Athlon Awards: Running Back Units

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Oregon's LaMichael James is back for another run as the Heisman.

<p> Athlon Sports ranks the best running back units in college football for 2011.</p>

They're the teams within the team - those cohesive little units bound together by their shared responsibilities within the larger team context.

Whether it's the offensive linemen firing off time after time into those familiar blocking sleds, or the defensive linemen drilling repeatedly on how to shed blockers, or the defensive backs breaking on ball after ball - these teams in miniature hone their tasks on the practice field until those tasks become second nature.

Whether or not these units function as one can make the difference between winning and losing, and a single unit can carry a college football team to New Year's Day - or beyond.

It's entirely fitting, then, for us to honor the best of the best at each position with our 11th annual Athlon Awards.

1. Oregon - LaMichael James is back after finishing third in the Heisman voting and rushing for 1,731 yards and 21 scores last year. James’ ability was showcased against some of the top teams in the conference last season — he erupted for 257 yards against Stanford and 239 against USC. Kenjon Barner rushed for 551 yards last year and returns as Oregon's No. 2 back. Barner should take on a bigger role in the offense in 2011. Lache Seastrunk was one of the top prospects in Oregon's 2010 signing class and is expected to be the No. 3 option this year.

2. Wisconsin - Despite the departure of John Clay, the Badgers are set at running back. Montee Ball and James White return after combining for 2,064 yards and 32 scores last season. White was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year, after leading the Badgers in rushing yards. Ball led the team with 18 rushing scores. Even with some losses on the offensive line, Wisconsin remains one of the top rushing attacks in college football. Expect Ball and White to threaten 1,000 yards this year. 

3. Texas A&M - If Christine Michael returns to full health after a broken leg last year, the Aggies will have one of the top duos in the nation. Cyrus Gray finished 2010 on a tear, posting seven consecutive games of at least 100 yards. Michael rushed for 631 yards in eight games last year. Gray will enter the year as the starter, but both are expected to see significant carries. The Big 12 is thin on proven running backs, so it would not be surprising to see both players play their way into first-team all-conference honors. With the offensive line getting better, Gray and Michael should have no trouble finding rushing lanes and improving upon their numbers from last year. 

4. South Carolina - Marcus Lattimore burst onto the scene last year, setting South Carolina freshman records with 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns. Lattimore also delivered in the clutch, rushing for 182 yards against Georgia and 212 against Florida to help the Gamecocks clinch the SEC East title. Lattimore hit the weight room in the offseason and all signs point to an even better statistical year in 2011. Kenny Miles and Eric Baker will serve as the top backups for Lattimore.

5. Alabama - Mark Ingram left for the NFL Draft, but the Crimson Tide remain in great shape at running back. Trent Richardson is poised for a monster year after sharing carries the last two seasons with Ingram. Richardson has averaged 5.6 yards per carry on 257 attempts. Eddie Lacy will likely be the No. 2 back, after rushing for 406 yards and six scores last year. However, Lacy may have suffered an injury in summer workouts, making his status for the start of 2011 uncertain. True freshman Dee Hart was expected to make a big impact this year, but will miss 2011 with a torn ACL.

6. Michigan State - Edwin Baker returns to lead the Spartan rushing attack, after compiling 1,201 yards and 13 scores last year. Sophomore Le'Veon Bell rushed for 605 yards and eight touchdowns as a backup last season and will compete with talented junior Larry Caper for the No. 2 role.

7. Arkansas - Knile Davis came on strong in the second half of last year, posting five consecutive 100-yard performances to close out 2010. Davis should contend for the SEC rushing title, provided three new starters on the offensive line emerge. Ronnie Wingo is expected to battle Dennis Johnson for the No. 2 spot on the depth chart.

8. Boston College - Montel Harris doesn't get much credit on the national scene, but he has a chance to finish his career as the ACC's all-time leading rusher. A knee injury limited his playing time late last year, but should be 100 percent when the season kicks off. Sophomore Andre Williams rushed for 461 yards last season and looks like a future star for Boston College.

9. Washington - Depth is a real concern in the backfield for coach Steve Sarkisian, but there's no doubt about the starter. Chris Polk has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and will the focal point of the offense this year - especially with a new quarterback taking over.

10. Ohio State - Daniel Herron is suspended for the first five games of 2011, but the Buckeyes are loaded with quality depth. Jordan Hall, Rod Smith and Jaamal Berry should split carries while Herron is out. With Herron entering his final year of eligibility, this trio is likely battling to establish a pecking order going into 2012's spring practice.

11. Stanford - Stepfan Taylor should contend for All-Pac-12 honors this year, after rushing for 1,137 yards last season. 

12. Auburn - The Tigers have four new starters on the offensive line and will miss quarterback Cam Newton, but Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb is a solid one-two punch.

13. Virginia Tech - Hokies may not have a lot of proven depth at running back, but junior David Wilson is primed for a breakout year.

14. Oklahoma - DeMarco Murray departs, but the Sooners have plenty of options waiting to emerge. True freshman Brandon Williams is one to watch, while sophomore Roy Finch was solid in limited work last year. Brennan Clay and Jonathan Miller will also compete for snaps.

15. San Diego State - Ronnie Hillman earned Mountain West Freshman of the Year honors last year, after rushing for 1,532 yards and 17 scores. Hillman is an Athlon Sports preseason All-American.

16. Boise State - Senior Doug Martin has totaled 27 rushing touchdowns over the last two years and figures to shoulder most of the workload in 2011. Injuries have hampered D.J. Harper's progress, but he should be a solid No. 2 back.

17. Mississippi State - Vick Ballard and LaDarius Perkins form a very underrated combination. 

18. Clemson - Andre Ellington averaged 5.8 yards per carry last season and should push David Wilson and Montel Harris for the ACC rushing title.

19. Florida State - Seminoles may not have one go-to back, but the top five running backs from last season return.

20. TCU - With Andy Dalton taking snaps for the Cincinnati Bengals, expect the rushing attack to be the focus of the TCU offense. The Horned Frogs return three backs that rushed for more than 500 yards last year. 

21. Miami 
22. Nebraska
23. Houston
24. USC 
25. UCLA 

Other Athlon Awards

Quarterbacks

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