The Big 12 features a solid collection of running backs at the top of the league, as West Virginia’s Justin Crawford, Oklahoma State’s Justice Hill, Baylor’s Terence Williams and TCU’s Kyle Hicks are back after rushing for more than 1,000 yards in 2016. Texas junior Chris Warren is healthy after missing most of last year due to a knee injury, and he’s expected to fill the big shoes left behind by D’Onta Foreman. The biggest rebuilding effort at running back in the Big 12 takes place at Oklahoma. The Sooners must replace Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, but there’s still plenty of talent remaining for new coach Lincoln Riley.
Having two running backs is almost essential for every college football team. While some teams have workhorse options that can handle 275 or 300 carries, most programs want to have at least two (and sometimes three) running backs to split up the workload. The thought process is pretty simple: Take the workload off one player and spread it around to keep everyone fresh. This concept seems to gain more steam each year, as a running game is no longer about just one go-to back. Instead, most teams need at least two solid ball-carriers to lead the way on the ground.
Ranking the running back tandems by conference is no easy task. How do you weigh two solid options versus one standout and a question mark at backup? Here are the Big 12 teams ranked by the running back tandems (projected No. 1 and No. 2 rushers and not the entire backfield depth chart) for the upcoming year. Note: We did take into account some projection for the 2017 season and how the running backs will perform - not strictly based on what they have done in their career so far.
Ranking the Big 12 RB Tandems for 2017
10. Kansas: Khalil Herbert and Octavius Matthews
The Jayhawks have finished in the bottom two of the Big 12 in rushing offense (conference-only games) in each of the last three years. Additionally, Kansas managed only 3.4 yards per rush in league matchups last fall. Coach David Beaty is hoping a trio of talented running backs sparks the ground attack in 2017, with sophomore Khalil Herbert, junior college recruit Octavius Matthews and true freshman Dominic Williams expected to lead the push for carries. Matthews and Williams were both three-star recruits in the 2017 class, while Herbert posted 189 yards in eight games last year.
9. Texas Tech: Da’Leon Ward and Justin Stockton
This stat won’t surprise too many around the Big 12, but Texas Tech had the fewest rush attempts of any team in the league last fall with 389 over 12 games. While the amount of attempts isn’t necessarily important to the performance of the ground game or the Red Raiders’ ranking here, it is notable this team managed only 2.9 yards per rush in Big 12 games in 2016. The top three backs from last season return, with Da’Leon Ward (428 yards) the lead option for coach Kliff Kingsbury. Ward rushed for at least 82 yards in each of his final four contests last fall. Stockton has the speed to be a big-play threat, while Demarcus Felton chipped in 5.5 yards per rush on 64 attempts last year.
8. Iowa State: David Montgomery and Mike Warren
The Cyclones check in at No. 8, but this tandem could easily rank a spot or two higher on our list. Essentially, not much separates Iowa State, Oklahoma and Kansas State in these rankings. Warren rushed for 1,339 yards and five scores as a freshman in 2015 but finished second on the team with 559 yards and three touchdowns last fall. Montgomery surpassed Warren as the No. 1 back in 2016 and led the offense with 563 yards and two scores. Regardless of which player starts, coach Matt Campbell should have a solid ground attack with the tandem of Montgomery and Warren splitting carries in 2017.
7. Oklahoma: Abdul Adams and Rodney Anderson
Let’s state the obvious here: Oklahoma is going to miss Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine. But new coach Lincoln Riley isn’t hurting for talent in the backfield. Rodney Anderson has suffered back-to-back season-ending injuries, but he’s showed promise in limited work and was regarded as a four-star recruit coming out of high school. Adams worked behind Mixon and Perine as the No. 3 back in 2016 and ended the year with 283 yards on 53 carries. He’s expected to battle Anderson for the starting nod, with junior college recruit Marcelias Sutton and freshmen Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks also in the mix. The Sooners have talent and potential at this spot. Which players step up in 2017?
6. Kansas State: Alex Barnes and Justin Silmon
The strength of Kansas State’s offense will be its ground attack in 2017. Quarterback Jesse Ertz led the team with 1,012 yards last year, with three running backs eclipsing the 400-yard mark. Charles Jones (596 yards) expired his eligibility, but coach Bill Snyder’s backfield is in great shape with Silmon and Barnes leading the way. Silmon finished 2016 with 464 yards and three scores, while Barnes posted 442 yards and six touchdowns. Barnes is a breakout candidate after averaging 7.9 yards per rush and posting over 100 yards against Baylor and Kansas in November.
5. Oklahoma State: Justice Hill and Chuba Hubbard
The Cowboys need to find a No. 2 back, but the starter (Justice Hill) should push for first-team All-Big 12 honors. Hill rushed for 1,142 yards and six scores as a true freshman last fall and will increase those totals with more opportunities as the lead back in 2017. Hubbard – a three-star recruit in the 2017 signing class – arrives from Canada this summer to push for the No. 2 job. If Hubbard doesn’t win the spot, junior Jeff Carr and redshirt freshmen Ja’Ron Wilson and LD Brown will factor into the No. 2 role.
4. Texas: Chris Warren and Kyle Porter
D’Onta Foreman left for the NFL after a monster 2016 season (2,028 yards and 15 scores), but the cupboard isn't empty for new coach Tom Herman. Chris Warren is healthy after missing most of 2016 due to a knee injury. Before the knee injury, Warren posted 366 yards on 62 carries. In 2015, Warren rushed for 470 yards and four touchdowns. Porter was a four-star recruit in the 2016 class and rushed for 206 yards on 46 attempts last year. He’s slated to return to the No. 2 role for 2017, with freshman Toneil Carter also factoring into the workload.
Related: Big 12 Football Predictions for 2017
3. TCU: Kyle Hicks and Darius Anderson
Hicks might be the nation’s most underrated running back from a Power 5 conference. He’s the Big 12’s top returner in all-purpose yardage per game at 114.1 per contest in 2016 and eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career last fall. Hicks rushed for 1,042 yards and 12 touchdowns on 203 attempts and posted four 100-yard games in Big 12 action. He was also a valuable weapon out of the backfield for quarterback Kenny Hill, catching 47 passes for 417 yards and two scores. Darius Anderson flashed potential by averaging 8.5 yards per carry in 2016. The sophomore is penciled in as the backup, but Shaun Nixon (a hybrid receiver/running back) and sophomore Sewo Olonilua are likely to see their share of carries.
2. Baylor: Terence Williams and JaMycal Hasty
The unquestioned strength on offense for new coach Matt Rhule is at running back. Williams led the team with 1,048 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns last season, while Hasty ranked third with 623 yards and three rushing scores. Williams was the No. 1 option last fall, but Hasty is essentially a co-starter and is going to see an increased workload under co-offensive coordinators Jeff Nixon and Glenn Thomas.
1. West Virginia: Justin Crawford and Kennedy McKoy
The Mountaineers have one of the nation’s deepest backfields for 2017. Justin Crawford posted an impressive debut in his first year from the junior college ranks last season, rushing for 1,184 yards and four touchdowns. His 7.3 yards per carry was the highest total of any Big 12 player with at least 100 carries in 2016. With Rushel Shell out of eligibility, the No. 2 job is expected to fall to Kennedy McKoy. Like Crawford, McKoy was impressive in his first action with the Mountaineers. He rushed for 472 yards and four touchdowns on 73 carries. Sophomore Martell Pettaway is a talented No. 3 option for coach Dana Holgorsen.