Throughout the Summer, we have been highlighting the best returning players, by position, in each conference. Certainly, there are plenty of good running backs to go around. Whether it is Bijan and Deuce in the Big XII, or TreVeyon in the Big Ten, the talent across the country is there. But as we close in on conference media days over the next few weeks, followed by the start of camp, this is the time to give some recognition to running backs who are not getting enough national love. There are the Pac-12 Best Returning Running Backs.
The Pac-12’s Best Returning Running Backs
#3. Tavion Thomas – Utah
Thomas transferred to Salt Lake City from Cincinnati prior to last season. In two seasons for the Bearcats, he played in a dozen games and had 129 carries for just under 700 yards.
He made the determination to leave Cincinnati but that was the 2020 season. Covid was truncating all college football plans. With what he termed “family complications,” he suddenly had nowhere to go. He was sleeping in his car for months before getting a chance at Independence Community College in Kansas. Even while he was getting an opportunity to play, the season was shortened to four games because of Covid.
He saw so little action he was getting no calls from any D1 school. He touched bases with former Utes running back Zack Moss, who got coaches to take a look at his film. Fast forward to the 2021 season and it was all anyone could ask for. He rushed for over 1,100 yards and had 21 touchdowns.
He ran for a career-best 177 rushing yards against Stanford on 20 carries. Against UCLA, he had 160 rushing yards on 24 carries, scoring four touchdowns to earn Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week. At season’s end, he was named All Pac-12 First Team.
#2. Travis Dye – USC
Dye is one of the most prolific running backs in Oregon history. Yet there he is at USC. He counts as a returning running back on our list, having transferred from within the conference.
Dye has a little more than 3,000 career rushing yards, ranking fifth all-time among Oregon’s running backs. He was both the rushing and receiving leader for the Ducks in 2021. His 1,672 all-purpose yards were the most in the Pac-12 last year. Just for good measure he also averaged 20 yards per kickoff return on 15 runbacks and 10 yards per punt return. He had 7 100-yard rushing games and 4,337 all-purpose yards in his career.
He is originally from Norco, CA but followed his brother Troy, (a linebacker from 2016-2019) to Oregon. Even as the Trojans got running back Austin Jones as a transfer from Stanford, and already had Darwin Barlow from TCU, Dye has the credentials to lead USC’s running attack under new offensive coordinator Josh Henson.
USC’s offense will have a lot of options with new quarterback Caleb Williams and receiver Mario Williams to augment the running game with Dye.
#1. Zach Charbonnet – UCLA
Like Dye, Charbonnet disproves the notion that you can’t go home again. Coming out of Oaks Christian High in 2019, he was the number three running back recruit in the country. One of his teammates at the Westlake Village, CA school was current UCLA linebacker Shea Pitts.
Chip Kelly made a run at getting Charbonnet out of high school but was outdone by Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh. As a freshman, he played in all 13 games and rushed for 726 yards and 11 touchdowns. In 2020, between a shortened Covid season, and injuries, he played in only five games, picking up 124 yards. He was also getting lost in the running back shuffle in Ann Arbor.
Charbonnet came home for the 2021 season. By Spring camp of last year, it was obvious UCLA had a special back. He hit the hole and was on the other side in a flash. He finished the season with 1,137 yards and 13 touchdowns. And that was while sharing the backfield duties with Brittain Brown, (Charbonnet had 203 carries to Brown’s 112).
There was speculation that he would turn pro after last season. His return to UCLA gives a big boost to the UCLA offense that also returns fifth-year quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. There is no one behind Charbonnet with significant game experience, so he figures to be the primary workhorse for the Bruins. It also gives him another year to work with UCLA running backs coach DeShaun Foster. In the last three years, he has taken former walk-on Joshua Kelley, former hybrid receiver-running back Demetric Felton, and sixth-year transfer Brown and turned them all into NFL running backs.
Xazavian Valladay – Arizona State
He was number 16 in the nation in rushing yards per game, averaging 110.0 yards per game and 5.6 yards per carry for the season. But all his stats were in the Mountain West playing for Wyoming. Thus, coming from another conference, he gets the honorable mention nod here.