2015 SEC position rankings: RB
Team Position Rankings:
- Running backs
- Wide receivers/tight ends
- Offensive line
- Defensive line
- Defensive backs
- Special teams
We’ve debated the best running backs in the SEC all offseason. (Nick Chubb? Leonard Fournette? Derrick Henry?)
As we steam toward September, it’s time to look instead at the overall backfield talent of every team in the SEC.
Sure, lead backs matter. A lot. But as we saw last year when Georgia’s Todd Gurley missed significant time and with Arkansas’ premier one-two punch, it’s almost a necessity in the SEC to have two and even three really good backs.
Which SEC team features the best overall backfield? And, even more difficult, the “worst?” Because players like Ralph Webb (Vanderbilt), Tra Carson (Texas A&M) and Jaylen Walton (Ole Miss) have a chance to be very productive in 2015.
Here are the SEC’s offensive backfields ranked by team:
THE ENVY OF THE NATION
Predicting the starter: Nick Chubb
Key backups: Sony Michel, Keith Marshall, A.J. Turman, Brendan Douglas
UGA’s offensive line and running backs resemble a “which came first?” scenario. Both units are excellent and make each other look good. Chubb, who started last season fourth on the depth chart, ended the year as the SEC’s second-leading rusher and can make a strong case as the nation’s best tailback entering 2015. Michel, third on the initial depth chart last season, managed 6.4 yards per carry in between injuries. Speaking of which, Marshall has carried just 68 times since teaming with Todd Gurley for a thrilling freshman season in ’12. But reports out of camp have him lighter and fast as ever. If he’s only expected to carry five or 10 times per game, perhaps he can recapture his old form.
Predicting the starter: Jonathan Williams
Key backups: Alex Collins, Kody Walker
Only one player can carry the ball at once, or else the Razorbacks may be No. 1 on this list. Williams and Collins each ran for more than 1,100 yards last season. The team’s offensive line got more athletic — a scary thought. As if these guys need Sebastian Tretola getting better at pulling and knocking back defenders eight yards downfield. Walker took advantage of near-solo run during the spring game and should vulture some carries when the situation warrants.
Predicting the starter: Derrick Henry
Key backups: Kenyan Drake, Damien Harris
It’s remarkable that the Tide ranks so high despite the sort of attrition that would decimate any other backfield in the country. It’s a testament to coach Nick Saban’s recruiting. Henry, a 242-pound block of granite, may need to return to his high school days as a heavy lifter within the offense. Drake, healthy after a terrible leg injury suffered in ’14, may be more effective catching passes in space like a Reggie Bush type. Harris, a five-star freshman, has been thrust into an important role, but seems capable thus far in camp. Bo Scarbrough, who tore his ACL this spring, may return at some point this season to provide additional help.
Predicting the starter: Leonard Fournette
Key backups: Darrel Williams, Derrius Guice, Nick Brossette
No one outside of Baton Rogue knows what to make of LSU’s running back depth. But first thing’s first: Fournette is an All-SEC candidate and the clear No. 1 option for the Tigers offense. If he stays healthy, he’s a lock to surpass 1,000 rushing yards, maybe by a wide margin. After that, who really knows? Williams was good enough to earn some carries in 2014, which is strong considering he played alongside Fournette, Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard. The other two players are well-rated newcomers, but LSU seems to like them as well.
SHOULD BE VERY PRODUCTIVE
Predicting the starter: Roc Thomas
Key backups: Jovon Robinson, Peyton Barber, Kerryon Johnson
The Tigers get the nod ahead of the Vols due to the recent outstanding production of this running game. Robinson, an all-everything JUCO transfer, is the team’s best pass protector at the position. If anyone is going to be an every-down back who can catch, block and run between the tackles, it’s him, right? Well, maybe not so fast. Auburn has given indications out of preseason camp that Thomas is the player the team trusts the most right now. Perhaps unfairly, he got labeled as a player who may not be as physical as he needs. That’s not the case, Auburn’s coaches insist, although they wonder whether his frame could endure the overload of carries that the Tigers gave Tre Mason in ’13. It’s looking like Auburn will split its carries more evenly than it has in the first two years of the Gus Malzahn era.
Predicting the starter: Jalen Hurd
Key backups: Alvin Kamara, Ralph David Abernathy IV
Vols coach Butch Jones has expressed concern for the team’s inconsistency in the passing game at regular intervals during spring and preseason practices. But he’s praised the team’s running backs time and again. Hurd, as a freshman, ran for 899 yards last season without much help from the offensive line, the passing game or a strong No. 2 back. He’ll be in a better situation this season. Kamara, a JUCO transfer, is an ideal second back with good speed.
Predicting the starter: Russell Hansbrough
Key backups: Ish Witter, Morgan Steward, Chase Abbington
Hansbrough quietly strung together a 1,000-yard season last year as half of a very effective Mizzou running game. He’ll be asked to do at least as much in 2015 with Marcus Murphy gone. The roster features some decent backfield talent, but with lots of unknowns. Witter picked up 27 touches in spot duty last year as a true freshman. Currently he’s the No. 2, but it feels like that’s out of default. Fellow ’14 signee Trevon Walters tore his ACL this spring. Steward just now is working back from a hip injury that’s held him out since last August, and the team is cautiously optimistic he’ll eventually became the No. 2 guy. And Chase Abbington is a JUCO transfer who didn’t arrive until this fall and may not be ready for an immediate impact.
Predicting the starter: Stanley “Boom” Williams
Key backups: Jojo Kemp, Mikel Horton
The Wildcats have three amenable options here, which is perfect for the Air Raid offense. Williams averaged 6.6 yards per carry and caught 17 passes in pretty limited time as a true freshman last season. He’s one of the SEC’s best-kept secrets at the position. Expect new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson to come close to doubling his 84 offensive touches in ’14. The team humbled Kemp this offseason, making it clear he needed to get better. Kemp responded well to the honesty and seems poised to serve as a solid No. 2.
9. Mississippi State
Predicting the starter: Ashton Shumpert
Key backups: Dontavian Lee, Aeris Williams, Brandon Holloway
The loss of Josh Robinson stung, but the Bulldogs have churned out 1,000-yard rushers assembly-line style. The bigger question is whether the offensive line will retain its nastiness without Dillon Day, Ben Beckwith and Blaine Clausell. It helps that quarterback Dak Prescott is one of the best dual-threat players in the country, as he’ll distract plenty of linebackers. Shumpert appears poised to cement himself as the alpha player of the 2015 group. Lee is hard-nosed and physical. As such, he should get opportunities in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Don’t be surprised if he eventually earns more of a platoon with Shumpert.
10. South Carolina
Predicting the starter: Brandon Wilds
Key backups: David Williams, Shon Carson
Both Wilds and Williams are fast for their size. The former is more of a one-cut, downhill runner, which probably will garner him a larger chunk of the carries early in the season. The team will miss Mike Davis, and depth at the position isn’t great. But assuming the duo stays healthy, the Gamecocks should feature an effective running game this season.
DECENT, BUT LIMITED
Predicting the starter: Kelvin Taylor
Key backups: Jordan Scarlett, Jordan Cronkrite
Taylor is a legitimate SEC back who averaged nearly 5.0 yards per carry in 2014. But Florida’s offensive line has been ravaged through the draft, injury and attrition. And teams should dare the Gators to throw the football early in the season. So he may not have all that much room to run. Adam Lane, the Birmingham Bowl MVP, recently transferred from the program. So touted four-star freshman Scarlett will need to deliver immediately.
Predicting the starter: Ralph Webb
Key backups: Dallas Rivers, Josh Crawford
Webb is close to a one-man show in Vanderbilt’s backfield. He managed 907 yards as a true freshman despite no passing game to protect him. The Commodores’ depth has been decimated due to the dismissal of Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow last season. C.J. Duncan, the No. 1 receiver, was expected to dabble in the backfield before suffering a season-ending injury. Rivers, a fullback type, averaged just 3.6 yards per carry last year. Crawford is a freshman. Perhaps the team will get the dynamic, position-less Darrius Sims a few carries as well.
13. Texas A&M
Predicting the starter: Tra Carson
Key backups: James White, Brandon Williams
New offensive line coach Dave Christensen and the Aggies will take a more physical approach to the position in 2015, as both Carson (6-foot, 235 pounds) and White (6-foot, 218 pounds) are a load to bring down. The Aggies lack depth, as Trey Williams left early for the NFL and Brandon Williams, a high-profile transfer from Oklahoma, has transitioned to cornerback. The team features a few freshmen at the position, but Williams likely would revert to offense in case of injury.
14. Ole Miss
Predicting the starter: Jaylen Walton
Key backups: Jordan Wilkins, Akeem Judd
Walton is 5-foot-8, 172 pounds. He’s not a typical between-the-tackles starter in the SEC. Ole Miss’ offensive line also gave up 89 tackles for loss last season, 13th in the SEC. The Rebels are healthier up front and should create extra space for Walton. Backups I’Tavius Mathers and Mark Dodson transferred from the program, but Wilkins and Judd give the team more traditional physicality. It’s not that the group is horrible, but by SEC standards, the Rebels don’t measure up here. Opposing defenses should harass whomever starts at quarterback and make Ole Miss prove it can run the ball.