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When the Big 12 first formed, the conference was heavy on talented running backs. The group dried up a bit with the advent and mass proliferation of the spread in the conference. But heading into the 2010 season, the Big 12 running back group is as strong as it has ever been. Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray, Kansas State's Daniel Thomas and Nebraska's Roy Helu are all considered big-time NFL prospects, while most conference teams have a back capable of topping the 1,000-yard mark.
Oklahoma tops the Big 12's top running back groups. But who's next?
The Sooners have demonstrated their depth at running back for each of the last several years, and that trend figures to continue in 2010. At the top of the list is DeMarco Murray, possibly the Big 12's most talented back, but one who needs to show improved durability to grab the title of the league's best back. In his three seasons, Murray has put up 4,661 all-purpose yards, averaged 5.2 yards per carry and scored 45 touchdowns. But yet Murray still contains a significant amount of ‘what if.' Last year, he rushed for 705 yards, caught passes for another 522 yards and scored 12 combined touchdowns. He should get more touches this year with the departure of Chris Brown, though former five-star runner Jermie Calhoun could steal some carries here and there. Sophomore Jonathan Miller and true freshmen Brennan Clay and Roy Finch could also work their way into the rotation with strong play.
Senior Roy Helu Jr. battled through injuries last year, but still showed that he was among the Big 12's top backs, finishing fourth in rushing. Over the last two years, Helu has rushed 345 times for 1,950 yards — a strong 5.7 yards per carry — and 17 touchdowns. He's tough to cut down in the backfield, runs power, makes the right cuts and has the speed to get to the edge. Rex Burkhead has bulked up over his true freshman season that saw him miss five games with a broken foot, but rush for a 346 yards at 4.3 yards per carry. Dontrayevous Robinson is a 230-pound bruiser who can bring a power element to the team. Fullback Tyler Legate does an outstanding job of clearing holes in the defense. Landing Braylon Heard out of Youngstown, Ohio was a big get for the future.
3) Texas A&M
Most teams would love to have one top-notch back. But the Aggies claim this spot because they have two of them. Christine Michael arrived in the conference in a big way as a true freshman, rushing for 844 yards and 10 touchdowns, while running for 5.1 yards per carry. That's a great freshman year, but it was just barely ahead of teammate Cyrus Gray, an all-purpose threat who rushed for 757 yards at 4.8 yards per pop and put up another five scores. Together, the duo should give the Aggies the rushing game to complement quarterback Jerrod Johnson's passing attack. Bradley Stephens and Kalvin Guyton have both shown some strength as potential backups, while a freshman class of Ben Malena, D. J. Jones and Mister Jones also shows promise.
4) Kansas State
In Daniel Thomas, the Wildcats boast arguably the top runner in the conference. What Thomas did in 2009 shouldn't be undersold: after sitting out of football for a year to focus on academics, Thomas joined the Wildcats from junior college, transitioned to a new position (he played quarterback in JUCO), fought off a shoulder injury and nearly single-handedly made the Wildcats a dangerous team to deal with. Thomas rushed for 1,265 yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards per carry, and in some circles, was considered the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. Fullback Braden Wilson is a devastating blocker who paved the way for many of Thomas's big runs. The Wildcats are in need of a No. 2 back behind Thomas, a spot that could go to incoming freshman DeMarcus Robinson.
The Longhorns are the highest-rated running back group without an elite-level conference tailback. But what Texas lacks in a single back, the Longhorns can make up with a deep, and talented group. The headliner is sophomore Tre' Newton, who rushed for 552 yards and six touchdowns last season, averaging close to five yards per carry. While those numbers could improve, he'll be slowed a bit by carries to Fozzy Whitaker and Vondrell McGee. Short-yardage totes will likely go to either Cody Johnson, who sat out the spring with an injury, or redshirt freshman Chris Whaley, a talented bigger back who could be even more effective if he dropped a few pounds. Incoming freshmen Demarco Cobbs and Traylon Shead ensure that the future looks bright as well.
Best of the Rest
6) Oklahoma State — After earning All-America mention as a sophomore, Kendall Hunter figured to improve on the 1,555 yards and 16 touchdowns he put up in 2008. But injuries limited Hunter to 382 yards and a touchdown as a junior. The Cowboys will count on Hunter to regain his sophomore form this year, though he probably won't approach the same kind of numbers, largely because of the hiring of new offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen indicates that Oklahoma State will throw the ball more. Jeremy Smith rushed for 160 yards in his first game last year before going down with a season-ending injury. Travis Miller should also help, while Bryant Ward is an excellent fullback.
7) Texas Tech — One of the intriguing storylines of the upcoming season will be the performance of Baron Batch and the Red Raider running backs. Tech coach Tommy Tuberville has said he doesn't want to reinvent the wheel, and he has a team of spread players, but it's difficult to believe that he won't employ more of a running attack. That should sit well with the do-everything Batch, who put up nearly 1,300 combined rushing and receiving yards and 15 touchdowns as a junior. Joining him will be sophomores Eric Stephens and Harrison Jeffers, both of whom have considerable talent.
8) Missouri — Derrick Washington is one of the more underrated runners in the Big 12, offering power, shiftiness and versatility. He rushed for 865 yards and 10 touchdowns a year ago. But the senior will have plenty of help in the backfield this year, with sophomore Kendial Lawrence and junior De'Vion Moore returning. Both offer more speed and explosion than Washington, and both will keep the Missouri running and passing games humming when Washington gets a breather.
9) Iowa State — Alexander Robinson is likely one of the top five backs in the league, and finished with close to 1,200 yards rushing last season, good for third in the Big 12. In doing so, he became Iowa State's first 1,000 yard back since the 2004 season. But the talent behind him is unproven at best. Sophomore Beau Blankenship, redshirt freshman James White and walk-on freshman Jeff Wooly could all get carries in the No. 2 role. But the best option might not hit campus until key recruit Shontrelle Robinson arrives in Ames.
10) Kansas — Kansas returns two runners, senior Angus Quigley and sophomore Toben Opurum, who have started games in their Jayhawk careers. Scat backs Rell Lewis and Deshaun Sands add an elusive/speed element on third downs. So what's the problem? None of the runners have grabbed the position by the horns, and incoming freshmen Brandon Bourbon and James Sims will have every chance to earn carries right away.
11) Colorado — Junior Rodney Stewart is back in the Buffs' backfield after rushing for 804 yards and nine touchdowns a year ago. But after that, it's not a deep group. Brian Lockridge, another small scat back, only received 12 carries a year ago. None of the running backs on roster weigh more than 190 pounds, part of the reason Colorado landed a pair of 215-plus backs out of the four runners in Colorado's last recruiting class.
12) Baylor — Just how pass-heavy was Baylor in 2009? Jay Finley rushed for 212 yards in the first two games before suffering an injury and finishing with 370 yards … and he led the Bears in rushing. Sophomore Jarred Salubi and junior Terrance Ganaway lack Finley's big-play ability, though Ganaway, at 240 pounds, brings a power element. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Glasco Martin, who has plenty of talent, but who must overcome a knee injury.