Ranking the SEC's top returning players: RB
It’s a testament to the SEC’s depth at running back that seven players from the position left early for the NFL draft — including Todd Gurley, T.J. Yeldon, Mike Davis and Josh Robinson — yet the conference could be even better in the backfield in 2015.
Only two of the Top 10 returning backs were juniors last season. Half of the Top 10 were freshmen in 2014. That sets the stage for a heck of a year for SEC running backs.
Which young players will develop the fastest and fulfill their enormous physical potential? Which players will have to share touches? Which ones get to run behind the best offensive lines?
All of those questions play critical roles in determining the SEC’s best returning backs for 2015.
Also Considered: Jaylen Walton, Ole Miss; Tra Carson, Texas A&M; Kelvin Taylor, Florida; Keith Marshall, Georgia; Sony Michel, Georgia; Brandon Wilds, South Carolina
10. Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt: He rushed for 907 yards as a true freshman on an anemic offense with no passing game. He won’t have the best yards per carry, but he’s sturdy and reliable between the tackles and one of the only players on whom the Commodores can count.
9. Kenyan Drake, Alabama: Assuming he’s healthy, which he should be, Drake will return to being one of the most dangerous change-of-pace backs in the country. He averages 7.0 yards per carry for his career and 17.3 yards per catch. Expect Bama to get him somewhere near 10 touches per game, but they’ll be effective.
8. Stanley “Boom” Williams, Kentucky: The Wildcats finally turned the freshman loose against Louisville, one of the nation’s toughest defenses, and he rushed 18 times for 126 yards and two touchdowns. He averaged 6.6 yards per carry in his initial college season and provided a pass-catching threat as well. Expect UK to find more ways to get him the ball this fall.
7. Jalen Hurd, Tennessee: It will help to have a full season running alongside Josh Dobbs, fellow RB Alvin Kamara and what should be an improved offensive line. But Hurd, 6-foot-3 and 221 pounds, should be good for a half-dozen 100-yard performances and will be great once the Vols are able to protect leads late in games.
6. Alex Collins, Arkansas: If the season ended after September, Collins would have an argument for No. 1. All seven of his career 100-yard games have come before October. He’s topped 1,000 yards in each of his first two college seasons despite sharing a backfield, but needs to show he’s got another gear and can hold up for an entire season.
5. Russell Hansbrough, Missouri: A 1,000-yard rusher with double-digit touchdowns last season and a career 5.4 yards per carry guy, maybe Hansbrough finally will get his due in the SEC this season. He could top the rushing benchmarks again this season as perhaps the best player on the Tigers’ offense as the tea pursues a third consecutive SEC East title.
4. Jonathan Williams, Arkansas: The Razorbacks’ more consistent back, Williams also averaged more yards per carry and was better as a pass-catcher than Collins. Slightly bigger, Williams also is a tad more physical and decisive. Both are good players, but Williams holds a slight edge entering 2015.
3. Nick Chubb, Georgia: This is not a knock on Chubb, but all the pieces fell together perfectly for him in 2014. It wasn’t just Todd Gurley’s suspension and injury that propelled him. Keith Marshall and Sony Michel both were hurt, the offensive line was as good as it’s been under Mark Richt and Hutson Mason did an outstanding job of taking care of the football and throwing with accuracy. Chubb started eight games and topped 100 rushing yards in all of them, finishing his freshman season with an astounding 1,760 yards of total offense. New coordinator Brian Schottenheimer will rely on the running game, but even if he stays healthy and has another great year, don’t be shocked if Chubb fails to top his ’14 yardage total.
2. Derrick Henry, Alabama: A five-star member of the 2013 class, Henry has yet to latch onto stardom and never let go. Instead, he’s made a slow, steady progression in two years. At 6-foot-3 and 241 pounds, finally the leading man for the Tide in the backfield, he’s going to be a monster in 2015 behind an improved run-blocking offensive line. If Henry stays healthy, expect him to top 6.0 yards per carry and finish well inside the Top 5 in the conference for rushing yards.
1. Leonard Fournette, LSU: Arguably the most physically-gifted running back in the SEC — not only now, but for years — Fournette didn’t put together a complete season as a true freshman, but he dazzled enough to produce one heck of a season highlight video. He still managed five 100-yard games. By bowl season, he was as electrifying as any back in the country. We could be looking at one of, if not the, best running backs in the country in 2015.