Superlatives for the 2020 SEC running backs
Could this be the year of the running back in the SEC? Possibly.
It might not have the star power that 2015 did with Derrick Henry and Leonard Fournette, and there might not be a once-in-a-generation player like Herschel or Bo, but from a depth standpoint? Yeah, 2020 could be as good as any we’ve seen in the SEC.
Part of that is based on the surprising returns of Najee Harris, Kylin Hill and Rakeem Boyd, all of whom had “NFL” written all over them after they shined in 2019. And the other part of that is based on 5-star sophomores like Zamir White, Jerrion Ealy, John Emery and Trey Sanders, all of whom are about to become much bigger focal points of their respective offenses in 2020.
I thought it’d be fitting if I handed out some superlatives to try and sort out what exactly we should expect of the SEC tailbacks in 2020. I came up with 8. Some are like what you’d see in a high school yearbook, and others are like what you’d see if there was a football yearbook.
Stick with me on these.
Most changed since freshman year — Kylin Hill, Mississippi State
Playing for 3 offensive-minded head coaches will do that to a guy.
First, there was the Dan Mullen system. Hill was a bit of a change of pace back as a freshman and he only had 4 catches. He had actually shed some weight to play in Joe Moorhead’s offense, which demanded a lot of a running back, but in an effort to keep Hill healthy, he wasn’t as involved in the passing game as Moorhead would have liked.
Under Mike Leach, Hill is going to play an entirely new role. His games with 20-plus carries figure to be a thing of the past. Hill is more likely to have 10 catches in a game than he is to have 25 carries operating in Leach’s Air Raid offense.
Hill made the surprising decision to return to become an even more well-rounded back for the next level. Let’s just say the guy who led the SEC with 242 carries last year shouldn’t sniff that number in Leach’s pass-happy offense.
Most likely to earn a cool duo nickname — Kavosiey Smoke and Asim Rose, Kentucky
“Thunder and Lightning” is cliché, and “Salt and Pepper” is too boring. I feel like with last names as good as “Smoke” and “Rose,” we’ve got to come up with something for the underrated Kentucky duo. No Power 5 team ran the ball as effectively as the Wildcats did last year, and while a big part of that was because of Lynn Bowden, Rose and Smoke were better than people realized. They combined for 1,442 rushing yards on 250 carries with 12 rushing scores.
Oh, and Kentucky returns 4 of 5 starters from that dominant offensive line. The odds of Smoke and Rose forming a Kerryon Johnson-Kamryn Pettway duo is probably more likely than the average fan realizes.
What about “Fire and Ice.” I’m guessing Smoke is “fire” and Rose is “ice.” I don’t know how the ice fits in, but hey, we’re a work in progress here. We’ve got plenty of time to come up with a proper duo nickname.
Most likely to go viral — Eric Gray, Tennessee
Gray ripped off the 2nd-longest run in program history to close the regular season last year. Anyone physically capable of running 94 yards is always viral-worthy.
— FQSEC (@FQ_SEC) April 9, 2020
The 3-time winner of the Mr. Football award in Tennessee — nobody had ever done that before Gray did in 2018 — is set to carry a bigger workload in 2020 after a big finish to 2019. In his final 2 games, which included his 246-yard outburst against Vanderbilt, Gray totaled 366 yards from scrimmage and 4 touchdowns. It was fitting that he recovered the onside kick and he scored the go-ahead touchdown to clinch the Gator Bowl (and earn MVP honors in the process).
Any time a freshman finishes the season that well, of course it sets the expectations sky-high. What also makes Gray more likely to break some long, viral runs is the talent that Tennessee has on the offensive line. With Trey Smith back and 5-star Cade Mays transferring to Tennessee, the Vols could potentially start 4 players rated 5-stars on the offensive line.
Gray is expected to split carries with Ty Chandler, but if Gray picks up where he left off, the viral opportunities will be plentiful.
Most athletic — Jerrion Ealy, Ole Miss
This is the part where I mention that Ealy is a darn good baseball player, too. The Ole Miss outfielder/tailback is going to have a prime opportunity to take off in Lane Kiffin’s offense. If 5-9, 200-pound Devin Singletary can get 300 carries in Kiffin’s offense, there’s no telling what he’ll ask of the explosive Ealy.
Did you know that no SEC back (with a minimum of 100 carries) averaged more yards per rush than Ealy did last year? His 6.9 yards per carry significantly outpaced veteran Scottie Phillips’ 4.3. That’s because Ealy has the big-play ability. In a year in which I have zero confidence in that defense, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the former 5-star recruit’s athleticism tested by Kiffin.
Well, I shouldn’t forget about Snoop Conner. Maybe it’s Conner and Ealy who will warrant the cool running back duo nickname:
Jerrion Ealy: 78-yard TD run
Snoop Conner: 84-yard TD run
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) October 6, 2019
Most opinionated — Trey Sanders, Alabama
To be clear, I’m not saying this is a bad thing.
Sanders’ Signing Day prediction that he’d win the Heisman as a true freshman was indeed bold, and it was a shame to see his season ended before it started after he broke his foot in fall camp. The No. 1 running back recruit in the 2019 class had major expectations both internally and externally.
Will Sanders double down on his prediction that he made a year and a half ago? Probably not. Alabama likely won’t make a redshirt freshman like Sanders available to the media often.
But if Harris gets off to a hot start, don’t be surprised if it’s Sanders who fuels his teammate’s Heisman campaign.
Most likely to quietly rip off another 1,000-yard season — Rakeem Boyd, Arkansas
Here’s a fun question. Can you name the list of returning SEC running backs with at least 2,000 yards from scrimmage? Better yet, can you name how each of them ranks?
- Larry Rountree III (Mizzou): 2,937
- Kylin Hill (MSU): 2,871
- Najee Harris (Alabama): 2,733
- Rakeem Boyd (Arkansas): 2,192
That’s actually a great trivia question. Which returning SEC back has the most career yards from scrimmage? If you guessed Rountree first, you’re lying. And if you had to rank them, would Boyd be in that group? Probably not. Quietly, Boyd has been everything Arkansas could have hoped for after he transferred from Independence Community College (AKA “Last Chance U”).
In that awful Chad Morris offense, the guy averaged 6.1 yards per carry and 1,133 rushing yards in 12 games. That number actually jumped up to 8.1 yards per carry in the 4 November games last year. That deserved more praise than it was given. Boyd has that home-run play ability, and finally, he might have a head coach who can maximize the potential of the offensive line.
Kendal Briles wants a run-first, up-tempo offense. If Arkansas can avoid some of the massive early deficits that it was in last year, that plan will certainly benefit Boyd that much more. Either way, I’m penciling a healthy Boyd in for another 1,000.
Most likely to become famous — Zamir White, Georgia
I know, I know. Georgia fans know White, AKA “Zeus” well. Shoot, SEC fans know White well. It wasn’t long ago that he was the No. 1 running back recruit in the country. By “famous,” I mean that he becomes a household name from coast to coast. D’Andre Swift, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Todd Gurley all become “famous” by their junior seasons (Chubb and Gurley were famous freshmen).
With Swift off to the NFL, now is expected to be the time for White. We saw a sneak preview of that in the Sugar Bowl with Swift out, and the early returns were promising. With another healthy offseason under his belt after the 2 torn ACLs, White’s return is the most promising thing for Georgia’s new-look offense.
Calling it “new-look” might be an understatement. The good news for White is that the guy he gets compared to most, Nick Chubb, just got 334 touches for 1,773 yards from scrimmage in Todd Monken’s offense with the Cleveland Browns. In other words, there’s absolutely reason to believe that White can take off in the new system.
The question about his productivity surrounds the experience on the offensive line. Returning just 1 starter up front is rare for Georgia. But perhaps with an offense that’s more willing to stretch the field, White will see far less loaded boxes that Georgia backs saw the last few years.
Most likely to succeed — Najee Harris, Alabama
I’ll be honest. At the start of the 2019 season, I was somewhat unimpressed with the former 5-star back. With Sanders gone, I expected Harris to seize the opportunity he waited for. That didn’t really happen in the first couple games.
And then this happened and I was like, “Ohhhhhhhh. Now I get it.”
TOUCHDOWN. OF. THE. YEAR. NAJEE HARRIS pic.twitter.com/Howy33POT2
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) September 14, 2019
That was the most physically impressive play of the 2019 season and you can’t convince me otherwise. That day, I thought he really started to come into his own as a complete player. He was a load to take down at the end of games. The guy basically dragged the entire Michigan defense late in that game.
It’s funny because if you heard the Citrus Bowl crowd at the end of that game, it sounded like they were giving Harris a sendoff. All they wanted was to see him get into the end zone 1 more time. In a game that some thought he wouldn’t play in, he did that. And instead of declaring for the NFL, Harris gave Alabama fans 1 more year.
Steve Sarkisian gave Harris an average of 22 touches in those final 8 games. While Sanders will inevitably get his share of work, anybody who thinks Harris is taking a step back has another thing coming.
He’ll be dragging defenses and hurdling dudes in the open field often in 2020.