All-Time Season Rushing Yards Leaders

All-Time Season Rushing Yards Leaders


March 8, 2019
Tim Biakabutuka (image via Cleveland.com)

Last week I posted the all-time career yardage leaders (LINK). Today it’s time to reminisce about the best rushing seasons ever in a Michigan uniform. I set out to post the top 25, but going to 33 allowed me to include all 1,000-yard gainers, so I extended the list a bit.

  1. 1,818 – Tim Biakabutuka (1995)
  2. 1,733 – Anthony Thomas (2000)
  3. 1,703 – Jamie Morris (1987)
  4. 1,702 – Denard Robinson (2010)
  5. 1,674 – Chris Perry (2003)
  6. 1,562 – Mike Hart (2006)
  7. 1,469 – Rob Lytle (1976)
  8. 1,459 – Butch Woolfolk (1981)
  9. 1,455 – Mike Hart (2004)
  10. 1,408 – Tony Boles (1988)
  11. 1,391 – Ron Johnson (1968)
  12. 1,388 – Gordon Bell (1975)
  13. 1,388 – Lawrence Ricks (1982)
  14. 1,364 – Jon Vaughn (1990)
  15. 1,361 – Mike Hart (2007)
  16. 1,357 – Tyrone Wheatley (1992)
  17. 1,297 – Billy Taylor (1981)
  18. 1,297 – Anthony Thomas (1999)
  19. 1,266 – Denard Robinson (2012)
  20. 1,197 – Ricky Powers (1991)
  21. 1,178 – Karan Higdon (2018)
  22. 1,176 – Denard Robinson (2011)
  23. 1,144 – Tyrone Wheatley (1994)
  24. 1,129 – Tyrone Wheatley (1993)
  25. 1,110 – Chris Perry (2002)
  26. 1,092 – Russell Davis (1977)
  27. 1,086 – Jamie Morris (1986)
  28. 1,048 – Gordon Bell (1974)
  29. 1,042 – Butch Woolfolk (1980)
  30. 1,041 – Fitzgerald Toussaint (2011)
  31. 1,030 – Rob Lytle (1975)
  32. 1,030 – Jamie Morris (1985)
  33. 1,002 – Rick Rogers (1983)

32 comments

  1. Avatar
    Comments: 1138
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    je93
    Mar 08, 2019 at 8:22 AM

    Biakabutuka!

    I remember the first time seeing that name on a jersey

    • Thunder
      Comments: 2812
      Joined: 7/13/2015
      Mar 08, 2019 at 2:53 PM

      I always thought Biakabutuka had the best feet I’d ever seen from a Michigan running back. I guess it makes sense that he played a lot of soccer growing up. But for a good-sized guy, he just had really quick feet.

  2. Lanknows
    Comments: 4288
    Joined: 8/11/2015
    Lanknows
    Mar 08, 2019 at 10:51 AM

    1995 OL:

    Jansen – all american, all pro, long NFL career

    Runyan – all conference, all pro, long NFL career

    Rod Payne – NFL player, 1st team all big 10 multiple times, team MVP and co-captain in ’96

    Damon Denson – NFL player, 1st team all big 10 in ’96

    Zach Adami – not drafted but all conference player later in his career

    Thomas Guynes – not drafted but had a cup of tea in the NFL

    Also 3 TEs with long NFL careers: (Riemersma, Tuman, Campell)

    That’s quite an OL. 2000’s was even better.

    • Lanknows
      Comments: 4288
      Joined: 8/11/2015
      Lanknows
      Mar 08, 2019 at 10:54 AM

      When we talk about best rushing seasons, IMO, we should be talking about the TEAM — and the first names listed should be the starting OL.

      • 17years
        Comments: 55
        Joined: 2/6/2018
        17years
        Mar 08, 2019 at 9:02 PM

        If Barry Sanders had a great offensive line we may have seen him play 6 or 7 more seasons.

        • Avatar
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          WindyCityBlue
          Mar 09, 2019 at 8:18 AM

          Probably not. When was the last time you saw a 37 year old running back in the NFL, no matter how good an offensive line they played behind? Even with good blocking, you’re still going to take lots and lots of hits, and a human body can only take so many.

          • Lanknows
            Comments: 4288
            Joined: 8/11/2015
            Lanknows
            Mar 09, 2019 at 1:53 PM

            I’m with WCB here. What made Sanders unique was his elite quickness “in a phone booth” and that was going to fade very quickly with age.

            IMO Sanders was the best RB of all time. I don’t even think it’s close. Of course he would have benefited from a great OL but less so than other backs reliant on good blocking -speed/power backs like Anthony Thomas who don’t generate much for themselves but thrive with good blocking in front of them.

            • Avatar
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              WindyCityBlue
              Mar 09, 2019 at 6:30 PM

              The irony is that if he had played on a team with better quarterbacking, he probably would have carried the ball less, but seen more playoff action. Even then, and certainly now, a team that is depending too much on a running back, however good, is probably not going to see a lot of postseason action. The Vikings with Adrian Peterson is a more recent, but similar example. Great back, but saw one playoff win in 10 years at Minnesota.

      • Avatar
        Comments: 1138
        Joined: 1/19/2016
        je93
        Mar 08, 2019 at 11:18 PM

        I assume you know this, but football is known as ‘the ultimate team game’

        Your statement can be applied to the passing game as well, and crosses over to the Defense too – just consider our pass coverage when the DL can’t get to the QB…

        • Lanknows
          Comments: 4288
          Joined: 8/11/2015
          Lanknows
          Mar 09, 2019 at 1:59 PM

          I haven’t heard that and I don’t agree with it. The QB is so critical in the modern game. You can see an entire offense turn when a backup comes in. That’s never true for RB, WR, or even OL (unless the guy is just a sieve).

          I do agree that the perspective applies also to defense. But that’s just the point. Nobody would just credit a MLB with all the stats that a defense can be measured by.* We recognize the team effort on D, we tend to ignore it in the run game.

          Part of that is just that that’s how the stats get counted, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

          *That said there was a lot of praise back in the day for 4-3 MLBs that racked up huge tackle totals in systems that funneled ball carriers to them. Eventually people figured out it didn’t much matter but it took a while.

          • Avatar
            Comments: 1138
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            je93
            Mar 09, 2019 at 2:43 PM

            Put a good QB behind a crap OL: you’ve got a guy with his (healthy) days numbered. Don’t give the QB breathing room, or get him beat up & rattled, and watch WR production drop. It’s a team game Lank

            • Lanknows
              Comments: 4288
              Joined: 8/11/2015
              Lanknows
              Mar 10, 2019 at 1:23 PM

              Nobody said it wasn’t. In fact that was point in the first place.

              You brought up the ‘ultimate team game” and wanted to diminish my point by over-generalizing it. Sorry — QBs are more important than RB and QBs are more important than any defensive position. It’s not the same thing as RB at all and NFL salaries demonstrate that.

              “The ultimate team game” doesn’t have a single position with such outsized importance.

          • Thunder
            Comments: 2812
            Joined: 7/13/2015
            Mar 09, 2019 at 4:05 PM

            Sure, the QB is critical, but no one’s saying that no players are critical. It’s considered the ultimate team game because one guy can’t just take over a team and propel it to victory. Lebron James does that regularly in the NBA. Russell Westbrook does, too. One might suggest Michael Jordan put the team on his back. Shaquille O’Neal was a dominant force. When you’re 20% of the team on the floor/field, that happens. Baseball teams can often revolve around a couple star players and then just filling in the pieces. Hockey teams are the same way, where getting one great player can push your team to championship contention.

            It’s rare that a superstar player in the NBA or NHL languishes on a last-place team, partly because they influence so much around them. They can be point guards, centers, power forwards, wings, etc. And while QB is an important position in the NFL, you see great running backs (Barry Sanders, David Johnson, Chris Johnson), great wide receivers (A.J. Green, Calvin Johnson), great cornerbacks (Deion Sanders in Atlanta), etc. spend huge chunks of time on bad teams.

            • Avatar
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              WindyCityBlue
              Mar 09, 2019 at 6:39 PM

              Have to disagree about baseball. It really is the ultimate team game. Everyone on offense only gets to bat once every nine times, and there’s nothing you can do to let any one player have more of a part of offense than any other, which is unlike any other major sport. And no matter how fast your outfielders are, then can’t help your shortstop if his range on ground balls is poor.

              • Thunder
                Comments: 2812
                Joined: 7/13/2015
                Mar 09, 2019 at 8:49 PM

                I’m not going to sit here and say that baseball isn’t a team sport or diminish the teamwork aspect of the game. There’s certainly an element of teamwork.

                But there are virtually no plays in football where you can make something happen on your own. Other guys have to block, cover, pressure the QB, run the right routes, or whatever to make things work. You can’t return a kickoff for a TD without guys making blocks for you. Heck, you can’t even pick off a quick hitch and score a TD unless your teammates lined up properly and/or disguised their coverage appropriate to make the QB think he can beat you on a quick hitch.

                The dudes hitting 50 home runs a season don’t need help from their teammates to score those 50 runs. It’s that dude against the pitcher. And if you’re a good pitcher striking dudes out left and right, you don’t need your right fielder or second baseman to do much.

                Successful plays in football require all 11 guys (or most of them) to do their job correctly. That’s not the case for those other sports. A basketball player can go coast to coast or pull up for a three; a baseball player can hit a dinger; and a hockey player can weave through four dudes and go five-hole on a goalie.

                • Lanknows
                  Comments: 4288
                  Joined: 8/11/2015
                  Lanknows
                  Mar 10, 2019 at 1:30 PM

                  Barry Sanders juked 8 guys on some of his “coast to coast” TD runs.
                  He did after the QBs job was literally just handing him the ball, the WR just stood there (or could have), and 2 of his OLmen missed their assignments.

                  Nobody is going to win a basketball game playing 1 on 5. Ditto for hockey.

                  They’re all team games. This isn’t much of a case for football IMO.

              • Lanknows
                Comments: 4288
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                Lanknows
                Mar 10, 2019 at 1:24 PM

                I don’t think a game based mostly on 1 on 1 battles is the ultimate team game.

                • Avatar
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                  WindyCityBlue
                  Mar 10, 2019 at 8:23 PM

                  It is because you can’t use one player any more than 1/9 of the time on offense. Your offense is nine guys with equal usage. One player can’t dominate to the degree they can in football, basketball or hockey.

                • Thunder
                  Comments: 2812
                  Joined: 7/13/2015
                  Mar 10, 2019 at 9:38 PM

                  Well, some guys get more than 1/9 usage when you consider that the top of the order gets more at bats than the bottom, but that doesn’t change your point a whole lot.

                • Lanknows
                  Comments: 4288
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                  Lanknows
                  Mar 10, 2019 at 10:34 PM

                  Baseball has the balance between positions* that football lacks, but it lacks the coordination between players that football has. The “ultimate team game” should probably have both.

                  *If you ignore pitchers.

            • Lanknows
              Comments: 4288
              Joined: 8/11/2015
              Lanknows
              Mar 10, 2019 at 1:19 PM

              I don’t buy any of this. QBs make way more than other positions in the NFL. 2 or 3 times as much as other positions. There’s a reason for that — it’s way more important.

              https://www.businessinsider.com/nfl-highest-paid-positions-2014-9

              How many super bowls has Tom Brady won now? How many did Joe Montana win?

              It would be an interesting debate about which sport is more dominated by super stars between NBA and NFL. I tend to agree it’s the NBA (because 5 vs 22) but the NBA’s GOAT is about to miss the playoffs while still on the fringe of his prime. How often did that happen with Brady or Montana?

              Baseball – no. Starting pitchers dominate but they play 20% of the time. You worried about a particular batter? walk him. How many playoffs did Mike Trout and Barry Bonds miss? Most of their careers. But baseball is certainly not the ‘ultimate’ either when so much of it is based on a series of one-on-one battles between batter/pitcher.

              To me, soccer, hockey, handball, water polo and other team games like this – where there is a balance between number of players and no inherent preeminence for a single position are more “team” games than football.

              • Lanknows
                Comments: 4288
                Joined: 8/11/2015
                Lanknows
                Mar 10, 2019 at 2:02 PM

                In short, amongst the major north american team sports:

                Football – too dominated by one position (QB is akin to a starting pitcher)
                Basketball – too dominated by elite players (akin to doubles tennis)
                Baseball – one-on-one play with trimmings (akin to relay racing)

                In my mind it comes down to 2. Hockey and Soccer – both are potentially dominated by goalies but in practice that doesn’t happen very much and the pro league salaries don’t reflect the importance of goalies.

                I’d give the edge to soccer based on 11 vs 6. I think some of the arguments made above for NBA superstars applies to NHL by nature of the number of players. Hockey superstars are less capable of dominating than basketball superstars though.

                If it’s soccer vs football, I think the best case you can make for football is that guys sit on the bench more than half the time, so it’s 11 vs 22. But soccer positions split up responsibilities too and players have to pace their level of effort to make up for it — something that’s arguably another argument for the team-oriented nature of soccer.

                There’s probably more ‘ultimate team sports’ out there that are more esoteric. Australian Rules football puts 36 people on the field. These are all (like football) variants of Rugby that don’t have as much emphasis on a single position.

                • Lanknows
                  Comments: 4288
                  Joined: 8/11/2015
                  Lanknows
                  Mar 10, 2019 at 2:03 PM

                  – Not “In short” at all.

              • Thunder
                Comments: 2812
                Joined: 7/13/2015
                Mar 10, 2019 at 3:07 PM

                I would say Tom Brady and Joe Montana are examples of the idea that it *is* very much a team-oriented game. Those guys largely prove my point. The Patriots were in the Super Bowl in 1997 (IIRC) with Drew Bledsoe, who eventually went down and allowed Tom Brady to take over. Shortly thereafter, the Patriots were back in the Super Bowl. The Patriots have been dominant for most of the past 20-25 years overall, and that includes a run of Bledsoe, Brady, and Cassel (who helped them go 11-5 in 2008 when Brady went down with a torn ACL). The Patriots went 3-1 when Brady was suspended for four games a few years ago.

                The same thing goes for the 49ers. They got good with Joe Montana, but Montana came in with Bill Walsh. Then they were good throughout the ’80s and ’90s, even though Steve Young took over at QB in the ’90s. Walsh and George Seifert carried that team, and then they fell off when Young got old/retired and Seifert moved on in favor of Steve Mariucci. Seifert won two Super Bowls himself and was 12-4 in his final year in SF, 1996.

                You say running backs don’t mean anything, but the two examples you gave (Tom Brady, Joe Montana) both played for teams that were successful both before and after their star QBs retired/got hurt.

                Now if you want to go off and talk about water polo and cricket and handball, then have at it. Nobody in America gives a crap about those sports. I’m pretty sure you know the rest of us aren’t talking about women’s doubles tennis or bobsledding.

                • Lanknows
                  Comments: 4288
                  Joined: 8/11/2015
                  Lanknows
                  Mar 10, 2019 at 10:45 PM

                  The same sort of argument can be made for the Bulls and Lakers. These are all team games.

                  I didn’t realize the implied parenthetical in “the ultimate team game” was (amongst the 4 major north american sports). Not so ultimate, I’d say.

  3. Lanknows
    Comments: 4288
    Joined: 8/11/2015
    Lanknows
    Mar 10, 2019 at 2:25 PM

    Agree. Sanders is definitely an exception to my “running backs don’t matter” argument but even elites like Peterson (who is another RB who does ‘matter’) can only do so much. It’s jut not that important of a position.

    • Avatar
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      WindyCityBlue
      Mar 10, 2019 at 8:28 PM

      It’s not even that they can only do so much. In the NFL, you don’t WANT to use your running game too much, no matter how good your running backs are. It’s just not an effiencient enough way to move the ball, relative to the NFL passing game. That’s why it’s a mistake and a waste to pick running backs high in the first round.

      • Lanknows
        Comments: 4288
        Joined: 8/11/2015
        Lanknows
        Mar 10, 2019 at 10:46 PM

        You seem to be limiting this observation to the NFL. I’m not sure it’s any more true in one or the other.

        • Avatar
          Comments: 933
          Joined: 8/11/2015
          WindyCityBlue
          Mar 11, 2019 at 6:33 AM

          You can have a successful team in college running the ball about as much as you pass it, or even more. You can’t in the NFL.

          • Lanknows
            Comments: 4288
            Joined: 8/11/2015
            Lanknows
            Mar 11, 2019 at 11:20 AM

            Probably some truth to that in general. However, I think if you’re defining ‘success’ the way you typically do for Michigan — Top 4/playoff — I’m not sure passing doesn’t retain a similar efficiency advantage against peer-level talent.

            In other words if 2 top 30ish teams play each other they probably should be throwing the ball as often as NFL teams do.

            Elite college teams do probably spend/waste more time developing run games in order to insure upset avoidance. If you took out the cupcakes and marginal opponents that make up college schedules it might be different.

            FWIW The Seahawks did make the playoffs leading the league in run percentage. They were the only team though that ran more than they passed.

  4. Lanknows
    Comments: 4288
    Joined: 8/11/2015
    Lanknows
    Mar 10, 2019 at 2:32 PM

    The positional breakdown of salary speaks volumes:

    https://www.spotrac.com/nfl/positional/

    In relation to the conversation about “team game”, you can see that the vast majority of positions average in the $3M neighborhood. QB is more than double that.

    In relation to my recurring point about RB irrelevance:

    The average RB salary is lower than any other full-time position, including OG, punter, and kicker.

  5. Avatar
    Comments: 1138
    Joined: 1/19/2016
    je93
    Mar 10, 2019 at 2:45 PM

    It’s painfully obvious when guys on sports blogs have never played sports

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