Big 12 Football 2012: Ranking the Conference's 10 Best Running Backs

Zach CampbellCorrespondent IApril 11, 2012

Big 12 Football 2012: Ranking the Conference's 10 Best Running Backs

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    The Big 12 was a passer's league in 2011 and it looks to be much the same story in 2012. 

    Yet we can't forget that the Big 12 has seen its share of dominant runners, as well.

    Ricky Williams, Cedric Benson, Adrian Peterson and Kendall Hunter are just a few of the more notable names to rule Big 12 backfields in their respective tenures. 

    Geno Smith, Landry Jones and Collin Klein will be expected to rain fire from under center this year, and while the Big 12 boasts some of the best receiving corps in the country, we'd be amiss to think that a stable running game won't factor greatly in a team's success in 2012. 

    Here's a quick look at the 10 best runners that the Big 12 has to offer in 2012.

Honorable Mention: Collin Klein, Kansas State

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    Because no one listed as 6'5", 225 is a running back—especially one who throws 281 passes for 1,918 yards and 13 touchdowns—I did not include Collin Klein in this ranking. 

    But can this guy run?  Absolutely. 

    In fact, Klein carried 317 times in 2011 for 1,141 yards and 27 touchdowns. 

    Yes, I said 27 touchdowns.  The long, bounding senior-to-be was able to do that all while averaging 13.7 yards a carry. 

    These numbers are testament to Klein's status as the nation's best dual-threat quarterback, and for anyone still wondering how and why Kansas State was able to make as much noise as they did last year, well, look no farther than Klein. 

    He alone accounted for 40 of the Wildcats' touchdowns in 2011. 

    Of course, at the end of the day, Collin Klein is also the guy slinging the rock when coach Billy Snyder deems it necessary. 

    For that reason, I can't acknowledge Collin Klein in an official capacity because, let's face it, John Hubert would have something to say about that. 

    Still, Klein is one of the biggest threats in the Big 12 when it comes to keeping the ball on the ground, and I'd expect to see teams within the conference working closely with their front sevens before Kansas State comes to town. 

No. 10: James Sims, Kansas

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    2011-2012 was a good year to be a fan of the hardwood Jayhawks.  What happened with the football team, though, is best left forgotten. 

    Unfortunately for rising junior James Sims, he was right at the center of Kansas's woeful year. 

    Sims was able to turn 182 carries into 727 and nine touchdowns.  These numbers would have looked better if Kansas had mustered any sort of passing game and was able to put up better than a paltry 22.3 points per game. 

    As it stands, Sims was a prime contributor for a meager Kansas offense in 2011, and that's what makes this next part that much worse.

    With Charlie Weis arriving to the glee of a Kansas fanbase looking for their team to rise out of the Big 12 cellar, Sims certainly could have picked a better time to get arrested on reports of driving under the influence. 

    Sims will have to sit out the first three games of what could have been a capitalizing year for the Irving, TX native.  Now, it'll be up to backs Tony Pierson and Darrian Miller to man the rushing duties for Charlie Weis's offense. 

    Can Sims still make a season out of it in 2012?  Sure he can.  But the battle is now much more of an uphill affair. 

    It's a shame, given that Sims is a big, athletic back who has a good deal of potential. 

No. 9: Jarred Salubi, Baylor

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    When you're graduating a big three that includes Kendall Wright, Terrance Gannaway and "Superman" himself, Robert Griffin III, the need for new players to step up and carry the torch is huge to say the least. 

    In 2011, Jarred Salubi made it clear that he would be asserting himself as a fixture in this Bears offense from here on out.

    331 yards on 58 carries for three touchdowns isn't an impressive line by any means.  However, consider the stars that Baylor had dominating the ball-carrying duties and that Salubi was efficient in averaging 5.7 yards per carry, and the potential starts to become a little more visible.  

    Baylor has boasted a 1,200-yard rusher in each of the last two seasons and Salubi, who had 101 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Washington in the Alamo Bowl, looks to have a slight edge on rising junior Glasco Martin in the race to claim the top spot in the backfield for 2012.

    Baylor, aside from TCU, might have the biggest competition in the backfield approaching September kickoff, and because of how top-heavy Baylor's offense was last season (Griffin III and Gannaway alone accounted for 6,588 yards and 69 touchdowns), it's hard to know just how dynamic their returning corps of offensive skill players is.  

    It's a post-RGIII world and with Nick Florence getting himself ready to take over under center for Waco's favorite son, the run game will be even more important in continuing Baylor's winning ways.

    For Jarred Salubi, it's time to chip in and help prevent what could be a massive hangover year in Waco.  

No. 8: Eric Stephens, Texas Tech

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    Texas Tech and Tommy Tuberville are looking forward to kicking off the 2012 season after going 2-7 in conference play this past season.  

    Please believe the Red Raiders are also looking forward to getting back rising senior Eric Stephens.  

    Texas Tech has never had a 1,000-yard rusher, and Stephens was well on track to becoming the first before he dislocated his knee in a close loss to Texas A&M and ended his season just before the Red Raiders hit the meat of their conference schedule.  

    Prior to the injury, Stephens had already racked up 565 yards and eight touchdowns.  Stephens was also on pace to make a statement as a receiver out of the backfield, having caught 16 balls for 133 yards.  

    It's do-or-die time as Stephens recoups in time for his senior year, and with quarterback Seth Doege looking to build off a 4,000-yard, 28 touchdown season, the Red Raiders could field one of the best offenses in the Big 12 this coming season.  

    It's been a long climb to the top and now that Eric Stephens is staring down the pipe of his final season in Lubbock, it's time to put on.  

    Expect a full-throttle year from Eric Stephens.   

No. 7: James White, Iowa State

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    Iowa State had an up-and-down ride in 2011, what with a few blowout losses to Texas and Baylor and then the earthquake-inducing upset they pulled over red-hot Oklahoma State.  

    One of the few things that was reasonably consistent for the Cyclones was rising junior running back James White.  

    After original starter Shontrelle Johnson got injured, White stepped in and helped to anchor a rushing attack that averaged 174.2 yards per game.  

    By season's end, the 5'8" Dallas, TX native managed 743 yards rushing and eight touchdowns to go along with 165 yards and an additional touchdown as a receiver out of the backfield.  

    Iowa State is a relative question mark heading into next season, as Johnson is still trekking the arduous path of rehab and quarterbacks Jared Barnett and Steele Jantz, who both saw equal action last season, battle it out for the starting job.  

    So far, though, reports out of spring practice are nothing but praiseworthy about White's efforts. 

    If the folks in Ames are hoping for a 2012 campaign that can build off the immense energy created by Iowa State's toppling of Oklahoma State late last season, James White must have a lot to do with it.  

    White is a stout, hard runner with a lot to work for this year.   

No.6: Dustin Garrison, West Virginia

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    This time last season, Dana Holgorsen was settling in as offensive coordinator/head coach-in-waiting and the Mountaineers had a crowded stable of young running backs.  

    Fast forward a year and Holgorsen is already a head coach with one BCS bowl win under his belt and the running back field has narrowed considerably with Dustin Garrison dominating most of the discussion. 

    The returning sophomore collected 742 yards on 136 carries for six touchdowns.  More impressive was Garrison's ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, as he racked up 201 yards on 24 receptions.  

    Of course, if you wanted to hang your hat on one game in which the Pearland, TX native emerged ahead of the rest of his brethren, you might refer back to his 291-yard performance against Bowling Green.

    Garrison also missed two games.  He sat out West Virginia's road game against Maryland while nursing a series of hand injuries.  Far worse was the ACL tear that kept him out of the Mountaineers' historic Orange Bowl appearance and now has him rehabbing through spring drills.

    Junior Shawne Alston was huge in stepping in for Garrison and providing a bruising presence for West Virginia's backfield, but Garrison, much like fellow freshman Andrew Buie, is the ideal back for Dana Holgorsen's air-raid offense; smaller, compact, fast, elusive.  

    If Garrison can return to game form before the fall arrives he could be in for a monster year as West Virginia readies itself for its inaugural season of Big 12 play.  

    Lord knows opposing defenses will have enough to worry about with Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey and dynamo Tavon Austin returning.  

    Garrison should have everything he needs to crack the 1,000-yard mark and make West Virginia that much more of a force on offense.   

No. 5: Waymon James, TCU

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    TCU presents a hard dilemma when trying to rank Big 12 backfields. 

    Namely, how does one determine who is the best out of Waymon James, Ed Wesley and Matthew Tucker when all three ran for at least 700 yards and six touchdowns?

    In the end, the numbers give the edge to James and it's not hard to see why.

    The Horned Frogs ran their way to an 11-2 season in 2011, and Waymon James led TCU with 875 yards and six touchdowns, all while averaging a hefty 7.2 yards a carry.

    Now, TCU's backfield is a hydra of sorts.  James, Wesley and Tucker received almost exactly the same number of carries last season (121,120,123, respectively) and Gary Patterson should be using them just as liberally in 2012. 

    Casey Pachall is due for a big year in 2012 at the quarterback position, but TCU makes their living off of the ground game and if there is a captain in this ridiculously loaded backfield, it's James, who is a short and powerful runner. 

    West Virginia might have the deepest receiving corps in the conference in 2012, but TCU definitely has the most depth at the running back position. 

    The rushing duties should continue to be shared equally, but if James can improve on his yards-per-carry average from 2011, the 5'8", 203-pound junior out of Sherman, TX stands to become one of the most productive rushers in the Big 12.

No. 4: Dominique Whaley, Oklahoma

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    The injury bug seems to have been fairly prominent amongst ball-carriers in the Big 12 last season, and unfortunately for Oklahoma, former walk-on-turned-starter Dominique Whaley wasn't immune. 

    Whaley looked to be on the fast track to a 1,200-yard season until he went down mid-season with a fractured ankle, forcing Roy Finch and Brennan Clay to pick up the slack. 

    It would prove to be one of a pair of huge blows to the Sooners' offense, as all-world receiver Ryan Broyles would go down just a few weeks later with a severe injury, leaving quarterback Landry Jones grasping for answers without two of his biggest weapons.

    One can only speculate, but it's likely that Whaley's absence had a lot to do with Oklahoma sputtering in the final weeks of the season the way they did. 

    What's important now, though, is that Whaley is quickly getting back into shape and will likely be the starter once the Sooners take the field in September. 

    If you're a Sooners fan, you have to like it.

    The Lawton, OK native rose from complete obscurity to take over as a junior and post 627 yards and nine touchdowns in only six games in 2011. 

    Whaley is, first and foremost, a hard worker.  He runs hard but also has that coveted ability to make people miss, which is something the good people of Norman are used to seeing in their running backs.  

    With Jones back for his senior year, along with receiving weapons Jaz Reynolds and Kenny Stills, a healthy Whaley would be huge for the crimson and cream in terms of giving Oklahoma all-around consistency on offense.

    A healthy Whaley could also mean about 1,400 yards and 12 touchdowns. 

    That's certainly something to get excited about.

No. 3: Malcolm Brown, Texas

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    Jamaal Charles was the last 1,000-yard rusher for the Longhorns back in 2007, which is strange when you consider some of the great runners who have played for Texas over the years.

    Ricky Williams and Earl Campbell, for instance. 

    So, as Texas labors mightily to shake off a pair of very subpar seasons, there is at least one bright star currently shining down in Austin in the form of Malcolm Brown.  

    Brown was a 5-star, universally renowned prospect coming out of Steele High in Cibolo, TX little more than a year ago.  Luckily, the high rating didn't prove a folly during his freshman campaign in the orange and white. 

    Brown led Texas with 742 yards and five touchdowns in 2011, and he looked every bit as strong and cocksure toting the rock as he was built up to be.  It's also worth noting that Brown missed three games in 2011; had he played in them, he would have likely reached the 1,000-yard mark.

    At 6'0", 215 pounds, Brown is already big and strong enough to break the first and second tackle.  He may not have the best high-end speed as as runner, but if there's anything to be said about Tier 1 strength programs in college, it's that getting more explosive is easily attainable. 

    Yes, Jonathan Gray arrives in Austin—just like Brown, sporting the full arsenal of recruiting accolades.  Will Gray leapfrog Brown in only his freshman year?  Doubtful.  Very doubtful.

    While it's likely we'll see some carries split between Brown and Gray, it's Malcolm Brown that will be leading the Longhorns' rushing attack in 2012.  With some fine-tuning in the spring and summer months, Brown could turn in a monstrous year for Texas in 2012.

No. 2: John Hubert, Kansas State

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    As ridiculous as TCU's backfield may have been in 2011, nothing compares to rushing for 970 yards on 200 carries and having to sit comfortably as the No. 2 rusher on your team.

    That's exactly what John Hubert had to do this past season with Kansas State.

    The sophomore out of Waco, TX took a huge step forward in 2011 after a freshman season in 2010 in which he carried the ball 12 times for 28 yards. 

    Still, for all the work that Hubert put in to help the Wildcats earn a bid to the Cotton Bowl, you'd like to see him waltz into the end zone more than three times in a season. 

    2012 could be an even bigger year for Hubert and dual-threat phenom Collin Klein and, based on Hubert's success in 2011, we could see a huge jump in his numbers. 

    There's no way around Hubert playing second-fiddle to Klein in the Wildcats' backfield.  Klein is just too versatile, too important to Kansas State's success for anyone but him to shoulder the brunt of the load. 

    On any other team, however, John Hubert would be the featured rusher and would have no problem cracking a 1,200- or 1,300-yard total and clipping on a dozen or more touchdowns. 

    Based on his progress in his second season, we can expect Hubert to make a quantum leap in 2012—and that is downright scary for Big 12 defenses. 

    Simply put, Hubert is 5'7", 185 pounds of electricity eager to cast his own shadow across the Big 12. 

    I think he'll succeed.

No. 1: Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State

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    You would figure a team like Oklahoma State, which threw the ball 595 times and averaged 387 yards through the air last season, wouldn't have enough touches left over to feature a 1,200-yard rusher.

    You would be wrong.  Because Joseph Randle, in only his sophomore season out of Wichita, KS, tallied up 1,216 yards and 24 touchdowns as the rushing-yin to the Cowboys' passing-yang.  

    Randle, at 6'1", 190 pounds, makes his living knifing through defenses with excellent speed and equally impressive control.  

    He's not so unlike his forebear, Kendall Hunter, now of San Francisco 49ers fame, who was able to slice through the space created in the air-raid spread that has made Oklahoma State one of the nation's premier offensive juggernauts.

    Only, Randle is bigger and has the makings of a more versatile back.   

    It will be a decisive year for Mike Gundy and his Cowboys as they set to task in producing another monster year without stars Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon.  

    Clint Shelf looks to take over Brandon Weeden's signal-calling duties and, aside from Randle, many are expecting a rebuilding year in Stillwater.

    Joseph Randle has the ability to make sure Oklahoma State does less rebuilding and more maintaining.  

    The rising junior's speed and ability to move in the open field make him a threat to cross the goal line any time he touches the ball and, more importantly, solidifies that he is the Big 12's most dangerous back in 2012.