A program that earned national pub for its passing game returns what certainly appears to be the Big 12's top running back unit. It starts with Joseph Randle, the Big 12's best returning running back. Randle rushed 208 times for 1,216 yards and 24 touchdowns a year ago, while also catching 43 passes and scoring twice more on receptions. But the Cowboys also have arguably the Big 12's best backup in Jeremy Smith, whose rugged style complements the gliding Randle perfectly. Smith rushed for 646 yards as a sophomore, averaging 7.1 yards per carry and finding the end zone nine times.
Texas starts off here at No. 2, but the Longhorns certainly have the upside to move up on this list. Malcolm Brown was on pace to rush for 1,100 yards as a true freshman, but an injury halted him to a still strong 742 yards and five touchdowns as a true freshman. Joe Bergeron, a 240-pound power back, had the Longhorns' top rushing day last year by rushing for 191 yards against Texas Tech before he, too, was injured. Bergeron topped the 100-yard mark in his last two healthy games, and has great upside. Add in true freshman Johnathan Gray, one of the most decorated players in Texas high school history, and the Longhorns have three potential game-changers, none of whom is older than a sophomore.
The Horned Frogs lost No. 2 back Ed Wesley in the offseason, with Wesley leaving the team for family reasons. But don't cry for the Horned Frogs, who return top rusher Waymon James and 230-pound No. 3 runner Matthew Tucker. Those two combined to rush for nearly 1,600 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2011. Wesley's departure also doesn't kill the Frogs' overall depth, thanks to strong springs from former UCLA transfer Aundre Dean and true freshman early enrollee B.J. Catalon.
4) Texas Tech
Consider this an upside pick. If Eric Stephens can come back at full health, he'll resume his place as one of the Big 12's top running backs. Stephens rushed for 565 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 5.2 yards per carry before being sidelined with a dislocated knee and torn knee ligaments. Deandre Washington filled in well, rushing for 366 yards and three touchdowns, at 4.8 yards per pop before tearing his own ACL. Neither was ready for the spring, though JUCO transfer Sadale Foster made the most of his opportunity, playing well. Former Pflugerville standout Kenny Williams could add another talented back if he's allowed back with the team after some legal issues.
Another player keeping with the theme of injured Big 12 running backs, Dominique Whaley rushed for 627 yards and nine touchdowns before he broke his ankle, knocking himself out for the season. The walk-on starter averaged 5.5 yards per carry, the same average as backup Roy Finch put up after Whaley's absence. Finch and Brennan Clay haven't quite lived up to their potential in Norman, but add excellent depth, as does JUCO transfer Damien Williams (6-1 215) and true freshman Alex Ross, a star runner at Sooner State powerhouse Jenks. And don't forget the Big 12's best fullback in versatile threat Trey Millard.
Best of the Rest
6) Kansas State — The Wildcats bring back John Hubert, who rushed for 970 yards and three touchdowns last year, along with primary backups Angelo Pease and Robert Rose, though the Wildcats could use another difference-maker. The best blocking back in the league also resides in Manhattan, bulldozer Braden Wilson.
7) Kansas — The Jayhawks might have made a play for the top five with a deep group that went four deep at times last year. But Darrian Miller, arguably the most talented of the bunch, is no longer with the team, and top rusher James Sims (182-727-9) is suspended for the start of the year. That should lead to more touches for one of the fastest backs in the Big 12, Tony Pierson, as well as size/speed threat Brandon Bourbon, but a newcomer may need to emerge.
8) West Virginia — The Mountaineers weren't a part of the Big 12 last year, but that didn't stop them from falling to the Big 12 running back injury bug. Dustin Garrison rushed for 742 yards and six touchdowns, then injured his knee in the practices leading up to the Orange Bowl. Shawne Alson (5-11 235) isn't the breakaway threat, but he rushed for 416 yards and 12 touchdowns, excelling in a short-yardage role. Andrew Buie and Ryan Clarke are also in the mix.
9) Baylor — The Bears may be last in returning production, but as far as talent goes, the Bears have a much more salty group. Jared Salubi averaged 5.7 yards per carry in limited action a year ago, and could be the next Baylor back to emerge with more touches. He ran for 101 yards and two scores on five carries in the Alamo Bowl. He'll have to separate from Glasco Martin and Oregon transfer Lache Seastrunk to do so, with the latter representing a serious big-play option.
10) Iowa State — The Cyclones return their top three backs from 2011, though none was a game-changer. James White led the charge with 743 yards and eight touchdowns. Jeff Woody and Shontrelle Johnson ran for more than 600 yards and six touchdowns combined, though Johnson didn't find the end zone last year. Keep an eye on redshirt freshmen DeVondrick Nealy and Rob Standard, who may emerge if Iowa State needs more of a shifty open-field threat.