Another look at 2 ACC running backs that loom as 2020 NFL Draft sleepers

Prior to the start of the 2019 season, it was wise to project Clemson’s Travis Etienne as the top running back prospect in the ACC. Etienne, with all of the speed in the world, put together a masterful sophomore campaign as Clemson went 15-0 and won the national title: 1,658 rushing yards and an ACC-record 24 rushing touchdowns.

As a junior, Etienne followed that performance with another ridiculous effort. Etienne again eclipsed 1,600 rushing yards; he accounted for 23 total touchdowns, including four receiving scores. Etienne posted eight 100-yard rushing performances, all with 17 or fewer carries.

Over the last 20 seasons of college football, only seven players have run for 1,600+ yards on fewer than 215 carries in the same season. That list includes Reggie Bush, Kareem Hunt, Melvin Gordon and Matt Breida. Etienne is the only player to do that on more than one occasion.

For the second year in a row, Etienne was named ACC Player of the Year. Etienne, however, decided to return for his senior season, as opposed to entering the 2020 NFL Draft.

Even with Etienne staying put, the ACC will still send a couple talented running backs to the draft. Even as the running back position struggles to find its value of yesteryear, Florida State’s Cam Akers and AJ Dillon of Boston College loom as interesting sleeper draft picks. (Akers and Dillon were both in the 2017 recruiting class with Etienne, too.)


Cam Akers

Akers, a former blue-chip recruit, followed up a slump-filled sophomore season — behind a historically leaky offensive line — with a resurgent 2019 campaign. Despite the team struggles, Akers still fulfilled his prophecy as the next great FSU running back after Dalvin Cook.

During his junior season, Akers ran for 1,144 yards (5 yards per carry) and 14 touchdowns. The 5-foot-10 Akers, who ran a 4.47 40 at the combine, showcased the ability to run between the tackles — 217 pounds, 20 bench press reps at the combine — and breakaway from the pack with highlight speed.

For NFL teams craving position-less versatility, Akers has nice upside, too. A high school quarterback, Akers completed 5-of-8 pass attempts during his career with FSU. There’s trick play potential. More importantly, though, he’s a solid receiver.

As a receiver, Akers caught 69 career passes, including 30 this season for 225 yards and four touchdowns.

For the 2020 draft class, Akers ranked fourth among running backs (71st percentile) in adjusted SPARQ, a metric used to evaluate overall athleticism.

Projection: Akers is arguably the best running back prospect in this year’s class; he looks like a Day 2 pick, going somewhere in the middle of the second round.


AJ Dillon

At the top of the SPARQ listed for running backs (97th percentile), though, is Dillon — a bulldozer of a runner.

With Steve Addazio at the helm, few FBS players went through more churn than Dillon over the last couple of college football seasons. This trend started during Dillon’s freshman season, when he carried the ball 300 times for 1,589 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Dillon missed a couple of games his sophomore season with an ankle injury; however, he still managed to rush for over 1,100 yards on 227 carries. In 2018, Dillon led the ACC with 22.7 carries per game.

In fact, Dillon led the ACC in carries per game all three seasons while at Boston College: 23.1 in 2017 and 24.5 in 2019. As a senior, Dillon carried the ball 318 times (3rd most in the FBS), and caught 13 passes, too. Dillon finished his career with 4,382 rushing yards on 845 carries — an average of nearly 282 carries per season. (This is an absurd workload.)

Dillon is enormous for a running back; at this year’s combine, the 6-foot back weighed in a 247 pounds. Dillon also displayed an impressive 41-inch vertical leap and put up 23 bench press reps.

He may be a situational running back, but Dillon offers value as a short-distance/power rusher — at the least. It’s easy to see him running through defenders around the goal line, or showing off that vertical leap on 1-yard touchdown plunges.

Projection: Dillon appears to be a Day 3 pick, going in the fourth or fifth round.