The 10 best running backs in the Pac-12 from the 2023 season
Oregon had two of the best running backs in the Pac-12 during the 2023 season, according to Pro Football Focus.
With the season over and the dust mostly settled from a slew of massive offseason moves, we’re taking a look back at the best performers from the previous year in the Pac-12. Up first, a look at the running backs who played at least 50 offensive snaps during the year.
No. 10: Michael Wiley, Arizona
PFF Grades: 81.3 overall offensive, 82.5 rushing
A year after leading the team in rushing — when he averaged nearly 7 yards a carry — Wiley battled injuries and found himself in more of a rotation later in the year. He opened the season with double-digit carries in his first three games, peaking at 17 for 83 yards and a touchdown in Week 3 against UTEP, but he left the Stanford game in the first quarter with an injury and missed the next three games. When he returned, he carried the ball more than seven times in a game only once. Of course, that one time happened to be against Arizona State, when he ran for 66 yards and two scores. Wiley still made an impact, though. He caught 28 passes for 306 yards and five touchdowns while finishing the season with 311 rushing yards and three scores on 70 carries.
No. 9: MarShawn Lloyd, USC
PFF Grades: 81.7 overall, 87.2 rushing
A South Carolina transfer, Lloyd got off to a slow start before a hot streak from late September through October. He finished the year with 820 yards and nine touchdowns on 116 carries. He missed two games — the Washington game at the Coliseum and then USC’s bowl game against Louisville — but still ended the year top-10 in rushing in the Pac-12. Despite a USC offense that was plagued by inconsistencies on the offensive line all year, Lloyd managed one of the best per-carry clips in the league (7.1). Lloyd also forced 47 missed tackles, the fifth-most among Pac-12 backs.
No. 8: Ja’Quinden Jackson, Utah
PFF Grades: 82.0 overall, 86.1 rushing
He enjoyed a breakthrough second half of the season in 2022 when Utah moved the former quarterback into a full-time running back role. He was among the highest-graded backs in the FBS that season. The 2023 campaign was supposed to give Jackson an opportunity to blossom into a household name. Instead, injuries nagged at him throughout the year and limited his effectiveness. Jackson dealt with an ankle situation that lingered, but still managed to play in 12 of 13 games while rushing 161 times for 797 yards and four scores. Jackson has since transferred to Arkansas.
No. 6 (tie): Isaiah Ifanse, Cal
PFF Grades: 82.6 overall, 86.4 rushing
A graduate transfer from Montana State, Ifanse joined the Cal backfield last offseason to give the Golden Bears a potent one-two punch at tailback. And he looked more than capable through the first eight games. Behind Jaydn Ott, Ifanse ran for 365 yards and seven touchdowns on 70 carries before an injury kept him out of the final five games. When Ott missed the Idaho game, Ifanse ran for 137 yards and a score. Against Oregon State, Ifanse ran for 86 yards and two scores. He averaged a missed tackle forced every other rushing attempt.
No. 6 (tie): Damien Martinez, Oregon State
PFF Grades: 82.6 overall, 87.6 rushing
The Beavers’ towering second-year runner finished the season second in the Pac-12 in yards per game and fifth in yards per carry. Only Ott had more yards after contact. Only Ott and Oregon’s Bucky Irving forced more missed tackles. Simply put, Martinez is a star for the Beavs. In two short seasons, he has already established himself as one of the best running backs in the country. Martinez opened the year with three consecutive 100-yard rushing days and ended the year with six in total. He ran for 1,185 yards and nine touchdowns on 194 carries.
No. 5: Jaydn Ott, Cal
PFF Grades: 87.4 overall, 89.5 rushing
Ott took the league by storm as a freshman in 2022, and he built on his game in 2023. He led the Pac-12 in rushing with 1,315 yards and 12 touchdowns on 246 carries. He also added two more scores as a receiver. Ott had five games with at least 150 rushing yards, including a 153-yard, three-touchdown day against USC. That day saw Ott score rushing touchdowns of 43 and 61 yards in the first quarter. Ott’s 833 yards after contact were the seventh-most among Power Five running backs. With Cal moving to the ACC and Ott back for another season in Berkeley, the junior-to-be can become a household name next season.
No. 4: Dillon Johnson, Washington
PFF Grades: 88.0 overall, 88.7 rushing
Washington’s offense was not a run-first unit. It wasn’t even an offense designed to feature a tailback. But Johnson caught Oregon by surprise in an Oct. 14 meeting and then, three weeks later, exploded against USC. In the 52-42 win over the Trojans, Johnson had 256 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Over his last seven games, Johnson ran for 765 yards and 10 scores while forcing 26 missed tackles. He finished the year with the second-most rushing yards in the conference (1,195) and the most rushing scores in the conference (16).
No. 3: Bucky Irving, Oregon
PFF Grades: 88.1 overall, 91.6 rushing
Arguably, there isn’t a tailback in the country more exciting to watch than Irving. He forced 69 missed tackles, the most in the Pac-12 and the sixth-most among Power Five runners. Irving did that on 186 carries while the top five all had more than 220 carries each. For two years in Eugene, he simply would not go down at first contact. Irving finished the season with 1,180 yards and 11 touchdowns. His per-carry average of 6.3 yards ranked fourth among Pac-12 backs and his 33 explosive runs ranked second. He also added 413 yards and two touchdowns in the pass game, and he registered at least one reception in every single game.
No. 2: Jonah Coleman, Arizona
PFF Grades: 91.3 overall, 93.4 rushing
Coleman took over as Arizona’s lead back in just his second year with the program. He ran for 871 yards and five touchdowns. If there’s a breakout candidate to bet on at the position in 2024, I’d put money on Coleman, who followed Jedd Fisch from Arizona to Washington. Coleman averaged 5.1 yards after contact as a true sophomore. That was the best mark among Pac-12 runners and the third-best mark of any rusher in the FBS (min. 50 snaps). A 5-foot-9 rusher from Stockton, California, Coleman looks like one of the steals of the 2022 recruiting class.
No. 1: Jordan James, Oregon
PFF Grades: 92.0 overall, 94.8 rushing
James had the best rushing grade of any Pac-12 player, qualified or not. He had the best rushing grade of any Power Five player, qualified or not. And he had the best rushing grade of any FBS player, qualified or not. With Irving moving on to the NFL and Oregon looking for a new man to lead the backfield in 2024, James can lean on his 2023 performance as the strongest case for the job anyone can make. A 5-foot-10 sophomore, James averaged 7.1 yards per carry to lead the Pac-12 in rushing efficiency. With Noah Whittington knocked out early in the season, James became the No. 2 behind Irving and proved a reliable option in power-rushing situations for the Ducks. He ran for 759 yards and 11 touchdowns. Forty-five of his 107 carries went for first downs. And 21 of his carries went for explosive gains. The Ducks have recruited the running back position well under coach Dan Lanning, and the group looks deep heading into the new season even with the departure of Irving. Whittington is expected back and healthy, and product Northwest Missouri State transfer Jay Harris is joining the group; James getting 20 carries a game doesn’t seem like an eventuality in Eugene. But James certainly has a chance to be one of the upper-echelon tailbacks in the Big Ten next season.