We sure have been blessed as a conference to see so many good running backs come through the South and through the SEC. Some great backs have passed on to the NFL, even from a year ago, but we do have some dynamic backs returning for another year of SEC football.
The running game in the SEC is a big deal, and it directly correlates to winning. Teams have to be balanced – with passing and running – in order to win in this tough league. Whether it’s running early in the game to establish a precedence or running the ball late in the game to put away their opponent, SEC teams have to get valuable yards on the ground in order to put up W’s.
Here’s an outlook of each SEC West team as it pertains to the running game:
Cream of the Crop
Arkansas: The Hogs are sitting very pretty at the running back position and return a ton of talent and depth. Arguably the best running back in the SEC in Knile Davis returns after missing all of last season with a pre-season ankle injury. Davis ran for 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2010, and he was easily the SEC’s second-half player of the year. And while Davis is a premier back in this league, returnees Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo, Jr are certainly no slouches. Johnson carried the load last year in Davis’ absence, and he rushed for 670 yards and three touchdowns. Wingo also carried 104 times for 458 yards and three touchdowns as well. If LSU did not have four proven running backs returning, Arkansas would easily be the cream of the crop at this position. There is experience, depth and talent across the board, and it will make quarterback Tyler Wilson that much more potent in the passing game…if you can believe that. I could easily see Arkansas putting up some very big numbers in the ground game.
LSU: The Tigers have quite possibly the deepest and most talented running back group in the league, if not the country. They have four legitimate backs could start for most every team in the SEC. Between the four exceptional backs – Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard – there is over 2,300 yards and exactly 30 touchdowns returning. Ford happened to be the Tigers’ leading rusher last year with 772 yards and seven touchdowns, while Spencer Ware was the workhorse and had the most carries (177 carries for 727 yards and eight touchdowns). Blue is a changeup to all three, as he has both speed and power. And lastly, there’s Kenny Hilliard – a true man among boys. Hilliard came on strong around the midpoint of the season as a true freshman. Listed at 5-11 and 240lbs, he’s a load that is tough for a defender to bring down, especially in the fourth quarter when LSU is putting the game away. Picture yourself as a tired defender and a fresh 240-plus pounds running at you. It’s simple – LSU has the ability to keep all four fresh and wear teams down in the second half. Ware and Hilliard are punishing runners, while Blue and Ford are the speed backs. Naturally with all four being freshmen and sophomores last year, this unit is stronger and one of the best in the country.
Alabama: Even with such a dynamic back like Trent Richardson gone, Alabama still returns a very deep and talented running back corps. We all know that Nick Saban loves to pound teams into the ground running the ball, and it should certainly happen again this year. The best thing going for Alabama’s running backs is all the talent and experience returning along the offensive line. But let’s stick to the backs returning for the sake of arguing. Alabama hits you with two very physical backs who dish out blows just as easy as they take them. Eddie Lacy will head this group, and he is the Tide’s leading returning rusher with 674 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Sharing the load with Lacy will be Jalston Fowler. Both Lacy and Fowler are over 220lbs each, with Fowler tipping the scales at 250lbs. Fowler carried 56 times for 385 yards and four touchdowns a year ago. Alabama will feature those two backs, but freshmen TJ Yeldon and Dee Hart and sophomore Blake Sims should see playing time. Yeldon was an early enrollee who stole the show at Alabama’s A Day Game. Hart missed last season with a torn ACL, but he’s a dynamic playmaker who will likely provide a spark on special teams. This group is deep and talented, even with Richardson gone.
In Good Shape
Auburn: The good news for Auburn fans is that Onterio McCalebb is returning. We know he’s not a jaw dropping running back; rather, he relies on speed to get to the edge and turn the corner more so than running between the tackles. Now, that’s not to say he cannot run between the tackles, because I’ve seen him do it, but durability does come into question. McCalebb returns from a 2011 season that saw him carry 112 times for 641 yards and five touchdowns. While there is only one proven back for the Tigers, they have a load of unproven talent. Sophomore Tre Mason returns, as he only had 28 carries for 161 yards, and he was used primarily on special teams a year ago. He has speed to burn. Behind McCalebb and Mason are two transfers from other SEC programs in Corey Grant (Alabama) and Mike Blakely (Florida). Grant and Blakely have a load of talent, but it’s unproven talent. Dual-threat quarterback Kiehl Frazier will also help in the running department, as he looks to improve in the passing department.
Mississippi State: No longer will we see Vick Ballard carrying the load for MSU at running back. It’s now LaDarius Perkins’ position, as he looks to prove he’s an everyday back in this league. Perkins carried 87 times for 422 yards and two touchdowns last year. I’m just not sold on his ability to take the physical punishment of a between-the-tackles type of back. Behind Perkins, sophomore Nick Griffin, who carries 225lbs compared to Perkins’ 190lbs, should be the workhorse and the bruiser this offense needs. Perkins and Griffin should be able to make a nice one-two punch, but it’s not the same one-two like Ballard and Perkins. With Perkins and Griffin getting the bulk of the carries, Josh Robinson and Derrick Milton look to break into the lineup. Robinson wowed all the coaches and media with his speed this spring, but his blocking ability will come into question as he gets more playing time.
Texas A&M: The Aggies have questions surrounding the running game. First, senior Christine Michael is returning from a season-ending knee injury in 2011. However, Michael has proven much in College Station in his first three years, rushing for a combined 2,374 yards and 22 touchdowns. But obviously everyone wants to know if Michael will be healthy for a complete season. He looks like a back destined for a 1,000-yard season. Backup Ben Malena was forced into action when the Aggies’ top two backs went down with injuries last year. Malena had 67 carries for only 259 yards and four touchdowns. True freshman Trey Williams will try and provide a spark and give the Aggies a homerun threat each and every time he touches the football. If Michael can stay healthy, I really look for this group to improve and impress throughout the year.
Ole Miss: Ole Miss’ running backs offer core speed and elusiveness, but they lack traditional size, power and durability. The good news for the Rebels is that leading rusher and playmaker Jeff Scott returns for his junior season. However, behind him, it gets a little foggy. Scott carried 116 times for 529 yards and six touchdowns. He’s not your everyday, every play back that pounds between the tackles, but he’s more of an outside runner who provides you with a homerun threat. However, the next four leading rushers last year behind Scott are either gone from the program in some fashion or have switched positions. Senior Devin Thomas should be a more than adequate backup, but there are durability questions surrounding him as well. And if you’re into wildcard players, Tobias Singleton would qualify. Singleton will play some wide receiver, too, but the coaching staff will need to figure out ways to use Singleton at running back and get him the football in space. The Rebels do not have many proven entities at running back at the moment, so they can’t afford any injuries to this position.