Last month we took a look at the best QB units in the SEC. Now it's time to turn our attention to a position that has a very long tradition of excellence in the conference. Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, Emmitt Smith. You get the picture. Here is how I see the SEC RB groups heading into the 2013 season:
The Tide lose Eddie Lacy, the third leading rusher in the SEC in 2012, to the NFL this season. So how does Nick Saban respond? He simply goes out and signs the #4 (Derrick Henry), #12 (Alvin Kamara), #14 Altee Tenpenny and #15 ranked RB prospects in the Nation according to Scout.com. Now that is a recruiting haul! But I'm not sure how much time these guys will be seeing because T.J. Yeldon is a stud. As a true freshman he ran for 1108 yards, 6.3 ypc and 12 TDs. And that was playing second fiddle to Lacy. Don't forget the Tide still have Dee Hart, who can be a big factor if he can stay healthy, and Kenyan Drake (281 yds rushing in 2012 as a freshman).
#2 LSU Tigers
No matter how poor the QB play has been for the Tigers over the years, they always seemed to have a great crop of running backs. This year will be no different. Despite losing Michael Ford and Spencer Ware to early entry in the NFL Draft the cupboard is still stocked. In fact, rising sophomore Jeremy Hill is probably a pretty big reason why Ford and Ware have taken their talents to the NFL as Hill took a lot of their carries away down the stretch. Hill came on strong at the end of the season as he averaged 97.7 ypg in the final seven games and had three multi-TD games. With Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard as the second and third string backs, I'd say the Tigers have it pretty good.
Going into the 2012 season, Georgia had a ton of questions at the RB position. One year later they have the most returning rushing yards and rushing TDs in the SEC. So why are they #3 and not #1? If we were just talking about the team with top two tailbacks I would have them #1 but with the transfer of Ken Malcome, Georgia doesn't have as much proven depth as it would like. Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall might be the best 1-2 punch in the country and I expect Marshall to be used more this season in different situations and positions on the field to try and get him in space where he can make plays.
#4 Texas A&M Aggies
Johnny Manziel led the Aggies in rushing but they do have two very talented returning rushers. Ben Malena really came on last season and led the Aggies RBs in rushing with 808 yds and 5.8 ypc. Christine Michael moves on this season but that just means that rising sophomore Trey Williams will get more chances with the rock and he should excel in Kevin Sumlin's system.
The Vols were 12th in the league in rushing attempts in 2012. That happens when you are playing from behind and throwing the second most passes in the league. Tennessee returns two solid options in Rajion Neal (708 yds rush, 4.5 ypc, 5 TD) and Marlin Lane Jr (658 yds rush, 5.4 ypc). Neal has to stay healthy in 2013 and Lane has to show that he can show up against the big boys.
The Bulldogs return all of their rushing yards from last year. Rising senior LaDarius Perkins returns (1024 rush yards and 8 TD) to lead the way. He's backed up by a group of one junior (Josh Robinson) and two sophomores (Nick Griffin and Derrick Milton). For Mississippi State to improve on it's rushing game from last year (10th in the SEC) someone will need to step up as the primary back-up to Perkins. Ashton Shumpert (Scout.com #20) should also get a look this fall.
The Gators rushing attack finally returned to form last season as they finished third in the league in yards per game. The issue now is who will replace Mike Gillislee's 1152 yards. Matt Jones (275 yds in 2012) will get the first shot at being the go-to back. Freshman Kelvin Taylor (Scout.com #8), Fred Taylor's son, should also get some early chances to see if he's ready for the SEC. Class of 2010 recruit Mack Brown (Scout.com #12) is still on the roster. Is this the year he contributes? The Gators have the talent to finish much higher on this list as Will Muschamp has proved a commitment to the run but there are still plenty of question marks until the ball is put in play.
The Gamecocks went from third in the league in rushing in 2011 to tenth last season. The two leading RBs for the Gamecocks, Marcus Lattimore and Kenny Miles, have moved on and Mike Davis returns as the leading rusher at the RB position (275 yds in 2012). One player who will be coming back this year for South Carolina is Brandon Wilds (486 yds rush in 2011) as he returns from an ankle injury. The Gamecocks also have David Williams coming in this fall (Scout.com #23).
Auburn finished 11th in the league in yards per carry and 9th in yards per game in 2012. When Gus Malzahn was the OC, Auburn finished no lower than fifth in the league in the both of those categories. Malzahn's spread should open up some holes (if he can find a QB) and allow more space for Auburn's backs to run. Tre Mason (1002 yds, 5.8 ypc and 8 TD) returns but he's without a proven back-up. Malzahn will be expecting immediate contributions from heralded JUCO transfer Cameron Artis-Payne and incoming freshman Johnathan Ford (Scout.com #35).
The Commodores finished seventh in the league in rushing last season and return Brian Kimbrow and Wesley Tate. As a freshman, Kimbrow ran for 413 yards on just 66 carries. Tate is a versatile guy who can play RB or WR. After those two, the depth is questionable especially with Warren Norman not coming back.
#11 Missouri Tigers
Missouri finished 12th in the SEC in rushing yards per game last year and return just 399 yards rushing at the RB position. The biggest questions for the Tigers are when they will get Henry Josey back and how effective will he be? Josey missed all of 2012 with a knee injury (that he injured during 2011). He was a stud in 2011 (1168 yds and 8.06 ypc in 10 games) but how will he hold up against the game-in game-out wear and tear of an SEC schedule? Outside of Josey, the Tigers have Marcus Murphy (251 yds in 2012) and Russell Hansbrough (139 yds in 2012). If Josey's healthy, the Tigers should move up this list. If he's not, they will plummet to the bottom.
Kentucky finished 11th in yards per game last season in the SEC but they do return 1173 yards between Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George. Another factor could be Josh Clemons (279 yards in 2011). Kentucky has some pretty good backs but the key is keeping them healthy.
#13 Ole Miss Rebels
Scatback Jeff Scott returns for his senior season (850 yds rushing, 4.3 ypc) and he's a good one but he's going to need some help. Can rising sophomore I'Tavrius Mathers (208 yds in 2012) step up as a primary back-up or will Ole Miss need one of the incoming freshman to help out Scott? Hugh Freeze grabbed four RBs in the 2013 class including three ranked in Scout.com's top 40.
Arkansas was last in the league in rushing in 2012. That was with Dennis Johnson, Knile Davis and Ronnie Wingo Jr. Rising sophomore Jonathan Williams (205 yds and 3.37 ypc in 2012) is the only returner with more than ten yards rushing. It seems like all of the Razorbacks eggs are placed in the basket of incoming freshman Alex Collins (Scout.com #3). He looks like a good one but that's an awful lot of pressure to put on a guy who is coming into an offense that is going to be changing under Bret Bielema