Let’s start with a little history lesson.

Since the SEC became a conference back in 1932, there’s only been 1 instance in which the conference returned multiple backs coming off 1,400-yard rushing seasons … any guesses when that was?

Maybe 2015? Alabama brought back Nick Chubb, Derrick Henry and Leonard Fournette. Nope. Chubb was actually the only returner who had a 1,400-yard season in 2014.

What about 2013? In 2012, the SEC had a ridiculous 9 guys finish with 1,000-yard seasons. Surely there were a couple of 1,400-yard returners there, right? Nope. Johnny Manziel was the only 1,400-yard rusher and remember, we’re limiting this to running backs.

OK, so what about in the Herschel Walker days? There’s gotta be another guy who hit 1,400 yards and returned? Nope. During Walker’s college career, only 1 other SEC back even hit 1,000 yards and it was James Brooks, who was off to the NFL after his senior season at Auburn in 1980.

I, too, was stunned to realized that none of those seasons brought back multiple 1,400-yard rushers from the season before.

So what’s the answer? The answer is 2023.

Quinshon Judkins and Raheim “Rocket” Sanders both hit that number this past year. Judkins led the SEC in rushing with 1,565 yards while Sanders ended up with 1,443, though if he hadn’t gotten hurt in the first quarter of the Liberty Bowl, he very well could’ve claimed the 2022 SEC rushing title. And it’s also worth noting that while Judkins led the SEC in rushing, Sanders had him beat with 1,714 scrimmage yards compared to 1,697 scrimmage yards.

So who deserves to be RB1 heading into 2023?

It’s a fascinating question because one could argue that both players are in significantly different spots compared to this time last year. Sanders was coming off a true freshman season in which he was a contributor to a 4-man backfield while Judkins was the incoming 3-star freshman who was expected to wait behind transfers Zach Evans and Ulysses Bentley IV. Both were in up-tempo, run-heavy offenses, but actually becoming feature backs in those schemes seemed somewhat unrealistic.

For Sanders, he had never been in a role like that playing competitive football. He didn’t play football as a freshman — he wanted to follow in brother’s footsteps and focus on basketball — and a knee injury his sophomore year at running back pushed him to shift to receiver. So he ended up getting more work as a receiver than as a running back when he was a 3-sport star at Rockledge High School (Fla.). By the time he entered the recruiting world, he was a WR/RB/LB/KR. Hence, why he was listed as a 4-star athlete out of high school.

That was totally different than Judkins, who was as prolific of a workhorse back as there was in Alabama. He had 4,227 rushing yards and 67 touchdowns in his high school career, which culminated with leading Pike Road (Ala.) to a 5A state title. Somehow, though, Judkins was only a 3-star recruit when he signed with Ole Miss.

In a very quick period of time, both vaulted into the national discussion among the nation’s top backs. Blake Corum might be more decorated, but he also got the benefit of playing behind Michigan’s Joe Moore Award offensive line. Whatever the case, any discussion of the nation’s top backs should include Sanders and Judkins.

If you think they were just the byproduct of their high-volume offense, you’re admitting you haven’t watched them. They both had multiple rushes of 60 yards, and while both got featured back work, Sanders and Judkins averaged 6.9 and 5.7 yards/carry, respectively.

Explosive, efficient, inside the tackles, outside the tackles … they did it all.

Sanders actually got the nickname “Rocket” because he used to get to the edges and take off down the sidelines playing youth football. Needless to say, he can still take off.

Judkins might not have a catchy nickname, but patience combined with his ability to run through contact is already at an elite level. Come for the cut after setting up the block, stay for the hurdle.

We could watch highlights of these guys all day. Let’s answer the RB1 question, though.

For me, it’s Judkins.

While I would take Sanders on my team in a heartbeat, there are 2 things that are a slight concern for his early 2023 outlook.

One is that he’s entering his pre-draft year playing in a new scheme. I’d be stunned if Dan Enos’ offense called for such a high-volume rushing attack like we saw with Kendal Briles. Arkansas hasn’t been in the top 100 nationally in passing attempts/game in KJ Jefferson’s 2 years as a starter. I believe that’s about to change. Enos’ offense at Maryland ranked in the top 1/3 in passing attempts per game in each of the last 2 seasons. Including his Miami offense, Enos’ teams averaged between 33-37 pass attempts per game. Sanders might not be in line to average 20 touches per game, which could help him long-term, but it might also eat into his volume.

Sanders also averaged 3.4 yards before first contact, which was No. 1 in Power 5 and No. 3 in FBS (via PFF). That’s the byproduct of an elite offensive line. It’s not Sanders’ fault that he played behind a dominant group, which returned 4 starters in 2022. But as great as Sam Pittman is at developing offensive lines, that’s a variable that could change.

Judkins’ skill set isn’t quite as dependent on getting those big running lines because of his ability to break tackles (he did that an SEC-best 38 times). He ranked in the top 10 in FBS in the following 5 major categories:

  • Rushing attempts
  • Rushing yards
  • Rushing touchdowns
  • Yards after contact
  • Forced missed tackles

Racking up 3.26 average yards after first contact is no joke for anyone, much less a true freshman playing in the toughest division in America. Judkins is also staying in the same offense that helped him become a freshman sensation. That helps, too.

Both Sanders and Judkins are going to help their teams in significant ways. Maybe we’ll see both get involved a bit more in the passing game, too. It’s not unrealistic to think that they could battle for the FBS rushing title. They both have that kind of upside.

For all I know, Sanders was still figuring things out vision and angles in his first full season as a true high-volume back. And I suppose for all I know, Judkins is going to become an even bigger threat without Evans splitting a lot of the work like he did in the first half of the season.

Whatever the case, history awaits in 2023.