What does Jahmyr Gibbs have in store after a strong freshman season in 2021? For several years now, Clemson’s Travis Etienne was the gold standard for the running back position in the ACC; however, a new leaf has turned over in the ACC. Questions pertain to guys like Gibbs and Bam Knight; how they answer those queries will determine the league’s next top back.
With the season just a few short weeks away, let’s take a look at the conference’s top running backs as we enter the post-Etienne era.
5. Mateo Durant, Duke
Making something out of nothing: there’s a reason why Re’quan Boyette, Duke’s co-offensive coordinator, believes Durant is the best player on Duke’s roster.
Mateo Durant is pretty good, and he made Duke's ground game effective despite absolutely woeful QB play last year; Only Utah had a higher % of its run plays stopped for loss or no gain than Pitt among P5; BC saw a 23.5 percentage point shift from run plays to pass in 2020.
— 💫🅰️♈️🆔 (@ADavidHaleJoint) July 13, 2021
4. Jordan Mason, Georgia Tech
Mason is one half of the best running back duo in the ACC and an advanced metrics darling. He’s one of the league’s best at forcing missed tackles.
During the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Mason ran for a combined 1,550 yards and 14 touchdowns on 280 carries — 5.53 yards per carry.
Jordan Mason deserves to be talked about A LOT more. pic.twitter.com/59nwsvplxC
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 22, 2019
Mason is one of the few bridges on the roster that still extends back to the Paul Johnson era. However, if Geoff Collins is going to make it work in 2021, he’ll need a lot out of Mason, who battled injury (only 82 carries) in 2020.
Georgia Tech’s talented running back room extends beyond Mason and Jahmyr Gibbs, though. Dontae Smith and Jamious Griffin, a former NC State commit, are strong runners, too.
Jordan Mason had 5 games in which he averaged < 1 yard before contact/rush (including 0.11 vs Duke, 0.13 vs UGA & 0.20 vs VT). Had 6 games he avg > 4 yards after contact/rush. There were 21 games when an ACC back had 96+ yards after contact — Mason had 3, same as Etienne.
— 💫🅰️♈️🆔 (@ADavidHaleJoint) June 2, 2020
3. Lyn-J Dixon, Clemson
Since his arrival at Clemson as one of the top all-purpose backs in the 2018 recruiting class, Dixon has waited to be the featured back for the Tigers. That requires patience when you’re backing up arguably the greatest skill position player in ACC history: Travis Etienne, who opted to return for his senior year in 2020.
While working as a reserve, change-of-pace back, Dixon has put together a stellar career: 1,372 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns on 208 carries — 6.6 yards per carry.
37 first downs + TDs
Don’t sleep on Lyn-J Dixon in the Clemson backfield 📈 pic.twitter.com/ThFxCFJ9Yt
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 12, 2019
In fact, over the last three seasons Dixon ranks 15th in the ACC in total rushing yards. Going back to the 2018 season, only two ACC players with 1,300+ rushing yards in that span have averaged more yards per carry than Dixon: Etienne (7.2) and UNC’s Michael Carter (6.8).
Dixon has 47 carries of 10+ yards to his name; this accounts of 22.6 percent of his career carries at Clemson.
This will be different now, though. Without Trevor Lawrence and Etienne, Dixon is not only The Man at RB; he’ll have to take on that task without the No. 1 pick keeping defenses honest. (Although let’s be real: no one will feel bad for a lack of talent at Clemson, nor should they. This roster is still loaded.)
2. Bam Knight, NC State
A slashing runner with good speed, Knight looks ready for a big 2021 season. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the setup in Raleigh is study: strong offensive line play (albeit with some disappointing run-block numbers last season), a productive group of veteran skill players and a promising young quarterback.
During his sophomore season in 2020, Knight ran for 788 yards and 10 touchdowns (No. 5 in the ACC) on 143 carries. Do the quick math: Knight averaged 5.5 yards per carry — identical to what Knight posted on a per-carry basis as a freshman in 2019, too. As a rookie, Knight ran for 745 yards on 136 carries: 5.5 yards per pop.
Over 18 percent of Knight’s 2020 carries (26) went for 10 or more yards. He also closed the season with a rushing touchdown in six straight games — seven touchdowns over that span.
According to Pro Football Focus, Knight averaged 0.34 broken tackles per attempt — tied for fourth among all Power Five running backs in 2020.
There is a three-way tie to be the most elusive RB returning to CFB (missed tackles forced / attempt):
🌀 1. Frank Gore Jr / So Miss – .34
🌀 1. Tank Bigsby / Auburn – .34
🌀 1. Zonovan Knight / NC St – .34 pic.twitter.com/XXnOLI2BrK
— PFF College (@PFF_College) June 24, 2021
Knight wasn’t done there, though. He also caught 20 passes (+13 over his freshman year) for 136 yards, working mostly as a checkdown machine.
Over on special teams, Knight was a key contributor, too. Knight finished second in the ACC with an average of 26.6 yards per kickoff return, which includes a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Miami. Knight averaged 108.1 all-purpose yards per game, good for sixth in the conference.
1. Jahmyr Gibbs, Georgia Tech
Gibbs entered Georgia Tech with massive expectations. During his freshman season, he managed to exceed those lofty forecasts.
Gibbs broke 0.39 tackles per rushing attempt (No. 2 in the FBS) and averaged 4.17 yards after contact per attempt, according to Pro Football Focus.
However, Gibbs was equally as impressive catching the ball out of the backfield.
According to Pro Football Focus, Gibbs posted a receiving grade that’s one of the best numbers ever recorded by a Power Five running back, since PFF started tracking/charting this data seven years ago.
Lawrance Toafili, Florida State
- As a true freshman in 2020, Toafili appeared in eight games (two starts); he collected 476 all-purpose yards, including 356 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 37 rushes (9.6 yards per carry) and 120 yards on 12 receptions
- In the season finale vs. Duke: Toafili ran for 117 yards and a touchdown on seven carries, which is the fewest carries in a single game (during 2020) for an ACC player to run for 115+ yards
Ty Chandler, North Carolina
- Back in January, UNC landed a commitment from Chandler, a Tennessee transfer
- While in Knoxville, Chandler posted 3,291 all-purpose yards in 46 career games, which ranks fifth all-time for the program
- On the ground, Chandler ran for 2,046 yards: 4.9 yards per carry
When it came to catching out of the backfield, no one in the SEC was better than Ty Chandler. He averaged 8.6 yards after the catch per reception and turned in 3 touchdowns through the air. pic.twitter.com/uima6T8eMk
— PFF College (@PFF_College) July 9, 2019
British Brooks, North Carolina
- With Michael Carter and Javonte Williams gone, UNC will take a by-committee approach to start the 2021 season at RB; Brooks will factor into that equation
- Sam Howell is at quarterback; UNC’s offense should be special. Whomever gets the majority of RB touches will put up big numbers
- Brooks started in the Orange Bowl vs. Texas A&M: 15 carries, 53 rushing yards
- During the 2020 season, he was named the Special Teams MVP for UNC
Jaylan Knighton, Miami
- As a true freshman, Knighton was solid; he appeared in nine games and made two starts
- Knighton ran for 209 yards and one touchdown: averaging 4.0 yards per carry on 52 attempts
Cam’Ron Harris, Miami
- Harris led the Hurricanes in 2020 with 643 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, which was tied for the fifth most in the ACC (Bam Knight)
Cam'Ron Harris had 138 yards AFTER contact in Wk 2.
More than any power-five player had total rush yards. pic.twitter.com/Av1wgTDJSg
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 16, 2020
Donald Chaney Jr., Miami
- Played all 11 games as a true freshman; he ranked third on Miami’s roster with 322 rushing yards, averaging 4.7 yards per carry on 68 carries (three touchdowns)
Sean Tucker, Syracuse
- Tucker is another underrated back, who stepped up in 2020 despite a limited roster and passing game support: 626 rushing yards and four touchdowns
- He also tweets like Magic Johnson
I love Sean Tucker's tweets almost as much as his game.
He will be special and already is.
Dino Babers saying today the first guy doesn't bring Sean down, just like Jim Brown https://t.co/XXx0pmMEEs
— Niko Tamurian (@NikoTamurian) October 26, 2020
Ricky Person Jr., NC State
- Knight gets the shine as NC State’s featured back, but Person Jr. (who has battled injuries) actually led the team with 147 carries in 2020
- A versatile back, Person has 1,343 career rushing yards (nine touchdowns) and 29 career receptions (two touchdowns)