28 loss to Utah, but 95 of them were on the ground. That’s quite the contrast from what we’ve seen from him.
1. Jarek Broussard, Colorado
Jarek Broussard has been the starting running back at Colorado for only one season, but it’s hard to keep him out of the top spot. He’s the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year, and he led the conference in carries (156) and rushing yards (856) despite playing only six games.
In fact, the 5-9, 185-pound Broussard was third in the nation in rushing yards per game (149.17), trailing only Buffalo’s Jaret Patterson (178.67) and Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim (153.71). Though he was ranked outside the top 1000 — and no, that’s not a typo — he has emerged as a playmaking threat for the Buffalo.
The only issue is longevity. Can Broussard do it over the course of an entire season? His first four games were fantastic, as he rushed for 733 yards and three touchdowns while averaging 6.4 yards per carry. He also had zero fumbles.
In his last two games, the Dallas, Tex. native combined for 162 yards rushing while averaging 3.9 yards per carry and losing two fumbles. That does cause some concern, but it could’ve just been a plateau effect in his first year as the starter.
Follow Clint Lamb on Twitter @ClintRLamb.