A torn ACL ended Marcus Lattimore's 2011 season in mid-October, but all signs point to a full return by the junior in 2012. Although the Gamecocks may take it easy on Lattimore early, he should be in the mix as one of the top 10 Heisman candidates by the end of the year. Not far behind Lattimore is Wisconsin's Montee Ball. Repeating last season's numbers won't be easy for Ball, but he will be the focal point of an offense that loses quarterback Russell Wilson.
When compiling the rankings, Athlon considered how each player will perform in 2012, some past performance, personnel losses around the quarterback, conference difficulty and pro potential.
College Football's Top 30 Running Backs for 2012
1. Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina
Before his season ending knee injury on Oct. 15, Lattimore was a Heisman frontrunner. The week before the injury, Lattimore was sixth in the nation in rushing with 129.8 yards per game. Lattimore’s health will be one of the major storylines in the SEC. If he’s fully healthy, the Gamecocks could make a run at their first SEC championship. Although Montee Ball's production has outweighed Lattimore so far in his career, the South Carolina back is the nation's most talented all-around back.
2. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
Ball emerged as one of the elite tailbacks in his junior season at Wisconsin, leading the nation with 1,923 rushing yards and an astounding 33 rushing touchdowns. His 39 total TDs last year tied the NCAA record originally set by Barry Sanders in 1988. Ball has rushed for at least 100 yards in 16 of the last 20 games dating back to November 2011. Don’t be surprised if Ball is on the podium in New York in early December accepting the Heisman Trophy.
3.Rex Burkhead, Nebraska
Burkhead thrived in his first full season as Nebraska’s No. 1 back, rushing for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns. He averaged 106 yards per game in Big Ten play and earned first-team all-conference honors last season. Although quarterback Taylor Martinez should get better as a passer in 2012, the Cornhuskers will lean heavily on Burkhead to win games. The senior is capable of recording 300 overall carries and will also be a factor in the passing game, as evidenced by his 21 receptions last year. Burkhead is a sleeper candidate to watch in the Heisman race and should be one of the Big Ten’s top offensive players this season.
4. Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State
With Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon playing on Sundays now, Randle will have to carry the offense. He rushed for 1,216 yards and 24 scores, while catching 43 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns last year. Randle earned second-team All-Big 12 honors in 2011 and is an Athlon Sports first-team All-Big 12 selection for 2012. With freshman Wes Lunt taking over under center, defenses will be gearing up to stop Randle, but the junior back’s all-around ability makes him one of the top 10 players in the Big 12 for 2012.
5. De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon
Even at Oregon, where speed and explosiveness runs aplenty, Thomas found a way to stand out as a freshman. The 5-foot-9, 173-pound running back from Los Angeles averaged a 16-yard gain every time he touched the ball. That was half a yard more than any other Ducks’ regular and twice as much as either LaMichael James or Kenjon Barner. Thomas scored 18 total touchdowns as a rookie (nine rushing, seven receiving, two on kickoff returns).
6. Knile Davis, Arkansas
Expectations are high for Davis to return to the lineup at full speed after missing the 2011 season with a broken ankle. In 2010, Davis emerged over the final seven games of the season to rush for 1,028 yards and 12 touchdowns during that span. The Hogs’ will look forward to his power, speed and vision to return to the lineup after Arkansas ranked ninth in the SEC in rushing last season.
7. Giovani Bernard, North Carolina
Bernard burst on the scene in his first season in a North Carolina uniform as he became the school’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 1997. The leading rusher among all FBS freshmen, Bernard finished the season third in the ACC In rushing with 1,253 yards, scored 14 total touchdowns and was a first-team all-conference selection. Bernard redshirted in 2010 after tearing his ACL on the third day of fall practice, but made an immediate impact in 2011 and enters this season as one of the ACC’s top running backs.
8. Kenjon Barner, Oregon
Oregon isn’t panicking over the loss of running back LaMichael James, mainly because Barner has shown what he can do with the ball in his hands the last two seasons. Oregon’s run game didn’t miss a beat when Barner subbed for James. Barner has averaged 6.1 yards per carry and has scored 20 touchdowns in his career. Now it’s his turn to be the No. 1 running back.
9. Ray Graham, Pittsburgh
After Oct. 15, Graham was second in the nation in rushing at 134 yards per game. Alas, his season came to an end the following week with a torn ACL against Connecticut. When healthy, Graham, who is Khaseem Greene’s half brother, was a big-play back (5.8 yards per carry) despite subpar offensive line play. He could flourish in Paul Chryst’s offense.
10. Andre Ellington, Clemson
When healthy, Ellington is one of the top backs in the ACC. He missed part of 2010 with a toe injury and was hobbled at various times last season. Ellington still managed to run for the eighth-best total in Clemson history in 2011 with 1,178 yards. The 5-9, 190-pound back has carried Clemson’s tradition of big-play backs by averaging 5.8 yards per carry in his career.
11. Silas Redd, USC
Redd’s decision to transfer to USC alleviated a major concern about the offense. Although Curtis McNeal had a solid 2011 season, the Trojans needed more depth at the position, and Redd is one of the top 15-20 backs in the nation. In two years with Penn State, he recorded 1,678 yards and nine touchdowns. Redd posted six 100-yard efforts last season, including 164 in the 34-24 win over Northwestern. Redd won’t see 250 carries, but having an every-down back is a key pickup for USC’s offense.
12. Stepfan Taylor, Stanford
With Andrew Luck gone to the NFL, more of the focus of the offense will be on Taylor. There’s no reason to think Taylor’s not up to the challenge. He’s topped 220 carries in each of the last two seasons, rushing for a combined 2,467 yards and 25 touchdowns. The Stanford offense has been more or less a power-run game even with Luck at quarterback, so Taylor should be ready for what’s coming.
13. John White, Utah
The junior college transfer set a school record with 1,520 rushing yards in his first season on campus. With starting quarterback Jordan Wynn hurt, Utah relied on White to be a workhorse in the Utes’ first season in the Pac-12. White delivered as one of only seven quarterbacks in the country to top 300 carries. He also rushed for 15 touchdowns.
14. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State
With Kirk Cousins finishing his eligibility in East Lansing, the focus for Michigan State’s offense will shift back to the rushing attack. Bell is expected to be the Spartans’ workhorse in 2012 after rushing for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. At 6-foot-2 and 244 pounds, the junior brings an intriguing blend of power and speed and should surpass 1,000 yards for the first time in his career this year.
15. Eddie Lacy, Alabama
Lacy steps into the top running back role after rushing for 674 yards (7.1 yards per carry) last season. He’ll be a big-play back even if Bama drifts to a committee approach.
16. Zac Stacy, Vanderbilt
Stacy set a school record for rushing yards (1,193) thanks to a burst over the second half of the season. Stacy rushed for 809 yards and 13 touchdowns in the final eight games of the season to earn second-team All-SEC honors.
17. Christine Michael, Texas A&M
If healthy, Michael should rank much higher on this list at the end of 2012. Through three years in College Station, he has rushed for 2,374 yards and 22 scores, while recording 36 receptions for 275 yards and one touchdown. A broken leg ended Michael's season in 2010, while a torn ACL in early November forced him to miss the final four games of 2011.
18. Cameron Marshall, Arizona State
Marshall was essentially a one-man show at running back last season, carrying 230 times. No other Sun Devil running back topped 13 attempts. Marshall delivered with 1,050 yards and 18 touchdowns, tied with LaMichael James for the post in the Pac-12.
19. Robbie Rouse, Fresno State
At 5-foot-7 and 190 pounds, Rouse isn't your prototypical running back. However, he's quietly been one of the nation's most productive rushers over the last two years, recording back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and posting 21 touchdowns. Rouse had back-to-back 200-yard games in 2010 and rushed for 176 yards in a victory over Hawaii last year. Fresno State will have a new coordinator in 2012, but Rouse should expect another heavy workload once again.
20. Spencer Ware, LSU
Stats simply don't tell the full story when it comes to LSU running backs. With Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard, Terrence Magee and Jeremy Hill all in the mix, it's not easy for one rusher to get to 1,000 yards. Ware led the Tigers with 177 carries last season and should push for 200 touches once again in 2012.
21. Michael Ford, LSU
Just like teammate Spencer Ware, stats don't tell the story for Ford. With an abundance of talent in the backfield, Ford won't see 200 carries, but could start for more than half of the teams in college football. The junior led LSU with 756 rushing yards last season.
22. Cierre Wood, Notre Dame
Wood’s 1,102 yards last season was the most by a Notre Dame back since Darius Walker rushed for 1,267 in 2006. The Irish struggled to find balance on offense, as the passing attack struggled to find consistency most of the year, but Wood’s production was a bright spot. He recorded three 100-yard performances, including 191 and a touchdown on 20 attempts against Purdue. Wood also chipped in 27 receptions for 189 yards.
23. Zach Line, SMU
June Jones is known for his pass-first offenses, but Line has been SMU's workhorse over the last two years. He rushed for 1,494 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2010 and totaled 1,224 yards before an injury forced him to miss the final three games of 2011. Line will be playing behind a rebuilt offensive line but should be one of the top offensive performers in Conference USA.
24. Malcolm Brown, Texas
The talent is there, the offensive line is there and the one full year of experience is there. The only real question surrounding Brown's potential breakout sophomore campaign is his workload. Mack Brown has such a loaded backfield to work with that Brown may not get the full compliment of touches, which pushes this sophomore down the list.
25. Johnathan Franklin, UCLA
Although the Bruins will have a new offense, don’t expect Franklin’s role to change much in 2012. The Los Angeles native rushed for 1,127 yards as a sophomore in 2010, while recording 976 yards and five scores last season. Expect Franklin to see more carries in 2012, especially with Brett Hundley taking over under center and Derrick Coleman expiring his eligibility at the end of last year.
26. Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michigan
The emergence of Touissant in late October took some of the pressure off quarterback Denard Robinson in the Michigan offense. He rushed for 170 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Purdue on Oct. 29 and then went on to run for 508 yards in the month of November, more than anyone in the Big Ten not named Montee Ball.
27. Perry Jones, Virginia
Few backs in the nation play as versatile a role as Jones does for the Wahoos. He had 20+ carries only three times last year and nearly got to 1,000 yards rushing, but he also posted 48 receptions for 506 yards in the passing game. His big-play, open-space ability even landed him on the punt return team for a few games. Expect another solid year from the non-traditional running back from Chesapeake, Va.
28. Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona
With Rich Rodriguez taking over at Arizona, Carey should be in for a big sophomore season. The Tucson native rushed for 425 yards and six touchdowns as a true freshman, including 92 in the win over Arizona State. Carey should be one of the top breakout performers at running back in 2012.
29. Charles Sims, Houston
Sims was forced to sit out 2010 due to academic issues but quickly emerged as one of the top all-around threats in Conference USA last season. He rushed for 821 yards and nine scores, while catching 51 passes for 575 yards and four touchdowns. With Michael Hayes and Bryce Beall out of eligibility, Sims should rush for 1,000 yards this season.
30. Branden Oliver, Buffalo
Oliver exploded onto the scene last year, rushing for 1,395 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also chipped in 38 catches for 365 yards. Oliver's totals were even more impressive when you consider the lack of passing attack at Buffalo last season. The junior will be running behind one of the top offensive lines in the MAC, which should allow him to push for 1,500 yards.
The Next 11
D.J. Harper, Boise State
Montel Harris, Temple
Lyle McCombs, Connecticut
Curtis McNeal, USC
Chris Nwoke, Colorado State
Orwin Smith, Georgia Tech
Isi Sofele, California
Eric Stephens, Texas Tech
Matthew Tucker, TCU
Dominique Whaley, Oklahoma
James White, Wisconsin
10 Transfers to Watch
1. Silas Redd, USC (from Penn State)
2. Lache Seastrunk, Baylor (from Oregon)
3. Montel Harris, Temple (from Boston College)
4. Storm Johnson, UCF (from Miami)
5. DeLeon Eskridge, San Jose State (from Minnesota)
6. Mike Blakely, Auburn (from Florida)
7. Amir Carlisle, Notre Dame (from USC)
8. Mike Cox, UMass (from Michigan)
9. Toney Williams, Ball State (from Tennessee)
10. Corey Grant, Auburn (from Alabama)
Freshmen to Watch
Wes Brown, Maryland
J.C. Coleman, Virginia Tech
Bri'onte Dunn, Ohio State
Josh Ferguson, Illinois
Dee Hart, Alabama
Greg Garmon, Iowa
Johnathan Gray, Texas
Todd Gurley, Georgia
Michael Holmes, Virginia Tech
Duke Johnson, Miami
Brian Kimbrow, Vanderbilt
Anthony Knight, Nevada
Steven Manfro, UCLA
Keith Marshall, Georgia
Alex Ross, Oklahoma
Brandon Ross, Maryland
Rushel Shell, Pittsburgh
Trey Williams, Texas A&M
Storm Woods, Oregon State
T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
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