Ranking the SEC's best running backs after spring ball
Let’s get this out of the way: Nick Chubb played better than Fournette in ’15. And for two main reasons.
- He got more opportunities to touch the ball.
- It took much less time for him to translate his physical gifts to on-field production.
Think of it this way: if Chubb’s car speedometer reaches 140 mph, he went 125 as a true freshman. Fournette’s may reach 145 or 150 mph and he went 110 as a freshman. LSU’s star should accelerate more than Georgia’s in ’15; the question becomes how much.
Last year, the Bulldogs relied on Chubb more than the Tigers relied on Fournette. Entering the fall, UGA’s backfield is deeper, more accomplished and more talented than LSU’s. In other words, reason No. 1 probably will favor Fournette in ’15, and Chubb’s advantage in No. 2 probably will shrink.
To insist that Chubb will play better than Fournette in ’15 and accuse anyone who feels otherwise of ignorance before either player has carried the ball a single time is preposterous.
There are a slew of other thrilling running backs in the SEC this year, so I won’t waste this entire post on Fournette vs. Chubb. (Go here for a much longer, nerdier version of that debate.) Specifically, we could be talking about the SEC’s ’14 class of running backs for decades to come.
Here are the SEC’s 10 best running backs following spring practice.
Also Considered: Kelvin Taylor, Florida; David Williams, South Carolina; Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt; Tra Carson, Texas A&M; Jaylen Walton, Ole Miss; Brandon Wilds, South Carolina
10. Sony Michel, Georgia: A five-star true freshman rated higher than Chubb in 2014, Michel averaged a monster 7.3 yards per offensive touch last season. Any decent, random high school running back may have been able to average 4 yards per carry behind UGA’s offensive line, but the only things holding Michel back from the Fournette/Chubb conversation were a lack of carries and injury problems. Expect new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to get him 10 touches per game this fall.
9. Stanley “Boom” Williams, Kentucky: How good was the ’14 class of SEC running backs? Williams averaged a whopping 6.6 yards per carry in limited time — behind the UK offensive line, no less — and looks like an even better receiver than Michel. That’s great for his ’15 prospects in the Wildcats’ Air Raid offense. “Boom” should catch more than 30 passes if he stays healthy. A constant big-play threat, expect several exciting touchdowns from the sophomore. And if 333-pound fullback Jacob Hyde clears a path for him? Oof.
8. Alex Collins, Arkansas: After two seasons of indistinguishable workload and production, there are indications that Jonathan Williams may separate himself from Collins in ’15. Bret Bielema is one of the strictest disciplinarians in the SEC, and Collins has fallen into minor displeasure on a few occasions. Plus, he’s yet to rush for 100 yards in a single post-September game in his college career. On the plus side, Collins has been as good as anyone in the SEC early in the last two seasons and is good for about 200 carries and 1,000 yards every year.
7. Kenyan Drake, Alabama: Drake’s spring continued to restore confidence that he’ll be at or close to 100 percent this fall in terms of burst and quickness. The Tide backfield has thinned, and Drake — at least in terms of his role in a Lane Kiffin offense — is drawing Reggie Bush comparisons. The guy has averaged 7.0 yards per carry during his career, and his 17 career catches for 294 yards hardly reveal how good he can be in the passing game. Expect Bama to get him the ball 10 to 15 times per game.
6. Jalen Hurd, Tennessee: Always be wary of a big, punishing back playing alongside a capable running quarterback. Hurd (6-foot-3, 221 pounds) will be able to build steam while linebackers attempt to discern whether he or Joshua Dobbs possesses the football at the mesh point. Projected starting guards Marcus Jackson and Jashon Robertson should elevate the team’s run-blocking from below-average to serviceable by SEC standards, and Alvin Kamara will help keep him fresh, so expect Hurd’s 4.7 yards per carry to tick upward.
5. Russell Hansbrough, Missouri: One of the quietest 1,000-yard rushers in the country last season, Hansbrough doesn’t get enough credit because he lacks a flashy narrative. At 5-foot-9, 190 pounds, he’s quick and fast, but not like Drake. He’s stronger and tougher between the tackles than one would expect with his size, but not like Henry. He runs behind an above-average offensive line. Henry Josey (’13) and Marcus Murphy (’14) got more credit than he did the last two seasons. But Hansbrough handles business. He’s durable, he can make tacklers miss and he rarely loses yards.
4. Jonathan Williams, Arkansas: The Razorbacks’ post-spring depth chart lists Williams alone as the starter, ahead of Collins. He’s not as sexy as the three players ranked ahead of him here. But as one of three seniors on this list, he also claims 406 career carries as one of the most proven backs in the SEC in 2015. Much like Hansbrough, he’s both somewhat elusive and pretty powerful, plays behind a strong line and shares credit with others in the Hogs’ backfield. But he’s a very good bet to top 1,000 rushing yards this fall and could approach 3,500 for his career.
3. Derrick Henry, Alabama: During the Nick Saban era, the team only has allowed one back to run wild for more than 250 carries in a season twice. Mark Ingram won the Heisman Trophy in ’09 (271 carries, 1,658 yards, 17 touchdowns) and Trent Richardson won the Doak Walker Award in ’11 (283 carries, 1,679 yards, 21 touchdowns). The 6-foot-3, 242-pound Henry physically is better equipped to handle that load than those two, and the circumstances facing Alabama’s offense may dictate a third such season (a question mark at quarterback, a mass exodus in the backfield and the absence of Amari Cooper). Don’t be surprised if he leverages his opportunity advantage to surpass Chubb, Fournette or both this fall.
2. Nick Chubb, Georgia: Since Herschel Walker, only one UGA running back has carried 200 times in back-to-back seasons: Knowshon Moreno (2007-08). Chubb will strive to become the second Bulldogs player to accomplish that feat in the last 33 years. Last season strayed from the norm with Todd Gurley, Michel and Keith Marshall missing so much combined time. Chubb also proved to be anything but a normal freshman, accessing a much higher percentage of his raw physical ability than any other SEC running back on this list. He’ll be tremendous again in ’15, good enough to compete for an All-American selection and the Doak Walker Award. He’ll get better on third down and as a receiver, but he already was so good as a runner (7.1 yards per carry) that he can’t be much more productive.
1. Leonard Fournette, LSU: He’s ever so slightly faster, bigger and stronger than Chubb when testing those things in a vacuum. Especially early last season, though, Fournette ran without patience, balance and vision. Even casual SEC fans could identify ways for him to better maximize his talents. That he still ran for more than 1,000 yards, as a true freshman, is a testament to his potential. On the field, he no longer will share carries with Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee. The Tigers’ passing game will not improve from wretched to TCU/Baylor levels, but some progression will alleviate pressure on Fournette. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron at one point called him LSU’s most improved offensive player. If that’s true, there may not be a better running back in the country in 2015.