1. Myles Gaskin (Washington)
A savvy and elusive style back, Myles Gaskin is one of the more feared offensive players in all of college football, especially when he lines up alongside quarterback Jake Browning in the backfield, arguably the best gunslinger in all of the Pac-12. Gaskin posted eerily similar back-to-back campaigns in 2015 and 2016, rushing for 1,373 yards and 10 touchdowns in the latter year, including six games where he eclipsed the 100-yard mark. While Gaskin did seem to struggle in moments against top-tier teams, posting a combined 85 yards on 25 carries in the Huskies’ two losses last season to USC and Alabama, that type of outlier production could be more of a sign of his over-matched offensive line, than his inability to work as a consistent rusher. It’s possible that with another successful Washington season, Gaskin emerges as one of the top running back prospects in next year’s NFL Draft.
2. Ronald Jones II (USC)
Just as the insertion of Sam Darnold at the quarterback position spurred the Trojans red-hot finish to the season, the increased usage of Jones II into the role of USC’s main ball-carrier, also helped to kick-start head coach Clay Helton’s squad to a remarkable turnaround in the City of Angels. Considering Jones II took the majority of carries in just seven games last season, it’s astounding that he was able to run for 1,082 yards and 12 scores at the end of the day. Just one of his magnificent in-season flashes of brilliance came against Oregon, where he pieced together a 171 yard and 4 touchdown performance, in a 25-point victory. At 6’ 1” and nearing 200 pounds, Jones II doesn’t come across with the prototypical running back look but he’s one of the trend-setters in an increasing breed of oversized tailbacks, that can mix both speed and size on the field.
3. Phillip Lindsay (Colorado)
Senior running back Phillip Lindsay may not be a secret to only fans of the Pac-12 for too much longer, as the Buffs leading backfield man is set to bust onto the national scene for his last go-round in Boulder. Lindsay led the conference in rushing touchdowns with 16 scores a season ago and posted 1,252 yards on the ground, a mark that finished 4th in the “Conference of Champions”, trailing only Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, Utah’s Joe Williams and Washington’s Myles Gaskin. A talent who could improve with a reworked offensive grouping in front of him, Lindsay is also a solid target in the passing game as well, where he caught 53 passes in 2016. He’s expected to the focal point of a Colorado offense that believes it has the tools of be one of the most prolific units in the Pac-12.
4. Rodney Smith (Minnesota)
Rodney Smith saw more of the regular touches than counterpart Shannon Brooks last season and in the first year under new head coach P.J. Fleck, the potential for the Georgia native to take on even a more featured role is more than probable. It’s not fair to compare any running back in the Big Ten to Penn State’s Saquon Barkley at the moment, but it’s easy to put Smith alongside names like Northwestern’s Justin Jackson and Ohio State’s Mike Weber as potentially the second-best tailback in the league. In 2016, Smith pieced together a strong outing against Oregon State, rushing the ball 25 times for 125 yards and 2 touchdowns, to kick-off a season in which he totaled 240 touches for 1,158 yards and 16 scores.
5. Dalyn Dawkins/Izzy Matthews (Colorado State)
The Rams get a pass on their two-back approach since it’s hard to explain how Colorado State approaches their ground-attack offense, without mentioning both Dalyn Dawkins and Izzy Matthews. For instance, last season it was Dawkins who took more carries and ran for more yards (161 carries, 919 yards) but Matthews who punched the ball into the end-zone more times overall (13 TD’s). Talk about a strange type of balance. Colorado State head coach Mike Bobo also has ball-carrier Marvin Kinsey Jr. (93 carries, 546 yards, 7 TD’s) at his disposal, as soon as he returns from an ACL injury and a quartet of new talent to back up their three-headed monster. Safe to say the Rams will likely pack-a-punch in the running game come opening day.
Bryce Love (Stanford): The unique double-headed attack of Colorado State is the only reason that Love sits just outside of that “Top 5” list, as the once Christian McCaffrey reserve is now poised to step into the main role. In a run-heavy offense like Stanford has been known to operate, Love may emerge as the player everyone saw in Sun Bowl against North Carolina, where he carried the ball 22 times for 115 yards, while also reeling in a 49-yard touchdown catch.
Royce Freeman (Oregon): A developing hybrid back, Freeman reaped the benefits of Oregon’s high-octane offense under head coach Mark Helfrich and will try to put himself into the upper-echelon of Pac-12 ball carriers in 2017, under first year head coach Willie Taggart. If Freeman can stay healthy, he should see the main run of action for the Ducks, bolstered by Tony Brooks-James and Kani Benoit, behind him.
Tre Watson (California): Arguably the most versatile back on the list, Watson will fully step into the spotlight in 2017, after playing back-up a season ago to now-Tennessee Titans running back, Khalfani Muhammad. It’s worth noting that Watson also gave the Beavers all they could handle last year in Corvallis, where he tallied 134 yards and 2 TD’s on 16 carries.