Big 12 RB Rankings 2023: Jonathan Brooks, Jaydon Blue, and Cedric Baxter Bolster the Texas Longhorns in Life After Bijan Robinson

No Bijan, no problem for the Texas Longhorns as they lead our Big 12 RB rankings for 2023. Which programs join them atop the conference?

In recent years, it’s become popular to poke holes in Big 12 defenses. However, we shouldn’t diminish the offensive talent in the conference by belittling the defenses they face, because there is a ton of talent — particularly at the running back position. As we countdown to the start of the college football season, let’s take a look at the Big 12 RB rankings for 2023.

2023 Big 12 RB Rankings

1) Jonathan Brooks, Keilan Robinson, Cedric Baxter, Jaydon Blue | Texas

When you lose a generational talent like Bijan Robinson, there’s an expectation that you could take a tumble in the 2023 Big 12 RB rankings. Especially when you also lose a talent like Roschon Johnson, who, although played second fiddle to Robinson, was a talented RB in his own right.

Yet, behind those two lurks even more outstanding running backs. The next man up is Jonathan Brooks, a 6’0″, 204-pound bruiser who plays the game with physicality and has the speed, jukes, and delightful cut-ability in his arsenal. Brooks also flashes the patience to ensure maximum damage with his runs.

MORE: College Football Impact True Freshmen Running Backs 

Even before Robinson and Johnson’s departure, the Longhorns bolstered their running back room with the addition of former Alabama RB Keilan Robinson. The 5’9″, 185-pound rusher adds a receiving threat to Steve Sarkisian’s offense.

Amazingly, the best back on Texas’ roster might not have even set foot on the field for the Longhorns yet. True freshman Cedric Baxter is already built like an NFL back, plays the game with physicality and impressive contact balance, and is a decisive rusher with eye-opening speed for his size.

2) Treshaun Ward, D.J. Giddens, Trey Engram, Anthony Frias II | Kansas State

The reigning Big 12 champions, Kansas State, will have to defend their conference crown without two of their most significant rushing contributors. Despite missing time with injury, QB Adrian Martinez was second on the team in rushing yards and touchdowns. Meanwhile, the diminutive Deuce Vaughn led the way and has arguably been one of the best players in the Big 12.

However, there are still multiple reasons to be excited for the Wildcats’ running game this season. Two of those reasons are Treshaun Ward and D.J. Giddens, while true freshman Trey Engram is another Vaughn-esque diminutive back with an elusive and jittery play style and ludicrous high school production.

Giddens is a 6’1″, 210-pound redshirt sophomore who earned an honorable mention as the Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year. He put up 518 yards last fall, including 67 yards against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Ward’s explosion, long speed, and ability to make a man miss could make him a star in the Big 12, an opinion shared by ESPN’s Bill Connelly.

“Florida State transfer Treshaun Ward could be exactly the type of Vaughn replacement the Wildcats need. The junior rushed for 1,143 yards at 6.5 per carry in 2021-22 and could become an immediate star.”

3) Gavin Sawchuk, Jovantae Barnes, Marcus Major | Oklahoma

Despite being one of the top RB recruits of the 2022 cycle, Gavin Sawchuk didn’t see much of the ball for the Oklahoma Sooners last fall. With Eric Gray headed to the NFL with the New York Giants, that should change this upcoming season.

Sawchuk’s expected emergence powers Oklahoma up our Big 12 RB rankings for 2023. The 5’11”, 187-pound redshirt freshman possesses game-changing speed, is as explosive as he is fast, and the combination of the two makes him an extremely elusive rusher who maximized his 17 carries last fall, averaging 6.2 yards per carry while scoring his first career touchdown.

Jovantae Barnes did see a lot of work last fall, and he was extremely impressive with it. A bigger back than Sawchuk at 6’0″, 200 pounds, Barnes can barrel through defenses with his strength and top-tier contact balance. He’s not all physicality and no finesse, however, showcasing eye-catching burst and cut-ability that can leave defenders in a bind.

Redshirt senior Marcus Major is something of an older statesman in the Sooners’ RB room, but he adds another dynamic to the offense. Meanwhile, running backs coach DeMarco Murray gets his hands on three true freshmen in the form of three-star RBs Kalib Hicks and Daylan Smothers, plus priority walk-on Chapman McKown.

4) CJ Donaldson Jr., Justin Johnson Jr., Jaylen Anderson | West Virginia

West Virginia is coming off a 5-7 season and faces one of the toughest schedules in the upcoming season, which promises to be pivotal for Neal Brown. It’s not all doom and gloom for the Mountaineers, however, as they rank extremely high in our 2023 Big 12 RB rankings.

There’s one big reason for West Virginia’s lofty positioning in these rankings, and his name is CJ Donaldson Jr. There isn’t a more fitting adjective given that Donaldson is simply one of the biggest running backs in the entire nation, let alone the Big 12.

At 6’2″ and 240 pounds, the former tight end puts the “man” into “man mountain(eers).” Donaldson’s speed and movement at his size are unnatural. Naturally, the physicality in all phases is eye-popping, with the West Virginia talent being a devastating pass protector. He missed time with injury last fall, but a return to full health will be a significant boost for the Mountaineers’ offense.

With the departure of Tony Mathis Jr. to division rival Houston, carries behind Donaldson will likely be split between Justin Johnson Jr. and Jaylen Anderson. Johnson featured in all games for the Mountaineers last fall, while Anderson brings patience and vision to the table. The redshirt sophomore had a standout performance against Oklahoma State last season.

5) Aidan Robbins, Miles Davis, Hinckley Ropati, Deion Smith | BYU

The BYU Cougars might be the new kids on the conference block, but don’t underestimate the running game they’re bringing with them to the Big 12. With a talented duo on the roster already and the addition of one of the most underrated RB transfers from the last portal window, BYU sits in the top half of our Big 12 RB rankings for the 2023 season.

From Tyler Allgeier to Christopher Brooks, BYU has earned a reputation for having a hard-nosed, big-back ground game. That reputation should continue in 2023 with the addition of former Louisville and UNLV standout Aidan Robbins.

MORE: Top 10 Running Back Transfers 2023

Robbins was a bruising force for the Rebels last fall, powering his way to 1,009 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. He generates impressive physicality from his 6’3″, 230-pound frame while also possessing unexpected speed. The new BYU rusher also showcases good vision, making him a dangerous weapon to watch out for this fall.

Returning rushers Miles Davis and Hinckley Ropati give the Cougars a 1-2-3 punch to be very excited about. Both averaged over five yards per carry in 2022, despite Davis battling injury. Ropati is a twitchy runner with good speed and contact balance who showed his skills against Power Five opposition last year, while Davis has fast feet, explosion, and power in his RB arsenal.

6) Devin Neal, Daniel Hishaw Jr., Sevion Morrison, Dylan McDuffie | Kansas

Last fall, the Kansas Jayhawks shocked the college football establishment for a minute, reaching a bowl game for the first time since 2008 after racing out to a 5-0 start. Quarterback Jalon Daniels received significant national attention and acclaim, but the performance of their running backs earns Kansas a place near the top of our Big 12 RB rankings.

Devin Neal is the real deal. It rhymes, and it’s true. The 5’11”, 210-pound junior showed signs of his star talent as a true freshman, putting up 700 yards in Lance Leipold’s first season in charge. Then he exploded into life last season with 6.1 yards per carry, nine touchdowns, and 1,090 rushing yards.

Numbers don’t make an evaluation, but Neal isn’t simply a product of a run-friendly scheme that lends itself to gaudy statistics. The Kansas RB boasts burst, has good long speed, and is an impressive lateral athlete who can make a man miss while also having the physicality to handle contact.

Neal is joined by consistent producer Daniel Hishaw Jr., former Nebraska player Sevion Morrison, and Georgia Tech transfer Dylan McDuffie. Morrison broke Spencer Tillman’s high school rushing record before coming to Kansas, while McDuffie is one year removed from a 1,049-yard campaign for the Buffalo Bulls.

7) Richard Reese, Taye McWilliams, Dominic Richardson, Qualan Jones | Baylor

With question marks still lingering around the QB position, you can expect Baylor to lean heavily on the ground game. Thankfully, they have the components to succeed with a running back room that features among the best in our Big 12 rankings.

The Bears possess a 1-2 punch that combines the speed of Richard Reese with the physicality of power rusher Taye McWilliams. Qualan Jones also proved productive last season, Dominic Richardson arrives from Big 12 rival Oklahoma State, and Baylor added true freshman Dawson Pendergrass, a three-star with almost 7,500 rushing yards on his high school résumé.

McWilliams won an RB battle last spring to open the season as Baylor’s starter. However, a Week 2 injury deprived the now-senior of the opportunity to lead the Bears’ room. While he’s a physical force at 6’1″ and 213 pounds, McWilliams has good lateral agility to make a man miss in the open field.

With McWilliams sidelined last fall, freshman Reese took his opportunity and ran with it—literally. The 5’9″, 175-pound back is a speed freak who bursts past defenders almost effortlessly. His output last season might not be even close to his true potential, and he’ll likely open the season as the starter.

8) Emani Bailey, Trey Sanders, Trent Battle | TCU

The TCU offense that powered its way to a College Football National Championship appearance has been decimated. Furthermore, offensive coordinator Garrett Riley was lured away from Fort Worth, leaving a substantial transition for the Horned Frogs ahead of the 2023 CFB campaign.

While there’s talent on the roster, TCU’s position near the bottom of our Big 12 rankings illustrates some of the potential pitfalls that await them in the upcoming season.

Trey Sanders was an important acquisition from the transfer portal but comes with question marks. Injuries have brutalized his career, meaning he’s never fully lived up to his potential. There’s no doubting Sanders’ potential, as he boasts the power, vision, and cutting ability to perform at a high level.

But can he stay healthy?

While the unit as a whole has more question marks than you’d like, Emani Bailey should emerge this fall as a genuine weapon. The former Louisiana RB runs hard every time the ball is in his hands, slashing through defenses like a knife through butter. His speed and pass-catching prowess will be invaluable for TCU.

9) Ollie Gordon II, Jaden Nixon, Deondre Jackson, Elijah Collins | Oklahoma State

Chuba Hubbard. Jaylen Warren. Dominic Richardson. Mike Gundy has had a string of talented running backs come and go over the last three seasons. Every time, the Oklahoma State head coach has figured out a way to replace them. As Richardson becomes the latest to depart — this time via the transfer portal – the Cowboys might be about to get even better at the position.

After impressing as Richardson’s primary backup last fall, Ollie Gordon II is the likely starter come August. Gordon was a highly productive high school rusher who combines speed, strength, and sensational spin moves to leave his opponent in a whirl. In his freshman campaign, Gordon averaged five yards per carry, and big things can be expected for 2023.

Meanwhile, Jaden Nixon has impressive speed, physicality, and contact balance. With some minor improvements to his reading of the game, Nixon can be an effective counterfoil to Gordon. Meanwhile, they added Michigan State’s Elijah Collins, and head coach Gundy has previously spoken about the role of former Texas A&M rusher Deondre Jackson in the Cowboys’ offense.

“He can run with some power, and he can make some guys miss,” Gundy said of Jackson, the final piece of the Oklahoma State running game puzzle. “He is not a Keith Toston because he can make guys miss. He is in the ballpark of Vernand Morency. He is kind of like Seymore Shaw when he was healthy.”

10) Jirehl Brock, Cartevious Norton, Eli Sanders | Iowa State

Just a year removed from having Breece Hall tearing holes in the fabric of space and time – not to mention Big 12 defenses – the Iowa State Cyclones are languishing near the bottom of our RB rankings for 2023.

High expectations were placed on Jirehl Brock, somewhat unfairly, as he assumed the mantle of the Cyclones’ RB1 following Hall’s departure. The 6’0″, 200-pounder got off to a good start in 2022, rushing for 100+ yards in the opening two games.

MORE: Big 12 QB Rankings 2023 

However, he struggled to maintain that form as he battled injury, averaging just 4.5 yards per carry on his way to 445 rushing yards. Meanwhile, his primary backup — Cartevious Norton — had his own injury battles to contend with as he struggled to reach 3.6 yards per carry.

While Brock and Norton should rebound in 2023, keep an eye out for redshirt sophomore Eli Sanders. Sanders carries momentum into the season after turning seven carries into 91 yards in the season finale against TCU. He’s a home-run hitter with good vision and strength in his frame.

11) RJ Harvey, DeMarkus Bowman, Johnny Richardson, Jordan McDonald | UCF

UCF entered the spring ranked as the 13th running back room in our 2023 Big 12 RB rankings, and that angered a lot of Knights fans. While there are still some concerns to overcome, and the depth of running back talent in the Big 12 makes these rankings extremely competitive, some of the action from UCF spring football does see them climb a little in our updated edition.

After surpassing 100 carries behind Isaiah Bowser and John Rhys Plumlee last fall, R.J. Harvey is the presumptive RB1 for UCF. His patience, vision, physicality, and ability to rumble between the tackles and bounce outside make him a multi-faceted weapon who averaged 6.7 yards per carry during the 2022 college football campaign.

Johnny Richardson also rushed for over six yards per carry last season, using his game-changing speed to break open defenses across the AAC. Head coach Gus Malzahn had spoken during the spring about finding ways to utilize Richardson’s speed in the Knights’ offense in whatever way possible — a terrifying prospect for defensive coordinators across the Big 12.

However, the advance up our rankings is predicated on a fantastic spring showing from DaMarkus Bowman. The former Florida and Clemson rushing back showed no rust despite missing the 2022 campaign. Rapid around the outside and explosive between the tackles, Bowman showcased his true straight-line speed by beating Richardson in a 40-yard race.

12) Corey Kiner, Ryan Montgomery, Myles Montgomery | Cincinnati

Cincinnati makes the step up to the Big 12 conference without head coach Luke Fickell and without much returning production from their ground game. Charles McClelland is gone, and there isn’t a Jerome Ford or Michael Warren-style producer.

The Bearcats will be relying on Corey Kiner to step up and take on McClelland’s workload. The former LSU back has good lateral agility, can get around the corner with some urgency, and is as physical as they come with a savage stiff arm in his arsenal.

Meanwhile, a pair of 5’11”, 200-pound backs, who share the same surname but different play styles, have the opportunity to emerge as key components of the Bearcats’ offense.

Myles Montgomery brings flashes of explosion and speed, with big-play potential every time he gets the ball in his hands. Ryan Montgomery found the end zone five times last fall and has an alluring toolbox that contains jukes and spin moves that could be dangerous if deployed consistently.

13) Tahj Brooks, Cam’Ron Valdez, Bryson Donnell | Texas Tech

Despite running the rock over 40 times per game on average last fall, Texas Tech’s ground game finished near the bottom of the Big 12 in yards per carry and yards per game. Although they return Tahj Brooks, the departure of SaRodorick Thompson is significant.

Meanwhile, their meager ground game numbers were boosted by quarterbacks Donovan Smith, Tyler Slough, and Behren Morton.

Despite ranking near the bottom of our Big 12 RB rankings, there are reasons to be optimistic about Texas Tech’s running backs. Brooks is an ankle breaker with deceptive athleticism in his 5’10”, 230-pound frame — illustrated by some jaw-dropping hurdle moves on his tape.

Furthermore, sophomore Cam’Ron Valdez has electric speed, with a high school in-game top speed of 22 mph verified by Reel Analytics. Meanwhile, presumptive RB3 Bryson Donnell saw limited action in 2022 but was praised by coaches for his scout teamwork.

14) Tony Mathis, Brandon Campbell, Stacy Sneed | Houston

There were high expectations and excitement for the Houston Cougars’ running back room with the return of Alton McCaskill IV from injury. After looking back to his best in spring practice, the electric running back shocked fans and staff alike when he entered the transfer portal, ultimately transferring to Colorado.

Even before that announcement, Houston made their own moves in the portal to find a leader for their running back room. Originally part of our fourth-ranked West Virginia unit, Tony Mathis is likely to take on the role of RB1 in the 2023 college football campaign for the Cougars.

Mathis’ frame enables him to withstand contact in short-yardage situations, but he excels when utilizing his speed and jump-cut ability to evade defenders. His film includes multiple examples of him leaving opponents grasping at thin air, and he brings that ability to the Houston backfield.

Brandon Campbell is likely the primary backup to Mathis, working his way back into the rotation after missing time with an injury last fall. Meanwhile, Stacy Sneed — an exciting playmaker who can make a man miss and showcases excellent vision — has just one year of tape to evaluate after not seeing the field in 2020 or 2021.