Ranking the No. 1 RB in each class who entered the SEC past decade
The SEC has produced more than its fair share of dominant running backs over the years. From Herschel Walker to Bo Jackson to Emmitt Smith to Jamal Lewis to Derrick Henry, the league has produced legends at the position who not only excelled collegiately but became difference-makers at the next level as well.
The past 10 years have been no different. Henry won the 2015 Heisman Trophy in a romp after rushing for over 2,000 yards. Trent Richardson won the Doak Walker Award in 2011, given annually to the nation’s finest college running back. Leonard Fournette had a brilliant career at LSU and became the 4th overall pick in the NFL Draft. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel were such a magnificent duo Georgia nearly won its first national championship in nearly 40 years. And that’s just a few of the outstanding players to grace SEC backfields over the past decade.
But how have the best recruits at the position fared?
We at SDS took a look at the top running back who signed with a SEC program in each recruiting class from 2010-2019 and ranked them in order of production. Were the recruiting services and rankings right?
Here’s the list so you can decide for yourself.
10. 2016: B.J. Emmons, Alabama (RB rank: 3, Overall rank: 35)
How it played out: In a down year at the position, Emmons was a high 4-star who chose the rigors of the SEC over a host of national programs. It never worked out. Emmons suffered a foot injury early in his career in Tuscaloosa and ended up leaving the program, citing the need to take time away from football. He cleared his head in community college, fortunately, and found a home at Florida Atlantic, where he made a strong return for Lane Kiffin before suffering another injury in 2019.
The hidden gem in this class? Benny Snell, who entered Kentucky as the No. 74 RB in the country.
9. 2019: Trey Sanders, Alabama (RB rank: 1; Overall rank: 6)
How it played out: To be determined. A season-ending injury ended Sanders’s freshman campaign before it began. It will be interesting to see how he stacks up against fellow SEC top 10 RBs from the 2019 class: John Emery Jr. of LSU (2nd), jitterbug Jerrion Ealy of Ole Miss (3rd) and LSU’s Tyrion Davis-Price (10th). We’ll find out soon enough.
8. 2018: Zamir White, Georgia (RB rank: 1; Overall rank: 9)
How it played out: An injury derailed White’s first season in Athens and initially, he didn’t look the part of the explosive 5-star on film as a redshirt freshman in 2019. The good news? White busted out in the Sugar Bowl, pounding a solid Baylor defense for 92 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. With D’Andre Swift gone, White figures to battle James Cook for the starting role, but Georgia loves to use 2 running backs and hopefully for White, he can have a healthy and productive season in 2020. There is no doubt about his talent.
Interestingly, the 2018 class is full of guys who have yet to make a huge impact. Number 2 recruit Lorenzo Lingard was a disappointment at Miami and transferred to Florida this winter. A rape allegation ended No. 3-ranked Brian Snead’s career at Ohio State before it began. Harold Joiner (5th) touched a football 15 times in his first 2 seasons at Auburn.
Comparatively, White’s trajectory seems promising.
7. 2011: Isaiah Crowell, Georgia (RB rank: 1; Overall rank: 6)
How it played out: Initially, it looked like Crowell would live up to the substantial hype. He won the starting job as a freshman and tallied over 150 all-purpose yards and 2 touchdowns in a 45-42 thriller of a loss to Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina. He helped Georgia beat Florida with 85 yards against an elite Gators defense at the Cocktail Party and concluded his freshman campaign with 850 yards rushing and 6 touchdowns, numbers that earned him SEC Freshman of the Year honors.
Unfortunately, off-field issues led to his dismissal from Georgia’s program just before the 2012 season. Crowell resurfaced at Alabama State, where he played well enough over two seasons to earn a shot at the NFL with the Clevland Browns. Crowell stuck, and still plays in the NFL, now with the Las Vegas Raiders.
Tre Mason, the No. 29 RB recruit in the class, led the SEC in rushing with an Auburn-record 1,816 yards in 2013.
6. 2012: Keith Marshall, Georgia (RB rank: 2; Overall rank: 13)
How it played out: Like Kirby Smart after him, Mark Richt was a master at signing 5-star running backs. Marhsall, a sleek, speedy running back with video game highlight reels, was expected to make an instant impact at Georgia, especially after the dismissal of Crowell. As a freshman, he didn’t disappoint, collecting over 800 yards from scrimmage and scoring 9 touchdowns.
But as injuries mounted, Marshall was quickly lost in the depth chart after his freshman season, and only scored 6 more touchdowns his entire career, hardly the stuff his recruiting legend had promised.
Fortunately for Georgia, it signed another running back in that class from North Carolina who had only 4 stars. His name? Todd Gurley.
5. 2013: Kelvin Taylor, Florida (RB rank: 2; Overall rank: 21)
How it played out: Taylor, Florida’s first consensus 5-star running back since Earnest Graham, was very good in his 3 seasons in Gainesville, his main sin being he wasn’t his legendary father Fred. Taylor ran for more than 2,000 yards and capped his career by helping lead Florida to the SEC Championship Game in 2015, his first as the full-time starter and one in which he tallied 1,035 yards despite quarterback issues after the suspension of Will Grier.
Taylor is probably most well remembered by Florida fans for his 198-yard, 2-touchdown performance against Georgia in 2014, an upset Florida win that was likely the beginning of the end for Mark Richt in Athens.
That was a bit of a soft running back class overall, with top recruit Thomas Tyner’s career derailed by injuries at Oregon, No. 3 back never breaking through at Oklahoma and eventually transferring to Texas A&M and Michigan 5-star Derrick Green never winning a starting job and transferring to TCU. The best of the group? Alabama commit Alvin Kamara, who played his best football for Butch Jones at Tennessee.
This RB class gets an asterisk, however, because Henry was listed as an “athlete” by recruiting services. Henry was the No. 1-ranked athlete and No. 12 overall recruit in the country.
4. 2010: Michael Dyer, Auburn (RB rank: 1; Overall rank: 8)
How it played out: First things first. Michael Dyer was down. (Just kidding and honestly, I think there is solid photographic evidence to the contrary).
Dyer had a good career at Auburn and Louisville, highlighted by his 1,102 yards from scrimmage as a true freshman in Auburn’s national championship season. But Dyers’ inability to stay consistent off the field saw him bolt for Louisville after running for more than 1,200 yards at Auburn as a sophomore, and Dyer battled eligibility issues at Arkansas State and Louisville for the remainder of his college career.
The character concerns likely cost him a chance in the NFL, and Dyer has bounced around Canada and arena leagues since, a cautionary tale about what might have been. But he’ll always have those first 2 seasons at Auburn — and they were absolutely special and worthy of the hype.
3. 2017: Najee Harris, Alabama (RB rank: 1; Overall rank: 2)
How it played out: It’s still happening, and big things are on the horizon. In his first year as the Alabama starter, Harris accumulated over 1,200 yards rushing in a pass-happy system. With Tua Tagovailoa and multiple elite receivers gone, Alabama figures to run the ball a bit more in 2020, which should directly benefit Harris, which might be a big reason he returned to play his senior campaign.
The 2017 class at running back as a whole has been quite solid with big stars like Cam Akers (No. 2) and D’Andre Swift (4th) and Eno Benjamin (6th) ranked behind Harris, as well as emerging talents like Tennessee’s Ty Chandler (5th).
Clyde Edward-Helaire, a key contributor to LSU’s perfect season, arrived as a 3-star ranked No. 29 among RBs.
2. 2015: Damien Harris, Alabama (RB rank: 1; Overall rank: 31)
How it played out: Is it possible to rush for more than 3,000 yards in a college career and leave fans wondering if you were capable of more? I sometimes think that’s the case with Damien Harris, who had the misfortune of trying to replace the legendary Derrick Henry in the Alabama backfield and came to the capstone at a time when Nick Saban was transitioning to a more open, spread-oriented offense.
Alabama fans probably appreciate Harris, but maybe we collectively don’t value his 3,070 yards and 25 touchdown career as much as we should. That’s pretty good production — and you’d take it every time from a 5-star running back.
The only top 10 running back who came close to matching Harris from the 2015 class? LSU’s Derrius Guice, who was a high-4 star slotted as the No. 5 running back in the class.
1. 2014: Leonard Fournette, LSU (RB rank: 1; Overall rank: 1)
How it played out: Not many running backs run for 1,953 yards and don’t win the Heisman Trophy, but that was Fournette’s fate in 2015. The 5-star lived up to the hype, rushing for 3,000 yards in his first 2 seasons in Baton Rouge before injuries limited his production as a junior. Still, Fournette gutted it out on a gimpy leg his junior year, gaining nearly 1,000 more yards from scrimmage and refusing to shut it down even when LSU’s chances of winning the SEC West were over.
Fournette left LSU an All-American and program legend, and when healthy, has been a terrific pro with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Fournette also has the distinction of leading the way in what might be the best position group running back class in history. Five of the top six backs? Fournette, FSU legend Dalvin Cook, Oklahoma All-American Joe Mixon and Georgia’s lethal duo of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. That’s ridiculous.