The SEC has a storied tradition of producing some of the top running backs at the collegiate level year after year. The 2015 season will be no different with Georgia, Missouri, LSU and Arkansas each returning a 1,000-yard rusher. The Razorbacks actually have the distinction of returning a pair.
These talented ball carriers include Georgia’s Nick Chubb, Missouri’s Russell Hansbrough, LSU’s Leonard Fournette, and Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins from Arkansas. Each tailback scratched their way to a standout season in 2014 but which is the best heading into 2015?
What makes a great running back? Size, speed, strength, vision and production on the field are good starting points. A product of the system, good or bad, should be taken into consideration along with the surrounding talent. A projection to the next level is not relevant, this is college football.
Before going forward lets acknowledge that every contender on the list had to split carries with someone else. Hansbrough with Marcus Murphy, Chubb with Todd Gurley, Fournette with Terrence Magee, and Williams and Collins with one another.
Related: SEC Running Back Rankings for 2015
We have five contenders. Of the five, the returning player with the least amount of yards last season was Fournette. The true freshman had 1,034 yards with 10 touchdowns on the ground. One stat going in his favor, he had the fewest amount of touches among this quintet with 187. Fournette’s yards per carry average of 5.5 ranks third out of the five contenders.
The downside, Fournette (6-1, 230) only had seven receptions for 127 yards with no scores. The impressive 18.1 yards per catch average is just that, impressive but also a product of a bad passing attack, which just might hold him back in this respect again in 2015.
The fourth running back in terms of yardage gained was Hansbrough. Hansbrough, also the smallest (5-9, 196) pounds, came up with 1,084 yards on 205 totes, finding the end zone 10 times. Outshined by senior teammate Murphy in the passing game, Hansbrough only had 11 receptions for 58 yards with no scores. Murphy had 28 receptions for 212 yards and a touchdown, so it's possible Hansbrough could see an uptick in his receiving totals in 2015.
One of the more talented backs that just seems to be held back by his own work ethic is Collins. The Razorback carried the ball 204 times for 1,100 yards with 12 touchdowns, but had fumbling issues in 2014. He was a non-factor in the passing game under former offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. Chaney would have rather watched the Arkansas punter do his thing on fourth down than throw to a back out of the backfield on third down to keep the chains moving.
The second-best rushing total of the 2014 season among our returnees belongs to Williams. Williams and Collins are essentially physical clones, both measuring in at 6-foot tall and around 225 pounds. Where Williams sets himself apart is in determination.
The Allen, Texas, native runs hard on every touch, staying on his feet after first contact and slipping easily to the next level of the defense. He had a 5.6 yard per carry average, totaling 1,190 yards rushing with 12 scores. Another victim in the Chaney passing scheme, Williams only had 65 yards receiving on 11 catches but did add two scores to his stat line.
The true breakout star in 2014 was Chubb. Although similarly sized (5-10, 220) to his counterparts, the Cedartown, Ga., native plays bigger and stronger than his peers.
Chubb was the second-leading rusher in the SEC behind Auburn’s Cameron Artis-Payne, finishing his true freshman campaign with 1,547 yards on 219 carries. Chubb was the top tailback in the SEC in rushing touchdowns with 14 and also chipped in two receiving scores. His 18 catches for 213 yards made him one of the more productive receivers out of the backfield.
The one note about Chubb that can work for or against him is how his touches were laid out over the season. Gurley started the season for Georgia but then was suspended for four games before suffering a season-ending injury. In his first five games Chubb only had 35 carries. While most teams are playing FCS schools or lower-tiered FBS programs gearing up for conference games, Georgia suited up against Clemson, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt during that tough stretch.
In the five conference games he started, Chubb absolutely tore it up, rushing for 143 yards against Missouri, 202 against Arkansas, 156 against Florida, 170 against Kentucky, and 144 against Auburn.
The question stands, did Chubb benefit from fresh legs only playing parts of the Bulldogs' first five contests against tough teams? How will he respond in 2015 being “the man” from the opening snap of the season?
Positives and Negatives
Of the five contenders only Collins has posted back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons. Williams came close in 2013 with 900 yards on 150 carries. Hansbrough rushed for 685 yards in 2013 as part of a three-man rotation in the Tigers’ backfield. Chubb and Fournette were true freshmen in 2014, so they have the smallest sample sizes to analyze.
In 2015 Georgia and Arkansas enter the season with veteran offensive lines. The Razorbacks may have a slight advantage under center with third-year starting quarterback Brandon Allen managing the game. Arkansas also has a new offensive coordinator in Dan Enos, which could mean more and varied types of touches for Collins and Williams, increasing their ending stat lines.
LSU has three starters returning on the offensive line but still has a large question mark under center. All teams know our five contenders are going to get the ball and will more than likely see seven to eight men in the box on first down and third-and-short, but until LSU proves it can get the ball downfield Fournette will have to drag more guys across the field to get his yards. Can he hold up?
Hansbrough’s season could go either way. Missouri has three offensive linemen returning but lost its four leading receivers. Junior quarterback Maty Mauk is wildly hit or miss. Hansbrough, like Fournette, will be the featured offensive weapon in 2015. Can he hold up to the pounding throughout the season until offensive coordinator Josh Henson finds reliable targets for Mauk in the passing game? Missouri has an easy schedule again in 2015 which should help Hansbrough.
Who is the Best?
The most consistent runners are Williams and Collins. Fournette is great but seemingly has a far more daunting task ahead without a quarterback under center, plus he plays in the SEC West. The back with the most to prove is Hansbrough, is he a true No. 1 SEC tailback? The most dynamic all-around back has to be Chubb.
SEC Honorable Mention
Jalen Hurd (Tennessee), Ralph Webb (Vanderbilt), Derrick Henry (Alabama), and even in a stretch Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott.
Players to Watch
Kendall Sheffield (Alabama), Damien Harris (Alabama), Kerryon Johnson (Auburn), Derrius Grice (LSU), Jordan Cronkrite (Florida), Jordan Scarlett (Florida), Sony Michel (Georgia), Stanley “Boom” Williams (Kentucky), Brandon Wilds (South Carolina), Kenyan Drake (Alabama), Nick Gibson (Mississippi State), Jaylen Walton (Ole Miss), Tra Carson (Texas A&M), and Jay Bradford (Texas A&M).
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManinLA.