We’ve already taken a peek as to what we can expect from the SEC West running the football, and it’s a very talented group overall.
Now, let’s transition over and take a look at what the East will feature in their ground game.
Cream of the Crop
South Carolina: The SC running game should be tops in the East this year, especially after Isaiah Crowell got the boot from Georgia. I have taken criticism for this before, but I think Marcus Lattimore is the premier back in this league, even returning from a season-ending knee injury. But what may be just as impressive is the development of his backups Brandon Wilds and Kenny Miles last year. Lattimore’s workhorse numbers speak for themselves, but Wilds and Miles combined for 690 yards on 161 carries and four touchdowns. Those aren’t jaw-dropping numbers by any means, but it allowed the Gamecocks to develop depth and a sense of non-reliance on Lattimore. Don’t get me wrong, the Ole Ball Coach will let Lattimore do his thing 20-plus times per game and maybe more. The main thing I love about Lattimore more so than his endurance and the way he runs with determination is that fact that he gives SC a receiving threat out of the backfield. Incoming freshman Mike Davis should be able to break into the log-jammed lineup, depending on how quickly he picks up the offense. The Gamecocks have the premier back in this league, and they are building some great depth to help shoulder Lattimore’s workload.
Georgia: This time last week, Georgia was arguably the most talented at running back in the East. However, even with Isaiah Crowell now gone, Georgia should still be in good shape. ‘Soft’ is the word that came to mind when describing Crowell, but in his absence, certain guys are going to have to step up. Crowell’s dismissal does not wreck the season. Merely, it’s just an obstacle that needs to be overcome, and it’s an obstacle that can be overcome. Richard Samuels is Georgia’s leading returning jumbo back from a year ago with 240 yards on 82 carries and one touchdown. Georgia’s total returning rushing touchdowns outside of Aaron Murray and defensive backs is one. One touchdown. And I still think Georgia is in good shape? Yes. Ken Malcome and Richard Samuel should get the bulk of the carries heading into fall, and they both have the bodies to absorb hits from SEC linebackers. Malcome will likely get more carries throughout the year, leaving Samuel to play some fullback, too. UGA will be relying more on true freshmen Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley and hope they progress rather quickly. Marshall was an early enrollee and has been through a spring already and has a head start on Gurley. Lastly, there’s walk on Brandon Harton who started last year’s New Mexico State and Kentucky games due to suspensions and injuries. This is a deep group that definitely has the talent to really provide the offense with another punch, rather than just relying on the passing game so much.
Kentucky: Go ahead, voice your concerns about Kentucky’s running game. I’ll argue this is the deepest and most talented position on their team this year. The biggest question may be whether the offensive line can open any holes and bust a grape this year. That’s not the backs’ fault, though. CoShik Williams returns as the leading rusher from a year ago, but Josh Clemons and Raymond Sanders could be the two players who get the most action. Williams returns with 486 yards on 118 carries and three touchdowns. Clemons’ season was cut short due to an October knee injury, and Sanders struggled with a knee injury all year. Finally collectively healthy, these three could provide a much needed run game to help the offense ultimately score points. In addition to the three, freshmen Justin Taylor and Dyshawn Mobley could put this group over the edge from a good to great group in the future. Taylor was committed to Alabama for the longest time until his season ending knee injury in high school. All in all, the running backs won’t be the problem for Kentucky, because this group has enough size, speed and depth to really make an impact and help carry the offense.
Vanderbilt: Believe it or not, Vanderbilt’s Zac Stacy is the most underrated player in the SEC at running back. Stacy did nothing but tear through opposing teams’ defenses last year, and he didn’t have the post-season hardware to show for it, either. Stacy is the SEC’s leading returning rusher from last year, finishing behind only Trent Richardson and Michael Dyer. Stacy has good size at 5-9, 210lbs, and he has the ability to break tackles in the open field and run between the tackles. He set a Vanderbilt single-season rushing record with his 1,193 rushing yards. The Commodores will also be getting a lift from Warren Norman. You might remember Norman from his fantastic special teams play during his freshman season, as he was injured all of last year from a previous 2010 leg injury. Stacy and Norman will give Vanderbilt a very potent one-two punch in the running game. The roster lists Wesley Tate as a wide receiver, I think he could be a big addition to the running game if given the opportunity or if needed. Tate is bigger than both Norman and Stacy, and I look for Vanderbilt to give him some action lined up in the backfield. This is a very stable group assembled in Nashville.
Florida: Florida will be once again be entering a season without a definite answer at tailback. Junior Mike Gillislee finally takes over the reigns of the position after jitterbugs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey have departed. Many were calling for Gilly last year, and we really have yet to see exactly what he can do. Sophomore Mack Brown is the true running back of the group. He has more potential than perhaps all the backs on the roster, but he has been troubled with grasping the offense through his first couple years on campus. And with a new offensive coordinator in town, I’m not sure how much will change this year. Brown has the tools necessary to be a big-time running back in this league, but he has yet to put it all together. Backing up Gillislee and Brown will be former defensive back and linebacker Chris Johnson. Johnson was moved to the position after a lack of depth worried the coaching staff. But Johnson impressed some folks this spring. I look for him to get some playing time. Florida will undeniably use fullback Hunter Joyer in the running back rotation, too, especially in short yardage situations. There are just too many questions surrounding this group right now to be confident as a whole. Sure, they’ll be steady, but Florida needs someone to step up and gain meaningful yards. We’ll wait and find out which – if any – guy steps up.
Missouri: The new kids in the East have a pretty electric rushing offense from the spread formation. Headed by their quarterback James Franklin, Missouri will feature a true spread offense, unlike any other SEC team. Franklin ran for 981 yards and 15 touchdowns last year, but Mizzou will have to watch and limit his carries in order to ensure he stays healthy. But let’s stick to running backs, and Missouri will likely be without their best back on the roster in Henry Josey because of another off-season knee surgery. There’s about a .5 percent chance Josey suits up this year. He blew his knee out last year after a fantastic start to the season. But he will be notably absent this year. Senior Kendial Lawrence will fill Josey’s void once again. However, Lawrence will transition from being the fill-in to the featured back. He rushed for 566 yards on 119 carries and five touchdowns last year. Marcus Murphy will also be in the mix, and he had a pretty impressive spring. He has great vision and is very decisive with the football when hitting the holes. And finally, Missouri will use a short-yard runner in Jared Culver. Culver is 5-11 and 250lbs, and he should see some time in short yardage situations. I’m not too worried about the quality of players the Tigers will roll out, I’m more worried about how their offense translates against SEC defenses.
Tennessee: The Vols’ offense was at times electrifying last year. But the ground game was downright anemic throughout the greater portion of the season, and Tennessee proved that by eventually finishing last in rushing in the SEC. The Vols were the only SEC team to average under 100 yards per game. Tennessee is used to having beefed up backs who can run between the tackles while on their way to an All-SEC season. Marlin Lane is the best back on the roster. The sophomore rushed for 280 yards on 75 carries with only two touchdowns. Lane will be the featured back in this offense, and backups Rajion Neal and Devrin Young will see action, too. Neal will spend some time at receiver because he’s been prone to fumbling. Young is not your every down back, but Tennessee needs to find a way to get him more involved at running back and short passes out of the backfield. Tennessee could really use Young like the Saints use Darren Sproles. As nasty as Tennessee’s passing game will be, the arrival of a running game could make it that much more potent.