Year of the back? With Zamir White's return, the SEC boasts 5 legitimate All-America candidates at RB
I’d consider 2020 the year of the pass-catcher in the SEC.
It’s not really a difficult argument to make. It wasn’t just because the SEC had a receiver win the Heisman Trophy, though DeVonta Smith’s historic dominance didn’t hurt. It was watching what Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes did at Florida. It was the All-American season that Elijah Moore had at Ole Miss. It was what Terrace Marshall’s touchdown-filled year at LSU.
Now, all of those guys are gone. It’s only fitting that 2021 has a new identity in the SEC. Let’s go with a throwback identity.
If 2020 was the year of the pass-catcher in the SEC, then 2021 should be dubbed “the year of the back.”
Zamir White’s return to Georgia added to what’s already a stacked league at the running back position. There are now at least 5 SEC running backs who could show up on All-America teams in 2021.
I was trying to think about the last time the SEC returned this much proven production at running back. I’d say 2017 is in the conversation with Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Kerryon Johnson and Derrius Guice, though I’d argue the 2021 group has a bit more depth. The 2015 group, which had Chubb, Alex Collins, Derrick Henry and Leonard Fournette, probably has a better argument. Obviously, Henry and Fournette battling for the Heisman changed our impression of that group.
In terms of preseason expectations, I get the feeling this 2021 group will have as many realistic All-America goals as any SEC running back class in recent memory.
Here are the 5 established SEC backs who fit that description:
1. Isaiah Spiller, Texas A&M
Raise your hand if you’re a returning SEC tailback and you’ve had 2 seasons with 1,000 rushing yards.
Oh, it’s just Spiller? Crazy.
That’s why he leads this list. Despite the fact that the majority of the Maroon Goons will be different in 2021, Spiller’s potential is sky-high in Jimbo Fisher’s offense. In 10 games, all of which coming vs. Power 5 competition, he was one of just 10 Power 5 tailbacks to hit 1,000 rushing yards.
Sure, Devone Achane and Ainias Smith will eat into some of Spiller’s workload. But even with those young weapons emerging in 2020, Spiller still hit 20 carries in half of A&M’s games, including 3 of the final 4. The only game he didn’t get 20 carries in that stretch was the Orange Bowl, where he got hurt and missed the last 19 minutes after he had 2 rushing scores in the first half. That’s when Achane had his coming out party (I thought Achane was incredible against South Carolina, but there was a fraction of the college football world watching that compared to the Orange Bowl).
Fisher has 3 consecutive years of 1,000-yard backs, including Trayveon Williams, who had one of the more underrated seasons by an SEC player in the 21st century. I don’t know that Spiller can match Williams’ 2,000-scrimmage yard season because of Achane’s presence, but in a full season with nonconference opponents, a healthy Spiller can absolutely finish in the top 5 in FBS in rushing.
2. Kevin Harris, South Carolina
I bet there are some college football fans who will scroll through the 2020 stats at some point, get to the guy who finished No. 7 in FBS rushing yards and spit out their coffee.
“What?! Who in the world is Kevin Harris?”
If you’re reading this website, I hope you know who Harris is. We banged the “Kevin Harris is a force” drum all year. While South Carolina’s offense sputtered without production at quarterback, all Harris did was put his head down and go to work. He has breakaway speed — he had a run of 45 yards in 4 games — and he can run right through you. As disappointed as South Carolina fans were when prized true freshman MarShawn Lloyd was lost to a season-ending injury in fall camp, they quickly realized they finally had an answer to their running back woes with Harris.
Here’s a wild thought. Iowa State’s Breece Hall led the nation in rushing in 2020. He’s obviously the top returning tailback. Which Power 5 returner is No. 2 on that list? Harris.
He’ll be in a new offense, and Lloyd will get some run, but friends don’t let friends forget about Harris when discussing the top returning backs in college football.
3. Tank Bigsby, Auburn
You had me at “Tank.”
OK, so I made that joke a lot this year. By the time 2021 starts, I fully expect him to become a national household name. Bigsby announced that he’s staying on the Plains with the new coaching staff. That’s good news for him. Why? Well, his new offensive coordinator, Mike Bobo, ran the offense that saw the aforementioned Harris break out.
Bigsby is a guy who Gus Malzahn and Co. talked about as a future Heisman Trophy contender. That’s not an easy thing for a tailback to be in this pass-heavy era, but Bobo’s offense should yield high volume for the sophomore back. Auburn had 3 tailbacks enter the transfer portal in the last month. Part of that was likely because of the change in coaching staff, but it’s safe to assume they saw the writing on the wall. Bigsby is the guy.
Once Chad Morris actually started feeding him the rock, Bigsby was a force. In that 4-game stretch before he got hurt in the first quarter against Tennessee, Bigsby had 457 rushing yards and 5 scores. He averaged 6 yards per carry but even more impressive was what he did to get those yards as a true freshman against an all-SEC schedule.
Most missed tackles forced among SEC RBs:
🔥 1. Najee Harris – 51
🔥 2. Tank Bigsby – 46
🔥 3. Jerrion Ealy – 39 pic.twitter.com/1ZdbrwHy81
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 15, 2020
Like I said, you had me at “Tank.”
4. Chris Rodriguez, Kentucky
Which SEC running back had Pro Football Focus’ highest grade? Bonus point if you can name where he ranked among FBS running backs.
The answers are “Chris Rodriguez, No. 2.”
That’s right. Only UNC’s Javonte Williams graded higher than Rodriguez in 2020. Sort of like Harris with the South Carolina faithful, Kentucky fans know just how good Rodriguez is, even if he’s by no means a household name. In fact, he’s probably the least-known name on this list, yet Rodriguez actually earned PFF All-American honors already.
Because he played in a loaded backfield and COVID limited him to 9 games, his cumulative numbers weren’t head-turning (785 rushing yards on 119 carries). But the action he did get was significant. Rodriguez finished the season with a 4-game stretch in which he racked up 480 yards and 7 scores, including a pair of touchdown runs that went for 74 and 79 yards.
Chris Rodriguez is going to be a problem for a while.
— SECSportstalk (@Sportstalk_SEC) December 7, 2020
Kentucky might be going through an offensive transition, but Rodriguez is going to be an every-down back. While he doesn’t offer much in the passing game as a receiver, he’s an exceptional pass-blocker.
Even if Kentucky doesn’t run the ball with as much frequency as it did under Eddie Gran, Rodriguez is going to get plenty of opportunities to showcase his all-around skill set.
5. Zamir White, Georgia
I thought at times early in 2020, White looked like a guy who was still getting his confidence back after a couple of major knee surgeries. He wouldn’t hit the line of scrimmage with the same sort of explosiveness that made him a prized, 5-star recruit. But pretty much from the Alabama game on — you’ll recall he didn’t get nearly enough work in the second half — he (mostly) looked like the guy Georgia fans had been waiting for.
The man they call “Zeus” might not have joined the fraternity of historically dominant Georgia running backs yet. Go figure that Todd Gurley, D’Andre Swift, Chubb and Michel all missed out on earning All-America honors at season’s end. White having a season better than any of those guys would be remarkable.
But in an offense that can actually stretch the field vertically with JT Daniels, White should finally stop seeing too many loaded fronts. In those last 3 games with Daniels as the starter — I’m excluding the first one because MSU’s game plan was to force Daniels to throw in his Georgia debut — White averaged 6.9 yards per carry. I would bank on that trend continuing in 2021.
Of course, the Georgia backfield is deep. James Cook is a hybrid weapon who has major potential in this offense. He’s due for an uptick in touches. Because it’s Georgia, there are 4 other former blue-chip running back recruits waiting for their chance.
Hey, let’s talk about that epth.
Does the nation’s best backfield reside in the SEC in 2021?
If we’re not just talking about backfields with 1 elite running back like Iowa State and we’re instead talking about at least a duo (or trio), yes, I think the nation’s best backfield either resides in Athens or College Station.
A&M returns all of that 3-headed attack with Spiller (1,000-yard rusher), Achane (Orange Bowl MVP) and Smith (1 of 2 returning running backs with 40 carries and 40 catches in 2020). Go ask anyone about how brutal it is to slow that group down. Even Alabama allowed 177 scrimmage yards the A&M backfiel. That was the fewest amount of yards that trio had in a game all year. And again, that was against all-SEC competition and a top-15 UNC team.
Georgia has a similar type of backfield with White in Spiller’s role and Cook in Smith’s role. There’s depth, experience and versatility that teams who win New Year’s 6 Bowl games usually don’t return at the skill positions. With so much attention on Daniels and those group of wideouts, we could see that running game really blossom with a full offseason in Todd Monken’s offense.
As for which other groups should be in this conversation, you always have to pencil in Alabama and Clemson with their 5-star understudies, despite the fact that both have to replace their respective all-time leading rushers. South Carolina would have a better case if we had seen Lloyd get any sort of snaps last year, but that didn’t happen.
Outside of the SEC, Texas with Steve Sarkisian absolutely has a case. Besides being coached by the guy who helped Najee Harris to an All-American season, 5-star true freshman Bijan Robinson averaged a ridiculous 8.2 yards per carry for the Longhorns. They also return converted quarterback Roschon Johnson, who flashed his potential late in the season. If they beat out A&M for the No. 3 running back in the 2021 class, LJ Johnson, look out.
Iowa State is obviously loaded because it has the aforementioned Hall, who gets to run behind the same offensive line who paved the way for his dominant 2020 season. The problem is the Cyclones don’t really have an established backup with Kene Nwangwu off to the NFL. If we’re talking about true duos, that has to count for something.
For now, I’ll stick with Georgia and Texas A&M as having the best running back rooms heading into 2021, AKA “the year of the back.”