The two best running backs in college football are Travis Etienne of Clemson and Najee Harris of Alabama. This is an indisputable fact. It’s not Chuba Hubbard or anyone else you can think of; Etienne and Harris are on a level of their own. After both players elected to return to college for their senior season rather than enter the 2020 NFL Draft, they have dominated.
Through four games, Etienne is averaging seven yards per carry with 392 total rushing yards and four touchdowns. Against Miami, the seventh-ranked team in the country, Etienne erupted for 223 total yards from scrimmage and logged two touchdowns. After that game, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said that Etienne needs to be in the Heisman conversation.
Najee Harris is averaging 6.7 yards per carry with 347 total rushing yards and ten touchdowns through three games. Like Etienne, Harris was terrific on Saturday. Against Ole Miss, he turned 23 carries into 206 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Etienne and Harris have been incredible to start the season and are running backs one and two on my 2021 NFL Draft big board. The competition between these two to see who is the best running back come next April should be exciting and historic.
Now, it’s time to answer the question; who is the better running back? Well, let’s break it down, skill by skill. Etienne is the better pure runner. He is more allusive, can make better cuts and jukes, and has great vision. Etienne has the most burst and acceleration I’ve seen out of a prospect in years. Fellow writer Trey has said that he sees some Alvin Kamara in Etienne’s game, perfectly accurate. To summarize, Etienne is the quicker running back and is much better running in space.
When it comes to breaking tackles, Najee Harris is the more efficient running back. Harris is one of the strongest backs in college and can run through an entire defense before being brought down. Additionally, Harris is the better receiving prospect than Etienne. While Etienne might be slightly better after the catch, Harris has better hands and a better route-running tree. Najee Harris is also the better pass blocker than Etienne, which is arguably Etienne’s worst trait.
This is arguably the most challenging question to answer for college football and NFL Draft fans. I think both backs should be immediate contributors in the NFL next season. Etienne and Harris are 1A and 1B on my big board, right next to one another. While this is subject to change, I currently believe Travis Etienne is the slight favorite as the better running back. His agility and acceleration between the tackles are exciting to watch and should translate correctly to the next level. Harris is still a dominant back, but Etienne brings something a bit different to the table. Yet, they are neck and neck with one another.
While I do not believe in drafting running backs in the first round, if one gets a first-round grade from me, the other will too. Travis Etienne and Najee Harris are the two best running backs in college football, and no one should think otherwise.