Daily Focus: The best big-play RBs in college football

FSU's Dalvin Cook tops the list of the best breakaway running backs in the nation. Plus, Florida's new starting QB, and more.

| 2 months ago
(AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)

(AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)

Daily Focus: The best big-play RBs in college football

Editor’s note: Every day in “Daily Focus,” PFF analysts take the latest college football news and translate what it really means for each team involved.

Most elusive running backs in the nation: As football continues to get more pass-heavy, particularly at the NFL level, it’s refreshing to see the plethora of running back talent at the college level. Not only is the talent high, but the presence of a strong running game can keep teams afloat in college football, moreso than in the NFL. For that reason, we can see college running backs take their respective teams on their back and make up for subpar quarterback situations along the way.

There are many ways to break down the returning class of runners, as sorting the top five is a difficult task, but it’s just as difficult in ranking the best 20 runners in the nation, and the PFF College 101 is a great place to start to see how we feel about the top running backs in the country. Instead of an overall ranking, today we focus on just one part of the running backs’ game: big plays. At PFF, we use “breakaway percentage” to show the percentage of rushing yards that came from 15-plus yard carries.

2015 Breakaway %

It should come as no surprise to see Dalvin Cook at the top of the list, as even the slightest crease opens the door for him to use his burst to take it to the house. Few running backs can take games over like Cook, and he’s been a catalyst in a number of fourth-quarter comebacks using his big-play ability alone.

Beyond Cook, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley will be a living-room name by the end of the season after he posted the nation’s top elusive rating as a freshman.

James Butler is another name getting lost in the running back shuffle, but he takes over as the full-time option for Nevada after splitting time last year, and he’s capable of putting up monster numbers this season.

Another pair of interesting names on the list are Oregon’s Royce Freeman and UNC’s Elijah Hood, who weigh 230 and 220 pounds, respectively, and they certainly don’t look much like rest of the smaller backs on the list. While the spread scheme helps both players, it speaks to the big-play ability of both Freeman and Hood, as they have the ability to run through defenders but also by them.

Breakaway percentage is just one way of quantifying the top running backs in the country, and it’s a good gauge to separate the best backs are creating big plays.

Ole Miss loses RB to academics: Ole Miss is returning a lot of production, but the running back position took a hit as projected starter Jordan Wilkins has been declared ineligible. He posted the third-best rush grade among Ole Miss running backs last season, although Jaylen Watson has graduated and Wilkins was expected to share time with the equally-productive Akeem Judd. The Rebels’ fast-paced attack requires a rotation in the backfield, and losing Wilkins will force Judd into the No. 1 spot after he picked up 434 yards on 77 carries last year (5.5 yards/carry). Expect a heavier workload from redshirt freshman Eric Swinney and junior Eugene Brazley.

Florida names Luke Del Rio starting quarterback: In not-so-breaking news out of Gainesville, Luke Del Rio was named the starter for opening night against UMass. He’s been the favorite for the starting role since the spring as he’s been competing with fellow transfer, Austin Appleby, and two true freshmen in Kyle Trask and Feleipe Franks. We covered Del Rio briefly when discussing the most important transfers in the nation, but the data is limited as he bounced around between Alabama, Oregon State, and now Florida. At the very least, Florida needs him to make good decisions and sprinkle in just enough accurate downfield throws to keep the offense moving and allow a strong defense to win games in the SEC.

One of nation’s top running backs is questionable for opener: Many around the nation may not be familiar with the exploits of New Mexico State running back Larry Rose III, but he’s a favorite of PFF analysts and one of the most dynamic players in the country (see breakaway percentage table above). Due to hernia surgery, Rose is questionable for the opener against UTEP, perhaps putting his senior season on hold for at least a week. Rose ranked 17th in the nation among all returning running backs last season, averaging 6.9 yards/carry including 3.9 yards after contact per carry. His 84.3 elusive rating ranked 10th in the nation among all running backs with at least 220 carries. Rose has two showcase games against the SEC – Sept. 17 against Kentucky; Oct. 29 against Texas A&M – so be sure to keep an eye on the talented running back.

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

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