The 2012 college football season is still months away, but it's never too early to preview. Athlon continues its countdown to the upcoming season and spring previews by ranking the running backs in each of the BCS conferences. The rankings take into account last season's production, what each player is expected to do in 2012 and the surrounding personnel.
1. De’Anthony Thomas, Oregon (SO)
Rushing Stats: 55 att., 595 yards, 7 TD
Receiving Stats: 46 rec., 605 yards, 9 TD
Few players in the nation bring more explosion or elusiveness to an offense than the Black Mamba of football. Toss in other adjectives like versatile, speedy and big play and it might begin to explain what Thomas can do on a football field. After 2,235 all-purpose yards, Thomas claimed Pac-12 Co-Offensive Freshman of the Year. Lining up as both a running back and a receiver, Thomas posted nearly 12 yards per touch last fall on offense, including a 31.5-yard clip in the first Rose Bowl victory in school history. In the third phase of the game, he can flip a game’s momentum instantly. He scored twice on special teams and averaged 27.3 yards per kick return (and a sneaky 17.3 yards per punt return on three returns). Expect much of the same from Thomas in 2012 — except fans can bet that Chip Kelly will get him the ball more than his 10.0 total touches per game last year.
2. Kenjon Barner, Oregon (SR)
Rushing Stats: 152 att., 551 yards, 6 TD
Receiving Stats: 17 rec., 184 yards, 3 TD
The career backup enters his final season in Eugene with a shot at being the primary ball carrier in one of the nation’s most explosive offenses. Doak Walker winner LaMichael James missed three games over the last two years and Barner proved he could be more than capable. Try 58 carries, three receptions, 433 yards rushing, 102 yards receiving and eight total touchdowns in those three starts. In 36 career games, 33 as a backup, he averaged over 60 yards from scrimmage. The only thing that will keep Barner from a massive 2012 campaign will be, that’s right, De’Anthony Thomas. Because it certainly won’t be Pac-12 defenses.
3. John White, Utah (SR)
Rushing Stats: 316 att., 1,519 yards, 15 TDs
Receiving Stats: 13 rec., 44 yards, 2 TDs
White ranked as one of the top 25 junior college recruits in the signing class of 2011 and didn’t disappoint last year. He ranked third among all running backs in FBS play with 316 carries and finished with 1,519 yards and 15 scores. He also caught 13 passes for 44 yards and two touchdowns. White’s best performance came in a 27-8 victory over Oregon State, recording 205 yards on 35 attempts, but he also posted 115 yards and a touchdown in the bowl victory over Georgia Tech. White’s numbers are even more impressive when you consider Utah lost starting quarterback Jordan Wynn to a shoulder injury early in the year and was never really able to establish a consistent passing attack after that. With the arrival of junior college transfer Kelvin York and the emergence of sophomore Harvey Langi this spring, White probably won’t see over 300 touches again. However, he should easily surpass 1,000 yards and earn All-Pac-12 honors.
4. Stepfan Taylor, Stanford (SR)
Rushing Stats: 242 att., 1,330 yards, 10 TD
Receiving Stats: 25 rec., 182 yards, 2 TD
The senior-to-be has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons as the starter in the Stanford backfield. He has 13 100-yard games over the last two seasons and has scored a total of 28 touchdowns. He has had no fewer than 13 carries in 23 straight games and finished last fall with a career high 35 attempts and 177 yards in the bowl loss to Oklahoma State. Few players are as consistent as Taylor has been, as he hasn’t missed a game in his 39 career contests. There is one giant ‘however’ for Stanford this fall and it involves four potential first-round NFL Draft picks. Gone is superstar quarterback Andrew Luck and a pair of all-everything hog mollies in Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro. Most running backs in the Pac-12 would be successful behind that trio, so Taylor could find sledding much tougher in 2012.
5. Isi Sofele, California (SR)
Rushing Stats: 252 att., 1,322 yards, 10 TD
Receiving Stats: 6 rec., 33 yards
Cal and Jeff Tedford have been churning out stellar tailbacks for the better part of a decade and, after a slow start, Sofele is emerging as the next in line. The diminutive ball carrier stands 5-foot-8 and 185 pounds but has yet to miss a game in his career (38 games). When Tedford refocused midseason a year ago on running the football, Sofele answered the bell to the tune of three 100-yard games in the final four contests. Cal went 3-1 over that span and made it to the postseason because of Sofele’s solid play. In fact, he posted his three best career rushing totals (190 yards, 145 and 138) and scored in six of the final seven games of the year. With Zach Maynard and Keenan Allen keeping defenses honest this fall, Sofele is a great bet to post his second straight 1,000-yard season.
6. Cameron Marshall, Arizona State (SR)
Rushing Stats: 230 att., 1,050 yards, 18 TDs
Receiving Stats: 24 rec., 188 yards, 0 TD
Although new Arizona State coach Todd Graham wants to increase the offensive tempo and keep a spread offense in place, Marshall’s role isn’t likely to be diminished in 2012. Marshall was Arizona State’s No. 1 back last season, rushing for 1,050 yards and tying a school record with 18 rushing scores. With 11 rushing scores in 2012, the senior would own an Arizona State career touchdown record. Deantre Lewis is back after missing 2011 with an injury, but Marshall should still see 200-240 carries. Arizona State has some pieces to replace on the offensive line, but the senior should earn all-conference honors in 2012.
7. Johnathan Franklin, UCLA (SR)
Rushing Stats: 166 att., 976 yards, 5 TDs
Receiving Stats: 9 rec., 74 yards, 1 TD
Franklin isn’t going to garner national attention like Utah’s John White or Oregon’s Kenjon Barner could this year, but he is quietly one of the Pac-12’s most productive running backs. He rushed for 976 yards and five touchdowns last year, including 162 yards and one touchdown in the 45-6 blowout win over Colorado. Franklin’s 976 last season yards were a slight drop from his 1,127 yards as a sophomore in 2010, largely due to Derrick Coleman’s expanded role in the backfield. With Coleman out of eligibility, Franklin should see over 200 carries in 2012 and top the 1,000-yard mark.
8. Curtis McNeal, USC (SR)
Rushing Stats: 145 att., 1,005 yards, 6 TDs
Receiving Stats: 3 rec., 19 yards, 0 TD
McNeal has experienced an up and down career at USC. He recorded six carries as a freshman in 2009, but was academically ineligible in 2010. After sitting out a year, McNeal emerged as USC’s No. 1 running back, finishing with 1,005 yards and six touchdowns. He was used sparingly through the first five weeks of the year (24 carries), but recorded four 100-yard games in USC’s final six contests. McNeal is only 5-foot-7, so the Trojans may not be able to rely on him for 250 carries. However, the senior gave the rushing attack a spark last year and should lead the team in yards in 2012.
9. Ka’Deem Carey, Arizona (SO)
Rushing Stats: 91 att., 425 yards, 6 TDs
Receiving Stats: 15 rec., 203 yards, 2 TDs
Carey ranked second among Pac-12 freshmen running backs with 425 yards, while posting an impressive 4.7 yards per rush attempt. He did not record a 100-yard game, but finished with 92 yards on 13 attempts in the 31-27 win over rival Arizona State. With Keola Antolin departing, Carey should be the workhorse for new coach Rich Rodriguez. The Wildcats are shifting from a pass-first offense to more of a run-spread, which figures to be a huge benefit to Carey. Expect this sophomore to be one of the Pac-12’s top breakout players in 2012.
10. Jesse Callier, Washington (JR)
Rushing Stats: 47 att., 260 yards, TD
Receiving Stats: 7 rec., 65 yards
Callier has the unenviable task of replacing one of the program’s greatest running backs in the departed Chris Polk. Polk touched the ball 878 times over his career in Seattle, producing 4,732 yards from scrimmage and scoring 30 times. While Steve Sarkisian will use more than just one back in 2012, Callier figures to get the bulk of the carries. The SoCal product posted a historic prep season as senior by rushing for 3,010 yards and 43 touchdowns at Warren High School. The 5-foot-10, 205-pounder is lighter than Polk but loves the contact like the former Husky tailback. He has proven himself on special teams — he ranks No. 2 all-time in UW history with 1,309 return yards — and will have his chance to prove it in the backfield this fall.
11. Malcolm Agnew, Oregon State (SO)
Rushing Stats: 89 att., 423 yards, 5 TD
Receiving Stats: 3 rec., 8 yards
Under Mike Riley, Oregon State has seen some ridiculous rushing numbers posted by the likes of Steven Jackson, Yvenson Bernard and Jacquizz Rodgers. A fact that makes Agnew’s startling team leading totals (carries, yards and touchdowns) that much more shocking. Even more shocking is 223 of his team-best 423 yards came in the first week of the season. In his first career game, Agnew rushed 33 times and scored three touchdowns against Sacramento State. However, like most of the 2011 Beaver campaign, the loss overshadowed a fine statistical performance. In only six games, the 5-foot-8, 204-pound runner conjured up images of Rodgers with his tiny frame and tough-nosed attitude. The key for the sophomore, who nursed a tender hamstring this spring, will be staying healthy. Expect Riley to steal a page out of cross-state rival Oregon’s book and use Agnew (and a host of other backs) in a variety of ways this fall.
12. Rickey Galvin, Washington State (SO)
Rushing Stats: 114 att., 602 yards, 5 TD
Receiving Stats: 28 rec., 242 yards, TD
No Mike Leach tailback has ever been considered a workhorse, but Galvin has a chance to give the new head coach exactly what he looks for in a tailback. Speed, quickness and the ability to catch the football. Galvin was strong down the stretch last fall, receiving double-digit carries in four of the last five games. Most importantly, the smallish runner caught 17 of his 28 passes over that stretch as well. In only six career starts, Galvin has proven he has the skillset to excel in Leach’s spread attack. You PPR fantasy players might want to give this sophomore a look in 2012.
13. Tony Jones, Colorado (SO)
Rushing Stats: 78 att., 297 yards, 2 TDs
Receiving Stats: 27 rec., 168 yards, 2 TDs
With quarterback Tyler Hansen and running back Rodney Stewart out of eligibility, there are few proven offensive weapons returning for Colorado in 2012. Making matters even worse was the loss of receiver Paul Richardson to an ACL tear in spring practice. Jones was a spring standout for the Buffaloes and will get the first opportunity to replace Stewart at running back. He rushed for 297 yards and two scores last year, but also caught 27 passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns. Jones is only 5-foot-7, but might see 200 carries for Colorado this season.
14. Bishop Sankey, Washington (SO)
Coach Sark isn’t committed to any type of set rotation at tailback so Sankey should see the field plenty this fall.
15. Tyler Gaffney, Stanford (SR)
Not many teams feature a 215-pound senior backup who scored eight times and averaged over six yards per carry last year.
16. C.J. Anderson, California (SR)
Anderson will serve as the top backup for Isi Sofele. As a junior college transfer last year, he rushed for 345 yards and eight touchdowns.
17. Nelson Agholor, USC (FR)
With NCAA sanctions still limiting the amount of players USC can have on scholarship this year, depth is going to be an issue at almost every position. Agholor was signed as a receiver, but could play a hybrid running back/wide receiver role, especially after Tre Madden was lost for the year with a knee injury in spring practice. Agholor is too talented to keep on the sidelines and he could see around 50 touches at running back this year.
18. Deantre Lewis, Arizona State (SO)
Arizona State already has one of the Pac-12’s top running backs (Cameron Marshall), and now the depth gets a boost in 2012 with Lewis’ return from injury. As a freshman in 2010, he rushed for 539 yards and four scores, while catching 23 passes for 370 yards. However, a gunshot wound prevented him from suiting up in 2011, but all signs point to a full recovery and significant playing time in 2012. Lewis may not record 500 rushing yards this year, but he should be an excellent change of pace option to Marshall.
19. Carl Winston, Washington State (SR)
Winston actually carried the ball (123 times) more than Galvin a year ago, so expect him to see plenty of playing time.
20. D.J. Morgan, USC (SO)
With Tre Madden suffering a torn ACL in spring practice, Morgan will once again serve as Curtis McNeal’s backup this season. The sophomore recorded two games of at least 50 or more yards, posting 56 against Colorado and 70 against Minnesota. Morgan was a top 100 recruit coming out of high school, but he needs to stay healthy to make an impact in 2012.
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