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ACC football 2021 position preview: Running backs

Looking at ground games around the conference.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 30 North Carolina at NC State Photo by John McCreary/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Camp is quickly approaching for the Syracuse Orange football team, and that means TNIAAM’s full of season preview articles already. Along with “Get to Know,” early opponent previews and Syracuse position breakdowns, we’re also looking at how SU’s players stack up against the rest of the ACC.

Last week, we started things off with the quarterback position. This time, we’re looking at ground games around the conference.

ACC Football 2021 Running Backs Preview

Last year’s top performers

Partly due to the shorter season, just four ACC players rushed for 1,000 yards — though two of those players were on North Carolina’s roster. Michael Carter led the conference with 1,245 yards while Javonte Williams was third with 1,140 paired with a league-leading 19 rushing TDs. Virginia Tech’s Khalil Herbert was one of the other top rushers in the conference at 1,182 yards, and Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams was the only other back to top 1,000 yards on the season (he had 1,125).

Louisville’s Javian Hawkins and Duke’s Mataeo Durant also managed to top 800 yards for the season. And no list of successful ACC backs would be complete without Clemson’s Travis Etienne, of course. In his final year at Clemson, he ran for 914 yards and 14 scores (plus another 588 yards and two scores through the air). Combined with his career production, it was enough to earn him a first round selection by the Jaguars, where he’ll be paired with fellow Tiger Trevor Lawrence.

Who will excel in 2021?

There’s actually been a good deal of turnover at the position league-wide, which means a new list of top players compared to last season. Durant, NC State’s Zonovan Knight and Wake Forest’s Christian Beal-Smith are the top returning rushers by yardage, while Georgia Tech’s Jahmyr Gibbs put in impressive work with 763 total yards and seven scores in just seven games, and is back to lead the Yellow Jackets’ attack this season.

Once again sharing a backfield with dynamic QB D’Eriq King, Miami’s Cam’Ron Harris looks poised to build on last year’s 643-yard/10 touchdown effort. It’s also not a biased pick to say that Syracuse’s Sean Tucker could be among the better running backs in the league after a solid freshman campaign. Some other names under consideration could include Vincent Davis (Pitt), Ricky Person (NC State) and Jashuan Corbin (Florida State), among many others.

Miami v Florida International Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Top three units: 1. NC State, 2. Georgia Tech, 3. Miami

One of the biggest reasons for belief in NC State this year comes from the run game, and the return of both Knight and Person in the backfield behind an experienced line. The two combined for over 1,400 yards on the ground last year and the Pack seem likely to lean on them after the team failed to put up big numbers on the ground in 2020 despite their individual success.

Even with Georgia Tech’s recent scheme change, there’s still a reasonable belief in the run game. Tech seems to have quite a bit of experience in the backfield, including the aforementioned Gibbs, plus Jordan Mason and Dontae Smith. Miami has Harris back, along with Donald Chaney and Jaylan Knighton. Having defenses distracted by King’s mobility will only help all three be more productive.

Bottom three units: 12. Boston College, 13. Virginia Tech, 14. Virginia

BC’s run game struggled last year (just 3.1 yards per carry as a group), and they lose the top player in David Bailey, who transferred to Colorado State to reunite with Steve Addazio. Travis Levy’s back, but did only rush for 321 yards last year.

Virginia Tech loses Herbert and will have to rely pretty heavily on former Rutgers transfer Raheem Blackshear to make up the difference after he only ran for 255 yards in 2020. The Hoos return some talent and bring back Mike Hollins, who opted out. But this ground game lacked a real feature back in 2020, and has relied heavily on QB rushing ability for the last three seasons.

Top five quarterbacks in the ACC:

  1. Zonovan Knight, NC State
  2. Christian Beal-Smith, Wake Forest
  3. Jahmyr Gibbs, Georgia Tech
  4. Cam’Ron Harris, Miami
  5. Mataeo Durant, Duke

Where does Syracuse rank?

We discussed the Orange’s running back situation a bit earlier in the week, and while there are reasons for optimism that the group will be improved, it’s tough to sell the rushing attack as better than mid-conference without knowing what we’ll get out of the offensive line. If you’re trying to push the concept of Tucker as a top-five running back in the ACC, however, there’s an audience for that point. I had him sixth behind Durant above, simply by way of previous production. But it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see Tucker put up some big numbers this year if the Orange just show a little more play-calling and O-line competence.