So who fills those big shoes in 2017? This week, we’ll be offering our best answers.
Today's question: Who will be the next Dalvin Cook in the ACC?
This is a tough question to answer, considering what the position looks like across the conference. Only one running back who rushed for over 1,000 yards last season returns -- Miami’s Mark Walton. The top returning rusher? Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson. There are so many unproven players, someone under-the-radar now could emerge as the stalwart. For now, we have to take our best educated guess.
The standard: Cook did so much for Florida State, where to begin? He rushed for over 1,000 yards each of his three seasons with the Seminoles. As a sophomore in 2015, he averaged 7.4 yards per carry. As a junior last season, he had a career-high 1,765 yards to break Warrick Dunn's school career rushing record and finished as a unanimous All-American. He blended his power with speed and fierce determination and reliably got the tough yards whenever the Seminoles needed them. His growth as a pass-catcher out of the backfield shouldn’t be overlooked, either. As it stands, there is no heir apparent to Cook in the ACC, but there are backs to keep an eye on throughout 2017.
The best bet: Cam Akers, Florida State.
It’s not a coincidence that Akers is in this spot. He is the same size as Cook as listed on the Florida State roster (5-foot-11, 213 pounds) and is in all likelihood going to be tasked with filling Cook’s shoes in an offense that relies heavily on a strong running game. Akers, rated No. 9 in the nation in the 2017 signing class, led all rushers in the Florida State spring game with 87 yards on 10 carries and is poised to make an impact immediately.
Other options: Georgia Tech's Dedrick Mills had a promising season as a true freshman last year, rushing for 771 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns (tied for third in the country among freshmen). This season, he returns as the most proven player on offense, and that could mean an even bigger workload, especially as the Jackets work in a new starter at quarterback.
Pitt's Qadree Ollison was the ACC offensive player of the year in 2015 after rushing for 1,121 yards and 11 touchdowns. His production dropped off last season with James Conner's return. But now that Conner is gone, the Panthers have seen a renewed focus and determination from Ollison, who will reclaim his starting job. Pitt’s offense is built to run the ball, so Ollison is as close to a sure bet to rush for 1,000 yards as anybody in the conference.
With a new starter at quarterback, the onus is going to fall to the Miami run game to help get the offense going. Good thing the Canes return Mark Walton, who has drawn continuing praise from coach Mark Richt. Without much in the way of depth behind him, Walton could be used more as a workhorse back than in previous seasons. The Canes didn’t burden him with too much of a workload this spring to try and weigh the options behind him, but there’s no doubt he will be used plenty in 2017.
The dark horse: Jeremy Smith, Louisville.
Smith missed the spring because of an injury, but he will be back for the season. And when he does return, coach Bobby Petrino is expecting a major impact. Louisville will try to establish the run with its running backs this season, a key to taking the pressure off Jackson. Smith is a big, physical back with the ability to break long runs. “Jeremy Smith will have a real good year for us,” Petrino said recently. “He seems to break long runs all the time. He’s a really good pass protector and catches the ball really well.”