The Pac-12 boasts a talented group of running backs returning for 2017, as Washington’s Myles Gaskin, Oregon’s Royce Freeman and USC’s Ronald Jones are expected to challenge for All-America honors. Freeman missed most of last season due to injury but has the most returning rushing yardage of any FBS player this fall. Colorado’s Phillip Lindsay is one of the Pac-12’s top all-purpose backs, Stanford’s Bryce Love is primed for a breakout year as the full-time starter, while Arizona State’s Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage look to close out their Sun Devil career with a huge senior campaign.
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 Pac-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 Pac-12 RB Tandems for 2017
12. UCLA: Soso Jamabo and Bolu Olorunfunmi
It’s no secret 2016 was a struggle for UCLA’s ground attack. The Bruins managed only 84.3 rushing yards per game and averaged a paltry 2.9 yards per carry. A revamped coaching staff, which includes a new line coach (Hank Fraley) and play-caller (Jedd Fisch) should provide better direction for this unit. Jamabo – a former five-star recruit – struggled to find running room last fall and led the team with 321 yards and three scores. Provided the line provides better support, Jamabo should easily improve on those totals in 2017. Olorunfunmi posted 280 yards last fall and is expected to battle Nate Starks, Brandon Stephens and Jalen Starks for the No. 2 spot.
11. Utah: Armand Shyne and Zack Moss
The Pac-12’s depth at running back is evident when Utah ranks No. 11 among tandems for 2017. Sure, the Utes have to replace Joe Williams (1,407 yards), but coach Kyle Whittingham and new coordinator Troy Taylor will find the right answers at running back. And the depth chart is hardly void of talent as fall practice approaches for 2017. Armand Shyne was impressive in limited action (373 yards) before a season-ending leg injury in early October. Moss also showed flashes of promise by posting 382 yards on 84 attempts last year, while Devonta’e Henry-Cole had a strong performance in spring ball. The Utes will be fine at running back.
Related: Pac-12 Wild Card Players for 2017
10. California: Tre Watson and Vic Enwere
Change is the offseason buzzword at California. Not only are the Golden Bears breaking in a new head coach (Justin Wilcox), but the schemes and play-callers on both sides of the ball are changing, and the offense must replace standout quarterback Davis Webb. With uncertainty surrounding the new quarterback, along with the addition of former Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin as the play-caller, the ground game is expected to receive more opportunities in 2017. Last year’s leading rusher (Khalfani Muhammad) expired his eligibility, but Baldwin still has two proven backs to build the ground game. Watson ranked second on the team with 709 yards last fall, while Enwere posted 336 yards and was limited to six games due to injury.
9. Arizona: Nick Wilson and J.J. Taylor
Injuries have taken a toll on Arizona’s backfield over the last two seasons. Wilson rushed for 1,375 yards and 16 scores as a freshman in 2014 but was limited to nine games in 2015 and five in 2016. The Wildcats need Wilson to regain his freshman form and stay healthy for the full year. Taylor was poised for a significant role in the Arizona offense last fall and rushed for 261 yards on 38 attempts. However, he was lost for the year due to an ankle injury in late September and was forced to take a redshirt year. If healthy, this tandem could easily exceed the No. 9 ranking.
8. Oregon State: Ryan Nall and Thomas Tyner
Nall was one of the Pac-12’s breakout performers from 2016, as he led the Beavers with 951 yards and 13 rushing scores. The 951 yards and 13 touchdowns were a significant increase from his freshman totals (455 yards and three scores). Nall has battled injuries in each of the last two years, and Oregon State’s hopes of a bowl bid could hinge on his health in the second half of 2017. Coach Gary Andersen sought to improve the depth at running back this offseason, adding TCU graduate transfer Trevorris Johnson and former Oregon running back Thomas Tyner.
7. Washington State: Jamal Morrow and James Williams
The Cougars quietly have one of the Pac-12’s deepest backfields. Williams, Morrow and Gerard Wicks each eclipsed over 400 yards on the ground last season and all three caught at least 29 passes. The aerial attack is always going to lead the way for coach Mike Leach’s offense, but the ground game will prevent defenses from loading up to stop quarterback Luke Falk. Morrow finished second on the team in yardage (575) but led this trio of backs by averaging 6.4 yards per rush. Williams paced the Cougar backfield with 584 yards and also contributed 48 receptions.
6. Stanford: Bryce Love and Cameron Scarlett
Christian McCaffrey’s all-around ability and overall impact on the Stanford offense will be missed in 2017. However, coach David Shaw isn’t starting from scratch at this position. Love recorded 783 yards and two touchdowns (7.1 ypc) on 111 attempts last season. Love was slated to work as the No. 2 option but spent time as the starter after McCaffrey missed a game against Notre Dame and did not play against North Carolina in the Sun Bowl. In both of those matchups, Love exceeded 100 yards and averaged just over five yards per carry. Scarlett rushed for 117 yards and one score as the team’s third option in 2016. Trevor Speights and Dorian Maddox are also in the mix for carries as a backup.
5. Arizona State: Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage
Injuries and inconsistent offensive line play have limited Arizona State’s ground game over the last two years. But if the pieces fall into place in 2017, the Sun Devils should rank near the top of the Pac-12 in rush offense. Richard recorded 478 yards in 2014 and emerged as a 1,000-yard rusher (1,104 yards and seven scores) in his first full years as a starter in 2015. He still led the team with 593 yards last fall but was limited to 3.8 yards per rush. Ballage is an intriguing physical talent at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, possessing an intriguing blend of speed and power that could propel him to his best all-around season in 2017. Ballage led the team with 14 rushing scores last fall and has posted 1,315 yards on the ground over the last three years.
4. Colorado: Phillip Lindsay and Beau Bisharat
Lindsay is one of the nation’s best all-around running backs heading into the 2017 season. He averaged 129.9 all-purpose yards per game last fall and eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark (1,252) for the first time in his Colorado career. Lindsay also scored 16 times on the ground and caught 53 passes for 493 yards and one touchdown. He’s entrenched as one of the Pac-12’s top running backs, but the backup spot is up for grabs. Kyle Evans suffered a hip injury in the spring and may miss the 2017 season. Michael Adkins II and Beau Bisharat will battle for the No. 2 role.
Related: Pac-12 Football Predictions for 2017
3. USC: Ronald Jones and Aca’Cedric Ware
With quarterback Sam Darnold set for a full season under center, the Trojans hope to pick up where they left off from 2016. Adding to the dynamic offense is the continued emergence of running back Ronald Jones. He’s led USC in rushing yardage over the last two years and posted 1,082 yards and 12 scores in 13 appearances last fall. Look for Jones to challenge for All-America honors in 2017. Ware rushed for 397 yards and two touchdowns on 78 carries last year and is expected to hold the No. 2 role after Justin Davis expired his eligibility.
2. Oregon: Royce Freeman and Tony Brooks-James
With 4,146 yards over the last three seasons, Freeman enters 2017 as the active leader in rushing yards among FBS players. Freeman started his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns but was limited due to injury last fall and finished with 945 yards and nine scores. Over the last three years, Freeman has reached the end zone 44 times on the ground and posted a 5.9 average on 703 career attempts. The backup spot is in great shape with speedy Tony Brooks-James entrenched as the No. 2 option. He posted 771 yards (7.6 ypc) on 101 attempts last year. Taj Griffin is recovering from a knee injury and will work as the No. 3 back if fully recovered by the opener.
1. Washington: Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman
After leading the team with 1,302 yards and 14 rushing scores as a freshman in 2015, Gaskin was just as effective in his encore with the Huskies. He paced the Huskies with 1,373 yards (ranked third among Pac-12 running backs) and posted 10 rushing scores. Gaskin also caught 19 passes for 137 yards and one touchdown. Coleman has been a solid backup over the last three years but posted a career high of 852 yards and seven rushing scores last fall. At 223 pounds, Coleman brings a different dimension to the ground game than provided by the speed of Gaskin.