Much like the group of top quarterbacks discussed a few weeks back, while some talented players may have moved on, the likes of Stepfan Taylor, Jonathan Franklin, John White, Kenjon Barner, and Cameron Marshall, the group that returns looks to be just as strong if not better. And if we learned anything from last year’s new crop of coaches (especially in the case of the three in the Pac-12 South), programs are being built successfully with impact players at the running back position. Four of these players return on their teams having put up at least 900 rushing yards, with Oregon and ASU boasting two players that may be part of the “best of the best” on the list below.
1. Ka’Deem Carey, Arizona, Jr.
303 Carries, 1,929 Rushing Yards, 23 Rushing TDs, 6.4 Yds/Attempt
Carey, a junior, returns as the nation’s leading rusher, and top back in the conference, having tripled the amount of carries he put in during his up-start freshman campaign, logging over 300 carries for the first time in his college career while taking the nation by storm on a weekly basis in 2012. It should also be noted that he lead the nation in rushing while carrying the ball 72 less times than the man he beat out, Stefphon Jefferson of Nevada (in comparison, in conference, he did so with 19 less attempts and nearly 400 more rushing yards than Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor). To this fan, this made Carey the most underrated player in the conference — if not the nation. Unfortunately, he has made national headlines for more of the wrong than the right.
If Carey can just stay out of trouble off the field, the sky is the limit for a guy who really fits hand-in-glove in head coach Rich Rodriguez’s read-option offense. The scary part is that Carey looks to improve on those numbers during the upcoming season as the Wildcats try to replace their starting quarterback Matt Scott and playmaking wide receiver Austin Hill due to graduation and injury. And while Rodriguez may spell Carey throughout games with the likes of Le’Veon Bell, his totals most certainly are going up as he only failed to reach 100 yards rushing in three of the teams thirteen games in 2012.
2. De’Anthony Thomas, Oregon, Jr.
92 Carries, 701 Rushing Yards, 11 Rushing TDs, 7.6 Yds/Attempt
It’s feeble to argue the production of the Ducks running backs over the Chip Kelly years. Say what you may about the gaudy numbers put up in blow-outs and how starters should be retracted earlier to save face. Oregon likes to run the football, doing so around 65 percent of the time in 2012. And all the Black Mamba has done is average nearly nine yards a rushing attempt through his first two years in Eugene — let alone 39 total touchdowns by air, ground and special teams.
Thomas simply is the most lethal weapon you can put on the football field on any single play in Pac-12 football, a threat to score from anywhere.
The real question isn’t how many times he’ll find the end zone this year, but how many total touches he’ll get per game with another member of his team’s backfield present on this list below. To dig a little deeper, the scary part of this Oregon backfield is the fact that they re-loaded in adding true freshman Thomas Tyner, who looks like a Thomas clone, to the mix.
3. Marion Grice, Arizona State, Sr.
103 Carries, 679 Rushing Yards, 11 Rushing TDs, 6.6 Yds/Attempt
There were so many break-out performers to choose as the best of the group in head coach Todd Graham’s first year at the helm in Tempe. But this senior has two big positive factors on his side to sustain the success of 2012 heading into 2013: first, the three-headed monster that was Arizona State’s backfield last season shrinks by one going into the fall as Cameron Marshall has moved on. Along with D.J. Foster, Grice forms one of the best backfield tandems in the country in regards to being able to do a bit of everything and showing the ability to score every time he touches the ball. And secondly, the offensive line he will be running behind in 2013 looks to be improved from its previous year’s version.
Grice’s eight receiving touchdowns out of the backfield showed what a complete back he was in his first year in offensive coordinator Mike Norvell’s offense, not to mention the fact he found the end zone on average every 9.3 carries. Fans pleaded for Grice to get more touches down the stretch and Norvell seemed to oblige their request as the junior college transfer answered the call with 156 yards rushing in the Territorial Cup win and then another 159 a month later in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against Navy.
While the 2013 schedule previews a tougher run of opposing defenses for Grice to face off against than last year, one would assume if he could get two-thirds of the carries that Carey will receive a 1,000 yard season is in his future, not to mention the fact that he will benefit from a full year-round cycle in the Sun Devil conditioning program. You can see Grice has passed the eye-test already having gained twenty pounds since last season.
4. Silas Redd, USC, Sr.
167 Carries, 905 Rushing Yards, 9 Rushing TDs, 5.4 Yds/Attempt
If you could pick one player that is the key to helping get the Trojans back on the road to success in the conference, one might point to whomever wins the quarterback derby this month. But you could also point to Redd being a factor in that conversation. Feeding Redd the ball in 2013 will go a long way to restoring the balance that was the USC offense back in the glory days of the program — not too long ago under the Pete Carroll era. Some have speculated that Redd coming to the program so late in the cycle after transferring to the Trojans from Penn State was part of the reason he saw the amount of carries that he did.
Gone are play-making WR Robert Woods and four-year starting quarterback Matt Barkley, so one would think that would be a vote in the favor of Redd. But Marquise Lee is the best wide receiver in college football, who caught over 100 passes last year and is going to command a lot of touches, especially in the big games. Whether or not head coach Lane Kiffin can discipline himself to use his total assortment of weapons both in the passing game and in the run game has yet to be determined. If Kiffin can figure out a way to get the player another 40 carries in 2013, it might help determine the fate of his job and the chance of his football team making the Pac-12 Championship game for the first time.
The sky is the limit for Silas Redd. He could push his totals to 1,800 yards rushing, but more than likely a year that mimics that of the player below him seems to be the most reasonable. And that’s still a fantastic finish to a college career that should lend itself very favorably in the NFL.
5. Bishop Sankey, Washington, Jr.
289 Carries, 1,439 Rushing Yards, 16 Rushing TDs, 5.0 Yds/Attempt
Sankey really turned it on in the second half of his sophomore season and the offense began to find its rhythm. His official coming out party to the nation was his 205 rushing yards against Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl as he showed onlookers that there was life beyond Chris Polk, who starred for the Huskies at the position over the previous handful of seasons. And you can’t argue the production the Huskies got out of him and the fact that he goes into the 2013 campaign behind an improved veteran offensive line.
The thinking is the same as it was going into last season in terms of a blue print for this team. If the Huskies can control the flow of the game by feeding Sankey the ball and limiting the amount of turnovers produced by their senior quarterback, the defense should be able to manage games in a much more reasonable environment. The weapons are there all around the field for the Washington offense, and Sankey provides a solid and productive bell cow capable of handling 25 attempts a game and exhibiting the ability to stay on the field for all three downs. He was among the top 20 at his position in the country in 2012 and could soar to the top 3 on this list next year if the Huskies can get more consistency out of the quarterback position.
6. Storm Woods, Oregon State, So.
192 Carries, 940 Rushing Yards, 13 Rushing TDs, 4.9 Yds/Attempt
You might not find two more electrifying college athletes living under the same roof as you do in Corvallis, as Woods shares a fridge with fellow sophomore Brandin Cooks, one of the best deep threats in the Pac-12 and a player who lands in the top ten at his own position within the league.
During Mike Reilly’s second go at it with the Beavers, if he has a successful running game the team as a whole has followed suit. And there was much regression in the program between Jacquizz Rodgers moving on to the NFL and the rise of Woods. But with this explosive running back on board the offense was able to latch on to the success of the defense en route to that stellar six-game winning streak to start the 2012 season.
At this point, there is no sure-fire winner of the battle between Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz at the quarterback position, but whoever takes the reins will rest easy at night knowing they have one of the best wide receiver/running back combinations this side of USC. What’s more promising is the fact that Woods just fell short of a 1,000 yard freshman season even having missed two games. That makes him an up-and-comer in this conference and should land him in the top five going into 2014.
7. Brendan Bigelow, Oregon State, Jr.
44 Carries, 431 Rushing Yards, 3 Rushing TDs, 9.8 Yds/Attempt
Jeff Tedford’s problem late in his Cal coaching stint was not that he lacked talented players, but more so developing that talent and molding it into a competitive team focused on the end goal. Bigelow was someone who frustrated Cal fans in that he was so explosive in 2012, but was stuck in a backfield with Sofele and Anderson and could never really get enough touches to allow his immense potential to transform into production.
Bigelow joins Woods, Marshall, and Foster as the future of impact running backs in the Pac-12 that are already here and now. Just ask Urban Meyer and his Ohio State team how good Bigelow could be after his 160-yard rushing game against them on just four carries. But things could be changing for the better for Bigelow in 2013. He has a creative offensive guru in Sonny Dykes taking over the program who knows how to take weapons and exploit their strengths and impose their will on opposing defenses. The best is yet to come from this player and we could see the beginning of that once he eclipses the 150 carry mark this season.
8. Byron Marshall, Oregon, So.
87 Carries, 447 Rushing Yards, 4 Rushing TDs, 5.1 Yds/Attempt
The two things that immediately come to mind when you talk to people about Marshall is first, the bloodlines with his older Sun Devil brother Cam and older sister who ran track at Arizona and, secondly, the system that has provided running backs who put up ungodly numbers — sometimes two at a time each season since the Kelly offensive system began in 2009.
Marshall is bigger that some of his predecessors the likes of LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, and is just as fast. He was limited to just 87 carries last year as the number three back in the rotation in Eugene, but could really take off this year in his yards-per-carry as the rest of the offensive skill players grow around sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Oregon has always loved having a physical runner to pair with their patented track star. And the ’13 version of Thomas and Marshall could definitely throw its hat in on that lineage.
9. D.J. Foster, Arizona State, So.
102 Carries, 493 Rushing Yards, 2 Rushing TDs, 4.8 Yds/Attempt
Mike Norvell really won me over as a play-caller last year with his handling of Foster as a true freshman, both in the way he used him, and didn’t use him. It’s so tough for players of slight build to make it through their first year as a true freshman because the hits take their toll both in the game, in practice and in conditioning. Foster made an impact as one of the best pass receivers on the ASU team due to the way Norvell split him out wide and used him, in many instances, in the same personnel groupings with either Cam Marshall or Marion Grice.
Heading into his sophomore season, no longer will we see the 165-pound D.J. Foster; that Foster was allowed to develop for a full 12 months under the watchful eye of coach Griswold who helped him develop into the 180-185 running back you’ll see this fall. And while Foster may still be the best receiver on this team along with Marion Grice, he looks to be able to handle 20+ touches a game be it through carries or receptions.
The beauty of this offense is that even with a running back destined for stardom standing in front of him on the depth chart, Foster can still put up the numbers and pump out the production on a game-to-game basis. This could boost him up to becoming a top-five performer in conference by mid-season. It all comes down to the ability of the ASU receivers to develop as dependable downfield targets to loosen up the underneath routes that Foster and Grice ran to perfection last season.
10. Anthony Wilkerson, Stanford, Sr.
102 Carries, 493 Rushing Yards, 2 Rushing TDs, 4.8 Yds/Attempt
You could put any one of three names in here at the present time for Stanford at the running back position, be it Wilkerson, 220 pound plow horse Tyler Gaffney, or the legacy player that is Barry Sanders Jr. With the system in place and personnel along the offensive line and tight end position, any one of these backs could expect to gain 1,000 yards rushing. But Wilkerson follows the conveyor belt of talent to pass through the system after waiting in line behind Stepfan Taylor, who did the same behind Toby Gerhart.
Tags: Anthony Wilkerson Arizona State Sun Devils Bishop Sankey Brendan Bigelow Byron Marshall De'Anthony Thomas DJ Foster Football Ka'Deem Carey Marion Grice Pac-12 Running Backs Silas Redd Storm Woods