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Where is Devontae Booker's place among elite NCAA running backs?

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Devontae Booker was a breakout star last year for the University of Utah. Coming into the 2015 season, Booker is widely regarded as the best back in the Pac-12 and is being touted as a dark horse Heisman candidate. With Booker’s sudden rise to stardom, let’s take a look at his place among the elite running backs heading into the 2015 college football season.

College football is increasingly turning into a passing game. Every year more teams switch to spread offenses and  passing numbers continue to soar. Despite the heavy passing attacks littered across college football, running backs continue to make a name for themselves. Last season, 57 running backs ran for over 1,000 yards, and the single game rushing record was broken not once, but twice. Utah’s own Devontae Booker burst onto the national scene a quarter of the way through last season, racking up over 1,500 yards rushing and scoring 12 total touchdowns. Entering the 2015 season, where does Devontae Booker stack up among the elite running backs in college football?

To help us understand how Booker ranks among FBS tailbacks entering 2015, let's look at returning running backs as ranked by total rushing yards in 2014.

Name Team Yr Pos G Att Yards Avg. TD Att/G Yards/G
1 Ezekiel Elliott Ohio State SO RB 15 273 1878 6.88 18 18.2 125.2
2 Donnel Pumphrey SDSU SO RB 13 277 1873 6.76 20 21.31 144.08
3 Devon Johnson Marshall JR RB 13 206 1767 8.58 17 15.85 135.92
4 James Conner Pittsburgh SO RB 13 298 1765 5.92 26 22.92 135.77
5 Samaje Perine Oklahoma FR RB 13 263 1713 6.51 21 20.23 131.77
6 Kareem Hunt Toledo SO RB 10 205 1631 7.96 16 20.5 163.1
7 Jordan Howard UAB SO RB 12 306 1587 5.19 13 25.5 132.25
8 Paul Perkins UCLA SO RB 13 251 1575 6.27 9 19.31 121.15
9 Jarvion Franklin W Mich FR RB 13 306 1551 5.07 24 23.54 119.31
10 Nick Chubb Georgia FR RB 13 219 1547 7.06 14 16.85 119
11 Leon Allen Western Ky JR RB 13 272 1542 5.67 13 20.92 118.62
12 Devontae Booker Utah JR RB 13 292 1512 5.18 10 22.46 116.31
13 Matt Breida Ga South SO RB 12 171 1485 8.68 17 14.25 123.75
14 Marcus Cox App St SO RB 12 255 1415 5.55 19 21.25 117.92

If you look at total yards from last season, Booker ranks 12th among returning running backs for 2015. His 5.18 yards per carry average also rank 12th. Though he didn't start until the Washington State game, Booker still managed to get a large number of carries last year with 292, placing him 4th amongst the others on the list. His 22.46 carries per game are second to only James Conner of Pitt.

It's important to note that Booker also had to run against the defensive fronts of Michigan, USC, Stanford and UCLA. Even Washington State had a decent run defense last season. This was a challenge a lot of the backs on this list, namely the guys from the smaller schools, did not have to face. I would say it is safe to put Devontae Booker in a tier above, say, a guy like Devon Johnson of Marshall, who is a hard nosed competitor and a very good back, but would likely not experience his same success playing in the Pac-12.

Backs that stand out looking at the above list are Ezekiel Elliot of Ohio State, who leads the list in total yardage and ran roughshod over both Alabama and Oregon in the college football playoff. Nick Chubb of Georgia, who made a name for himself last year after Todd Gurley went down with a torn ACL. Chubb's 7.06 average yards per carry is certainly impressive. James Conner's 26 touchdowns and 135.77 yards per game average is also a definite eye opener for anyone who didn't get a chance to watch Pitt play last year.

Ezekial Elliot, Samjae Perine, James Conner, Paul Perkins, Nick Chubb and Devontae Booker stand out as the cream of the running back crop returning from last season. That being said, the running back position takes a beating, and with shelf life being so short at the position, it's not often successful backs return to college, as Booker did, for another season. It goes without saying, someone unknown to the majority of us right now, will burst onto the scene during the upcoming season and firmly establish himself as a top tier back. Some names that showed moments of brilliance last year that are also returning, are Leonard Fournette at LSU, Derrick Henry at Alabama, Dalvin Cook at Florida State, Royce Freeman at Oregon and a name Utah fans should be familiar with, Nick Wilson of Arizona. All these guys have the potential for monster seasons.

Many factors go into whether or not a back has a successful season. Injuries, cohesion of the offensive line, and coaching scheme are all factors that can add to or take away from a running backs effectiveness. The good news for Utah is Booker will be playing in a scheme that will feature him as the focal point of the offense. The Utes have a veteran defense, which should keep games low scoring, and allow for Booker to get plenty of carries, grinding out games in a similar fashion to last season.

With so many talented backs spread out across the country, it's hard to nail down a precise pecking order of who the best backs will be. Booker may not be the best back in the country, but looking at the list of names and available stats, Booker appears to be a top ten back in the country. Booker has stated his goal this season is to rush for over 2,000 yards and win the Heisman Trophy. If Booker can meet his goals, he will leave no doubt who the best running back in college football is.