Breaking Down the Top SEC Spring Football Running Back Battles
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On Thursday, we listed the top quarterback battles in the SEC this spring.
But a quarterback's best friend is a reliable running game, and several battles taking place in backfields around the SEC this spring will have a major impact on the 2013 season.
Alabama is set at the top with T.J. Yeldon as its primary back, as is Georgia with Todd Gurley, Texas A&M with Ben Malena and LSU with Jeremy Hill. But plenty of other intriguing battles remain.
Florida will be looking for the replacement to Mike Gillislee. Head ball coach Steve Spurrier will be in search of the "next Marcus Lattimore," and someone has to step up in Fayetteville.
Where will the the top running back battles taking place this spring in the SEC?
Our top seven are in this slide show.
7. Arkansas Razorbacks
Arkansas RB Jonathan Williams
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The running back position has been a point of pride for first-year Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema. Seven backs ran for more than 1,000 yards during Bielema's seven years at Wisconsin, including Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) career touchdown leader Montee Ball.
But after Dennis Johnson exhausted his eligibility and Knile Davis declared early for the NFL draft, Bielema finds himself in a bit of a predicament in Fayetteville.
Enter: Jonathan Williams.
A rising sophomore, Williams rushed for 231 yards last season and was a 4-star prospect by 247Sports.com in the class of 2012. He has the size and speed to be a star in the SEC, and will look to solidify his spot atop the depth chart this spring.
But look out—5-star stud Alex Collins will be in Fayetteville this summer and will make a push for immediate playing time.
Post-Spring Prediction: Williams will be the guy, but the real battle with Collins is yet to come. Williams better impress.
6. Tennessee Volunteers
Tennessee RB Rajion Neal
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Most of the focus this spring will be on Tennessee's defense, quarterbacks and wide receivers, meaning first-year head coach Butch Jones can rest a little easy at running back.
Aside from Cordarrelle Patterson's impact on the ground game, Tennessee returns essentially its entire cast from a year ago. But how that cast sorts itself out will be interesting.
That group is headlined by senior Rajion Neal, who rushed for 708 yards and five touchdowns in 10 games a year ago as the primary back in former offensive coordinator Jim Chaney's offense.
Hot on his heels was the electric Marlin Lane, who rushed for 658 yards and two touchdowns. Lane was a hotshot recruit in the class of 2011, and the rising junior has the size and speed to be a versatile back in the SEC.
Devrin Young and Alden Hill will also get an opportunity this spring.
Post-Spring Prediction: Neal will reestablish himself as the feature back, but Lane will establish himself as a potential impact player as well.
5. Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky RB Raymond Sanders
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Kentucky's offense is undergoing a total overhaul, moving to the air-raid attack under first-year offensive coordinator Neal Brown.
While we all expect the Wildcats to sling the ball all over the field, there is still a rather significant battle taking place at running back.
Returning are seniors Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George, who rushed for a combined 1,173 yards and nine touchdowns a year ago. Each has proven that he has the ability to make an impact, but both need to be a bit more consistent.
The wild card is 5'10", 204-pound Josh Clemons. He rushed for 279 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman in 2011 before a knee injury derailed his season and forced him to sit out 2012. If Clemons can return healthy, he will make a big impact.
Post-Spring Prediction: This race will be wide open.
4. Vanderbilt Commodores
Vanderbilt RB Brian Kimbrow
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Replacing a legend isn't easy, but that's exactly what Wesley Tate and Brian Kimbrow will be asked to do now that Zac Stacy—Vanderbilt's all-time leading rusher—has moved on.
But both players are talented, which should allow the Commodores' rushing attack to not miss a beat this spring.
Tate rushed for 376 yards and eight touchdowns last season, serving as one of Stacy's primary backups. The converted wide receiver showed that he has what it takes to be a threat near the goal line and will look to expand that role in 2013.
Kimbrow was a hotshot recruit who showed his explosiveness during his true freshman campaign, rushing for 413 yards and three touchdowns on just 66 carries. If you want a home-run threat, Kimbrow is it.
Sophomore Jerron Seymour and redshirt senior Warren Norman—who led the 'Dores in rushing in 2009 and 2010—will also return and be in the mix this spring.
Post-Spring Prediction: Tate will be the "No. 1 running back," but expect a "by committee" approach.
3. Missouri Tigers
Missouri RB Henry Josey
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The biggest question facing Missouri's backfield this offseason is whether Henry Josey will be back after missing the 2012 campaign with a devastating knee injury suffered late in the 2011 season.
Josey rushed for 1,168 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore in 2011 in only 10 games. If Josey—who is participating in offseason conditioning—can come back at or near 100 percent, he can certainly provide the identity that the Tigers' offense lacked last season.
Rising junior Marcus Murphy served as Kendial Lawrence's primary backup last season. Known mostly as a return specialist, the electric 5'9", 185-pounder rushed for 251 yards and a touchdown.
Post-Spring Prediction: If Josey is healthy, the job is his.
2. South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina RB Mike Davis
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The battle to replace Marcus Lattimore will be one of the most intriguing storylines to follow this offseason.
Mike Davis may be on the smaller side at 5'9", but the 216-pounder packs a mean punch. Davis rushed for 275 yards and two touchdowns last season and showed flashes of brilliance as Kenny Miles' backup after Lattimore went down.
Rejoining the battle will be Brandon Wilds, who sat out last season with an ankle injury. Wilds rushed for 486 yards and three touchdowns in 2011, the majority of which came after Lattimore went down with his first ACL injury. He topped the 100-yard plateau three times in 2011, including 120 yards versus Florida—which finished with the SEC's fifth-best rush defense.
The bottom line is that, despite the loss of the superstar Lattimore, the Gamecocks' backfield is still in good shape.
Post-Spring Prediction: Mike Davis will have a slight edge on Wilds, with Shon Carson (baseball) and signee David Williams also in the mix later this fall.
1. Florida Gators
Florida RB Matt Jones
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Mike Gillislee emerged as a legitimate force last season, leading Florida in rushing with 1,152 yards and 10 touchdowns despite the fact that everyone on the planet knew that he was getting the ball.
Florida's passing game will improve with another offseason of work. But the foundation for Will Muschamp's crew will again be the ground game—and Matt Jones will get the first crack at becoming the next feature back.
Jones rushed for 275 yards and three touchdowns last season, including 81 against Florida State, which had the nation's No. 3 overall rush defense. The 6'2", 226-pound rising sophomore has explosive speed and the size to take the pounding that being a No. 1 running back in the SEC entails.
Also in the mix is rising junior Mack Brown, who has seen significant time as a backup during his Gator career. Brown rushed for 102 yards last season, but was a 247Sports.com 4-star prospect in the class of 2010 and has the talent to be a star.
The wild card is early-enrollee Kelvin Taylor. The 5-star prospect enrolled at Florida in January, and getting that extra session of spring practice will be invaluable as he looks to earn immediate playing time. The 5'10", 216-pounder is physically ready to be a star; he now just needs the chance.
Post-Spring Prediction: Jones will have an edge, but Kelvin Taylor will be hot on his heels.