Welcome to the second in a series of articles in which I will be combing through an entire college football conference to find players who broke out in the previous season. In the first installment, I took a look at breakout running backs from the SEC. Here, I turn my attention to ACC runners.
If you haven’t read the first piece (first of all, what are you doing with yourself?), I define a breakout using two primary factors: 1) market share thresholds based on historical rushing yards (gleaned from the work of Peter Howard); and 2) minimum RB2-level production in the NFL. The threshold is a sliding scale based on age, but since accurate ages are often difficult to find for college players, I rounded off and modified the age-based thresholds into class-based thresholds. They are as follows:
Let’s dive in, going class by class, counting down towards the most impressive breakouts, and starting first with players who almost hit the aforementioned breakout thresholds (but deserve recognition here anyway).
Boston College’s David Bailey, a former three-star recruit with excellent size at 6’1″, 240 pounds, will look to fill the shoes of recently departed Eagle (and now NFL Combine hero) A.J. Dillon as the leader of BC’s rushing attack in 2020. After an injury-shortened freshman season, Bailey rushed for over 800 yards as Dillon’s breather back last year, posting a respectable dominator rating of 16.9% while averaging 5.7 yards per carry to Dillon’s 5.3 YPC. Bailey is almost a lock to surpass breakout thresholds as a junior, and his virtually non-existent stock in devy circles (he has yet to be selected in any mocks hosted by DLF) will certainly rise when he does.
Boston College RB David Bailey (23) should see his devy stock rise in 2020. (Photo courtesy Boston College Athletics.)
Miami’s Cam’Ron Harris has the highest pedigree according to 247 Sports’ Composite Recruit score among all the players I’ll cover in this article (including blue-chip running back Travis Etienne from Clemson). The former four-star recruit shared time with NFL draft-hopeful DeeJay Dallas as a sophomore in 2019, just missing the 2nd-year breakout threshold for rushing yards, while also contributing well in the passing game with 16 receptions. Listed at 5’10” and 200 pounds, Harris has been bulking up and conditioning himself for a lead back role in 2020. That kind of BMI is precisely what you want to see out of a potential pro running back. If Harris can deliver on his talent by maintaining his involvement in the passing game, while also making things happen as a workhorse on the ground — oh boy.
Hurricanes running back Cam’Ron Harris (23) is oozing with pedigree. (Photo courtesy Miami Herald.)
Javonte Williams is another back with good size (5’10”, 215) who narrowly missed the breakout benchmark during his sophomore season at North Carolina in 2019. The former three-star recruit will share touches in the backfield with senior Michael Carter (who I will touch on later) in 2020. Williams has yet to separate himself from either an efficiency or pass-catching perspective as evidenced by his 933-5.6-17 line (rushing yards-YPC-receptions) compared to Carter’s line (1,003-5.7-21). He’s worthy of keeping an eye on, but there are much more interesting options than a back who is unlikely to post his first seasonal dominator rating above the 20% mark by the time his junior season concludes.
UNC junior Javonte Williams (25) has work to do in order to make a name for himself in 2020. (Photo courtesy Tar Heel Blog.)
Kenneth Walker III is a former three-star recruit who accounted for just over a quarter of Wake Forest’s rushing production as a freshman last season. He’s not a big guy at 5’10”, 200 pounds, and he didn’t contribute much as a receiver in 2019 (just three receptions on a 1.3% target share), so it’s a bit difficult to envision exactly what his role might look like at the next level, but he is a patient and elusive runner who has shown flashes of dynamism. Walker averaged over two yards per carry more than any other Deacon running back last year, while also breaking off 10+ and 20+ yard runs at clips of more than 5% higher than his fellow WF ballcarriers. Along with the appeal of his on-field efficiency, Walker goes to a basketball school and shares a name with former NBA Dunk Contest champ Kenny “Sky” Walker, so his stock is up.
Will Kenneth Walker III (25) “sky” above the competition at Wake Forest in 2020? (Photo courtesy 247 Sports.)
NC State’s Jordan Houston is a smaller (5’10”, 185) three-star running back who contributed well as a freshman in 2019. His overall production was a bit behind that of classmate Zonovan Knight (Houston posted a 10.6% dominator rating to Knight’s 17.6%). But the explosive Houston, who reportedly has a vertical leap of 39.7″, was more of a dual-threat than Knight, catching 15 balls on a 5.0% target share, in addition to over 500 yards on the ground. Knight is the more interesting prospect as of now, but their combined talents mean tabs should very much be kept on the Wolfpack backfield.
Keep a tab on Jordan Houston (20) and the Wolfpack backfield in 2020.
Technically, Tar Heels running back Michael Carter did not meet the 45% rushing yards market share breakout threshold as a junior in 2019; what he did do is run for over 1,000 yards, so I’m giving him credit for a somewhat subjective breakout season. The 3-star, soon-to-be senior has been a productive and versatile player his entire career at UNC, having rushed for at least 500 yards in all three of his seasons there, while hauling in 57 passes. Last year, he also handled kickoff duties, and was named honorable mention All-ACC for all-purpose players. The 5’10”, 200-pound Carter is a solid, but unspectacular prospect.
Running back Michael Carter (8) has rushed for over 500 yards all three seasons at UNC.
You are likely already familiar with Clemson’s Travis Etienne, a former four-star recruit who might be the best running back in the country. He is a consensus top-5 devy pick in single-QB and Superflex leagues, and the hype is warranted. He broke out all over the place in 2018 after an impressive rookie campaign that saw him post over 800 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns. Then, as a junior in 2019, he answered questions about his ability to contribute in the passing game to the tune of 37 receptions for 432 yards. He’s one of the most explosive and dynamic players in college football and has the rushing efficiency numbers to prove it. Ettiene’s marks in YPC+, Chunk Rate+, and Breakaway Rate+ (measuring the degree to which he has outperformed other Tiger runners in yards per carry, 10+ yard run rate, and 20+ yard run rate) are in the 88th, 70th, and 94th percentiles, respectively, among all RBs selected in the NFL Draft since 2007. With very few holes in his profile, the 5’10”, 210-pound Etienne is a future RB1-level fantasy producer in the NFL.
Clemson’s Travis Etienne (9) might be the best running back in college football. (Photo courtesy Sportsnaut.)
According to dominator rating data alone, Georgia Tech’s Jordan Mason is the most productive player among all the players discussed here. The former three-star recruit has bell-cow size at 6’1″, 219, and he accounted for nearly half of the rushing output on a pretty anemic Yellow Jacket offense in 2019. Tech didn’t throw the ball particularly well (or often) last year, and Mason only accounted for a 4.1% share of the few targets that were available, so he has yet to show much at all as a receiver. He’s been a fine runner, but it will be difficult to hold off highly-touted freshman Jahmyr Gibbs for much longer.
Jordan Mason (27) led all college running backs in domintaor rating last season. (Photo courtesy From The Rumble Seat.)
NC State appears to have a good one in former four-star recruit Zonovan Knight. The man they call “Bam” was the thunder to fellow freshman Jordan Houston‘s lightning. While he did not contribute much in the passing game (only seven receptions for 45 yards) and did not break off long gains at an incredible clip (his rate of 20+ yard runs was only 0.13% higher than the team average and 1.27% lower than Houston’s), the physical, lively runner did gain nearly a yard per carry more than his teammates did. Knight also reached the second level (measured by Chunk Rate+) at an 80th-percentile rate. He crested the sophomore breakout threshold as a true freshman in 2019. The 6-foot, 197-pound Knight will look to reach the 1,000-yard mark on the ground and establish himself as one of the best backs in the conference in 2020. Currently being taken outside the first 100 picks in recent industry mocks, I expect Knight to be a riser throughout the upcoming season.
Zonovan Knight (24) hopes to hit the 1,000-yard rushing mark in 2020. (Photo courtesy The Wolfpacker.)
Louisville’s Javian Hawkins is a small dude (5’9″, 182) and a former three-star recruit who absolutely smashed the ACC last year as a redshirt freshman. Rushing for over 1,500 yards, Hawkins handled workhorse-level touches en route to the highest freshman dominator rating (21.8%) of any player covered in this article (and the second-highest among all players I’ve yet to cover in this series, behind only Texas A&M’s Isaiah Spiller‘s mark of 22.3%). Hawkins is fast, quick, and explosive, with recorded marks of 4.36 in the 40-yard dash, 3.95 in the 20-yard shuttle, and 40.6″ in the vertical leap. His efficiency numbers speak to that elite athleticism, as his Breakaway Rate+ of 2.59% is an 81st-percentile figure. Considering the limitations that come with his size, the dynamic, soon-to-be sophomore will need to contribute more as a receiver (only four receptions in 2019) to prove he belongs near the top tier of devy running backs, but he is already well ahead of schedule as a producer (he surpassed the senior-level breakout threshold in his first full season). He is regularly taken outside the top-35 among running backs in mock drafts, and his combination of early productivity and uber athleticism suggests he should be going much higher.
Javian Hawkins (10) smashed the ACC as a freshman running back at Louisville. (Phot courtesy Card Chronicle.)