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Florida State football: 2021 running backs spring preview

For the first time in years, FSU has dependable depth in the backfield

Don Juan Moore

In 2020, it was a unit that overperformed. Especially considering the circumstances.

Not only was Florida State transitioning into a new coaching staff and offensive system without a true offseason. They were also tasked with replacing one of the leading rushers in school history.

After carrying the Seminoles offense in 2019 with 1,144 rushing yards and 18 total touchdowns, junior Cam Akers declared for the NFL and was selected 52nd overall in the draft by the Los Angeles Rams. His departure left a huge hole in the backfield.

Akers toted the ball 231 times in 2019, 168 carries more than the second-leading Nole rusher, Khalan Laborn (who wasn’t returning either). Upon his hiring, Florida State head coach Mike Norvell was instantly tasked with retooling and reloading a depleted running back unit.

Norvell made quality moves to instantly improve the situation, adding two transfers while successfully holding onto the commitment of consensus four-star recruit Lawrance Toafili (he originally pledged to Willie Taggart in August of 2019).

Overall, Florida State’s running backs provided a very dependable rushing attack last season, particularly with four different quarterbacks starting under center in just 9 games. FSU averaged 202 yards a game and 5.2 yards-per-carry on the ground in 2020, 62 yards more than their average of 140 rushing yards the year prior.

Now with a chance for a true spring, the FSU running back room is balanced and has several enticing options. Let’s take a look at what second-year running backs coach and recruiting coordinator David Johnson has to work with in 2021.

Returning Players

Jashaun Corbin (Redshirt Sophomore, Tomahawk Nation projected starter)

Last season, Corbin transferred from Jimbo Fisher’s Texas A&M Aggies and added some much-needed depth and experience to the position group. A native of Rockledge, Fla., he was originally committed to FSU during his senior year of high school in 2017 when Fisher was still at the helm in Tallahassee.

Corbin rushed for 401 yards on 81 carries with 5 touchdowns, and also caught 19 passes out of the backfield. It took a few games for him to get into a groove (just 18 yards on 6 carries in the season opener versus Georgia Tech), but Corbin seemed to get more and more comfortable within the system as the season wore on.

His best two performances came in Florida State’s final two games. He took a wildcat-designed-run under center to the house against N.C. State and found the end zone three more times to go along with 88 yards from scrimmage in the season finale versus Duke.

Already a veteran with three seasons under his belt at two big-time college programs, Corbin will be heavily utilized in 2021 by the Noles.

D.J. Williams (Redshirt Sophomore)

In back-to-back seasons, FSU has pulled an SEC back away from a winning program through the transfer portal. Like Corbin, Williams is also a Florida native.

He’ll be linking back up with his old coach in former Auburn and current FSU offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham. In two seasons with the Tigers, Williams rushed for 599 yards and 5 touchdowns. The biggest game of his AU career came against LSU in 2019, where exploded for 130 yards against the eventual CFP National Champions.

Just as Corbin did last season, Williams should provide quality depth for the Noles this fall. FSU lost just one running back from last season in La’Damian Webb. Williams should be able to match Webb’s production in 2020, and then some.

Lawrance Toafili (Redshirt Freshman)

A promising young player, Toafili showed real signs last season that he could be a cornerstone of the offense moving forward within Norvell’s overall rebuilding of the Florida State program.

The 6-foot, 180-pound back displayed explosive speed and above-average receiving abilities in 2020. He even lined up at times in the slot on offense. Toafili ran the ball 37 times for 356 yards and 2 scores last season, good for an impressive 9.6 yards-per-carry. He also caught 12 passes for 120 yards.

Still with four more years of eligibility left, Toafili has the talent if he continues to improve to become a star in the FSU backfield. He certainly ended 2020 on a high note, rushing for a 73-yard score in the final quarter of the season finale.

Deonté Sheffield (Redshirt Junior)

A model college football player, Sheffield will be entering his fifth year within the Seminoles’ program this fall. He was elevated from a walk-on to a full scholarship player last August.

FSU already knows that he could step in and contribute at any time if his number is called.

Even though Sheffield has just 28 career carries, 18 of those came in the Sun Bowl against Arizona State two years ago. He gained 87 rushing yards in that 20-14 loss.

Last season, Sheffield played a role on special teams for coordinator John Papuchis. He toted the ball just one-time last year. Sheffield may not jump off the page, but the veteran running back will once again provide the Noles with solid depth this season at a position that often has a high level of attrition.

Corey Wren (Redshirt Freshman)

Wren is one of two exciting young players that position coach David Johnson helped pull out of his home state of Louisiana in his first recruiting cycle as part of FSU’s staff. Wren’s speed and success in track and field are well-known.

In 2020, Wren lined up on offense occasionally in a few games but did not record any statistics. He did on kickoffs, however, returning three versus Notre Dame last October.

Given his speed, he likely will compete heavily for both return spots in the fall. It would not be a shock at all to see Wren on the field more offensively as well in 2021, whether it be at wideout or in the backfield.

Treshaun Ward (Redshirt Freshman)

Ward was brought in under Willie Taggart’s regime in 2019 and first saw action in the Sun Bowl alongside Sheffield. With FSU in dire straits at the depleted running back position after Akers declared, Ward complimented Sheffield’s strong performance with 44 yards of his own on 10 totes against the Sun Devils.

Last year, he was inserted into the N.C. State and Duke games for a few snaps. He flashed with a 26-yard touchdown burst up the middle on his first carry of 2020 against the Blue Devils to make the score 28-0 early. His second and final run of the game went for 28 yards.

Like Corbin and Sheffield, Ward is an older player despite his underclassman eligibility. He came to FSU out of JUCO Tampa Bay Tech.

Ja’Khi Douglas (Redshirt Freshman)

Along with Wren, Douglas could be used all over the field by Norvell and offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham this fall. He is listed as a running back on the roster but played a ton of wide receiver in high school.

FSU targeted him more in the passing game than they ran him in 2020, and he caught a pass in three straight games early in the season. Douglas averaged a respectable 19.8 yards on 8 kickoff returns.

After a true freshman year where he played sparingly, Douglas joined Corbin, Toafili, and Ward with a breakout performance in the 56-35 win over Duke to end the season on a high note.

Expect Douglas to appear in trick plays and exotic packages to keep the defense on their heels in 2021. Both of his touchdowns versus Duke, including a 68-yard reception in the fourth quarter, came on unique play calls from Norvell and Dillingham.

Florida State 2021 running back outlook

Overall, FSU is in good shape at the running back position. Expect Corbin, Williams, and Toafili to get the lion’s share of carries this fall. Norvell will likely spread the ball around like he did last season. Watch out for Wren and Douglas; both have a chance to see the field in a variety of ways, whether it be on return teams or in special packages offensively.

Another huge wild card for the run game in 2021 is redshirt sophomore quarterback Jordan Travis. There is still a chance for Travis to win the starting quarterback job outright over UCF transfer McKenzie Milton. But if Milton is named the starter, and Travis ends up the backup, he could offer a ton of value elsewhere on the field.

Whether Travis lines up at quarterback for designed run packages, running back, or anywhere on the field, he is a proven big-play threat at the college level.

With the backs that are returning, and the additional production Travis could provide, there is plenty of reason for optimism for Florida State’s run game in 2021.

Stay tuned to Tomahawk Nation all week long as we preview each position unit before the start of Spring Practice on Mar. 9.