Projecting SEC stat leaders: Running Back
Will Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon post a third consecutive 1,000-yard season with a budding Derrick Henry nipping at his heels? Can heralded freshman Leonard Fournette make a splash in Baton Rouge? Besides the usual suspects Todd Gurley and Mike Davis in the East, who else will step up as the division’s third top back?
Another exciting SEC season is upon us and this week, we’ll try and guess the numbers for the league’s top talent at several positions.
To projected stat leaders for 2014:
Let’s break down the SEC’s best running backs by class before moving into statistical projections:
Todd Gurley, Georgia: One of the league’s legitimate Heisman candidates at running back, Gurley’s numbers should more closely resemble his freshman season performance in Athens instead of an injury-plagued 2013. In April, Georgia didn’t expect to have Keith Marshall back from a season-ending knee injury but he appears to be at full strength entering fall camp. Equipped with a proven second option to spell Gurley when needed, the junior from North Carolina will become Georgia’s second all-time leading rusher with a productive season.
Mike Davis, South Carolina: He doesn’t have Marcus Lattimore’s nose for the end zone, but is the more prolific home run threat of the two as the Gamecocks’ second-best tailback of the Steve Spurrier era. A 1,200-yard season would give Davis the third-highest single season total in school history behind two banner campaigns from Heisman winner George Rogers. He’s one of 11 SEC backs on this year’s Doak Walker watch list.
T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: Yeldon hasn’t received the praise he has deserved this summer, possibly the SEC’s most underrated returning player. He’s posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons as a freshman and sophomore, a statistical rarity that’s only been posted by Georgia’s Herschel Walker and Razorbacks beast Darren McFadden in SEC history.
Alex Collins, Arkansas: In this spot, Arkansas teammates Jonathan Williams and Collins are interchangeable, and there’s another Razorback — Korliss Marshall — who will also have a say in the backfield. Collins exploded in his first three collegiate games last fall, but never reached the 20-carry plateau following his team’s 3-0 start. It came as no surprise the Razorbacks lost nine straight when their top threat’s role diminished.
Terrence Magee, LSU: The exit of 1,400-yard ballcarrier Jeremy Hill provides Magee with opportunity going into August as the Tigers’ No. 1 option. Depending on the result of his first outing against Wisconsin, Magee’s job could be in jeopardy with Kenny Hilliard and Leonard Fournette anxious to help shoulder the load.
Cameron Artis-Payne, Auburn: It’s unfair to compare Artis-Payne with Tre Mason, but Gus Malzahn won’t have to alter his gameplan for the Harrisburg, Pa. native. Artis-Payne rushed for an incredible 2,048 yards in 2012 at Allan Hancock JUCO before posting 610 yards and six touchdowns last fall at Auburn. The Tigers have quite the arsenal behind Nick Marshall, a rushing attack led by Artis-Payne featuring Corey Grant and five-star freshman Roc Thomas in addition to a few others.
THE NEXT WAVE
Derrick Henry, Alabama: At this point, Henry’s still behind T.J. Yeldon as Alabama’s top back, but an early hiccup from the rising junior will push this 240-pound rock to the forefront. The SEC’s leader in yards-per-carry as a freshman, Henry’s breakout performance came in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma when his first college catch went for a 61-yard touchdown. On the ground, he picked up 100 yards and a score on just eight totes.
Leonard Fournette, LSU: Heavy expectations have followed Fournette to Baton Rouge, a highly-recruited player with Michael Jordan’s confidence level according to Les Miles. He’ll make quite a splash behind a solid offensive line, but his first 1,000-yard season won’t come until his sophomore campaign with extensive carries.
Kelvin Taylor, Florida: Fred Taylor’s son has moved past Matt Jones on the Gators’ depth chart and started four of Florida’s last five games last season. Taylor hasn’t notched a 100-yard game yet, but did show a workhorse mentality with 20-plus attempts in three of his final five games.
Rushing TD Leaders (minimum 10)
Gurley 17; Davis 15; Yeldon 13; Henry 11; Artis-Payne 11; Magee 10
Rushing Yardage Leaders (minimum 1,000)
Gurley 1,329; Davis 1,256; Yeldon 1,199
Rushing Attempts Leaders (minimum 110)
Gurley 229; Davis 206; Artis-Payne 202; Yeldon 194; Magee 190; Collins 188; Henry 156; Taylor 146; Fournette 112
Yards Per Rush Leaders (minimum 6.0, 100 attempts)
Fournette 7.1; Henry 6.3; Yeldon 6.2; Davis 6.1