ACC Football 2014 Position Rankings: Running Backs

Joel Auerbach

Running back's a strength for Syracuse -- but is it a strength compared to the rest of the ACC's backfields?

Earlier this week, we took a look at Syracuse's running backs. And while it's nice to see how our depth chart shakes out, it's even more useful to see how it appears in comparison to our main competition: the rest of the ACC.

Obviously, Syracuse has a strong backfield, but they're not the only ones. As the ACC experiences an influx of youth at the quarterback position, stables of great running backs are being tasked with carrying the load for offenses. Teams may not be "run-heavy" per se (only a handful of teams are anymore -- and even then, it's a spread attack), but expect a significant amount of handoffs just the same.

Below, each running back unit is ranked, from No. 1 through 14. Having a star back certainly helps here, though overall, we're trying to grade the strength of entire units. Do you see things differently? Weigh in down in the comments.

ACC Football 2014 Position Rankings: Running Backs

1. Miami Hurricanes: Only an embarrassment of riches lets you move a halfback who scored 12 touchdowns last year (Dallas Crawford) over to safety this season. Still, Duke Johnson is the star here and as long as he stays healthy, he's a near lock to deliver another standout performance. The quick, elusive back may be one of the last featured ball-carriers left at the college level -- a crazy proposition when you think about it. Even then, he's unlikely to need to carry the full load, though. Gus Edwards has some great size at 235 pounds and should be a nice change-of-pace rusher. People are also high on freshman Joseph Yearby, who's anxious to take over for Johnson once the latter leaves for the pros.

2. Florida State Seminoles: Another year of top running options headed to the NFL, another year of the 'Noles being just fine. Karlos Williams is back, so right off the bat, expect great things from him in a more full-time role. When he's not utilizing his blistering speed, however, the ball can go to any number of former 4- and 5-star recruits at the position -- many of whom can take over some of the interior rushing to help set him up. Mario Pender's the biggest name here, but Ryan Green and Dalvin Cook will also get some burn. It's a deep group, most importantly, which will really help out Jameis Winston in year two.

3. Virginia Cavaliers: Yes, the Hoos are actually good at something -- and maybe even better than advertised given how often they were forced to play from behind last year. Even with a run-heavy offense, UVa playing catch-up meant a lot of passing in 2013. And yet, Kevin Parks still managed to reach the 1,000-yard mark (oh, and he's back for his senior season). With David Watford removed from his starting QB role, there's less running from that position, so that could also open up lanes for this entire group of running backs. Khalek Shepherd and Taquan Mizzell should also play major roles in the ground game, too -- but you have to wonder how durable this group can continue to be. All are about the same size (5'9" and 190 pounds) and with a lot of carries, that can start to wear guys down.

4. Pittsburgh Panthers: Tough to doubt Pitt's backfield this year -- especially with an increased role in the offense after QB Tom Savage's departure. All three of the team's top rushers are back, and behind them is a stable of highly-regarded recruits to jump in as necessary, too. Like last year, Isaac Bennett and James Conner should split the load as a "thunder and lightning"-type setup, with additional contributions from Rachid Ibrahim. This doesn't even begin to bring up the highly-dangerous Tyler Boyd, but given his listed position at receiver, he'll be talked up plenty next week.

5. Syracuse Orange: Jerome Smith's departure has a lot of outsiders questioning Syracuse's running back situation, but as covered the other day, there's very little to fear. Prince-Tyson Gulley should get back to his old ways, and now that they have experience under their respective belts, George Morris II and Devante McFarlane are also set to improve. With Adonis-Ameen Moore back at the halfback position, there's a renewed hope in short-yardage situations. The only major question could be whether any of them can really catch the ball. That may not matter, but looking objectively, it's the one big thing this group could really fall short on.

6. Louisville Cardinals: Senorise Perry's gone, but that's unlikely to change much, believe it or not. Louisville's done a great job loading up on running back talent in recent seasons and now, that emphasis could pay off while they see if there's life beyond Teddy Bridgewater for this offense. Dominique Brown is a bruiser and should carry the load, while offesetting him are Michael Dyer (once of Auburn fame) and fellow speedster Corvin Lamb. Granted, Bobby Petrino's offense is typically focused on quarterback play. But with this much talent at running back, we could see a slightly altered approach for the Cards.

7. North Carolina Tar Heels: There's a lot to like T.J. Logan and Romar Morris -- the only problem is there's little in their skillsets that separates them from one another. That means to fully realize the potential of this backfield, they'll need to get some real production out of freshman Elijah Hood. He's a bigger back, and his between-the-tackles style should be what they need to both set up perimeter runs and Marquise Williams's own mobility. Hood's certainly not the only candidate, but if you're looking for a breakout offensive freshman in the ACC, he may be worth looking at.

8. NC State Wolfpack: State's Shadrach Thornton and Matt Dayes had their moments last season, and now that they're going to be helped by a true Dave Doeren-style quarterback (Jacoby Brissett), production may only go up. There's also Tony Creecy, who could figure more as a short-yardage back. But even more so than their counterparts in Chapel Hill: there is FAR too much similarity in these backs. Of course, Thornton is also more talented than the numbers indicate too, so take that with a grain of salt. This group rises and falls on his ability to stay on the field.

9. Duke Blue Devils: Duke is at its best when running the ball effectively, so losing their second-leading rusher (Jela Duncan) certainly doesn't help matters in that department. Now, the hope is that Josh Snead can continue his upward trajectory and Shaquille Powell can take on an increased role. Like we said in the QB previews, Brandon Connette's departure may be the biggest blow to this offense -- and that goes for the running back position too. Connette's mobility was a huge asset all-around and the early parts of the season may be used to figure out how to keep an efficient ground game running without him.

10. Clemson Tigers: Tajh Boyd's increased mobility during his career was an underrated aspect of his progression and to this offense. Now, without that and leading rusher Roderick McDowell, this is a team in search of identity. Zac Brooks and D.J. Howard should be able to split McDowell's role, but beyond them? There's just not a whole lot of depth here. It's odd that Clemson's gone so lean at both QB and RB, but that's the way things have shaken out and they'll have to adjust. Rather than throwing shade on the running game -- it's just a genuine bit of concern that they're one injury from being in a very bad spot.

11. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets: Rushing volume doesn't always equal effective running -- I'd contend the Georgia Tech offense has seen better days -- and when yo lose three of your top five rushers, that usually doesn't bode well either. Zach Laskey's a very capable runner, but this offense will be decided by what happens at the quarterback position. Justin Thomas is a running back, which counter to what you'd think, doesn't necessarily help someone play QB for Paul Johnson -- so we'll see if he (or this offense) can last in that role. The surprise may end up being Synjyn Days, who was once a possible quarterback on this team and now figures to start at A-back (alongside Laskey at the B-back position).

12. Virginia Tech Hokies: Things have gone downhill for the Tech running game since David Wilson's departure a few seasons ago, and despite a bevy of backfield options now, that decline may continue.Trey Edumnds has shown himself to be productive, but injuries don't bode well for his ability to stay on the field long enough to improve upon those 4.1 yards per carry. J.C. Coleman, another back who has and will take up carries, only averages 3.4 yards per. The roster is littered with running backs, though, so there has to be at least one answer here. It just may take all season to find him.

13. Boston College Eagles: Again, a team dealing with the issue of replacing production. And no team has bigger shoes to fill at running back than BC. Andre Williams surprised the country last year, rushing for 2,177 yards, but how does any team replace THAT, or his 355 (!!!) carries? QB Tyler Murphy should take some pressure off of the running game for a stop-gap season, but if Steve Addazio really wants to run the ball, it'll be up to Myles Willis and Tyler Rouse. They've shown flashes here and there, but there's simply not enough there yet to evaluate anything but an average output.

14. Wake Forest Demon Deacons: Sorry, Deacs. Like many positions on this Wake squad, running back is completely up in the air right now, and there's a lot of uncertainty around who can really run the football effectively. Of course, that's been an issue for several years now, but it's even more apparent here without Josh Harris and QB Tanner Price's underrated mobility. That leaves things up to senior Orville Reynolds, sophomore Dominique Green and a cast of unproven characters looking to assert themselves into the starting role. Can any of them do so? TBD.

***

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