Top 10 Running Back Performances Through Week 3 of the College Football Season
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Sure, it’s a small sample set, but after the first three (or, in some cases, four) games of the season, the top of the running back performances for 2023 looks much different than many of us expected.
Returning stars like Ole Miss’s Quinshon Judkins, West Virginia’s CJ Donaldson Jr, and Clemson’s Will Shipley are nowhere to be found on this list.
Blossoming stars like Dylan Edwards just missed, as did Florida’s Trevor Etienne who dominated Tennessee on Saturday night but has been inconsistent (and fell victim to the Gators falling behind Utah in the season opener) and the Wisconsin terrific tandem of Chez Mellusi and Braelon Allen. Cal’s Jaydn Ott likely would have been on it if not for an injury.
Much of this year’s flashiness in CFB revolves around prolific passing, but there still have been several rushing stars. One guy stands out from the rest in the early season, and others have shown out, too.
So, who did make the list?
There’s one elite playmaker returning to form and several others whose names you know. Some, you don’t. Factoring in statistics, quality of competition and big-time performances, let’s take a look at college football’s top runners through the first quarter of the early season.
10. Darius Taylor, Minnesota Golden Gophers
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A P.J. Fleck-coached offense is always going to have a centerpiece running back, and after Minnesota Golden Gophers’ all-time legend Mohamed Ibrahim exhausting his eligibility, the only question was, “Who will it be?”
The answer, surprisingly, has been true freshman Darius Taylor.
The former 4-star prospect from Walled Lake, Michigan, was a big get for the Golden Gophers in the 2023 class, and it hasn’t taken long for him to establish himself as a future star for the Big Ten West program.
So far, throughout three games, Taylor has run 56 times for 336 yards and a couple of scores. That’s a very solid 6-yard average, and when you throw in the fact the 2-1 Gophers already have played North Carolina and Nebraska, that’s no small feat.
Really, Taylor only played two of those games. He ran just once in the season opener for 3 yards against the Cornhuskers. But Fleck inserted him against Eastern Michigan, and he ran 33 times for 193 yards. In a loss to the Tar Heels, Taylor was a force again, finishing with 138 yards.
Plenty of runners were higher-rated than Taylor, but he is the perfect example of talent meets opportunity. It appears the Gophers have identified a playmaker for many years to come, and he’s making his mark as a top runner early in ’23.
9. Marcus Carroll, Georgia State Panthers
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There are a lot of guys on this list from big-time, Power 5 programs who already have posted quality stats against good opponents.
For a guy like Marcus Carroll, though, he has to do things a little more under-the-radar.
The Georgia State Panthers have started the season 3-0 largely because of their star running back, who helps carry that offense. But the trio of Rhode Island, Connecticut and Charlotte aren’t exactly a bevy of powerhouses.
Still, you can only play the teams on your schedule, and Carroll has been a load to handle so far. Throughout the spotless start, he has carried the ball 67 times for 358 yards. His seven rushing scores is the highest number in the nation, too.
So, not only does Carroll get most of the touches for the Panthers, he knows how to finish runs in the end zone. The 5’10”, 210-pound senior from Union City, Georgia, has gotten off to a terrific start to the year, emerging from a three-tiered rushing attack a season ago.
Alongside quarterback Darren Grainger, the Panthers are a sneaky-strong out for anybody they play this year. But things get much tougher, beginning next week with a trip to Coastal Carolina, followed by home games against Troy and Marshall.
8. Blake Corum, Michigan Wolverines
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One of college football’s most exciting playmakers decided to wait a year for the NFL and return to the Michigan Wolverines when Blake Corum announced he’d be back for 2023.
But it was going to take a little bit of time for last year’s Heisman Trophy candidate to get his “sea legs” back after missing the last few games of the Wolverines’ College Football Playoff run last year after suffering a knee injury against Illinois.
That really hasn’t been the case.
The senior has needed just 37 carries to accumulate 254 yards and score six times this season as the Wolverines have cruised to a 3-0 start. The only thing keeping Corum from being higher on this list is the laughable schedule.
Coach Jim Harbaugh’s team has beaten East Carolina, UNLV and Bowling Green in the first three games, and while they haven’t won with pizzazz, they’ve gotten the job done. It’s much like the past couple of seasons, and both of those ended in the national semifinals.
With a better-than-expected Rutgers team next week on the schedule before Nebraska and Minnesota, things are about to get more difficult quickly. But if Michigan is going to go back where they’ve been the past two years, it needs a big showing from Corum.
He looks to be knocking off the rust just fine and building up for the Big Ten schedule. Look for him to surge up this list when the Wolverines start riding him to wear down opponents.
7. Damien Martinez, Oregon State Beavers
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Everybody around the Oregon State program was excited about luring Clemson transfer quarterback DJ Uiagalelei to Corvallis to finish his career, but the signal-caller was never going to be the focal point of the offense.
Thanks to the Beavers already having a star running back in place in Damien Martinez, Uiagalelei was going to have plenty of help in a balanced offense. The sophomore is a big reason why coach Jonathan Smith’s team has been so strong offensively this year.
Martinez nearly reached the 1,000-yard mark as a freshman a season ago, and he’s already off to a steady (though not quite spectacular) start to the season.
The 6’0″, 232-pound Lewisville, Texas, native has 40 carries for 351 yards so far this season, and while he hasn’t reached the end zone but once, Martinez has eclipsed the 100-yard mark in all three games.
No, the Beavers haven’t played a murderer’s row schedule so far against San Jose State, UC-Davis and San Diego State, but the showdown against the Aztecs on Saturday featured a worthy defensive opponent, and Martinez was the best player on either side of the ball.
The Pac-12 features a ton of playmakers this year, and while the quarterbacks take center stage in that conference, there are quality runners, too. Martinez might be the most talented of the bunch and put up the best numbers, too.
6. Emani Bailey, TCU Horned Frogs
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Emani Bailey’s college career has taken a detour from Lafayette, Louisiana, to Fort Worth, Texas. In this day and age of the transfer portal, that is far from uncommon.
No matter where he’s been, though, Bailey has produced.
First, he starred with Montrell Johnson Jr. in the Lousiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns’ backfield, but when Billy Napier left for Florida, Johnson followed him and Bailey headed West. Last year, he backed up Kendre Miller as TCU rolled to the national championship game.
With Miller in the NFL, this is Bailey’s show. Even with Alabama transfer Trey Sanders in town, the offense goes as Bailey does. Through a 2-1 season that included a season-opening loss to Colorado, Bailey has been a bright spot.
Though he finally found the end zone for the first time in Saturday’s win over Houston, Bailey has been brilliant against quality competition. Against the Buffaloes to start the year, he had 164 yards on 14 carries, good enough for an 11.7 average. He added 126 yards and a score against the Cougars.
He showed a terrific skill set, too.
Noah Chang @tr8s808
@TCUFootball RB Emani Bailey showed improved vision & anticipation this Saturday to explode into space. The twitchy compact RB continues to force missed tackles w/ precise cutting ability & improved contact balance. @ShrineBowl #ShrineBowl #AllSteakNoSizzle pic.twitter.com/a5UEYL3QDQ
Sandwiched in between those two great efforts was a ho-hum effort in a lopsided win over Nicholls State, but Bailey has 56 carries for 357 yards and a score so far this year, good for nearly 6.4 yards per carry.
5. Kyle Monangai, Rutgers Scarlet Knights
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Don’t look now, but the Rutgers Scarlet Knights are 3-0 and also undefeated in the Big Ten entering next week’s pivotal showdown with Michigan.
Nobody will give them a chance against the two-time defending Big Ten champions, but if they are going to hang in there and shock the world, coach Greg Schiano needs a near-perfect effort from an offense that has suddenly found a couple of dependable players.
Junior running back Kyle Monangai has steadily driven his team all year, rushing 58 times for 357 yards and scoring five touchdowns. He’s averaged 6.2 yards per carry and was a catalyst to the team’s win over Virginia Tech on Saturday with a three-touchdown performance.
Again, plenty of teams have played better trios than Northwestern, Temple and Virginia Tech, but beating a pair of Power 5 programs is no small feat for a program like Rutgers, which has wandered in the wilderness for years.
With Monangai a dependable weapon in the backfield and dual-threat quarterback Gavin Wimsatt making plays, there’s hope in Piscataway.
“Yeah, he’s (Monangai) running very, very hard, running smart, running determined,” Schiano told the News-Item‘s Everett Merrill. “Thank goodness, right, because he’s helped us win games.”
The New Jersey native is off to one of the best starts to the season, and if he can keep it up through a rugged conference schedule, Rutgers could surprise some teams.
4. Nate Noel, Appalachian State Mountaineers
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Much like his Appalachian State Mountaineers the past three years, running back Nate Noel’s career has suffered some ups and downs.
Two years ago, he was one of the brightest young Group of Five stars in the nation, running for 1,126 yards, and with a couple of seasons left, it looked like he could etch his name alongside some of the great backs at the prestigious program from Boone.
But his season was sidelined by injury last year, and he played just nine games and had a shade over 600 yards while sharing time with Camerun Peoples. The Sun Belt is loaded with quality runners, but Noel has been the best so far this year.
The 5’10”, 190-pound junior from Miami, Florida, has enjoyed one of the best starts to the year of any runner in the nation. During a 2-1 start, he’s been the focal point of the Mountaineers’ offense, shattering 100 yards in every outing.
He began the year with 115 yards and a score against Gardner-Webb, and then was nearly a hero as Appalachian State took North Carolina to the brink before losing 40-34 in double overtime. Noel finished with 127 yards and a pair of scores, and he ran the ball 26 times.
In Saturday’s win over East Carolina, Noel again carried the ball 26 times on his way to 178 yards and another score.
For the year, he’s second nationally with 420 yards and four touchdowns, while running for an average of 5.5 yards per carry.
3. Omarion Hampton, North Carolina Tar Heels
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Somewhere, lost amid all the talk of Drake Maye battling for a Heisman Trophy and the consternation with the Devontez Walker NCAA saga, the North Carolina Tar Heels found another offensive weapon in running back Omarion Hampton.
Under Mack Brown, the Tar Heels’ rushing attack always has been strong, led by guys like Javonte Williams, Michael Carter and Ty Chandler, but that position really struggled a season ago.
Even then, Hampton began to emerge as a true freshman. This year as Maye has struggled at times, the sophomore has found his place as a leader and a weapon.
The 6’0″, 220-pound Clayton, North Carolina, product was a big-time prospect coming out of high school and after gaining 401 rushing yards a season ago, he’s nearly to that point already this year.
Hampton has 55 carries for 317 yards and six touchdowns so far for a 5.8 average. This hasn’t been any, old cakewalk schedule for the Heels so far, either. During a 3-0 start to the season with wins over South Carolina, Appalachian State and Minnesota, it’s been Hampton doing much of the damage.
It’s that production against a quality schedule that has Hampton this high on the list.
Maye found his way a bit more Saturday against the Golden Gophers and Hampton took somewhat of a back seat, but he is a huge reason why this team has started out the way it has against a very tough early-season schedule.
2. Jawhar Jordan, Louisville Cardinals
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The Jeff Brohm era was always going to take a little while to get rolling when the coach returned to his alma mater to take over for Scott Satterfield.
But the Cardinals have surprisingly started 3-0 this year, and while they haven’t played any really strong programs, a couple of Power 5 opponents (Georgia Tech and Indiana) are among the trio so far.
Both the Yellow Jackets and Hoosiers played the Cardinals extremely close, but Brohm’s team pulled out one-score wins, largely because of their ability to consistently run the football with Jawhar Jordan.
The 5’10”, 185-pound New York native began his career at Syracuse before leaving for Louisville and escaping the shadow of Sean Tucker. Even with a bunch of talented players in the running back room a season ago, Jordan led the team with 815 rushing yards.
He’s on pace to do even better this year, too. After a 96-yard effort to begin the season, Jordan ran for 135 yards against Murray State and 113 against Indiana. So far this season, he has run 32 times for 344 yards and scored four times.
The explosive athlete is averaging nearly 11 yards per rush and already has caught five passes, too. The big-play ability has him very high on this list. He can do a lot of things, and while Jack Plummer’s veteran leadership under center is important, Jordan is the guy who makes things tick.
Even with carries going around, Brohm has to get him the ball more.
1. Audric Estime, Notre Dame Fighting Irish
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You can debate and squabble over the placement of a lot of guys on this list, but there’s really no doubt at this point of the season who the nation’s top running back is.
It’s 5’11”, 227-pound Notre Dame powerhouse junior Audric Estime, who is leading a deep and talented Fighting Irish backfield.
Everybody is oohing and ahhing over the Irish offense with graduate transfer quarterback Sam Hartman at the helm, and he adds a championship-caliber element to the team for certain, but Estime has been a workhorse and a superstar so far.
Throughout a 4-0 start that features wins over Navy, Tennessee State, North Carolina State and Central Michigan, Estime has run for 521 yards and five touchdowns on an 8.2 average.
Not only does he has the brawn to gain the tough yards, he’s broken some big ones, too. He has scored in every game so far, and the only time he failed to break 100 yards was a 95-yard effort in the season-opener against Navy. In the Irish’s biggest game so far, he scored twice and ran for 134 yards in a three-touchdown win over North Carolina State.
Plus, dudes his size aren’t supposed to do things like this.
“Audric is Audric,” Irish coach Marcus Freeman told the Associated Press. “He’s going to be the guy we give the ball to and say, ‘Run this thing.'”
They’ll have to do it successfully next week to beat Ohio State in what is going to be the sport’s marquee matchup of the week. It’s going to be fun to watch Estime on the big stage.