By Simon Carroll

You won’t find Jonathan Taylor, Travis Etienne or D’Andre Swift on this list. Here we pinpoint ten not-so-familiar names that will make a big impact this season:

Jermar Jefferson, Oregon State Beavers

Running Back

An All-American as a freshman last year, Jermar Jefferson took the Pac-12 by storm in 2018. The dynamic back racked up over 1,500 all-purpose yards and 12 touchdowns – the best stats by any freshman in college football.

Explosive doesn’t describe Jefferson’s big play ability. He has the ability to take a game by the scruff of the neck and impose his will on it. He had two games with more than 200 rushing yards and four touchdowns in each. He’ll need more of that – it will be an uphill battle to bring a winning season to Corvallis in 2019. If he can be more consistent with those huge games Jefferson figures to be in the conversation as one of the top running backs in the nation this season.

Spencer Brown, UAB Blazers

Running Back

What a Cinderella story in Birmingham. After the program was dissolved following the 2014 season the UAB Blazers spent two years without football. Bill Clark was the Head Coach the day this team died but he stuck around to see it restored in 2016. And for the past two seasons he has done a quite remarkable job at Legion Field.

Part of that success is down to Spencer Brown. Joining in it’s rebirth season, he’s slashed his way to more than 2,500 yards and 26 touchdowns in two years. A model of consistency, Brown saw similar carries and yards per game from 2017 to 2018, but had a huge jump in touchdowns. He’s a three-down running back who can grind out the hard yards as much as find a hole and blast it to the house. If he can overcome foot surgery this offseason he figures to be a workhorse in Clark’s offense once more, forging a resume that will impress NFL scouts.

Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Vanderbilt Commodores

Running Back

The current state of football up in Illinois makes you wonder what Lovie Smith was thinking about with Ke’Shawn Vaughn. In his first season as Head Coach Smith relegates Vaughn to RB2 following a 842 yard, 6 touchdown freshman campaign. Vaughn transferred back home to Vanderbilt and was forced to sit a year due to NCAA rules. Once reinstated he showcased his ability – 1,400 total yards, 14 touchdowns and a season that went from strength to strength.

He had some huge performances against SEC powerhouses and a bowl game against Baylor that was astonishing. The good news for Commodore fans is that you can expect the stats to soar in 2019. Vaughn recorded 7.9 yards per carry on just 157 totes and  his number of touches could double this season.

JJ Taylor, Arizona Wildcats

Running Back

Think this Wildcat offense is all Khalil Tate? Think again. Somewhat of a workhorse for Arizona last year, JJ Taylor is lightning in a bottle. His near 1,600 all purpose yards last year carried this team as Tate limped through an ankle injury for most of the season. And he provided his team with playmaking ability on special teams as well.

His forte is getting the ball in space and getting chunk yardage at key parts in the contest. Heading into his junior year Taylor has some aspects of his game to work on. Finding paydirt more often (just six touchdowns last year) will be his priority. And ball security (seven fumbles in 2018) is a concern. But Head Coach Kevin Sumlin will be relying on him to put it all together in his third season and give this Wildcat team a true dual-threat offense.

Michael Warren, Cincinnati Bearcats

Running Back

If smashmouth, hard-nosed football is your thing, then Michael Warren is your ball carrier. The quintessential between-the-tackles running back Warren was a touchdown machine in 2018, recording 20 scores in twelve games.

The most impressive thing of his 1,300 yard season is that he wasn’t even expected to start last year. But the Bearcats really did ride him to an 11-2 record following Gerrid Doaks injury. And this included massive wins against UCLA and Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl. With excellent ball security and consistent yardage Warren is one of the most reliable runners in the nation, and an intimidating sight for opposing defenses. More of the same is expected in 2019.

Greg McRae, UCF Knights

Running Back

One of the new ‘Swiss army knife’ running backs, Greg McRae features heavily in all aspects of UCF’s offense. He’s a natural playmaker with the ball in his hand and hits top speed in the blink of an eye.

The Knights are likely to increase McRae’s workload in 2019 as they look to continue their dominance of the AAC. The former walk-on racked up 1,300 yards last year and can produce from the backfield, split out or on sweeps.  This will be key to a program reeling from the loss of their starting Quarterback for the season. Encouragingly, McRae’s performances improve the more touches he gets in games, meaning he’s more than just a specialist weapon

Darrynton Evans, Appalachian State Mountaineers

Darrynton Evans was described as a utility player in his freshman year and recorded just 250 yards, He redshirted his second season due to injury but came back strong as a sophomore. Converting fully to running back following Jalin Moore’s injury, Evans piled up the yards for this Mountaineer offense.

Having spent time as a wide receiver Evans also figures to be a multi-faceted weapon heading into 2019. Encouragingly, he got better as last season progressed, chalking up 100 yards in five out of his last six games. A pleasant surprise for this team, Evans gives the impression he’s merely scratching the surface of his potential. And it will be interesting to see how he fares with much higher expectations.

Cam Akers, Florida State Seminoles

Much like the fortune of the Seminoles football team as a whole, Akers second season in Tallahassee was more testing than he maybe had hoped for. That being said, Akers had plenty of adversity to contend with including an atrocious offensive line and underwhelming quarterback play, and still showed he could be productive. He still has amassed nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage during his college career and if this offense takes the next step under Willie Taggart then Akers should bounce back nicely.

His skillset is evident when given the opportunity to make plays and he could be the pick of the ACC’s running backs once all is said and done. Of one thing there is no doubt; with an uncertain QB situation the Seminoles will be relying on Akers to carry this team for long stretches of this season.

Pooka Williams, Kansas Jayhawks

These are exciting times in Lawrence, and it’s not often you read that unless you’re talking about this universities’ basketball program. The big hire of Les Miles has given Jayhawk football a real shot in the arm and as well as starting off brightly on the recruitment trail they’ve also got one of the best running backs in the Big 12 on their roster.

Pooka Williams, on the weakest team in the conference, rode roughshod over every Defense he came up against in 2018. More impressively, his stats got better against quality opposition. His value to Kansas cannot be understated – Williams features heavily in the passing game and is a big-time threat as a punt and kick returner as well. See this highlight reel for the diverse game he brings:

Williams had a big question mark over his availability for 2019 after a domestic violence incident in December. He had been been suspended for seven months but the issue has now been resolved both legally and at team level, with Kansas suspending him for the first game of the season against Indiana State. It might be a game later than hoped, but if he can improve his behaviour off the field expect Pooka to thrive in Miles’ smashmouth offense once he returns in week 2.

Zack Moss, Utah Utes

It’s not often running backs of Moss’ ability return to school for their senior year, but with a season ending leg injury hampering 2018 the Utes star back felt he had unfinished business in Salt Lake City. Despite the setback, Moss still lit up the stat sheet, posting over 1,000 yards on the ground and just 77 yards less than the previous season where he played four more games.

He has an all-round game that coaches rave about, including his ability as a pass catcher as well as in pass protection. With the Pac-12 up for grabs and Utah heavily favoured to make the championship game Moss has the opportunity to showcase his talent on a national level and “cement his name” as he declared when announcing his return in 2019.

Simon Carroll


previously the founder of nfl draft uk, simon has been covering college football and the nfl draft since 2009. based in manchester, simon is also co-creator & weekly guest of the collapsing pocket podcast.