Not only is this the best running back group in the conference, but it may be the best in the country. LaMichael James is the most electrifying player in the nation and a returning Heisman Trophy finalist. He led the country in rushing in 2010 at over 1,700 yards despite missing a game in which his replacement ran for 147 yards and 4 touchdowns. That replacement is Kenjon Barner. Barner, like James, is a burner, who put up over 500 yards in 2010 averaging over 6 yards per carry. He'd start for half the teams in the conference. Add highly recruited redshirt freshman Lache Seastunk, and you've got a trio that not many teams in the country can compete with. Throw in true freshman DeAnthony Thomas, arguably the top skill position recruit in the country last season and the Oregon running backs are beyond scary. It's really unfair how good this group is. Each fits the Oregon system of speed and finesse perfectly. Don't be surprised if this quartet goes for close to 3,000 yards on the ground this season.
The Cardinal returns 1,000 yard back Stepfan Taylor as well as two others that are more than serviceable in Tyler Gaffney and in Anthony Wilkerson. Taylor has All American type talent and scored 16 touchdowns in 2010 along with his impressive yard total. Wilkerson was very good in 2010 as a freshman putting up over 400 yards with over 4 and a half yards per carry. He's a big kid at 6-1, 220 pounds, but can really move when he gets out into open space. Gaffney is in the same mold as Wilkerson, but hasn't shown the explosiveness that many expected coming out of high school. The biggest reason for Stanford success running the ball is going to lay with their offensive line, which is one of the best in the country. Combine that with Andrew Luck at quarterback, and teams can't load up the box, meaning this crew should run for around 2,000 yards on the year.
USC used to be the school with the stockpile of running backs in Los Angeles. Now it looks like that torch has been passed to UCLA for the time being. Jonathan Franklin is your unquestioned starter running for over 1,100 yards in 2010. If not for fumbling issues which led to subsequent benchings, Franklin would have had closer to 1,400 yards. He's a great candidate to really break out among Pac 12 backs in 2011. Behind Franklin is the battering ram known as Derrick Coleman who ran for almost 500 yards and just under 6 yards a carry. Sophomore Malcolm Jones was the Gatorade High School Player of the Year in 2009, but struggled with consistency as as freshman. He's an elite talent who should be more confident in his second year. Bruin fans are excited to see what highly regarded redshirt freshman Jordan James brings to the table. James was highly regarded coming out of high school and is as electrifying as any player on the team. If the offensive line can stay healthy, these four backs will put up a ton of yards this year.
The Huskies return one of top backs in the conference in Chris Polk, who's an absolute beat and put up over 1,400 yards in 2010, but won't have Jake Locker to lean on in 2011. With a brand new quarterback in Keith Price, opposing teams are going to stack the box to load up on Polk until Price proves he can beat them with his arm. Behind Polk is Jesse Collier who ran for over 400 yars in 2010, including a 100 yard day against UCLA. The play of quarterback Price is really going to be huge in opening up the running game for Washington. If they can get 200 yards a game through the air, this duo can put up their own 200 on the ground.
Rodney Stewart is the smallest starting back in the conference at only 5-6 and 175. He's been the starter since his freshman year and had a huge 2010 with over 1,300 yards. Stewart has been better each year in the program than the previous season, which bodes well for his 2011 campaign. There's not a lot of experience behind him though. Another little guy in Brian Lockridge returns from injury after an impressive start to 2010, including a 100 yard game against Hawaii. True freshman Malcolm Creer is coming in highly regarded and may get a few touches.
Outside of LaMichael James, Marc Tyler is about as talented as they come in the Pac 12. He's had some off the field issues and is suspended for the season opener, but when on the field and healthy, has the potential to be All Conference first teamer. They have a lot of depth at the spot with a serviceable guy like Curtis McNeal, and special talents in sophomore Dillon Baxter and freshman DJ Morgan. Both are absolute game changers who can do a ton on the field and can break one at any moment. If the Trojans can find enough healthy offensive linemen to block for them, this could end up being the surprise running back group in the conference.
7. Arizona State
Cameron Marshall is a bruising runner who went for almost 800 yards and 9 touchdowns in 2010. He'll be the feature back and also does a great job catching the ball as well. Much more versatile than his frame would suggest. Deantre Lewis is more of a change of pace back who still put up more than 500 yards last season and had 20+ catches. While neither appears to be 1,000 yard back material at this point, the duo is easily capable of putting up 1,500 yard between them.
Utah has only one ball carrier on the roster that has a Division 1 carry. Four of their top five backs for 2010 are gone and it's on to new blood with JC transfer John White, early enrollee freshman Harvey Langi, and walk on and former rugby player Thretton Palamo battling for the starting spot along with returner Tauni Vakapuna. White, Langi, and Palamo were impressive in the spring (Vakapuna took the spring off) and each one brings a different element to the Ute offense, but White's a speedster who isn't going to carry the ball more than 15 times per game. Langi has deceptive speed, but is also a bruise who uses his big frame inside very well for a freshman. Palamo is the wildcard. Fairly new to football, he has unbeleivable talent and footspeed for a guy in a 6-3, 240 pound body. If he can figure out the game and how to block, Palamo could end up being a real find for the Utes. Throw in Tauni Vakapuna, who recently rejoined the team and the Utes are fairly set in the backfield. Despite the lack of experience all around, the Utes are in pretty good shape. It's scary to think where this group could be by the end of the season.
Who's going to be the next great Cal running back? From Marshawn Lynch, to Justin Forsett, Jahvid Best, and Shane Vereen, the Golden Bears have had four straight all conference or All American backs to hand the ball off to. This year may produce a step-back as Iso Sofele takes the reigns as the feature back, coming in without the hype of the previous four. He put up 338 yards in 2010. Keep an eye on true freshman Brandon Bigelow. He missed most of his junior and senior years in high school due to injury, but has impressive in his short time and campus and may end up overtaking Sofele at some point during the season and join the stable or great Cal backs.
They don't have a ton of depth, but the Wildcats do return the diminutive Keola Antonlin who has run for at least 500 yards in each of his three seasons in Tucson. Arizona suffered a big blow when battering ram Greg Nwoko went down with a knee injury and may end up missing the whole season. Sophomore Daniel Jenkins was highly rated coming out of high school and is a guy that will be counted on more this fall.
11. Oregon State
It's post Jacqizz Rogers time as their best back since Stephen Jackson moved on the the NFL. Big back Ryan McCants could very well get the first look. McCants came to Corvallis highly regarded, but has had to sit behind Rodgers for three years while battling injuries along the way. If he gets the touches, McCants can be a 1,000 yard back. Battling with McCants will be Javon Stevenson.
12. Washington State
Logwone Mitz, Ricky Galvin, and Carl Winston will battle it out for the right to be the lead horse for the Cougars. None of those three broke the 400 yard barrier last season. With a shoddy offensive line, Washington State's run game is not a strength heading into the season.
Ranking The Pac 12 Units- Running Back
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