SI All-American Watch List: Running Back Rankings

Breaking down the top running back recruits in the class of 2022
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As the 2021 football season draws near, SI All-American continues to evaluate the nation's top prospects at every position for the college football recruiting class of 2022. The first wave of the evaluations are the 'Watch List' selections, also known as SI All-American candidates, to be released throughout the month of July.

It precedes the SI99 rankings, our preseason mark of America's top college football prospects regardless of position, to be released the first week of August.

Naturally, the quarterback watch list was up first, rolled out in several releases two weeks ago. Last week we moved to skill positions, beginning with a pair of cornerback releases ahead of the nickel defensive back watch list. To cap the week, the flip side is considered in a look at the nation's most impressive wide receiver projections. The top 10 wide receivers were released on Friday and slot receivers debuted Monday.

Edge rushers capped last week's releases. The first batch released Thursday ahead of the top 10 reveal Friday. This week we're back on offense with our look at the running back position. 

1. Nicholas Singleton

Vitals: 6', 218 pounds
School: Reading (Pa.) Governor Mifflin
Recruiting: Committed to Penn State

Singleton is 210 pounds but you wouldn’t know it when tracking the tape. He screams downhill with a decisive style, plenty of rudeness and the breakaway ability of a back much lighter than he. Sure, the competition isn’t elite but he projects dominance like an elite back would regardless of home town, making defenders look comical at times. The athletic profile and filled-out frame, not to mention truly gaudy production, rounds Singleton out as perhaps the most intriguing back in the cycle. Want numbers? How about better than 50 touchdowns and 10 yards per carry over the last two football seasons and sub 10.9-second marks in the 100-meter dash? Penn State fans have to be thrilled with this one.

2. Emmanuel Henderson

Vitals: 6'1", 185 pounds
School: Hartford (Ala.) Geneva County
Recruiting: Committed to Alabama

Henderson is among the most dynamic offensive weapons in the class of 2022, making plays at running back, as a receiver and in the return game. There is a striking combination of size, speed and power at play from the Alabama native, who averaged about 10 yards per carry in 2020. 52 of his carries over the last two seasons have ended with an official hoisting both arms up after he broke the end zone plane. Production aside, the flashes the junior provided on tape are head-turning. Henderson is comfortable approaching the line of scrimmage from depth or laterally, emphasizing well above-average vision along the way. He is efficient with his steps and covers considerable ground with a decisive consistency that easily projects in between the tackles just the same. Also equipped with great lower-body strength, he isn’t just a speed prospect. Where the game projects to the next level best is in the passing game. Henderson is already polished and productive making plays out of the backfield, where he caught 23 passes as a sophomore.

3. Malaki Starks

Vitals: 6'1", 205 pounds
School: Jefferson (Ga.) High School
Recruiting: Committed to Georgia

Defensive projections and possibilities aside, Starks profiles as one of America’s top running backs and overall play-makers with the ball in his hands. Against strong competition in the Peach State, there is an effortlessness with his running production from the backfield, even while playing quarterback in 2020 when the whole stadium knew he was toting the rock. Starks just clocked a PR in the 100 meter dash with a 10.55-second mark on May 8. It came about a week before claiming the Georgia state championship with a 24-9 long jump, a top-five mark in the country this year. To say Starks is explosive is an understatement, evident last year as he ran for 1,537 yards and 24 scores as a junior. With power and elite quickness, Starks isn't just a speed prospect with his frame, making him among the toughest to attempt to tackle in America.

4. Jaydon Blue

Vitals: 6', 205 pounds
School: Houston (Texas) Cain
Recruiting: Committed to Texas

Blue runs with great visitation and lean and combines it with the suddenness to change direction with good enough top speed. He displays plus contact balance on tape and transitions without losing much speed. The in-state get for the Longhorns has strong enough hands as well as the body control to factor into the passing game as a legitimate threat. Blue, who will sit out the 2021 season in order to prepare for his future at Texas, can telegraph cuts to a degree which could begin transition to one-cut status in college. Expect him to arrive in Austin healthy and likely even more rocked-up.

5. Dallan Hayden

Vitals: 5'11", 195 pounds
School: Memphis (Tenn.) Christian Brothers
Recruiting: Committed to Ohio State

Hayden is a classic back with elite between-the-tackle skill. With an impressive, compact build, he has one-step-ahead vision and the ability to stop-start while working behind his pads amid traffic. The contact balance is there, the lean is there and the production is certainly there. Tennessee’s Mr. Football in 2020, the Ohio State commitment was near impossible to slow down during his 2,000-yard campaign. Hayden has some ability to factor into the passing game beyond blocking roles, an area we will be tracking more closely this fall in the Volunteer State. 

6. Branson Robinson

Vitals: 5'10", 220 pounds
School: Madison (Miss.) Germantown
Recruiting: Committed to Georgia

Muscle memes aside, Robinson is a churning running back that will remind Georgia fans of some of the best to suit up in the red and black. He presses the line of scrimmage well, with great lean and decisiveness, with the natural ability to get to top speed in just a few steps. Perhaps the most impressive lateral worker among the nation’s best, the jump cut and deceleration ability creates running lanes in and of itself. Robinson displays patience, great contact balance and plenty of power through initial contact for the extra yard. Combine it with enough breakaway speed and serviceable pass-catching ability and the heaviest back on this list will still project for all three downs. If we're banking on a big senior season propelling one of the best even higher, Robinson would be it.

7. Kaytron Allen

Vitals: 5'11", 220 pounds
School: Bradenton (Fla.) IMG Academy
Recruiting: Committed to Penn State

If there is a need for a gritty, one-play-for-it-all pressure moment from one of America’s top running backs, don't count out Kaytron Allen for the role. Having scouted him in person for years, he has classic traits for the position with power and leverage behind his pads, elite vision and a quicker-than-fast leg churn that has him working into the secondary sooner than one would expect. Allen has a broad frame, well-proportioned and built for contact somewhat similar to former IMG teammate and fellow Penn Stater Noah Cain. Comfortable in the passing game as both a receiver and blocker, Allen’s game and frame are college ready a year before he will participate in a college football camp.

8. Joseph Himon

Vitals: 5'9", 175 pounds
School: Little Rock (Ark.) Pulaski Academy
Recruiting: Committed to Northwestern

Northwestern pledge Joseph Himon is the modern back, built for today’s all-purpose offensive style. Nimble and speedy in space, he has cut-back ability and one-step-ahead vision with the ball in his hands. He presses the line of scrimmage like a bigger back but is shot out of a cannon thereafter. What separates Himon from others on the list is his ability to work out of the backfield. He has slot experience and enough polish working the route tree to give the defense complicated looks without taking ‘the back’ off the field. Throw in a frame that can carry more weight and pound-for-pound toughness and the big plays come in bunches.

9. George Pettaway

Vitals: 5'11", 190 pounds
School: Suffolk (Va.) Nansemond Suffolk Academy
Recruiting: Considering Michigan, North Carolina, Florida, others

How about four touchdowns a game? That’s what Pettaway put in this spring in Virginia’s condensed season as his recruitment hit the next level. Perhaps not as refined relative to the running back position as other on the list, the rising-senior makes up for it with great instincts and overall athleticism. He wastes no movement skill in making sharp cuts and can get to top speed in a hurry as a one-cut specialist. Despite an upright style, he has the potential to carve up defenses with tight-window quickness and true juice in between the tackles on on the edge. Pettaway is a relatively experienced pass catcher with strong hands, ball skills and of course big-time YAC ability. As he fills out his frame and plays with a lower center of gravity, his game could round out in a hurry.

10. Damari Alston

Vitals: 5'10", 205 pounds
School: Atlanta (Ga.) Woodward Academy
Recruiting: Committed to Auburn

More old school vibes on tape shine through in Auburn commitment Damari Alston. Compact, with a low center of gravity and that balance to play in the muck or breakaway untouched -- he has a complete game. While not an alpha athletic profile compared to others, the Peach Stater has excellent lean, can finish through contact and make the subtle shifts in body weight and trajectory to break tackles in the phone booth. The off-hand strength and vision compliment a downhill style and his prowess as a pass catcher has turned him into a three-level threat. Quicker than fast, Alston has bell cow potential in just about any offensive style at the next level.

Best of the Rest

*Omarion Hampton, an in-state pledge to North Carolina,  put up a whopping 15 yards per carry this spring. He is a thick, bruiser type with better open field speed than his frame would indicate.

*Gavin Sawchuck, the Oklahoma pledge, is an ultra productive and nimble talent out of Colorado. Prepping at the same program as Christian McCaffrey, he has dealt with unfair comparisons to the All-Pro, but holds his own in space and during one-on-one situations. 

*Jovantae Barnes, still undecided, is a balanced talent with speed and power to his name. The Las Vegas native is a vertical threat with some ability as an explosive pass catcher, too. 

*Trevor Etienne, the younger brother of Clemson legend Travis Etienne, is already bigger than the NFLer and plays that way. Prep defenders just look small near his filled-out frame and look worse when combatting his downhill style.

*Anthony Hankerson, undecided out of national power St. Thomas Aquinas in south Florida, is another churner at the position. There is still a place for backs that can ware down good defenses and Hankerson does so in late 1990's fashion - behind his pads.