1. Arizona State Sun Devils
What can you say that hasn’t already been written about Arizona State’s talented stable of running backs this preseason? Marion Grice, a coveted juco transfer last year, emerged as one of the Pac-12’s most accomplished rushers. D.J. Foster, who aims to improve on his dynamic season as a true freshman, joins him in the ASU backfield. As if Grice and Foster weren’t enough for Sun Devil fans, they’ll have the opportunity to see if speedster Deantre Lewis can return to his freshman form. Bottom line: No other team in the Pac-12 possesses better weapons at the running back position than ASU.
Head coach Steve Sarkisian has to be pleased with the prospects for his featured back, Bishop Sankey. Fresh off a 1,439-yard rushing season and 16 touchdowns in 2012, Sankey might prove to be the most consistent threat on the Huskies offense. He’s joined in the RB corps by talented junior Jesse Callier and comeback-kid Deontae Cooper, as well as short yardage specialist Dwayne Washington. Look for this versatile group of backs to pace Sark’s multi-faceted attack.
3. Oregon Ducks
Oregon is as predictable as a Northwest rain shower when it comes to fielding dangerous offensive talent. Despite the departure of Kenjon Barner, the 2013 season should be no different. Head coach Mark Helfrich’s team returns all-purpose star De’Anthony Thomas, along with world-class burner Thomas Tyner. Sophomore Byron Marshall might even see some playing time, especially if the Ducks build early leads against over-matched opponents.
There’s general consensus among college football pundits that Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey is one of the best running backs in the Pac-12 Conference — if not the entire nation. Carey was the country’s leading rusher last season, amassing more than 1,900 yards on over 300 carries. What is not clear is his extra-curricular status going into 2013. Carey has had a series of well-publicized off-the-field incidents that could distract the skilled junior from realizing his full potential. Only time will tell.
5. Oregon State Beavers
Oregon State may not have the best running backs in the Pac-12, but at least they’re proven commodities for head coach Mike Riley and his staff. Storm Woods was Riley’s workhorse last season, with 192 carries for 940 yards and 13 touchdowns. His biggest game came against Arizona when he ran 161 yards. Woods will share time in the backfield with Terron Ward, whose older brother is Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward. The junior finished with 415 yards rushing and six TDs. He could be the homerun threat the Beavers have been lacking.
6. Stanford Cardinal
So, who is going to replace Stepfan Taylor in Palo Alto? That question undoubtedly has been on the mind of Stanford head coach David Shaw this preseason. Seniors Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney appear capable of moving the chains, as does redshirt freshman Barry Sanders Jr. (yes, son of that Barry Sanders). It’s a good bet the Cardinal will find someone who can reach the bar set by Taylor in last year’s Rose Bowl run.
7. USC Trojans
Silas Redd is one of those running backs you just have to love. A rugged performer between the tackles, and possessing deceptive speed, he was expected to carry the vaunted USC running attack. Unfortunately, Redd tore the meniscus in his knee during spring practice, ironically while playing on special teams. A meniscus tear is usually only a six-to-eight week injury. With Redd out, freshman Justin Davis could start after being the most dynamic tailback of training camp.
8. UCLA Bruins
You don’t just replace a formidable running back like Jonathan Franklin over night. He was responsible for 1,734 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Those sort of numbers are hard to duplicate. With Franklin moving on to the next level, Jim Mora Jr. must get redshirt freshman Paul Perkins and junior Jordon James up to speed quickly. He’ll also be waiting for the return of injured senior Damien Thigpen. Expect a sizeable drop-off in the Bruins running game from the team’s banner 2012 season.
9. California Golden Bears
It’s anyone’s guess how highly rated RB Brendan Bigelow will fare in Sonny Dykes’ “Bear-Raid” scheme. Despite averaging 9.8 yards per carry and gaining 160 yards on just four carries against Ohio State early on in his sophomore season, Bigelow could not find a significant role in the Golden Bears’ backfield. Trapped behind seniors C.J. Anderson and Isi Sofele, he averaged just 3.67 carries per game in 2012. Still, Bigelow has shown flashes of his potential in limited duty and will be relied upon as the featured back in Memorial Stadium this year.
10. Colorado Buffaloes
After Colorado’s punishing 2012 season, fans in Boulder might be ready for “Ralphie the Buffalo” to carry the pigskin. That won’t be necessary, luckily, due to the presence of Christian Powell. As a freshman last year, Powell chalked up nearly 700 yards on a mere 158 carries. He was one of nine Pac-12 backs selected to the Doak Walker Award preseason watch list. The award is presented annually to the nation’s top running back. Powell could make the CU faithful smile a little more in 2013.
11. Utah Utes
New co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson (yes, you read that right!) will have to get creative if Utah is to make a serious run in the Pac-12 South. At running back, his best option appears to be bruiser Kelvin York, who is effective on the ground when he’s healthy. After York, it’s anyone’s guess who might share the rushing load for the Utes in 2013. Perhaps it will be sophomore Bubba Poole. Stay tuned.
Mike Leach doesn’t need any stinking running back, right? If you don’t believe it, consider this: Wazzu were ranked 124 out of 126 FBS teams in rushing yardage last season. Leach’s “Air Raid” offense is predicated on distributing the ball downfield, so his likely starters at running back, Teondray Caldwell and Marcus Mason, shouldn’t expect to see heavy action. Interestingly, overlooked sophomore Jeremiah Laufasa could end up as the Cougs’ goal line back.