While the Pac-12 may be known as a quarter back's conference, it has several good, perhaps great running backs. Last season saw many great performances but many of the names and faces will change as we enter a new season. "Who will be able to step up in their new role" is a big question going into fall camp for many teams. Let's take a look.
That noise you heard was the entire city of Tucson's relieved sigh when Ka'Deem Carey had all charges dropped stemming from a domestic dispute charge. Carey led the nation in rushing yards last season running for 1929 yards and 23 scores. In only his sophomore season and will be looked to, to be just as spectacular, if not more so with a quarter back change in the wings. Carey has flourished in Rich Rodriguez's system and his combination of speed and power is likely to keep him at or near the top of the national rushing leaders. Carey was quietly effective through much of the season until he popped off for 366 yards and 5 scores against Colorado and followed up running for over 200 against Utah the next week. Carey is the cream of the crop when it comes to running backs in the conference. He's tough between the tackles and a challenge to bring down in the open field. I wouldn't be surprised if Carey made the leap to the league after this year so ‘Cats fans will need to enjoy him this year while they can.
Arizona State Sun Devils
The Sun Devils use their running back in a different manner than any other team in the Pac-12. As they spread the field, ASU likes to find their receivers flaring out of the backfield to find open space on the edges. When you have someone like Marion Grice, it makes it look almost unfair. Grice is a dynamic back who is tough to bring down in open space, using a variety of shifty moves in the defensive secondary. Grice is probably the best pass catcher at the position and provides Taylor Kelly another vertical threat. The Sun Devils love to use Grice on swing passes as mentioned but also on screen plays which typically go for big yards when he gets his hands on the ball. Grice split time last season with Cameron Marshall and the weight will be on Grice's shoulders this season to be a feature back. With his sure feet and explosiveness, he may be the surprise coming out of the south this season.
California Golden Bears
For the last couple seasons, the Bears have been fortunate to have a solid running back duo in C.J. Anderson and Isi Sofele. The two combined for over 1500 yards and 8 rushing TDs. Cal fans have reason to be excited for the RB position this year also with Brendan Bigelow returning for his junior year. Bigelow burst on the scene with his double spin move 81 yard touchdown run against Ohio State. In that game he had only 4 carries but topped 160 yards and kept the Bears in the game. Bigelow is dangerous on the outside and if he can get to an edge, he's tough to stop in the open field. Again, everything changes next year with a new coach at the helm so I'm interested to see if Bigelow is more involved in the passing game out of the backfield. He didn't catch a lot of passes last season but when he did, he made the most of the situation, averaging over 12 yards per reception.
Buffalo fans do have a reason to be excited in their next season and his name is Christian Powell. In his freshman year appearing in only 10 games, Powell gained nearly 700 yards on the ground and found the end zone 7 times which is pretty good considering Colorado spent much of the season playing from behind. What really sets Powell apart is his size. Powell is 5'11'' 250 lbs and is like a bowling ball when he gets to the second level. Powell also has the distinction of being the highest rated fullback in this preview as the majority of teams in the Pac have a tailback as their leading rusher. Where Powell needs to improve is consistency. He scored two touchdowns against both Oregon and Arizona but the only other game in which he scored was against Sacramento State. If he can figure out his consistency, Powell could be a force this season.
Oregon has become a factory for running backs as of late, sending several players to the NFL in the position. Kenjon Barner led the way last year for the Ducks and he is leaving some big shoes to fill for Byron Marshall and De'Anthony Thomas. After the spring game, Marshall looked prepared to takeon the role of an every down back. De'Anthony Thomas showed a bit last year that he is capable of being a running back in the Pac-12 but he is most effective when he is able to get out in space, working the edges. Thomas may be the fastest player in the Pac and if he can equal match his off season growth to what he did last year, Thomas will be on plenty of Sportscenter top 10's. One thing the Ducks do as well as anyone else is using their freshmen and the arrival of Thomas Tyner in the fall cannot be ignored. If Tyner sees the field as a freshman, he could prove to be another weapon in first year coach Mark Helfrich's toolbox.
Oregon State Beavers
Make no mistake, Oregon State is a passing team. However, they have a pair of running backs in Terron Ward and Storm Woods who are not just effective, they are dangerous. Woods and Ward combined last season to run for over 1300 yards, with Woods nearly breaking the 1000 barrier on his own. They also have no trouble getting into the end zone as they had 19 scoring runs. The Beavers may feel a bit of a sting as Malcom Agnew transferred out of the program. Agnew showed great promise his freshman season but couldn't quite get it going the same way in his second campaign in Corvallis. Oregon State's running backs provide great balance to a passing game that lives and dies by the play action fake. Without a solid run attack, it renders the offense anemic, so while OSU can sling the rock all over the field, it is the running game that will decide how the offense pans out.
Stanford has been quietly blessed with one of the best running backs in the league over the last several seasons in Stepfan Taylor. Taylor toted the rock last year for 1530 yards, taking a lot of pressure off of Kevin Hogan. The only problem with Taylor's proficiency is that it didn't allow for Anthony Wilkerson to get many opportunities to run the ball. Wilkerson runs with a lot of power and keeps his legs moving, having the innate ability to fall forward with contact. Going into his senior season, Wilkerson still hasn't rushed for a total of 1000 yards but that is more a case of a guy just not getting the reps and being behind Stepfan Taylor. I think Wilkerson may be prime to have a breakout season. He is going to need to as the running game is the main key of the Stanford offense. It frees up the play action and keeps the quarter back out of trouble. It's a challenge analyzing such a small sample size and feels a bit like a cop out to say "Well he might be good." However, when it comes to Anthony Wilkerson that is what I am left with.
Jordan James has some big shoes to fill in Westwood. He isn't alone in his position as numerous backs are leaving the conference this year, but Johnathan Franklin was one of the best talents in the league. Taking his place, as mentioned will likely be Jordan James. James, known for his intense workouts will need to improve his yards per carry if he is to assist Hundley in orchestrating the UCLA offense. Currently he averages less than 4 yards a carry which doesn't help when you're trying to get on the field behind a top 3 rusher in the Pac-12. I like James' speed and I think he can really do well in Jim Mora's system, especially with defenses having to focus on Brett Hundley and the passing game.
USC has incredible weapons offensively. Last season, they had the benefit of one of the most dynamic and dangerous wide receiver combinations in the country as well as a quarter back in Matt Barkley who went on to the NFL. This vertical passing threat helped the run game as it forced defenses to spread the field. With Barkley, Robert Woods and Curtis McNeal gone, the run game is going to have to be carried by Silas Redd. Redd runs with power and does not shy away from contact. He has a high YPC average, coming in over 5 yards last season and much of that comes from his good balance and that he is tough to bring down. He doesn't have elite speed, getting brought down from behind more than you would like, but he does find and create his own holes getting into the defensive backfield often. Redd will be the feature back this year in an offense that had 1600 rushing yards between its RBs.
The Utes are losing one of the better rushers that have come through Salt Lake City in John White IV. While Utah wasn't racking up the wins, White was quietly rushing for over 1000 yards, a feat accomplished by only 6 backs in the conference. Behind him was Kelvin York, who only ran the ball 60 times last season. Although his carries were low, York was effective as his carries resulted on averaged just over 4 and ½ yards. York is a strong runner who is able to get through contact and can be a sledgehammer at the goal line. He has the strength to push a pile forward and keep his feet moving. He may be a linchpin in the Utah offense this next season as White won't be coming through the tunnel for the Utes this season. I didn't see much out of him in regards to catching passes out of the backfield, which White did effectively enough to keep a defense off balance.
Many who faced the Huskies last season thought they would be getting a reprieve from the departure of Chris Polk. What they didn't know was Bishop Sankey was next up and what he was capable of. Sankey totaled 1439 yards rushing and was instrumental in keeping the heat off of Keith Price. Sankey is going to need to produce effectively this year as the Huskies have taken some hits at the WR position. Bishop Sankey has good vision, is decisive when he hits the holes and explosive when he gets through them. Sankey isn't featured in the passing game but with the Dawgs being shorthanded out wide, he may see his touches increase in the passing game this season. The challenge with Sankey is you need to square him up to bring him down. He is elusive enough and runs low enough to the ground so as to not afford defenders the chance to do that which leads to a high YAC average for the Washington back.
Washington State Cougars
To say that the Cougars are not a threatening running team is being generous. They had no rushers go over 300 yards last season and only accounted for 6 touchdowns on the ground. Don't expect the Cougars to make a drastic change this year when it comes to the running game so it's likely that WSU will be back at the bottom of the conference in rushing efficiency for the 2013 season. WSU returns Teondray Caldwell to the fold who was the team's second leading rusher. Where Caldwell is really dangerous though is in the return game. Caldwell has good elusiveness but suffers from the case of playing from behind and having to throw the ball to try to get back into the game. Caldwell's workload may go up this next season as Carl Winston will no longer be at Washington State, but he may see Leon Brooks cut into his carries also. In limited action Brooks averaged 6.5 yards per carry and found the end zone once.
Arizona St 19
Oregon St 15