The Pac-12 is loaded with some of the best running backs in college football
Herm Edwards' introduction as Arizona State head coach in December 2017 came with plenty of questions — not the least of which was how the old-school leader could adapt to the modern game.
After all, much changed in the 10 years between Edwards' last stint on an NFL sideline and his debut at Arizona State. Among those changes is an ever-growing emphasis on passing over rushing, and the common theory that the classic, every-down running back is archaic; replaceable.
But Edwards' traditional sensibilities succeeded in the face of what's becoming the conventional approach.
"When you run the ball, you control the clock," Edwards said at July's Pac-12 media day. "You can dictate how the game is played when you run it. And in college, the thing I've learned, it's about scoring. You can still score running the ball."
Emphasizing the run works particularly well when the offense does so through a back like Eno Benjamin. A breakout star for the Sun Devils in 2018, Benjamin accrued 1,642 yards on the ground. Only Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor totaled more among 2019 returners. Benjamin also proved Edwards' theory on the run game producing points, reaching pay dirt 16 times a season ago. That was tied for ninth-most in the nation.
Benjamin heads into 2019 looking like a threat to lead college football in rushing and contend for individual awards, including the Heisman. And he has company among his Pac-12 running back peers.
Right behind him as the third-most productive ball carrier from 2018 returning for '19 is J.J. Taylor, the lightning bug from rival Arizona. Used primarily as a change-of-pace back his first season-and-a-half under Rich Rodriguez's staff, Kevin Sumlin and Noel Mazzone entrusted the 5-foot-6, 185-pound Taylor to shoulder a heavier load in 2018.
Taylor responded with 1,434 yards at a 5.62 per-carry clip. Playing behind a healthier offensive line in 2019, he could be poised for more. Oh — and he's not 5-foot-6, he likes to point out.
"Five-six and three-quarter inches," he said with a laugh. "I like to add that three-quarters."
Despite his size, Taylor is one of the most elusive ball carriers in the nation — or perhaps because of his size. His ability to slip through holes and evading tackles fuels Taylor's production. He's used that approach to exceed the expectations implicitly set during the recruiting process when only Arizona and Washington State — where he'd have been more of a receiver, evidenced in James Williams and Max Borghi last year ranking as the conference's two most productive pass-catching backs — offered him FBS scholarships. His other offers came from FCS programs like Montana State and Sacramento State.
Taylor isn't the only Cinderella story among the loaded running back class of 2019. UCLA's Joshua Kelley received only FCS opportunities out of high school, landing at UC Davis. After serving as the Aggies' change-of-pace back, a change in coaching staff and introduction of a more pass-emphasizing offense precipitated Kelley's decision to pursue his Pac-12 dream.
"My whole coaching staff got fired. It was kinda crazy; these are the people who come to you in your high school and are like, 'I want you to come here on a full scholarship and I want you to run the ball for us,'" Kelley recounted. "Seeing them all get fired was like, 'Wow.'"
The uncertainty prompted Kelley to take a gamble on himself: Transfer to UCLA as a walk-on and prove himself at the position at college football's highest level. That roullette chip paid off, for both Kelley and UCLA. He racked up 1,243 rushing yards last season and scored 12 touchdowns. His performance in UCLA's win over rival USC set a record in that historic series.
With a big 2019, the former FCS reserve and former UCLA walk-on could become an NFL draft pick. That's where a new challenge begins, not just for Kelley. While the Pac-12 is in the midst of a running back boom period, the pro game continues to wrestle with the idea that the position is interchangeable; the players expendable.
While the old-school mentality Edwards espoused produces results in college, the way for a running back to transition into the NFL is to evolve. Few understand that more than Kelley's UCLA head coach, Chip Kelly.
"They threw the ball more than they ran the ball in the National Football League [in 2018]. So it's a pass protection, running back route-running league right now, and you better be good if you plan on playing beyond college," said Kelly.
Indeed, every NFL team but Seattle passed more than ran last season. Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara are three of the game's hottest, young backs; all are elite pass catchers. Having spent four seasons in the NFL, first with the Philadelphia Eagles then San Francisco 49ers, Kelly has firsthand insight on the current trend.
But while Kelly understands the emphasis shift, he's a coach who's always relied heavily on a feature-back attack. At Oregon — first as offensive coordinator in 2007 and '08, then as head coach from 2009-12 — Kelly's hyper-speed system fostered some of the country's most productive individual rushing seasons.
Jonathan Stewart, 2007: 1,722 yards, 11 touchdowns
Jeremiah Johnson and LeGarrette Blount, 2008: 1,201 yards, 13 touchdowns; 1,002 yards, 17 touchdowns
LaMichael James, 2009: 1,546 yards, 14 touchdowns
LaMichael James, 2010: 1,731 yards, 21 touchdowns (Heisman Trophy finalist)
LaMichael James, 2011: 1,805 yards, 18 touchdowns
Kenjon Barner, 2012: 1,767 yards, 21 touchdowns
Kelley's production continued that trend. His most telling development in 2019 won't be what he adds to his individual numbers, however. It may come from how he blocks on passing plays.
That element of Zack Moss' game at Utah might make him the most intriguing NFL prospect among this year's Pac-12 running backs, at least among the upperclassmen. Moss combines a classic feature-back style, running through the tackles and welcoming contact before picking up yards after it, with solid contributions in the passing game.
In addition to his solid blocking in passing situations, Moss caught 29 balls for 243 yards in 2017.
His NFL prospects aside, Moss also defies the stigma of running back expendability purely through his absence a season ago. Utah scored 40-plus points four times in October, and Moss rolled up 1,096 yards with 11 touchdowns in the first two months. He sustained an injury in early November, and the Utes offense was never as dangerous.
His return to the backfield in 2019 positions Moss both to set the Utah career rushing mark, currently 3,219 by Eddie Johnson, and makes the Utes favorites to win the Pac-12.
Moss is another example of a surprise overachiever — Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said of the Floridian's recruitment, "I couldn't figure out why the SEC wasn't all over him." — but he's undeniably important to the Pac-12 landscape in the coming season.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.