This time last year and leading up to the 2011 season, if you would have asked what the biggest position of strength is in the SEC you could have easily answered, “running back”.
And rightfully so, with Trent Richardson, Marcus Lattimore, Michael Dyer, Knile Davis, Chris Rainey, Jeff Demps and Tauren Poole among others all being either a premier running back or possessing elite speed to be more than capable to be a game-breaker. Now, however, there are seemingly tons of questions everywhere in the SEC at running back, except for a few places of course.
Heading into next year, Richardson is going to the NFL, Dyer has transferred to Arkasnas State and Rainey, Demps and Poole have all graduated. Coupled with the players who are no longer in the league, there is Marcus Lattimore and Knile Davis, both of whom are returning from season-ending injuries. Lattimore blew out his knee mid-season and Davis broke his ankle before the season even started.
Even though premier players such as Richardson and Dyer are now gone from the SEC and Lattimore and Davis have questions surrounding their injuries, there is more depth at running back…but there might not be as much star power as in the 2011 season.
Does the position look scarce with talent? No, but there are several question marks for several teams within the SEC at running back.
Heisman finalist and SEC’s leading rusher Trent Richardson is now gone to the NFL, and Eddie Lacy and Jalston Fowler will have to be a one-two punch for Alabama in the rushing offense. Lacy rushed for 674 yards and seven touchdowns, while Fowler rushed for 385 yards and four touchdowns. Freshman Dee Hart will also be in the mix here for the Crimson Tide. There is good depth here for Alabama to be solid at the position for 2012.
Arkansas returns three running backs, with Knile Davis being one of the three. Dennis Johnson, Ronnie Wingo Jr and Davis return to lead what is a position with great depth for the Hogs. Johnson is steady and Wingo is adequate, but Davis is the game-breaker. If Davis can return to 2010 form, these Razorbacks have a chance to be very balanced and very potent in 2012.
The bad news is Michael Dyer has transferred to Arkansas State, and he was absolutely a top two or three running back in the SEC. Onterio McCalebb returns, along with rising sophomore Tre Mason to give Auburn a one-two punch. However, both are fast little guys, but Mason can run between the tackles. McCalebb and Mason combined for 802 rushing yards and six touchdowns, while Dyer carried for 1,242 yards and 10 touchdowns. The horse is now gone in Dyer, and this team will rely heavily on McCalebb and Mason.
The Gators lose both Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey to graduation, and Florida will have to find new playmakers to help lift this offense. Athlete Trey Burton and fullback Hunter Joyer will be figured to run the football, along with running backs Mike Gillislee and Mack Brown. Both Gillislee and Brown were highly recruited, and they will have every opportunity to step in and make a difference next year. Florida has a lot of questions heading into next year in the running game. Who will step up?
Every year I find myself saying “If Georgia only had a running back”. I, once again, find myself saying that for 2012. The rest of the team is there – defense and offense – but the running back is seemingly the only thing missing from the Bulldogs offense from firing on all cylinders. Isaiah Crowell turned out to be soft this last year, and he was getting hurt virtually on every other play. Carlton Thomas, Brandon Harton and Ken Malcome all return for the Bulldogs; however, the players to keep an eye on are freshmen Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley. Both Marshall and Gurley will fight it out to start, along with Crowell. This team is seemingly a running back away…
Kentucky has had a hard time replacing Derrick Locke from two years ago. Last year, CoShik Williams, Josh Clemons and Jonathan George carried the load. All three combined for 973 yards and only seven touchdowns. However, all three return, with Williams being a rising senior, Clemons a sophomore and George a junior. This team looks good for next year as far as the running back position goes, but there is no proven back here.
If you’re LSU, the biggest problem will be keeping all four of your returning running backs happy. All four of Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard return, and all four played vital roles in the running game this year. Heading into next year, look for Ware and Hilliard to get the bulk of the carries. I also think Hilliard is the best running back out of the four. This group is set, but again, there are no sure-fire studs like Trent Richardson was this year.
Underappreciated running back Vick Ballard is now gone because of graduation, and LaDarius Perkins takes over as the primary running back now for Dan Mullen and the Bulldogs. Perkins rushed for 422 yards and two touchdowns. Perkins looks like your prototypical running back, and he can run between the tackles and bounce it outside for a long score. Expect Mullen to lean on Perkins, as he is ready to shoulder the load in the running game. I expect more of a power rushing attack with Tyler Russell at quarterback (non-running quarterback); so, the offense from a tailback standpoint will be slightly different.
Missouri had an interesting season with the running backs. Sophomore stud Henry Josey played in 10 games on the year, and he rushed for 1,168 yards and nine touchdowns. Josey had a season-ending knee injury in 2011. When Josey went down, junior Kendial Lawrence picked right up where he left off. Lawrence, a rising senior, had 566 yards and five rushing touchdowns on the year. Both guys are back for another year, and Missouri will be potent in the running game. The big question mark is how Josey will return from his injury. The outlook overall is very good for the Tigers.
Ole Miss returns their top running back in burner Jeff Scott. Scott rushed for 529 yards last year with six touchdowns. Brandon Bolden graduates, and he leaves Scott as the lone proven running back of the Rebels. There is very little depth here, and athlete Nick Brassell will have to help in the running game, along with quarterback Randall Mackey. The Rebels need talent and depth rather quickly. Expect current commit and soon-to-be freshman I’Tavius Mathers to help in the running department.
Obviously the most important thing on the agenda during the off-season for Carolina is getting Marcus Lattimore healthy. Lattimore ran for 818 yards in seven games before his season-ending knee injury. However, the best thing about Marcus Lattimore’s injury was that the Carolina coaches and fan base got an opportunity see what back up Brandon Wilds had in the running game, and he really did impress the coaches. Wilds had three 100-yard games during Lattimore’s departure; so, I expect the coaches to give Wilds more opportunity to play earlier next year to help shoulder the load with Lattimore. All eyes are on Lattimore, though, and his recovery.
Heading into last year, Tennessee had a returning 1,000-yard rusher in Tauren Poole. Poole never got started this past season because the ground game was atrocious for the Vols, barely topping the 1,000 yards rushing for everyone on the team. Next year, Marlin Lane, Rajion Neal and Devrin Young need to make an immediate impact. The talent is there between the three of them, but something has to change quickly. Lane is the premier running back, but he has not showed, yet, that he can be an everyday back in the SEC. There are question marks in respect to the Tennessee running backs, but make no mistake, there has to be some positives from this position after a weak showing in 2011.
Texas A&M loses 1,000-yard rusher in Cyrus Gray to graduation, but the Aggies do return junior Christine Michael and sophomore Ben Malena. Michael will carry the load next year after gaining 899 yards and scoring eight rushing touchdowns on the season. With that being said, it will all depend on what type of offense new head coach Kevin Sumlin will run in College Station. Be fully aware, though, that incoming freshman and current commit Trey Williams will get his fair share of the football in his first season for the Aggies. But the Aggies have a veteran in Michael to lean on throughout the season in the running game.
Vanderbilt returning running back Zac Stacy was, in my opinion, the surprise player in the 2011 season. Stacy returns for yet another year for the Commodores, as he gained 1,193 yards and 14 touchdowns on the season. I fully expect Stacy to exceed 250 carries next year if he can stay healthy. With a veteran leader in Stacy, this offense can accomplish much of the same next year. Also, lookout for current commit Brian Kimbrow to have an impact in the running game, assuming he signs with the Commodores on National Signing Day.