Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer 473d

ACC returns arguably country's best running back group

Is this the Year of the Running Back? Or was it last year? The broad theme fits either way, because running backs have experienced quite the resurgence.

Nowhere is that more evident than the ACC, which returns six 1,000-yard running backs from the previous season -- the most in league history. With Heisman hopeful Dalvin Cook of Florida State leading the way, the ACC could push the SEC as the conference with the best collective group of backs.

Leonard Fournette and Nick Chubb might get more headlines, but Cook deserves to be right up there with them. His 7.4 yards-per-carry average last season ranked him No. 2 in the country and was nearly one full yard more than Fournette.

Beyond Cook, the other ACC running backs work in relative anonymity -- and that is a big reason why the nation might not be as familiar with the talent coming back.

Exhibit A: North Carolina back Elijah Hood earned the Herbie for "Best Kept Secret." Hood ran for 1,463 yards last season -- the second-highest total in school history. His average of 6.9 yards per carry ranked him No. 8. That made the ACC the only Power 5 conference in the country with two backs from two schools in the top 10.

Then there is Clemson running back Wayne Gallman, who set the school's rushing record last season with 1,527 yards. But there's another 1,000-yard rusher on Gallman's team who takes the headlines. That would be quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, returns two 1,000-yard running backs: 2014 ACC Player of the Year James Conner (who holds school records for rushing touchdowns, total touchdowns and points) and 2015 ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year Qadree Ollison. There might not be a better story in college football this season than Conner, who is set to play again after beating cancer. He rushed for 1,765 yards in 2014.

How about Virginia Tech running back Travon McMillian, who rushed for over 1,000 yards last season -- his first year playing the position? Miami also returns a 1,000-yard back, Joe Yearby, who played in the same backfield as Cook in high school. Like Gallman, Yearby also happens to be on a team with a standout quarterback: Brad Kaaya.

There are others with 1,000-yard potential this season, too, (Matt Dayes at NC State for starters), making this running back group the deepest in conference history. Though players do not have much free time to watch highlights or keep tabs on other standouts across the country, ACC backs are well aware of what they have done.

And they are not satisfied with their accomplishments from last season. Cook has openly talked about potentially reaching 2,000 yards. In the spring, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said, "Heck, if he stays healthy, he would have had it last year. I don't ever put no limitations on him."

Gallman had an opportunity to leave for the NFL but decided to return to school. He has dropped his body fat to 7 percent and said he feels more confident in his running thanks to a new nutritionist and diet change. The offensive line has set a new goal for him this season: 2,000 yards.

"They want to be that group that really propels the offense, and I'm looking forward to doing it with them," Gallman said.

Meanwhile, McMillian has added muscle to help take all the hits he has to absorb as a running back. Though a groin strain limited him during spring practice, he is completely healthy and says he can take on a big role under new coach Justin Fuente.

"I'm up for the challenge," McMillian said. "I feel I can have another great season this year, and I do feel like I can go over 1,000 yards this season. With this offense, getting an opportunity to get out in space, I feel like I'll be able to do that. I'm just really excited for the season. We're going to be a really good offense this year. I can't wait to show you guys."

The other ACC backs are sure to follow that lead, ready to show the country what they all can do.

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