Pac-12 preview: Running back rankings

Even though Stanford's Christian McCaffrey has moved on, the Pac-12 returns eight of the conference's top 10 rushers from a season ago.

To download this week's edition of the 'Sun Devil Source Report' podcast and listen to our 'Pac-12 Preview: Quarterbacks and running backs' episode, click here.

As the spring comes to a close and the summer arrives, SunDevilSource will provide broader context for our Arizona State player capsules and player preparedness and potential grades by embarking on a podcast series that compares the Sun Devils' depth at various position groups to the rest of the teams around the Pac-12 conference.

Each week, SunDevilSource analysts Chris Karpman and Kerry Crowley will review position groups for each Pac-12 team, and draft the players from those groups in order of which players they would most like to have on their own hypothetical rosters. In each podcast, Chris and Kerry trade off picks in an effort to build the deepest team. 

After releasing quarterback rankings on Wednesday morning, the next installment of the series features SunDevilSource's running back rankings. Even though the Pac-12 loses Stanford's Christian McCaffrey, eight of the top 10 rushers including Washington's Myles Gaskin and USC's Ronald Jones are back in 2017. 

Running backs

1. USC-- The Trojans held the top spot in our quarterback rankings thanks to the rise of Sam Darnold in 2016, and USC also boasts our highest-rated running backs group thanks to the return of Ronald Jones. Jones was one of four backs in the Pac-12 to surpass the 1,000-yard threshold last year, and he's accompanied in the Trojans' backfield by talented Texas native Aca'Cedric ware. Additionally, the Trojans added one of the top running backs in the entire country in 2017 signee Stephen Carr, who should be a weapon for Clay Helton's squad as a true freshman.

2. Oregon-- Even though Washington boasts the top returning rusher in the Pac-12, Myles Gaskin, the overall depth in Oregon's backfield helped the Ducks to the second spot in our running back rankings. The combination of Royce Freeman, one of the most physically gifted backs in the Pac-12, and Tony Brooks-James, one of the conference's top secondary options, should be more potent in 2017 after the Ducks played four underclassmen along their offensive line last year. If that group can find stability early in the season, Freeman and Brooks-James have the power and speed to make Oregon's offense difficult to stop.

3. Washington-- Gaskin ran for 1,373 yards and averaged 5.8 yards per carry in a high-powered Washington offense a season ago and figures to return to form as the Huskies return most of their key offensive assets. Behind Gaskin, backup Lavon Coleman is a solid Pac-12 back while the Huskies are excited about the future of Sean McGrew, a scatback-type of a player who brings versatility to coach Chris Petersen's offensive scheme.

4. Arizona State-- After a disappointing season in 2016, ASU seniors Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage are attempting to earn a reputation as the top one-two combo in the league. While neither player rushed for more than 600 yards a season ago and both players averaged fewer than 4.3 yards per carry, Richard and Ballage both have All-Pac-12 potential and boast complementary styles that present opposing defenses with various challenges. Behind the duo at the top of the depth chart, sophomore Nick Ralston has emerged as a solid option while ASU is eagerly awaiting to see what true freshman Eno Benjamin can bring to the table.

5. Oregon State-- The conference's spotlight is rarely focused on Corvallis, Oregon, but Oregon native Ryan Nall emerged as one of the most rugged backs in the Pac-12 last season as he pounded his way to 951 yards on just 147 carries. Nall stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 234 pounds, and the imposing back became the centerpiece of the Beavers' offense last season when he rushed for 100-plus yards in three of the team's final four games.

6. Stanford-- Even though the Cardinal lose McCaffrey, David Shaw's team returns Bryce Love, who quietly racked up 783 yards on 111 carries during his sophomore season. The 2016 campaign marked the second straight year Love averaged more than 7.0 yards per carry, and now that he's the featured back in the Cardinal offense, Stanford is hoping he can provide the same full-service production it has become accustomed to getting out of its backs in recent years. Behind Love, the Cardinal are high on Cameron Scarlett, a former four-star recruit who has a larger frame and is a more durable between-the-tackles style of back.

7. Colorado-- The Buffaloes return the third leading rusher in the Pac-12, Phillip Lindsey, but still find themselves in the seventh spot in our rankings because of the overall depth throughout the rest of the conference. Lindsey doesn't have any standout physical tools as a back, but he's a durable workhorse who doesn't tire easily and is an excellent fit in Mike MacIntyre's offense. The Buffaloes trust Lindsey in the red zone, as he led the Pac-12 with 16 rushing touchdowns a season ago, but it will be interesting to see how the graduation of quarterback Sefo Liufau impacts teams' ability to key in on Lindsey near the goal line.

8. Washington State-- The Cougars boast a trio of talented backs in James Williams, Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks, who are all built from a similar mold and are ideally suited to play in Mike Leach's Air Raid offense. All three players finished with at least 480 rushing yards last season, and all three are capable security blankets for quarterback Luke Falk when they release on routes out of the backfield. Even though the Cougars are known for their passing attack, Williams, Morrow and Wicks combined for 22 rushing touchdowns last season.

9. Arizona-- Nick Wilson returns for his senior season in Tucson hoping to stay injury free in a Wildcats' offense that needs more depth in the backfield. When he's healthy and at his best, Wilson is an All-Pac-12-caliber player who is both shifty and elusive, but staying healthy has been Wilson's challenge. Further down on the depth chart, Zach Green showed signs of life late last season as he rushed for 126 yards in the Wildcats' victory over ASU.

10. UCLA-- With the combination of Nate Starks and Soso Jamabo, the Bruins seemingly have the talent to put together a strong rushing attack, but the team's 2016 output on the ground was simply abysmal. Since the end of last season, UCLA parted ways with coordinator Kennedy Polamalu who ran a scheme that didn't appear to fit either player's rushing style, so perhaps new coordinator Jedd Fisch will find a way to give the UCLA offense some balance this season.

11. Utah-- Even though Utah doesn't return a single player who rushed for more than 400 yards last season, on principle, it's impossible to have a Kyle Whittingham team at the bottom of a running back ranking piece. After Joe Williams came out of retirement last season to put together one of the best late season runs of any player in the conference, the Utes are essentially starting from scratch in the backfield and will hope players like Devonta'e Henry-Cole and Zack Moss can shoulder the load for the team's offense. 

12. Cal--Aside from Stanford, Cal is the only team losing a back who finished in the top 10 in the conference in rushing as the Bears wave goodbye to Khalfani Muhammad who ran for over 800 yards and average more than 5.0 yards per carry last year. Cal does return Tre Watson who split time with Muhammad for much of last season and amassed over 700 yards, but behind Watson, the Bears are unsure what type of production they'll get from the pieces further down the depth chart. 

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