And that means that most of the Big 12's running back units are attempting to retool, with Texas A&M's duo of Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael and Kansas's James Sims serving as the Big 12's top returning runners.
That could lead to an exciting season, with the Big 12's next generation of running backs emerging over the course of the season. Here are the Big 12's top running back groups.
1) Texas A&M
Cyrus Gray was a fantastic back over the last half of the season, rushing for at least 100 yards in each of Texas A&M's final seven games, and was arguably the league's top back over that time period. Now, he'll enter the 2011 season as the no-doubt top running back in the Big 12. The only player who would start the season in competition for that honor might be his teammate, Christine Michael, who would start for any of the other nine teams in the league. Michael rushed for 844 yards and 10 touchdowns as a freshman, and had 631 yards last year before going down with an injury, opening the way for Gray's emergence. Together, they form potentially the country's best running back duo, and one that far outclasses any other in the conference.
Call this one strength in numbers. Roy Finch averaged 4.7 yards per carry in rushing for nearly 400 yards as a true freshman last season, and figures to take the starting gig from departed runner DeMarco Murray. But while he may be the opening day starter, the Sooners could rotate through as many as five runners, including fellow sophomores Brennan Clay and Jonathan Miller and junior Jermie Calhoun. The fifth player — though he probably won't be as low as fifth on the depth chart — might be the most exciting. That's true freshman Brandon Williams of Brookshire, Texas. Williams enrolled early in the spring and turned heads with his explosive game-breaking ability. And few teams have a fullback as dynamic as Trey Millard (6-foot-1, 249 pounds).
The Longhorns will start the season with a unique opportunity: the chance to put last year's starters Cody Johnson and Fozzy Whittaker into the same backfield. Johnson (5-11, 250) is one of the country's top fullback prospects and will likely play a dual fullback/single back role. He rushed for over 100 yards in Texas's last two games. And Whittaker (5-10 190), the lightning to Johnson's thunder, could wind up lining up behind the bigger back. Whittaker has been effective when healthy (4.4 ypc), but he must overcome a recurring shoulder injury. But while both return from a year ago, neither might be the starter by season's end. That honor might go to incoming freshman Malcolm Brown (6-1 220), a pounding runner with deceptive speed. D.J. Monroe also adds a speed threat and might be the Big 12's fastest ball-carrier.
Gone is Kendall Hunter, the Big 12's top runner from a year ago. But like their in-state rival, the Cowboys will attack his absence with volume. The best of the bunch is probably sophomore Joseph Randle (6-1 191), who has great burst and receiving skills out of the backfield. He rushed for 452 yards and two scores, at 5.5 yards per carry, and finished as the Cowboys' fourth-leading receiver with 37 catches for 427 yards and another scores. Fellow sophomore Jeremy Smith will push Randle, and he had seven touchdowns a year ago. Watch out for true freshmen Desmond Roland and Herschel Sims. Last year, the Cowboys had three backs with at least 50 carries, and either Roland or Sims could step into that third spot.
OK, so the Tigers are a spread team. But lost in that reputation was just how effectively Missouri ran the ball a year ago. Starter De'Vion Moore rushed for 517 yards and eight scores, averaging 5.2 yards a pop. And backups Henry Josey and Kendial Lawrence, if you can truly call them backups, each topped 400 yards and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. Josey had five touchdowns, Lawrence four. Combined, the trio rushed for 1,376 yards and 17 touchdowns, on-par with any top-notch running back. And with new quarterback James Franklin serving as more of a running threat, expect to see their usage numbers increase. There's a bright future here too: only Moore is a senior.
Best of the Rest
6) Kansas — The Jayhawks have a surprisingly stout young group of runners, returning three of their top four backs from a year ago, including leading rusher James Sims, who rushed for 742 yards and nine touchdowns as a true freshman. This year's true freshman class features potential game-breakers in Darrian Miller and Anthony Pierson. Don't expect either to redshirt, and Miller was a force in the spring. Redshirt freshman Brandon Bourbon could also factor in.
7) Texas Tech — If head coach Tommy Tuberville wants to run the ball more, he has a nice piece in explosive all-purpose back Eric Stephens. Stephens had 668 yushing yards a year ago, including 126 in the TicketCity Bowl. Aaron Crawford brings a more physical presence and a great change of pace, if he can stay healthy. True freshman Ronnie Daniels, who enrolled early, will also fight for an early role, as will fellow true freshman Kenny Williams.
8) Baylor — The Bears will fight to replace Jay Finley, who rushed for a school-record 1,218 yards last year. No replacement stepped forward in the spring. Junior Jared Salubi and senior Terrance Ganaway are the most experienced: they ran for a little more than 500 combined yards and four touchdowns last year. Glasco Martin and Isaac Williams each had a chance in the spring as well, and incoming freshmen B.J. Allen and Anthony Webb might play a part.
9) Kansas State — There's no replacing Daniel Thomas, one of the league's best backs from a year ago. But at least the Wildcats have some talent to throw at the hole. Bryce Brown, a Tennessee transfer and the former No. 1 recruit in the nation, gets first crack, though diminutive back John Hubert is breathing down his neck. The Wildcats have recruited well here, with former highly touted back Demarcus Robinson also fighting for a spot in the rotation. Tiny Robert Rose (5-4 173) is in the mix.
10) Iowa State — The Cyclones lost arguably their top offensive weapon in Alexander Robinson. Getting the start will be Shontrelle Johnson, who averaged 6.2 yards per carry in relief a year ago. He's an explosive player who has talent. Jeff Woody looks like a fullback at 232 pounds, and will get the short-yardage carries. James White and redshirt freshman Duran Hollis will also play key roles. DeVondrick Nealy put up huge numbers in Florida, and could follow Johnson's lead as an impact guy as a true freshman.