The diminished role of the running back in college football was greatly exaggerated. In some respects the position is as strong as ever.

Derrick Henry of Alabama became the first running back to win the Heisman Trophy since 2009 last year and was one of the five players to run for 1,800 yards as rushing averages nationwide surged to record levels. Henry has moved to the NFL, but three 1,800-yard rushers return this season: Leonard Fournette of LSU, Christian McCaffrey of Stanford and Royce Freeman of Oregon.

The surge in star power at the position flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that college football has become a quarterback-dominated game.

“The running game, I wouldn’t say it had gotten lost necessarily because there have been a lot of good runners,” Stanford Coach David Shaw said. “But the emphasis has been on the spread passing attacks. But really good spread teams always have a good back. It’s good to see in college football, guys turn around and hand it to a runner and be physical. I think those guys are fun to watch – and we have a pretty special one, too.”

The notion that a running back’s value was fading gained credence when no players at that position were drafted in the first round in either 2013 or 2014. Quarterbacks won the Heisman eight times in a nine-year stretch from 2006-14, the exception being Alabama running back Mark Ingram in 2009.

“People have definitely advised me to pick another position,” said Jalen Hurd of Tennessee, who’s a bit taller than the average running back at 6-foot-4. “I’ve got people all the time just looking at me like, ‘Dude, are you sure you want be a running back?’ But that’s my position.”

Hurd stayed in the backfield and enters his junior season just 891 yards shy of Travis Henry’s school rushing record.

The emergence of Fournette, Hurd and Nick Chubb of Georgia, who is recovering from a knee injury that sidelined him for the second half of the 2015 season, has helped the Southeastern Conference maintain its elite status during a stretch when it has struggled to produce top quarterbacks.

“I think definitely if it didn’t change last year, the running back value is going to change this year,” Hurd said.

This running back resurgence goes well beyond the SEC and stretches from coast to coast.

The Atlantic Coast Conference returns three players who ran for more than 1,400 yards last season – Dalvin Cook of Florida State, Wayne Gallman of Clemson and Elijah Hood of North Carolina.

The league also welcomes back the 2014 ACC player of the year, James Conner of Pittsburgh, after his successful fight with cancer.

On the West Coast, the Pac-12 has the Heisman Trophy runner-up in McCaffrey as well as Freeman.

“In the NFL, they’re not as premium anymore because they don’t last very long,” Warner said. “(In) college, they last with us.”

Defenses haven’t quite learned how to slow them down.

Football Bowl Subdivision teams averaged 178.3 yards rushing per game last season, the most since 1980. That’s at least partly due to the increased number of snaps that have come from the rise in up-tempo offenses.

But teams also are running more effectively than before. FBS schools averaged a record 4.5 yards per carry last season

“I think it’s a byproduct of spread offenses,” Tennessee Coach Butch Jones said. “I think it’s the byproduct of play-action passes and all the run-pass options that offenses are doing now where a quarterback has three or four options on a run play in every single play.”