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 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 12th annual Athlon Awards.
Athlon's Top 25 Running Back Units for 2012
1. LSU – While there may not be an All-American in the backfield, the depth chart is overflowing with talent. Michael Ford and Spencer Ware each rushed for over 700 yards last season and enter 2012 as the frontrunners for playing time. However, Alfred Blue (539 yards), Kenny Hilliard (336) and Terrence Magee (133) each showed flashes of promise last year. True freshman Jeremy Hill also is expected to push for playing time. Even though the Tigers may not have a running back on the All-SEC team at the end of the season, having six players who could start for a lot of teams in the nation is certainly worth the No. 1 spot.
2. Wisconsin – Beating last season’s totals (1,923 rush yards and 33 touchdowns) is an unrealistic expectation for Montee Ball, but he remains one of the top running backs in college football. The senior needs 19 rushing scores to set an NCAA career record and is college football’s top active rusher (3,310 yards) entering the 2012 season. Ball should be considered one of the frontrunners to win the Heisman Trophy this season. James White, who rushed for 713 yards last fall, is a valuable change-of-pace option for the Badgers and is expected to serve as the No. 2 back once again this year after rushing for 1,052 yards in 2010. Redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon should serve as the No. 3 back and is expected to be a future star in Madison.
3. Oregon – LaMichael James is gone, but the Oregon rushing attack won’t slow down. Kenjon Barner returns after rushing for 939 yards and 11 scores in a reserve role last year. He may not match James’ rushing totals from last season, but Barner should be one of the Pac-12’s top rushers. De’Anthony Thomas is one of college football’s most dangerous all-around threats and should receive more opportunities in 2012. He rushed for 595 yards and seven scores, averaging 10.8 yards per rush attempt, while also catching 46 passes for 599 yards and nine scores last year as a freshman. True freshmen Bralon Addison and Byron Marshall will likely serve as the No. 3 and No. 4 backs.
4. South Carolina – Marcus Lattimore’s 2011 season was abruptly ended by a knee injury in the 14–12 victory over Mississippi State. Although he was unable to participate in spring workouts, all signs point to a full recovery by fall practice. Lattimore is the most talented running back in college football and has 2,015 yards and 27 touchdowns through 20 career games. Brandon Wilds and Kenny Miles will battle for the role as top backup. True freshman Mike Davis will get an opportunity to play right away, but he could redshirt in preparation for a bigger role in the offense in 2013.
5. Alabama – There’s no doubt that Trent Richardson will be missed; the Heisman Trophy finalist rushed for 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns last year. But there’s no shortage of options for the Crimson Tide. Eddie Lacy averaged an impressive 7.1 yards per carry on 95 attempts last season and is expected to assume the No. 1 role. Redshirt freshman Dee Hart is a perfect change-of-pace threat, while true freshman T.J. Yeldon was one of the top performers in the spring. Jalston Fowler will also figure into the mix after rushing for 385 yards and four scores last year. Similar to LSU, Alabama may not have one running back that rushers for 1,000 yards, but the depth and talent here should ease any concerns about the rushing attack without Richardson.
6. Nebraska – Strong rushing attacks are no stranger to Lincoln. The Cornhuskers averaged 217.2 yards per game on the ground last season, largely due to the play of running back Rex Burkhead. He led the team with 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns, while catching 21 passes for 177 yards and two scores. Burkhead is a workhorse (284 carries) and carried Nebraska to victories against Iowa (38 carries, 160 yards) and Michigan State (35 carries, 130 yards). The senior could push for 275-300 carries once again, especially with no proven go-to back behind him. Sophomore Ameer Abdullah is a good change-of-pace option, while fullback Mike Marrow could help in short-yardage situations.
7. USC – Exiting spring practice, the Trojans owned the nation’s top quarterback and receiving corps. With the addition of Penn State transfer Silas Redd, USC now owns one of the top 10 running back units in the nation. In his first season as a starter last year, Redd rushed for 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns with the Nittany Lions. Expect Redd to be the No. 1 back, but Curtis McNeal will figure prominently into the rushing attack. McNeal rushed for 1,005 yards and six scores last season and considering his size (5-foot-7, 190 pounds), is best suited as a change-of-pace option. Sophomore D.J. Morgan or redshirt freshman Buck Allen will work as the No. 3 back.
8. Stanford – With Andrew Luck departing to the NFL, Stanford will lean more on its rushing attack to win in 2012. The good news? The depth chart is full of options for coach David Shaw. Stepfan Taylor is back after rushing for 1,330 yards and 10 scores last season. He was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection last season and is just the third back in school history to record back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Junior Anthony Wilkerson will serve as the top reserve after rushing for 282 yards and three scores last season. True freshman Barry Sanders has great bloodlines and is Stanford’s back of the future. However, he will likely serve as the No. 3 option this season. Redshirt freshman Kelsey Young could see time at receiver and running back in 2012.
9. Oklahoma State – After a standout sophomore season, the Cowboys are expecting even bigger things from Joseph Randle in 2012. He earned second-team All-Big 12 honors after rushing for 1,216 yards and 24 touchdowns last season. Randle was also a key factor in the passing attack, catching 43 passes for 266 yards and two scores. The junior will have more pressure on his shoulders to perform with the departure of quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon. Jeremy Smith was solid in a backup role last year, rushing for 646 yards and nine scores. He should push 100 carries once again in 2012.
10. Texas – A strong case could be made the Longhorns have the No. 1 backfield in the Big 12. Despite battling a toe injury, Malcolm Brown had a standout freshman season, rushing for 742 yards and five touchdowns. Fellow freshman Joe Bergeron registered 463 yards and five scores last year. He had a strong spring and could push Brown for the No. 1 spot. Both players will have competition for snaps in the fall, as true freshman Johnathan Gray – the No. 7 overall prospect in the 2012 Athlon Consensus 100 – will be in the mix for time.
11. Arkansas – The return of Knile Davis should give the Razorbacks’ rushing attack a boost in 2012. Also joining Davis as key contributors will be Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo.
12. Pittsburgh – Ray Graham was on his way to rushing for over 1,000 yards last season but a torn ACL ended his 2011 year early. Graham and Isaac Bennett form a solid tandem, and this group will get a boost with the addition of highly-touted true freshman Rushel Shell.
13. North Carolina – Depth is an issue in the backfield, but starter Giovani Bernard (1,253 yards in 2011) is the ACC’s best running back.
14. TCU – Despite the loss of Ed Wesley, the Horned Frogs still have plenty of options in the backfield. Waymon James and Matthew Tucker form a solid one-two punch, while UCLA transfer Aundre Dean will likely be the No. 3 back.
15. Michigan State – With Edwin Baker leaving East Lansing, look for Le’Veon Bell to have a huge junior season. Senior Larry Caper (728 career yards) and sophomore Nick Hill will serve as the No. 2 and No. 3 options.
16. Clemson – Losing Mike Bellamy was a blow to the Tigers’ depth, but starter Andre Ellington is an Athlon Sports first-team All-ACC selection for 2012.
17. Utah – John White had a monster year in his first season after transferring from a junior college, rushing for 1,519 yards and 15 touchdowns. The Utes will likely turn to junior college recruit Kelvin York as White’s backup in 2012.
18. Vanderbilt – Zac Stacy is back after rushing for 1,193 yards and 14 scores last year, but the Commodores will get a boost in depth with the return of Warren Norman (missed 2011 due to injury). True freshman Brian Kimbrow will also figure into the mix.
19. Texas A&M – If Christine Michael returns 100 percent from a torn ACL, the Aggies should rank higher on this list by the end of the year. Junior Ben Malena and freshman Trey Williams will spell Michael when called upon in 2012.
20. Arizona State – Senior Cameron Marshall is the headliner for the Sun Devils, but there’s plenty of depth for coordinator Mike Norvell, including junior college recruit Marion Grice, freshman D.J. Foster and sophomore Deantre Lewis.
21. Oklahoma - The Sooners need Dominique Whaley to return at full strength, but there's proven depth with Roy Finch and Brennan Clay returning to Norman. Junior college recruit Damien Williams and true freshman Alex Ross will compete for snaps this fall.
22. Michigan - The uncertainty surrounding Fitzgerald Toussaint's status has pushed the Wolverines' down this list for now. An off-the-field incident has clouded Toussaint's status for the opener and has allowed Thomas Rawls, Justice Hayes and Vincent Smith to push for more playing time.
23. Virginia - One of the key reasons for last season's turnaround at Virginia was due to the one-two punch of Perry Jones and Kevin Parks. Jones led the team in yards (915), but Parks held the edge in rushing touchdowns (9).
24. Notre Dame - Cierre Wood is back after rushing for 1,102 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Expect the junior to challenge for that mark once again in 2012, but he will face competition for carries from USC transfer Amir Carlisle.
25. Georgia -Despite losing Isaiah Crowell, the Bulldogs are still in good shape at running back. Ken Malcome enters fall practice as the No. 1 back, but true freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall will be in the mix. Georgia may not have one dominant rusher in 2012, but a committee approach should work out well with three talented rushers.
by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
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