The committee approach at running back has become more prevalent in college football over the last five years, so it’s no surprise most teams have two or three players that could start each week for their offense.
The SEC is loaded at running back in 2013, with Georgia and Alabama taking the top two spots in Athlon’s top 25 backfields. But the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs aren't the only ones from the SEC in the rankings, as Texas A&M checks in at No. 5 and LSU is No. 14.
How did we come up with these rankings? A couple of factors were considered. Depth, overall talent, production, level of competition and projected output in 2013 all factored into the rankings for the backfield. While some teams like Miami and Arizona are ranked largely due to one player, teams like Texas A&M, USC and Stanford may not have a superstar this year but have no shortage of depth.
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 13th annual Athlon Awards.
Ranking the Top 25 Running Back Units for 2013
The Bulldogs lack depth in the backfield, but the Todd Gurley-Keith Marshall duo is the best in college
football. Gurley and Marshall combined for 2,144 of Georgia’s 2,556 rushing yards last year and scored 19 touchdowns. Gurley ranked second in the SEC by averaging 98.2 rushing yards per game in conference play. Both players could rush for 1,000 yards in 2013, as Georgia’s coaching staff plans to get Marshall
more involved in the offense this year.
Eddie Lacy is gone, but the Crimson Tide still have a deep stable of options. Leading the way is sophomore T.J. Yeldon, who rushed for 1,108 yards and 12 scores as a true freshman. Yeldon is an Athlon Sports second-team preseason All-American. At 6-foot-1, 201 pounds, sophomore Kenyan Drake is a change-of-pace option, but he will face competition for carries from touted freshman Derrick Henry, junior Jalston Fowler and sophomore Dee Hart.
The Longhorns return three running backs who have rushed for at least 500 yards in a season during their careers. Sophomore Johnathan Gray is the headliner after rushing for 701 yards as a true freshman in 2012. Joe Bergeron scored 16 touchdowns last season, and Malcolm Brown (742 yards in 2011) returns to full strength after missing most of 2012 due to injuries.
Despite losing Kenjon Barner, the Ducks are in good shape at running back. De’Anthony Thomas is one of college football’s most explosive players and is expected to handle more carries in 2013. Byron Marshall is also due for an increased workload after averaging 5.1 yards per carry in 2012. True freshman Thomas Tyner is one of the top running backs in the 2013 signing class and will be difficult for new Oregon coach Mark Helfrich to keep on the sidelines.
5. Texas A&M
The Aggies likely won’t have a 1,000-yard rusher in 2013, but this unit has assembled plenty of depth thanks to the arrival of transfers Tra Carson (Oregon) and Brandon Williams (Oklahoma). Senior Ben Malena rushed for 808 yards and eight scores last season and has surprising power for a 5'8" running back. Talented sophomore Trey Williams is due for a bigger role in the offense after rushing for 376 yards and five touchdowns in 2012.
Despite losing Montee Ball, the Badgers are in great shape at running back. Senior James White has 2,571 yards and 32 touchdowns in his career, while sophomore Melvin Gordon is a future star in the Big Ten. True freshman Corey Clement could be Wisconsin’s No. 3 option this season.
Lache Seastrunk finished 2012 on a tear, averaging 138.5 yards per game over his final six contests. Seastrunk is expected to be one of the Big 12’s top rushers in 2013. Senior Glasco Martin is a punishing runner and scored 15 touchdowns on 179 attempts last year.
8. Ohio State
Yes, Carlos Hyde is suspended for at least three games, but Ohio State still has a wealth of options in the backfield. Junior Rod Smith, senior Jordan Hall, sophomore Bri’onte Dunn and redshirt freshman Warren Ball will shoulder the workload while Hyde is suspended and each could start for a handful of teams in college football. True freshmen Dontre Wilson and Ezekiel Elliott will also figure into the mix.
Ameer Abdullah filled in admirably when Rex Burkhead suffered a knee injury early last season, finishing 2012 with 1,137 yards and eight scores. Abdullah is set to build on those totals in 2013, but sophomore Imani Cross (324 yards last year) will push for playing time.
Ka’Deem Carey thrived in coach Rich Rodriguez’s system, leading the nation with an average of 148.4 yards per game in 2012. The junior may not top last year’s 1,929 yards, but he is in for another big year. Daniel Jenkins considered a transfer to Washington State but returned to Tucson this summer. Jenkins and Pierre Cormier will compete for the No. 2 role.
11. Florida State
After rushing for 640 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, James Wilder Jr. is set to emerge as one of the ACC’s top backs in 2013. Junior Devonta Freeman has 1,239 yards over the last two years and will serve as Florida State’s No. 2 option. Redshirt freshman Mario Pender is a player to watch.
12. Arizona State
Even though Cameron Marshall has finished his eligibility, Arizona State’s rushing attack is in good shape with the return of Marion Grice and DJ Foster. Grice averaged 6.6 yards per carry last season and scored 19 overall touchdowns. Foster recorded 1,026 total yards in 2012.
Damien Williams was solid in his first year in Norman, rushing for 946 yards and 11 touchdowns on 176 attempts. He will headline a talented backfield, which includes the nation’s top fullback in Trey Millard and experienced options in Roy Finch (5.2 yards per carry) and Brennan Clay. The future of Oklahoma’s rushing attack is in good hands with freshmen Keith Ford and Alex Ross.
If Jeremy Hill isn’t suspended for a significant chunk of the season, LSU could rank higher on this list. But even with Hill’s long-term status for 2013 uncertain, the Tigers have plenty of depth. Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard are proven options, and fullback J.C. Copeland is an underrated player.
With a new quarterback taking over, expect the Trojans to lean more on the ground attack in 2013. Silas Redd rushed for 905 yards and nine touchdowns in his first season in Los Angeles. But the backfield just isn’t Redd, as true freshman Justin Davis and Ty Isaac ranked among the top-15 running backs in the 2013 signing class, and D.J. Morgan, Tre Madden and Javorius Allen are all capable options for coach Lane Kiffin.
16. Kent State
Dri Archer and Trayion Durham form the nation’s top non-BCS running back duo. Archer was one of college football’s best all-purpose players in 2012, recording 1,429 rushing yards and 39 catches for 561 yards last season. Durham rushed for 1,316 yards and 14 scores.
Duke Johnson turned plenty of heads as a true freshman last year, rushing for 947 yards and 10 scores, while catching 27 passes for 221 yards and one touchdown. Johnson also made a huge impact on special teams by averaging 33 yards per kick return. Although Johnson is ACC’s premier running back, depth is an issue. The Hurricanes need Eduardo Clements, Dallas Crawford or Gus Edwards to emerge as a reliable No. 2 option to take some of the pressure off of Johnson.
The rushing attack was the lone bright spot in Lawrence last year. James Sims is one of the nation’s most underrated players, rushing for 1,013 yards and nine scores in 2012. He will be joined by Tony Pierson (760 yards last year), Taylor Cox (464) and talented sophomore Darrian Miller in the backfield this season.
Senior Venric Mark is one of the nation’s top all-purpose running backs. He recorded 1,366 rushing yards and 12 scores last season, while catching 20 passes and taking three returns for scores. Mark is only 5-foot-8, so it’s important for Northwestern to utilize its backups to spell the Texas native throughout the year. Senior Mike Trumpy is expected to serve as the top backup, and he has 1,061 yards in his career.
Bishop Sankey emerged as Washington’s go-to back in 2012, recording 1,439 yards and 16 touchdowns on 289 attempts. While Sankey is one of the Pac-12’s top rushers, the Huskies are looking to address the depth this fall. Jesse Callier and Deontae Cooper are talented but have struggled to stay healthy.
Stepfan Taylor is gone, but Stanford’s rushing attack isn't in dire straits. Anthony Wilkerson rushed for 224 yards and one score in a backup role last season and has 914 yards and seven touchdowns in his career. Tyler Gaffney is back after spending a year playing minor league baseball, while redshirt freshman Barry Sanders will make his anticipated debut in 2013.
22. Western Kentucky
Even though new coach Bobby Petrino likes to spread the ball around through the air, his previous stops at Louisville and Arkansas showed he won’t forget about the rushing attack. Antonio Andrews recorded 3,161 all-purpose yards last year, which ranked second in NCAA history behind Barry Sanders. Leon Allen showed promise in his freshman campaign last year and will serve as backup. Fullback Kadeem Jones is an underrated player.
23. West Virginia
With Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey now in the NFL, the Mountaineers will rely more on their rushing attack this year. Andrew Buie is the team’s leading returning rusher (851 yards), but he will be pushed for time from Dustin Garrison and junior college transfer Dreamius Smith. Houston transfer Charles Sims will help in an all-purpose role and is a threat to score each time he touches the ball.
24. Oklahoma State
Joseph Randle will be missed, but thanks to some good recruiting by coach Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State should have a 1,000-yard rusher for the seventh consecutive season. Jeremy Smith has shined in a part-time role the last few years, recording 1,439 yards and 25 scores in 39 appearances. Smith will start, but expect to see plenty of Desmond Roland (301 yards in 2012).
25. Mississippi State
LaDarius Perkins quietly rushed for 1,024 yards and eight scores last season. The senior headlines Mississippi State’s ground attack, with talented sophomores Derrick Milton and Josh Robinson vying for the No. 2 role. Junior Nick Griffin (223 yards in 2012) suffered a torn ACL in December and his status for 2013 is uncertain.
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