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Skins Stats: The Top 10 True Freshman Seasons by a Running Back in College Football History

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Where does Samaje Perine's 2014 season at Oklahoma rank among the greatest true freshman seasons by a running back in college football history?

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In the last edition of Skins Stats, we proved that Samaje Perine was the best running back prospect coming out of college on the Redskins' roster.

Prior to beginning my research for that article, I had no idea how prolific Perine was as a true freshman at Oklahoma. As I delved deeper and deeper into his college statistics and resume, I came to realize that Perine actually had one of the most productive freshman seasons by a running back in college football history.

But where exactly does his true freshman campaign rank all-time? Which other backs were similarly productive during their first year on campus? And what does it all mean for Perine's NFL prospects?

I endeavored to find the answers to these questions by creating an objective and statistically based top ten ranking of the best true freshman seasons by a running back in FBS history.

Before we dive into the rankings, let's take a look at how they were created.

METHODOLOGY

I had to start somewhere in my quest to whittle down this list to just ten players, so I began by looking at every freshman running back that has ever rushed for 1,000 yards in a single season.

College football statistics are nowhere near as readily available as NFL stats are, but I was able to get reliable data by using a combination of the official FBS record book (page 35) and College Football Reference.

Unfortunately, that search produced well over 100 names, so I needed to narrow my specifications even more. I found that upping the minimum requirement to 1,400 yards rushing, produced a much smaller sample to work with.

As you can see below, there have been only been 18 seasons in which a freshman running back has eclipsed that mark. Johnny Manziel also accomplished this feat (1,410 yards), but he is not included, because we are focusing solely on running backs here.

Please note that the NCAA recognized bowl game statistics as a separate entity apart from season-long stats up until 2002, so the numbers that you see in the following table for the seasons that took place before that year will not include yardage gained in bowl games. However, the numbers used in the forthcoming top ten will, in fact, include bowl game production.

1,400 Yard Rushing Seasons by a Freshman Running Back
Player Year Yards Player Year Yards
Tony Dorsett ** 1973 1,586 Michael Hart 2004 1,455
Herschel Walker ** 1980 1,616 P.J. Hill RS 2006 1,569
Marshall Faulk ** 1991 1,429 Dion Lewis 2009 1,799
Alex Smith ** RS 1994 1,475 Ryan Williams RS 2009 1,655
Ron Dayne ** 1996 1,863 LaMichael James RS 2009 1,546
Chance Kretschmer ** RS 2001 1,732 Ronnie Hillman RS 2010 1,532
Anthony Davis ** RS 2001 1,466 Samaje Perine 2014 1,713
Adrian Peterson 2004 1,925 Jarvion Franklin 2014 1,551
Jamario Thomas 2004 1,801 Nick Chubb 2014 1,547
** Indicates that bowl game statistics are not included (not officially recognized by NCAA prior to 2002)
RS Indicates that the player was a redshirt freshman

The next step I took to get down to ten players was to remove all of the redshirt freshman from the equation. These players have been designated with an RS in the table.

Perine and the majority of the other running backs in this group were true freshman when they first got on the field, and I think there is certainly something to be said for players who can step right on to campus and put up big numbers from day one.

Removing the redshirts takes us down to 11 players. I finally reached our magic number by removing Michigan's Michael Hart. Hart put up decent yardage totals, but his touchdown total, 2014 rushing ranking and yards per carry average keep him out of the top ten.


RANKINGS CATEGORIES

Each of the ten remaining running backs were ranked against the other nine players in the following eight statistical categories. The average ranking across these eight metrics for each back was used to determine their placement in the top ten.

Adjusted Rushing Yards (ARY): In fantasy football, touchdowns count as six points, or the equivalent of 60 yards, but several studies have shown that 20 yards is a more accurate equivalent. Adjusted rushing yards is a combination of traditional yards and the yardage equivalent of a player's rushing touchdowns. Fumbles are sometimes included in this stat, but college fumble data is sparse, so they have not been included in this calculation.

Adjusted Rushing Yards = Rushing Yards + (Rushing Touchdowns * 20).

In my opinion, using yardage adjustments for touchdowns instead of ranking yards and touchdowns separately is both a more efficient way to compare these players and paints a more accurate picture of how well they actually performed.

Adjusted Rushing Yards Ranking (ARY Rank): The player's national ranking in adjusted rushing yards. Think of this as an era adjustment, in that it allows us to see how these backs performed against their top contemporaries. 

Adjusted Rushing Yards Per Carry (ARY/C): Adjusted rushing yards on a per carry basis. This is a measure of rushing efficiency.

Adjusted Catch Yards: This statistic was created by Chase Stuart of Football Perspective. Touchdowns count for 20 yards just as they do for adjusted rushing yards, and 5 yards are awarded for each reception.

Adjusted Scrimmage Yards (ASY): The sum of a player's adjusted rushing and adjusted receiving yards.

Scrimmage Dominator Rating (DR): The average of a player's yards from scrimmage market share (percentage of the team's total yards) and touchdowns from scrimmage market share (percentage of the team's total touchdowns). This metric tells us how much of a workhorse a player was for his team.

Season Age (Age): We are rewarding for youth and precocious production here, so these players have been ranked from youngest to oldest during their true freshman seasons. The listed age is derived from the player's age at the last day of the year in which their freshman season occurred.

Strength of Schedule (SOS): College Football Reference's strength of schedule metric is also factored in, so that running backs with a tougher schedule get a bump over those with an easier slate. This number is expressed as a percentile for each player to account for the changing number of teams in college football across the years. For example, if a team had the 10th hardest schedule out of 100 teams, their strength of schedule would be in the 90th percentile.

This group of eight statistics provides us with a good mix of metrics. The breakdown of the stat types is as follows: 3 rushing, 1 receiving, 2 scrimmage, 1 age and 1 schedule. Here is one more way to look at these numbers: 3 counting total, 1 efficiency, 1 ranking, 1 market share and 2 miscellaneous.

For each season in our top ten, these stats and the corresponding group ranking by the runner in question will be listed. The traditional statistics that these numbers are derived from (rushing yards, rushing average, receptions, receiving yards, touchdowns and yards from scrimmage) will also be listed.

Finally, for each running back the average ranking across the categories and a highlight video of their freshman season has been included. If freshman season highlights were unavailable, a video with highlights from the player's entire college career was used.


10. Jamario Thomas - North Texas (2004)

Rushing: Attempts- 285, Yards- 1,801, Average- 6.3, Touchdowns- 17, ARY- 2,141 (3rd), ARY Rank- 5th (7th), ARY/C- 7.5 (5th)

Receiving: Receptions- 3, Yards- 14, Touchdowns- 0, ACY- 29 (10th)

Scrimmage: Yards- 1,815, Touchdowns- 17, ASY- 2,170 (8th), DR- 46% (2nd)

Other: Age- 19.8 (10th), SOS- 13th percentile (9th)

Average Ranking: 6.75

We kick things off with North Texas' Jamario Thomas. In his freshman year, Super Jamario led the country in rushing yards per game (180 yards) and was named the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year. Thomas also set a freshman record with six 200-yard rushing games and tied the rookie record for fastest to reach 1,000 yards on the ground (7 games).

He ranked second in this group in scrimmage dominator rating (46%) and third in adjusted rushing yards (2,141), but that wasn't enough to get him close to the top of the heap.

Thomas was hurt by a weak schedule, being closer to the age of your average sophomore and a total lack of production as a receiver.


9. Jarvion Franklin - Western Michigan (2014)

Rushing: Attempts- 306, Yards- 1,551, Average- 5.1, Touchdowns- 24, ARY- 2,031 (7th), ARY Rank- 9th (9th), ARY/C- 6.6 (7th)

Receiving: Receptions- 14, Yards- 163, Touchdowns- 1, ACY- 253 (4th)

Scrimmage: Yards- 1,714, Touchdowns- 25, ASY- 2,284 (5th), DR- 38% (6th)

Other: Age- 19.1 (5th), SOS- 4th percentile (10th)

Average Ranking: 6.63

Jarvion Franklin burst onto the scene with over 140 yards and at least one score in seven of his first nine college games. He would finish the season with over 1,700 yards from scrimmage and a whopping 25 touchdowns, which is the most TDs scored by any player on this list. Franklin won both the MAC Player of the Year and MAC Rookie of the Year awards.

Franklin monopolized the rushing opportunities and production for his team in a way that few of these other backs did. He also more than held his own as a receiver.

Ultimately, he didn't finish very high here, because his rushing production and efficiency numbers were too low and because of Western Michigan's absolutely pathetic schedule.


8. Tony Dorsett - Pittsburgh (1973)

Rushing: Attempts- 318, Yards- 1,686, Average- 5.3, Touchdowns- 13, ARY- 1,946 (9th), ARY Rank- 2nd (1st), ARY/C- 6.1 (10th)

Receiving: Receptions- 14, Yards- 91, Touchdowns- 0, ACY- 161 (7th)

Scrimmage: Yards- 1,777, Touchdowns- 13, ASY- 2,107 (10th), DR- 46% (3rd)

Other: Age- 19.7 (8th), SOS- 71st percentile (4th)

Average Ranking: 6.50

Dorsett is the first truly big name to make the cut, and I don't say that just because we share a last name (no relation). Yes, before he won the Heisman as a senior at Pittsburgh and rushed his way to the Hall of Fame in the NFL, Dorsett was crushing it as a freshman.

He set a freshman record by rushing for over 1,500 yards in his first season with the Pitt Panthers. He also set a new freshman mark with ten 100-yard rushing games. He was named a first team All-American by the Associated Press and ranked second in the country that year in both rushing yards and adjusted rushing yards.

Dorsett probably would've finished higher on this list if he had played in an era that featured more prolific offenses.


7. Adrian Peterson - Oklahoma (2004)

Rushing: Attempts- 339, Yards- 1,925, Average- 5.7, Touchdowns- 15, ARY- 2,225 (2nd), ARY Rank- 3rd (5th), ARY/C- 6.6 (9th)

Receiving: Receptions- 5, Yards- 12, Touchdowns- 0, ACY- 37 (9th)

Scrimmage: Yards- 1,937, Touchdowns- 15, ASY- 2,262 (6th), DR- 29% (9th)

Other: Age-19.8 (9th), SOS- 91st percentile (1st)

Average Ranking: 6.25

Adrian Peterson was a unanimous first team All-American and became the first freshman to finish as the runner-up in voting for the Heisman Trophy. "All Day" set freshman records with 339 carries, 1,925 rushing yards and 11 100-yard games, all of which still stand today.

However, it must be noted that his rushing yard total that year is only considered the record because bowl game stats were not included with players' full season numbers prior to 2002. In reality, Peterson really ranks second all-time in freshman rushing yards. You'll see who the true all-time leader is shortly.

Typically, you will find Peterson ranked much higher on these types of lists, but he compares poorly relative to his elite competition here in a few instances. His average suffered because it took him nearly 350 touches to reach the numbers that he put up, being part of a high-powered offense resulted in a lower dominator rating and he was also nearly 20 years old at the end of his freshman campaign in Norman.


6. Nick Chubb - Georgia (2014)

Rushing: Attempts- 219, Yards- 1,547, Average- 7.1, Touchdowns- 14, ARY- 1,827 (10th), ARY Rank- 17th (10th), ARY/C- 8.3 (2nd), DR- 45% (10th)

Receiving: Receptions- 18, Yards- 213, Touchdowns- 2, ACY- 343 (2nd)

Scrimmage: Yards- 1,760, Touchdowns- 16, ASY- 2,170 (8th), DR- 28% (10th)

Other: Age- 19.0 (4th), SOS- 84th percentile (2nd)

Average Ranking: 6.00

Todd Gurley's 2014 suspension opened the door for Nick Chubb to start the last eight games of his freshman season. Chubb hit the 100-yard mark on the ground in every one of those games and went on to rush for 1,547 yards and to gain 1,760 yards from scrimmage. For his efforts, he was named SEC Freshman of the Year.

Chubb touched the ball less than any other player in this top ten, but he made the most of the opportunities that he received. He ranked first in the group in yards per carry (7.1) and yards per touch (7.4). Only when we adjust these totals with touchdowns does he fall to second (8.3 adjusted yards per carry).

He also excelled as a receiver, as he posted the second highest receiving yards and adjusted catch yards totals.

The young Bulldog averaged over 25 touches per game in his starts compared to just 7 touches per contest in his other 5 games; so, who knows what kind of numbers he would've put up if he would've started out of the gate. Chubb will certainly be someone to watch for during next year's draft process.


5. Samaje Perine - Oklahoma (2014)

Rushing: Attempts-263, Yards- 1,713, Average- 6.5, Touchdowns- 21, ARY- 2,133 (5th), ARY Rank- 7th (8th), ARY/C- 8.1 (3rd)

Receiving: Receptions- 15, Yards- 108, Touchdowns- 0, ACY 183 (6th)

Scrimmage: Yards- 1,821, Touchdowns- 21, ASY- 2,316 (4th), DR- 34% (8th)

Other: Age- 19.3 (7th), SOS- 73rd percentile (3rd)

Average Ranking: 5.50

Now it's time for the man of the hour: Samaje Perine. The newest addition to the Redskins' backfield comes in at number five in our rankings.

His 1,713 rushing yards in his first year ranks seventh all-time among all freshman. Perine also scored a whopping 21 rushing touchdowns that year. He accomplished these feats despite only starting in eight games and receiving just 263 carries, which is the third lowest total among these ten players. That last statement might help you to deduce the fact that Perine was highly efficient as a runner. He ranks third on this list in both yards per carry (6.5) and adjusted yards per carry (8.1).

Perine hit the century mark as a rusher in 6 of his 13 games and went for over 200 yards on the ground on three occasions, with one of those performances making college football history.

Just over two months after his 19th birthday and in his 11th college game, Samaje Perine set the all-time record for rushing yards in a single game, with 427 yards and 5 touchdowns against the Kansas Jayhawks.

I'm not sure, but I think that you may be familiar with the players that have held this record in the last 25 years. They are: Melvin Gordon (408 yards), Ladainian Tomlinson (406 yards), Tony Sands (396 yards) and Marshal Faulk (386 yards).

Perine also had 446 yards from scrimmage on the day, which represents the second highest scrimmage yard total in a game in history. Check out Perine's record-setting performance below.

Clearly Perine was a phenom as a rusher, but it's also worth noting that he wasn’t half bad as a pass catcher either. He caught 15 balls for 108 yards as a freshman, with at least one catch and five yards receiving in 9 of his 13 games.

Perine was named the Big 12 Freshman of the Year and was either a second or third team All-American according to several publications.

He likely would have ranked higher in rushing yards and been a first team All-American as a freshman if he didn't face such stiff competition at the running back position that year (Melvin Gordon, Jordan Howard, Tevin Coleman, Nick Chubb, Ezekiel Elliot, Donnel Pumphrey, Jarvion Franklin, Ameer Abdullah, Duke Johnson, Jay Ajayi, etc).

That and his eighth place ranking in scrimmage dominator rating in this group held him back from an even higher placement on this list.


4. Dion Lewis - Pittsburgh (2009)

Rushing: Attempts- 325, Yards- 1,799, Average- 5.5, Touchdowns- 17, ARY- 2,139 (4th), ARY Rank- 3rd (5th), ARY/C- 6.6 (8th)

Receiving: Receptions- 25, Yards- 189, Touchdowns- 1, ACY- 344 (3rd)

Scrimmage: Yards- 1,988, Touchdowns- 18, ASY- 2,473 (2nd), DR- 38% (5th)

Other: Age-19.3 (6th), SOS- 60th percentile (6th)

Average Ranking: 4.88

Dion Lewis tied Tony Dorsett's school record with ten 100-yard rushing performances and broke Dorsett's freshman rushing record by running for 1,799 yards and 16 total touchdowns in his first year at Pittsburgh.

He was also highly productive as a receiver out of the backfield, with 25 receptions for 189 yards and a touchdown. Lewis ranked third in the group with 344 adjusted catch yards.

Lewis' work both on the ground and through the air resulted in some impressive scrimmage totals. He comes in second in both scrimmage yards and adjusted scrimmage yards.

He was the Big East Offensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year and was named a second team All-American by more than five outlets.


3. Herschel Walker - Georgia (1980)

Rushing: Attempts- 310, Yards- 1,766, Average- 5.7, Touchdowns- 17, ARY- 2,106 (6th), ARY Rank- 2nd (1st), ARY/C- 6.8 (6th)

Receiving: Receptions- 7, Yards- 70, Touchdowns- 0, ACY- 105 (8th)

Scrimmage: Yards- 1,836, Touchdowns- 17, ASY- 2,211 (7th), DR- 44% (4th)

Other: Age-18.8 (2nd), SOS- 63rd percentile (5th)

Average Ranking: 4.88

The vast majority of articles that have ranked the best freshman years by a college football player have Herschel Walker's 1980 season ranked number one. I can't argue with that conclusion, nor should I, because Walker was absolutely dominant as a freshman at Georgia.

He rushed for over 200 yards four times en route to breaking Tony Dorsett's freshman rushing record with 1,766 rushing yards and 2,106 adjusted rushing yards; only Heisman winner George Rogers was better in both categories that year.

Walker led the Bulldogs to an undefeated record and a national championship, was a consensus first team All-American and was the SEC's player of the year. And he did all that as an 18-year old true freshman. His age of 18.8 at the end of the season was the second youngest in our group of backs.

His only shortcoming is that he didn't do more as a receiver, but then again, did he really need to?


2. Marshall Faulk - San Diego State (1991)

Rushing: Attempts- 231, Yards- 1,586, Average- 6.9, Touchdowns- 22, ARY- 2,026 (8th), ARY Rank- 2nd (1st), ARY/C- 8.8 (1st)

Receiving: Receptions- 26, Yards- 243, Touchdowns- 2, ACY- 413 (1st)

Scrimmage: Yards- 1,829, Touchdowns- 24, ASY- 2,439 (3rd), DR- 37% (7th)

Other: Age- 18.8 (3rd), SOS- 36th percentile (8th)

Average Ranking: 4.00

Faulk was just as dynamic in college as a rusher and a receiver as he was in the NFL. On a mere 237 touches as a freshman, he racked up 1,829 scrimmage yards and 24 touchdowns. His hyper-efficient play places him in first in both adjusted yards per carry (8.1) and adjusted scrimmage yards per touch (9.5).

A great deal of his production came from his second game in college, when he rushed for a then-NCAA record 386 yards (don't forget who holds that record now) and 7 touchdowns against Pacific.

Faulk's prowess as a receiver was also evident with the Aztecs, as he leads all ten of our runners in receptions (26), receiving yards (243), receiving touchdowns (2) and adjusted catch yards (413).

The Associated Press and two other outlets named Faulk a first team All-American.

Perhaps, he would've been a unanimous selection and garnered even more acclaim if he had played at a bigger school.


1. Ron Dayne - Wisconsin (1996)

Rushing: Attempts- 325, Yards- 2,109, Average- 6.5, Touchdowns- 21, ARY- 2,529 (1st), ARY Rank- 2nd (1st), ARY/C- 7.8 (4th)

Receiving: Receptions- 14, Yards- 133, Touchdowns- 0, ACY- 203 (5th)

Scrimmage: Yards- 2,242, Touchdowns- 21, ASY- 2,732 (1st), DR- 47% (1st)

Other: Age-18.8 (1st), SOS- 49th percentile (7th)

Average Ranking: 2.63

It should be no surprise to see Ron Dayne sitting atop a statistically based top ten article for freshman running backs. Dayne’s 2,109 rushing yards and 2,242 scrimmage yards are freshman records that he still holds to this very day.

Dayne ranks first in this fantastic group of running backs in adjusted rushing yards (2,529), adjusted rushing yards season ranking (2nd), adjusted scrimmage yards (2,732) and scrimmage dominator rating (47%). Yes, you read that last one correctly, Ron Dayne did, in fact, account for nearly half of his team’s offensive production as a true freshman.

It also must be pointed out that Dayne finished his true freshman season at the age of 18.8, the youngest among the ten runners on this list.


THE COMPANY YOU KEEP

If you put any stock in the idea that you are the company you keep and that you should be judged on those merits, then you should come away from this with a very favorable impression of Samaje Perine.

Perine's true freshman season comes in at number five on a list that includes three Hall of Famers (Dorsett, Faulk and Peterson), two productive NFL players (Walker and Lewis) and a current college runner that looks to have a bright future in the NFL (Chubb).

Jarvion Franklin is also still in school, but he looks to be more of a question mark in terms of pro potential than Chubb does. However, with two 1,500-yard and double-digit touchdown seasons on his resume there is certainly some potential there.

Ron Dayne was a bust relative to where he was selected in the draft (11th overall), but his 4,000 yards from scrimmage and 28 touchdowns are nothing to sneeze at either.

Jamario Thomas never played in the NFL, but he hailed from a very small school and faced an extremely low level of competition. With the exception of Faulk and Franklin, every other player on the list came from a power conference school. In fact, six of them went to either Oklahoma, Pittsburgh or Georgia.

Also, Thomas' production in the rest of his college career pales in comparison to what he accomplished in his freshman season (2,170 adjusted scrimmage yards as a freshman compared to 2,099 ASY combined in his last three years at North Texas). No other back on this list saw a drop-off anywhere close to that.

It may also interest you to know that the three players who just missed the cut were the aforementioned Mike Hart, Jamal Lewis and Emmitt Smith (Lewis and Smith exceeded 1,400 rushing yards if you include their bowl game stats). I don't think I have to tell you that two of those three players did just fine for themselves in the pros.

Whether you include those three or not, this group is essentially batting about .700 in terms of NFL success. If you're a betting man -€” and I am -€” then you should gladly take those odds and put your money on Samaje Perine having a productive career in the NFL.


CONCLUSION

Take a minute to consider the following facts about Samaje Perine:

  • Being a part of this list and holding the record for the most rushing yards in a college game places him in some elite company.

  • He set the Oklahoma all-time record for career rushing yards, despite the fact that Pro Bowlers Adrian Peterson, DeMarco Murray, Greg Pruitt, Billy Sims, Joe Washington and 2017 second-round pick Joe Mixon all call the University of Oklahoma their alma mater too.
  • As we proved last time, he is easily the best running back prospect coming out of college on the Redskins' roster.
  • He is joining a Redskins offense that ranked in the top 12 in virtually every major statistic last season.
  • He'll be running behind an offensive line that ranked in the top 10 in multiple run-blocking metrics.

Now ask yourself this question: Are you willing to bet against Samaje Perine succeeding in the NFL?


*All statistics are courtesy of 247 Sports, CBS, College Football Reference, ESPN, Football Perspective, Georgia Dogs, Mean Green Sports, NCAA, Pittsburgh Panthers, Rotoviz, Sooner Sports and WMU Broncos*