This article will be the first in a series in which I take a quick look at all the running backs in a conference who broke out in the previous season. Using age-based market share thresholds from the work of Peter Howard (@pahowdy), I define a breakout as the first season that a back crests rushing yards share totals that meet the historical benchmarks for guys who go on to post RB2 or better-level production in the NFL.
Peter’s thresholds are based on player age, but since accurate birthdate numbers are sometimes hard to find for college players, I’ve rounded off and converted the market share benchmarks to work for evaluating players by class. The thresholds are as follows:
We’ll go class by class — starting with soon-to-be seniors — to count down towards the most impressive breakouts, while also touching on some guys who either barely missed the necessary threshold or who broke out before the 2019 season — for the sake of your devy rosters, those guys deserve shoutouts, too.
JaTarvious Whitlow broke out as a freshman in 2018, posting an impressive 960 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns on an Auburn team that sometimes struggled to move the ball on the ground. In 2019, Auburn’s team rushing numbers improved, but Whitlow’s role stagnated, his 21.3% sophomore dominator rating showing only a slight improvement over the 18.2% mark he posted as a freshman. The 6-foot, 216-pound former 3-star recruit actually entered the transfer portal this offseason, and will need to take a bigger step forward with his next team in order to reestablish himself as an interesting option for whenever he decides to declare for the NFL Draft.
Tennessee’s Eric Gray, 247Sports’ number-three ranked all-purpose back in the 2019 recruiting class, missed the freshman breakout threshold but asserted himself as a dynamic dual-threat in a Volunteers offense with not much in the way of returning running back talent going into next season. He is a guy to keep an eye on, as his role — one in which he led Tennessee backs in receptions, receiving yards, and yards per carry (among dudes with more than two attempts) in 2019 — will almost certainly increase, and his devy stock with it.
A former three-star recruit, Missouri’s Larry Rountree followed up a 760-scrimmage yard freshman season by cresting breakout thresholds with a 1,200-yard rushing year in 2018. In 2019, his efficiency and volume numbers — along with the productivity of the Tiger offense overall — took a dip, but he managed to maintain the age-based growth in market share that would keep him on the path to NFL success. Going forward, he’ll need to increase his involvement in the passing game as well as show that he can be more than along-for-the-ride of the ebbs and flows of his team’s production in order to show real pro potential.
Tehnically, the Razorbacks’ Rakeem Boyd broke out with a 1,000-yard rushing season as a JUCO freshman back in 2017, but he has also exceeded historical success thresholds in each of his seasons in the best conference in big-time college football. Rocking Darren McFadden‘s old #5, the former three-star recruit has done the digit some justice, having been efficient on the ground as well as productive in the receiving game through two years. He’s already posted a season above the 30% dominator rating mark and is one of the more interesting NFL prospects among this group of SEC runners.
A higher-pedigree player than several of the other guys here, Mississippi State’s Kylin Hill is a former four-star recruit who — after providing solid contributions as an underclassman — really burst onto the scene with a 1,300-yard rushing campaign last year. He was a popular sleeper pick as a potential tier-2 guy in this 2020 rookie class, but he opted to return for a fourth season and will look to increase his stock while presumably playing an increased role as a receiver with new head coach Mike Leach and the Air Raid offense now in town.
Another surprise returner to school, Alabama’s Najee Harris might be the best player in this group. After serving in a complementary role as part of the Tide’s stacked 2017 and ’18 backfields, the 6’2″, 230-pound former five-star recruit wrecked the SEC as a junior, rushing for 1,200 yards while scoring 20 touchdowns and hauling in 27 passes. With shades of Steven Jackson and Eddie Lacy (in a good way), Harris will be one of the best backs in the 2021 class as a smooth receiver and efficient runner with excellent size.
The most impressive of any breakout among this group belongs to Texas A&M’s Isaiah Spiller, a four-star guy who eclipsed the junior-level success threshold as a true freshman in 2019. He stepped right into the hole in the Aggies’ backfield that current Cincinnati Bengal Trayveon Williams left behind, posting a 22.3% dominator rating that is higher than those Williams posted in either of his first two seasons. Similar to Najee Harris, Spiller is a big dude (listed at 6’1″, 220) who catches passes (29 receptions last year). He’s a great devy prospect as a precocious producer with time still to refine his already impressive skillset.