The ACC returns two 1,000 yard rushers from last season in North Carolina's Giovani Bernard and Clemson's Andre Ellington. Both are in line for big seasons once again, and those two mark the class of the conference, while there is a big gap between them and the rest of the league's rushers.
However, that's not to say there isn't talent in the conference outside of those two. Virginia's Perry Jones is a highly talented back who can do it all, but he also has to share carries with promising youngsters Kevin Parks and Clifton Richardson. NC State's James Washington started every game last fall, but he also resides in a crowded backfield with the emerging Tony Creecy, while 2010 leading rusher Mustafa Greene is also expected back following an injury redshirt. Florida State's Devonta Freeman is a talented sophomore, but has a similar situation with James Wilder, Jr., and Chris Thompson also competing for rushes.
Somebody will emerge at Georgia Tech and surpass the 1,000 yard mark, that's a given, but will it be David Sims? Will Boston College, who dismissed all-time leading rusher Montel Harris, now ride Rolandan Finch or Andre Williams? There are more questions than answers in the majority of the ACC backfields at this point, but here's our crack at ranking the league's backs.
Ranking the ACC's running backs
1. Giovani Bernard, North Carolina
North Carolina is switching to a fast-paced, spread offense in 2011 under new head coach Larry Fedora, but it would be unwise to not take advantage of what they return in the backfield. Bernard finished third in the ACC as a redshirt freshman with 1,253 yards and was second with 13 touchdowns on the ground. The two ground gainers who finished ahead of the Tar Heels' back in 2011 were both taken in the NFL draft, while he averaged 5.2 yards per carry.
The 5-foot-8, 205-pounder who became the first UNC back to eclipse 1,000 yards on the ground since 1997 will be running behind a strong offensive line and should continue to produce in Chapel Hill, no matter what kind of offense they run. He'll be a threat in the passing game for sure - his 1,615 combined yards receiving and rushing was the second-most ever by a rookie in ACC history. Lindy's Football Preview magazine lists Bernard as the No. 6 running back in the land, while Phil Steele's ranks him as the No. 19 rusher in the nation.
2. Andre Ellington, Clemson
Ellington was named second-team All-ACC last season after he rushed for 1,178 yards and 11 scores, but being productive was nothing new for the 5-10, 190 pound senior. He has totaled 2,323 yards on the ground in his career, and has a career average of 5.68 yards per tote, the seventh-best in the ACC annals among players with at least 2,000 yards gained. He ranked fourth in the league in 2011 with 90.6 yards per game, and should thrive in his second year of the Clemson offense under coordinator Chad Morris.
Ellington had ankle surgery and missed the Tigers' spring game, but it was listed as a minor operation and the school said he would be 100 percent for summer workouts, so that should have no ill effects in 2012. He almost certainly would've been selected in the NFL Draft if he had declared last year, but he returned for his final campaign and ESPN's Mel Kiper, Jr. lists him as the No. 4 senior back in the land right now. Both Lindy's and Phil Steele's preview magazines list him as the nation's No. 10 back, so if he can stay healthy, watch out.
3. Perry Jones, Virginia
Despite his listed size of 5-8 and 185 pounds, Jones is called "Superman" by his teammates, and it's for good reason. He is deceptively strong, has good speed and can do it all - last season, he led the team with 915 yards rushing while averaging five yards per carry, and he also ranked second on the squad with 48 receptions for 506 yards. He scored eight times and threw another touchdown pass, and he did it all while splitting carries with a pair of youngsters in Kevin Parks and Clifton Richardson.
Virginia's offense will likely rely on the ground attack once again, with the senior Jones, who coaches say is the strongest pound-for-pound on the team, leading the way. Virginia hasn't boasted a 1,000 yard rusher since 2004, but if anybody will be able to do it, "Superman" is that guy.
4. David Sims, Georgia Tech
The 6-foot, 218-pounder made the move from quarterback to running back last season, and while he wasn't as productive as his predecessors at the B-back position - in coach Paul Johnson's first three seasons at the helm, the starter at the position averaged 1,368.7 yards and 11 touchdowns per season.
However, Sims was plenty effective in 12 games, including 10 starts, and he rushed for nearly 700 yards on 135 carries for an average of 5.2 yards per tote, while he scored eight times. The redshirt junior should continue to make strides in his second year at the position and will be given every opportunity to eclipse 1,000 yards this season.
5. James Washington, NC State
In what will be a recurring theme for the rest of these rankings, should Washington get the opportunity to be the featured back in 2012, he will thrive, but that is not a given because he will be pushed by a loaded backfield. The Wolfpack also returns emerging redshirt sophomore Tony Creecy and classmate Mustafa Greene, who paced the team in rushing in 2010 before missing last year with an injury.
However, the speedy Washington established himself as a legitimate rushing threat in 2011, when he gained 897 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground after he totaled just under 300 yards rushing in his first two years on campus, which included four starts. The 6-foot, 186 pound senior also hauled in 46 passes for 315 yards last season, and averaged 93.2 all-purpose yards per game. He will continue to be productive as long as he can hold off the Pack's talented youngsters. Whoever is running the ball for State will be aided by one of the most experienced lines in the country up front.
6. Devonta Freeman, Florida State
The 5-8, 200-pounder was a highly ranked recruit when he joined the Seminoles, and led the team as a true freshman with 579 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. He beat out classmate James Wilder, Jr., who was a higher ranked recruit, for the main role last season and, if he can do the same this year, he could be in line for a special campaign.
Freeman averaged 4.8 yards per carry and also hauled in 15 passes for 111 yards last season. More importantly, he got stronger as the year went on and was given an opportunity - after a slow start, he started the final seven games, while he averaged 62.5 rushing yards per game in the final eight contests. He should continue to improve as he settles in to the offense, but he missed the spring with a back injury and will be pushed by Wilder and senior Chris Thompson, who was injured at the end of last season.
7. Orwin Smith, Georgia Tech
The speedster is the A-back in the Georgia Tech offense, so he's far from the featured back. But the wing makes plays when given the ball - he's one of the top big-play threats in recent memory of the ACC; Smith averages a touchdown every five carries in his career and has the league's highest career average for yards per attempt (9.7) for any runner who has ever gained at least 1,000 yards. He totaled 615 yards and 11 scores on just 61 carries last season while battling turf toe, which he had surgically repaired this offseason, so he might be downright scary at full health. He's also a threat catching passes (27 career receptions for 527 yards and a score) and returning kicks (62 returns for 1,357 yards).
8. Rolandan Finch, Boston College
The junior is a bit more of a bruiser than classmate Andre Williams, who is a bigger, well-rounded back, but "Deuce" is the proven player at this point. Finch totaled 705 rushing yards as a sophomore, and torched Maryland for the ACC's best ground game last season, when he totaled 243 yards and two scores. It's no guarantee that Finch beats out Williams, who rushed for 517 yards and a team-best four scores last year, for the starting gig, but both should see plenty of action this year.
The Eagles' backfield also boasts Tajh Kimble, who can't be discounted after ending the spring atop the depth chart, but Finch did total 200 yards rushing in the Boston College spring game.
- Kevin Parks, Virginia
The 5-8, 195-pounder from Salisbury, N.C. put up some impressive numbers as a redshirt freshman - he gained 709 yards on the ground, in addition to a team-best nine touchdowns, while he missed a game with an injury. The nine rushing scores set a school record and he also hauled in a receiving touchdown.
Parks might not start a game next year, but he might also be the best No. 2 back in the league. If he gets an opportunity to shine in 2012, he probably will; even if he doesn't, another season with 700-plus yards and a nice number of touchdowns is not out of the question. He'll probably receive a heavier work load than Jones down near the goal line.
- Mike James, Miami
Nobody suffered from the emergence of former Miami back Lamar Miller like James, a bowling ball of a running back at 5-11, 222 pounds. The senior has power and was named the Hurricanes' strength training Athlete of the Year in 2011, but was not given much opportunity last fall. He'll get his chance to shine this year after he rushed for 719 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first three years, including 275 yards and seven touchdowns in 2011. He also has experience at fullback and is a reliable pass catcher out of the backfield; he has 37 career receptions for 241 yards and two scores.
- Tevin Washington, Georgia Tech
The redshirt senior quarterback makes our list because of the option offense he runs. He started every game under center last season after he started the final four games of 2010. He rushed for 514 yards and four scores two years ago, and improved to 987 yards and an ACC-best 14 touchdowns on the ground last fall. Without a doubt, he'll be a threat to break the 1,000 yard mark in his final campaign and he'll put up rushing numbers like a running back.
- Josh Harris, Wake Forest
Harris earned honorable mention Freshman All-America honors in 2010 after he played in 11 games with four starts, and paced the Demon Deacons with 720 yards and seven touchdowns, while he averaged 5.7 yards per carry. He looked like a star in the making when he torched the vaunted Virginia Tech defense for 241 yards on 20 carries in his first career start, but injuries hampered him in 2011. Last year, he finished with 432 yards and three scores on 101 carries, but if he can regain 2010 form, he'll surprise the league.