Eddie Lacy, Mike Gillislee and Zac Stacy are gone, but the SEC isn’t hurting for options at running back.
Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon are back after standout freshman seasons. And both players are due for a bigger workload in 2013.
Mississippi State’s LaDarius Perkins quietly rushed for over 1,000 yards last season, while Texas A&M’s Ben Malena is an underrated option in a deep stable of backs.
This group could get even deeper in 2013, especially if Missouri’s Henry Josey returns full strength from a knee injury.
College football’s 2013 season is still months away, but it’s never too early to start thinking about some of the top players in the nation. With spring practice coming to a close around the nation, Athlon will rank the top running backs in each conference. Note: Some projection of 2013 stats was considered for this ranking.
Ranking the SEC Running Backs for 2013
1. Todd Gurley, Georgia (SO)
The 6-foot-1, 218-pound sophomore from Tarboro (N.C.) High is anything but the vibe his surname portrays. The physical monster stepped right into the lineup as a freshman and made fans in Athens forget all about dismissed SEC Freshman of the Year Isaiah Crowell. Gurley was just the second UGA freshman to top 1,000 yards (1,385) and set the freshman school record with 17 touchdowns. He has the power to plow through the interior of SEC defenses and the speed to outrun SEC linebackers and safeties. He even returned kicks at times last year, scoring on an NCAA-record 100-yard return in his first career game.
2. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama (SO)
With Eddie Lacy moving on to the NFL, it’s Yeldon’s turn to be the premier back for Alabama. As a true freshman last season, he recorded 1,108 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns on 175 attempts. Yeldon posted back-to-back 100-yard efforts to end the season, including 153 on the ground in the SEC Championship Game victory over Georgia. Alabama has some holes to fill on the offensive line, and a cast of talented freshmen will join the team this summer. However, Yeldon is poised to easily surpass last year’s totals as he assumes the feature back role in 2013.
3. Jeremy Hill, LSU (SO)
Due to a recent arrest, Hill’s No. 3 ranking is in doubt. While the sophomore is one of the SEC’s most-talented rushers, there’s a good chance he misses some game action this year. Hill barely played through the first six weeks of 2012, with his best performance coming against Idaho – 61 yards and two touchdowns. However, Hill emerged as LSU’s top back in the second half of the season, recording three consecutive 100-yard efforts in SEC play and finishing with 124 yards and two touchdowns against Clemson. Against Alabama, Hill rushed for 107 yards and one score. If he’s on the field this year, Hill is a safe bet to earn All-SEC honors.
4. Keith Marshall, Georgia (SO)
The complementary piece to Gurley in the Georgia backfield is fellow sophomore Keith Marshall. Also from the Tar Heel State — Raleigh's Millbrook High School — Marshall competed against Gurley on the football field and on the track team in high school. His speed played immediately in the SEC, rushing for 759 yards and eight scores as the primary backup in Athens. He will stretch the defense to the sidelines and can score on any play. Packaged with Gurley, the Dawgs may boast the best backfield in the nation.
5. LaDarius Perkins, Mississippi State (SR)
The senior tailback from Greenville (Miss.) St. Joseph burst onto the scene in Starkville with 101 carries and 566 yards as a freshman. He provided an excellent change of pace option behind Vick Ballard and on special teams until last season when he finally got the chance to start full-time. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound speedster blossomed into one of the league’s better backs, rushing for 1,024 yards on 5.0 yards per carry and scoring 10 total touchdowns. He is a great fit in Dan Mullen’s spread offense and should once again reach 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns in 2013.
6. Ben Malena, Texas A&M (SR)
Malena may not have the numbers that T.J. Yeldon or Todd Gurley will produce, but the senior has the talent to rank among the best running backs in the SEC. In his first full season as a starter, Malena rushed for 808 yards and eight scores on 138 attempts. He also factored into the passing attack, catching 18 passes for 111 yards and one touchdown. For a running back that is only 5-foot-8, Malena has surprising power and averaged 5.9 yards per carry in 2012. Malena will share time with Tra Carson, Brandon Williams and Trey Williams, but the senior is one of the SEC’s top backs.
7. Jeff Scott, Ole Miss (SR)
A dynamic South Florida prospect from Miami has watched his production slowly improve year after year. The tiny tailback — 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds — has increased his carries, yards and touchdowns for three straight seasons, but has yet to explode into the spotlight. With Hugh Freeze’s new offense spreading the ball around, Scott may never be a true workhorse, but will certainly be the most experienced and dependable runner in the crowded Ole Miss backfield.
8. Marlin Lane, Tennessee (JR)
If disciplinary reasons do not get in the way, Lane could be in for a breakout junior season. The Daytona Beach (Fla.) Mainland prospect is shifty, fast and tough at the point of attack. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry a year ago and was less than 50 yards away from leading the team. The 5-foot-11, 205-pounder is the better overall player than Raijon Neal but the duo should work perfectly in tandem behind what should be one of the nation’s best offensive lines. Again, if he is reinstated (which seems likely) and can walk the straight and narrow.
9. Rajion Neal, Tennessee (SR)
The senior from Fayetteville (Ga.) Sandy Creek had his best season last fall as a Vol. He led the team in rushing with 708 yards and five touchdowns while providing support as a receiver. The 5-foot-11, 210-pound tailback never separated himself from Marlin Lane, however, and will have to split time with Lane, his backfield mate in 2013. If he can play with more consistency, dependability and toughness, he could have a big year behind a great O-line.
10. Tre Mason, Auburn (JR)
Mason was one of the lone bright spots on Auburn’s offense last season. After rushing for 161 yards and one touchdown as a true freshman in 2011, Mason rushed for 1,002 yards and eight scores last season. He didn’t record a 100-yard effort in SEC play, averaging 59.1 yards per game. Cameron Artis-Payne will split time with Mason, but the junior could rush for 1,000 yards once again in 2013.
11. Wesley Tate, Vanderbilt (SR)
A local product from Hendersonville (Tenn.) Pope John Paul II, Tate enters his final season on West End with a chance to be a star. The big (6-1, 215) running back was No. 2 on the team behind Zac Stacy in carries (107) and touchdowns (8) and was given important carries throughout the season in key situations. He will battle with former star recruit Brian Kimbrow for carries all season long but is much better suited to be the workhorse James Franklin wants. After playing multiple positions throughout his career at Vandy, Tate is finally settled as a running back and could have a huge season for the Dores.
12. Alfred Blue, LSU (SR)
Before a knee injury sidelined him after the third game last season, Blue was poised to emerge as LSU’s feature back. In his career in Baton Rouge, Blue has rushed for 910 yards and 10 touchdowns, including 101 against Washington last year. With Jeremy Hill’s status in doubt, Blue and Kenny Hilliard could be asked to shoulder more of the workload this year. Even if Hill is on the team, Blue will see more than a handful of touches as LSU’s No. 2 back.
13. Henry Josey, Missouri (JR)
Josey sat out last year after suffering a serious knee injury during the 2011 season. Before the injury, the Texas native had 1,168 yards rushing and nine scores, averaging 8.1 yards per carry. Considering the severity of the injury, it’s uncertain if Josey can come back at full strength. However, having the junior back in the mix should help Missouri’s offense, even if he doesn’t average 8.1 yards per carry this year.
14. Mike Davis, South Carolina (SO)
The short, burly runner from Lithonia (Ga.) Stephenson has workhorse written all over him. He is just 5-foot-9 but checks in at 215 pounds, making Davis difficult to tackle and find in open space. He carried for 275 yards and two scores as a true freshman last year and appears to be the heir apparent to Marcus Lattimore for Steve Spurrier. He got plenty of looks down the stretch once Lattimore got hurt — 13 carries against Arkansas and 12 against Clemson — and should have a breakout 2013 season.
15. Brian Kimbrow, Vanderbilt (SO)
The smallish sophomore-to-be was one of the most heralded recruits to ever sign with Vanderbilt out of Memphis (Tenn.) East. He checks in at just 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds but has speed to burn and is an incredibly versatile player. As just a true freshman, Kimbrow rushed for 413 yards and three scores while also returning kicks. Look for the coaching staff to get him the ball in a variety of ways all over the field. So while he won’t be considered the workhorse starter, he will figure prominently into the offensive gameplan all season long.
16. Kenny Hilliard, LSU (JR)
As mentioned with Alfred Blue, Hilliard’s role in the backfield could increase in 2013. With Jeremy Hill’s status in doubt, Hilliard should shift from the No. 3 to the No. 2 role behind Blue. In 12 games last year, Hilliard rushed for 464 yards and six touchdowns. His most impressive performance came against North Texas, which resulted in 141 yards rushing and two scores on 13 attempts. At 6-foot and 231 pounds, the Louisiana native may split time at fullback, but his role won’t be defined until Hill’s status is cleared for 2013.