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It's an incredible year for running backs in the SEC. Here's a ranking of the 14 programs for this positional unit, led by Arkansas's two-headed monster in Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins. The Razorbacks edged the Georgia Bulldogs for the league's best running back unit.
The Razorbacks are pumped and primed for a break through 2015 season. They have everything in place offensively and will lean heavily on their brutal and punishing run game. Arkansas coach Brett Bielema has a potent one-two punch in senior Jonathan Williams and junior Alex Collins. The two almost put up identical numbers last year, each rushing for over 1,100 yards and a dozen scores. They will be relentless this fall with a ground and pound attack led by this pair and will be as good as anyone in the country in the run game. They are both 220-pounds plus and are proven between the tackles.
Senior Kody Walker, sophomore Denzell Evans, and freshman Juan Day should all see the field and get carries as well. Rawleigh Williams is a 210-pound back Arkansas signed in February. Walker is one of the league’s top fullbacks.
I really like this program in the SEC West. If they are really to make their way to Atlanta in December then this part of the Arkansas offense must be relentless in their attack and impose their will in league play.
Injuries allowed Nick Chubb to strut his stuff in 2014, as he had an absolutely sensational freshman season for the Dawgs. He finished with 1,547 yards and 14 scores and was virtually unstoppable the second half of the season. Georgia will have Keith Marshall back as well as Sony Michel. Remember both Michel and Chubb came to Athens together as members of Georgia’s 2014 recruiting class. Michel averaged over seven yards per rush last year, scored six touchdowns and is an excellent receiver out of the backfield.
This spring, Chubb got rest while Michel injured his collar bone. Many of the carries went to A.J. Turman, who looked very good. It should be the Chubb/Michel show in 2015. But running backs get banged up and UGA is a good four deep here. Marshall is an outstanding senior talent who came in with Todd Gurley. He just can’t stay healthy and battled a bad hamstring this spring.
If he gets a lion’s share of the Alabama carries this fall then I could see Derrick Henry posting Heisman Trophy like numbers for the Crimson Tide offense. This is a huge running back north of 240-pounds that should be primed and ready for a monster junior season this fall. Last year in sharing carries in Tuscaloosa he still rushed for 990 yards. Alabama is not quite as running back deep as they have normally been but remember that Henry is a back that can carry the mail and be a workhorse. Senior Kenyan Drake is a versatile and speedy talent that should complement Henry well, especially in the Tide passing attack. There was terrible news for Bo Scarbrough, as he tore his ACL this spring. Altee Tenpenny and Tyren Jones are no longer with the team. Alabama does have two talented true freshmen in Damien Harris and DeSherrius Flowers. Harris has a chance to be special for the Crimson Tide.
Alabama's offense will be interesting to watch for Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, considering they are breaking in a new starting quarterback, Amari Cooper is now in the NFL, and the makeup of the current running back situation. There’s no doubt there’s still an array of talent here but Henry and Drake have to stay healthy this fall.
LSU is loaded at running back, led by the nation’s top recruit in 2014, Leonard Fournette. His true freshman season was a good one as he rushed for 1,034 yards, 10 touchdowns and averaged 5.5 yards per carry. Barring injury, Fournette is poised for a super ’15 campaign and should challenge for the league rushing title. He worked hard in the off-season to get stronger and become a better blocker and receiving out of the back field. It showed during spring ball, as Fournette looked fantastic in every aspect of the game. He’s stronger, faster and more patient of a runner. He was certainly one of the most improved players this spring in Baton Rouge. That’s scary. Fournette is hungry to make this upcoming season one to remember for the Tigers.
LSU has some nice talent behind him. Darrell Williams is a good running back that came in with Fournette in the same recruiting class. There’s also freshman fullback David Ducre and incoming freshman Nicholas Brossette and Derrius Guice. Brossette and Guice are good enough to find their way into the rotation very early at LSU.
The Volunteers have a lot of good, young talent and one of their better sophomores is running back Jalen Hurd. He had a terrific true freshman season in 2014, rushing for 899 yards. Hurd also had 221 receiving yards. He totaled seven scores. He’s clearly the top choice to be the opening game starter at this point but I would expect a ton of carries to go to Alvin Kamara. He was a top flight back two years ago that signed with Alabama. He left the Crimson Tide program and enrolled at Hutchinson Community College. Kamara battled some injuries this spring but still impressed the Tennessee staff. Hurd-Kamara should be one of the top running back tandems in the SEC in 2015 and they give this offense a different look and different talents.
Depth will be a concern if there are injuries to either Hurd or Kamara. Four incoming freshman could compete for some playing time. Senior wide receiver Pig Howard gets into the act as well and runs the wildcat for this offense in Knoxville.
It’s an exciting time to be at Auburn and this season will be one of transition on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Gus Malzahn will be breaking in a new starting quarterback in Jeremy Johnson and he will have a bevy of weapons around him. For Auburn, landing prized junior college transfer Jovon Robinson was a huge get. He participated in spring practice and battled with Peyton Barber and Roc Thomas. Expect all three to get their share of touches this fall, especially considering that each is a bit different in style. Thomas had the best spring game, rushing for 69 yards and a pair of scores. Robinson has the power and just needs more reps with the offense to become more comfortable within the scheme so he can just run carefree. Meanwhile, Barber has shown improvement and ready for a bigger role. A critical role will also be pass protection and who develops best in this part of their game.
Auburn was scorching hot on the recruiting front, especially late in the last recruiting cycle. Kerryon Johnson is an incoming freshman running back while Chandler Cox could be an outstanding piece with the Tigers. He’s a big fullback/H-back that can do everything. Cox was there at Auburn for spring ball and did well. He will split time with Kamryn Pettway at fullback.
Missouri should have a nice and balanced offense in 2015 between their quarterback Maty Mauck and running game, led by Russell Hansbrough. This senior was one of seven players in the SEC to rush for over 1,000 yards last year. This 5-foot-9, 195-pounder had a terrific season and finished with 1,084 yards and 10 scores for the Tigers. In 2013, Hansbrough rushed for 685 yards.
With Marcus Murphy gone, he’s clearly going to be the featured back for Missouri but others will get in the rotation. Juniors Miles Drummond and Andrew Stevens, sophomore Steven Blakely, and senior Tyler Hunt should all see action. Sophomore Ish Witter was voted the most improved running back this spring. This is coming off a true freshman season that saw him appear in 12 games and finish third on the team in rushing with 101 yards. Another back with experience is Morgan Steward. He is still not 100% after missing the ’14 season with hip surgery. Red-shirt Trevon Walters was expected to get some carries this fall only to tear his ACL over the spring. This injury could open up the door for a trio of incoming backs like junior college transfer Chase Abbington and true freshman Natereace Strong and Marquise Doherty.
There’s no question that Kentucky football is on the upswing, as Mark Stoops and the Wildcats staff have done a tremendous job off the field recruiting and on the field coaching. One player that they have to be ultra-excited about helping them turn the corner is one of the SEC’s most exciting players in Stanley ‘Boom’ Williams. This sophomore running back can do it all. In ten games played in 2014 Williams rushed for 486 yards and five touchdowns. He also caught 17 passes for 162 yards and one touchdown. Williams was also an excellent kick returner. He had himself an outstanding spring and continues to progress and shine. Certainly Williams will be the key cog to big blue’s offensive machine this fall.
It’s not just Boom left, Boom right, and Boom up the middle. Kentucky has some quality running backs behind him, especially in sophomore Mikel Horton and junior JoJo Kemp. These two combined for 629 rushing yards and six scores on the ground. Add them to Williams and the trio averaged close to 5.5 yards per carry behind a pretty average offensive front. This is a very talented group in Lexington. Incoming freshman Sihiem King looks like a nice fit for this offense.
The Bulldogs must find some new starters on the offensive front and running back but they still have quarterback Dak Prescott. He should give the Mississippi State run game a continued boost. Prescott is the team’s leading returning rusher by a long shot. In 2014, he rushed for 986 yards and 14 scores. Still, the Bulldogs have up to four ball carriers that could see extensive action for Dan Mullen’s offensive attack.
Junior Ashton Shumpert emerges from spring as No. 1 on their depth chart. In 2014, Shumpert played in a dozen games, starting twice. He rushed for 274 yards. Shumpert is a move the pile, power runner. Sophomore Brandon Holloway is not. He’s a 160-pounds and quick, fast and a guy you want to get the ball in space. Like Shumpert, Dontavian Lee is a big and strong back that runs with a punishing style that’s perfectly suited in the SEC. There’s also Aeris Williams. This red-shirt freshman is a good looking 215-pound back that can run between the tackles, possesses good speed and can catch the football.
Nick Gibson and Alec Murphy are two incoming freshman that hope to get into the rotation. But that could prove difficult if the guys already on the roster stay healthy. Mullen and Mississippi State have a chance to put up huge numbers on the ground. This group overall may lack experience but they have a ton of talent.
Ralph Webb had a big 2014, especially considering the Commodores didn’t do much offensively. He managed to rush for a Vanderbilt freshman record 907 yards and also made the All-Freshman SEC Team. He also scored four touchdowns. He’s a 200-pounder that will have to be the workhorse this fall. There is some talent behind him. Sophomore Dallas Rivers starred this spring. This is coming off a freshman season where he rushed for over 218 yards. I would expect Rivers to get a fair amount of touches, especially considering the quarterback position is so unsettled and their new offensive coordinator, Andy Ludwig, loves to run the football. He was previously coaching at Wisconsin.
11) Texas A&M
Trey Williams bolted early for the NFL, leaving a little void in the A&M backfield. It became a wide open race for Aggie carries this spring and it appears sophomore James White is the front runner. He did see some limited time in 2014 after red-shirting the prior year. Last season White gained 153 yard and scored a trio of touchdowns. What’s interesting about this running back from Pearland, Texas is his style – he’s a bruiser, a physical, north-south runner. At 220-pounds, he has a completely different running style than that of Williams and some of the other A&M running backs. Senior Tra Carson is the leading returning rusher who had 560-yards and seven scores a year ago. He’s another big back. Senior Brandon Williams is also back after rushing for 379 yards and three touchdowns.
Kendell Bussey and Jay Bradford are two very fast, big play running backs that signed with A&M. These two could be ideal change of pace type of runners with what’s already on campus for the Aggies.
12) South Carolina
It’s going to be an interesting season in Columbia as South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier continues to look for his quarterback. While he will be breaking in a new starter, it looks like he will be able to count on a pretty strong running game. Senior Brandon Wilds is a 224-pounder with the most experience. He was more than solid in backing up Mike Davis the past few seasons for the Gamecocks. Wilds has rushed for close to 1,300 yards over his career at South Carolina. Of course he has to hold off David Williams. Only a sophomore, Williams took advantage of his limited opportunities in 2014. On 45 carries he rushed for 256 yards and two touchdowns. That’s 5.7 yards per carry. Wilds is terrific between the tackles while Williams is more of a home run back. It should be a nice one-two punch for Spurrier and his offense. There’s also senior Shon Carson.
13) Ole Miss
It could be a four-headed monster in Oxford this season at the running back position, led by Jaylen Walton. This senior started every game last year, finishing with 586 yards and five touchdowns. He also caught 19 passes and scored two more times in the passing game. But he will undoubtedly share time with Jordan Wilkins and Akeem Judd. Wilkins, a sophomore, rushed for 361 yards and a score in 2014. Judd, a junior, is a no nonsense north-south power runner. He’s exactly what coach Hugh Freeze is looking for this season, as he wants his running backs to be more physical and do less dancing.
A fourth back could see significant time in Eugene Brazley. He’s a talented sophomore that got his feet wet last season. The Rebels signed Eric Sweeney, a four-star recruit from Georgia.
Florida has an interesting situation at the tailback position. They bring back a good back in Kelvin Taylor. Now a junior, Taylor has rushed for 508 (freshman) and 565 yards (sophomore) and 10 touchdowns over two years in one of college football’s worst offenses. With Matt Jones gone to the NFL, Taylor is now the main man for sure. The only experienced backups are Adam Lane and Mark Herndon. Lane has done virtually nothing in two years in Gainesville except for his 109 yard outburst in the Birmingham Bowl in January. He missed time this spring because of injury and has not enamored himself with the new staff. Former walk-on Mark Herndon missed the spring entirely after an ACL injury sustained last fall.
New Gator coach Jim McElwain and his staff will be relying on newcomers to provide depth to the position from at least one of three potential true freshmen in Jordan Scarlett, Jordan Cronkrite and D’Anfernee McGriff. Florida flipped Scarlett away from the Hurricanes. He was as big of a signee as just about anyone in their recruiting class. He’s got an NFL body right now, has terrific speed and should be a nice complement to Taylor. It's unknown at this time if McGriff will qualify. The Gators are thin up front on the offensive line and shaky at the QB position. This will put even more pressure on this unit.
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