SEC Football Post-Spring Starting Running Back Rankings

Barrett SalleeSEC Football Lead WriterMay 7, 2013

SEC Football Post-Spring Starting Running Back Rankings

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    Yesterday we ran through the rankings of SEC quarterbacks and noted that three of the last six Heisman Trophy winners have been SEC signal-callers. But don't be fooled by the hardware, the SEC is still a run-driven league.

    The methods vary, of course. Alabama and Georgia use a traditional pro-style to play ground and pound football, while Auburn and Texas A&M gobble up yards on the ground out of different variations of the spread.

    Several SEC running backs enter the 2013 season with high hopes of Heisman trophies and crystal footballs.

    How to the SEC running backs rank heading into the 2013 campaign? Our picks are in this slide show.

    * Only the top running back for each team is ranked

14. Raymond Sanders, Kentucky Wildcats

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    Rising senior Raymond Sanders led the Kentucky Wildcats in rushing last season, gaining 669 yards and scoring five touchdowns on 125 carries.

    The 5'8", 180-pound speedster impressed first-year head coach Mark Stoops this spring according to ESPN.com, and he could develop into a big-time weapon in offensive coordinator Neal Brown's air raid scheme. 

    Kentucky is going to spread opposing defenses out, which means there will be plenty of open space for Sanders and the rest of the Wildcat running back corps both as rushers and receivers out of the backfield.

    Expect Sanders to be a major player for Kentucky this season, especially if Brown adapts his offense to fit the skills of the dual-threat presumed front-runner at quarterback Jalen Whitlow.

    Behind Sanders, expect Dyshawn Mobley and Josh Clemons to get carries as well, making this a true running back by committee in the Bluegrass State.

13. Jonathan Williams, Arkansas Razorbacks

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    Talk about upside. Jonathan Williams, a former 4-star prospect in the 247Sports.com composite, had to be thrilled to find that Bret Bielema—a coach that has produced seven 1,000-yard rushers since 2006—is taking over the Arkansas program.

    Williams played well in limited action as a freshman last season, taking 45 carries for 231 yards, including a 61-yard performance against the South Carolina Gamecocks. The 6'0", 220-pounder bulked up this offseason and has the size and speed to be a superstar in the SEC.

    But there will be some growing pains. 

    The combination of a tough schedule and transition to a new scheme means there will be some bumps in the road, and Williams' ability to provide some stability will be a big factor in determining the Razorbacks' bowl chances.

    Williams will be the starter, but don't count out incoming freshman Alex Collins stealing more and more carries as the season progresses.

12. Mike Davis, South Carolina Gamecocks

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    If you are looking for the unknown running back that's on the verge of making a major impact in the SEC, look no further than South Carolina running back Mike Davis.

    Davis capped off a stellar spring with a 40-yard performance in the Gamecocks' spring game. Head coach Steve Spurrier stopped short of naming a starter during the SEC coaches' post-spring teleconference, but Davis is the guy with Brandon Wilds serving as a fully-capable backup.

    The 5'9", 215-pounder is a bowling ball between the tackles but quicker than expected and can be a home run hitter if he gets loose in space. 

    Don't fall into the Marcus Lattimore trap. South Carolina is well-versed on how to be successful without him in the lineup, and Davis is fully capable of picking up the slack and leading the Gamecocks back to the SEC Championship Game.

11. Matt Jones, Florida Gators

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    You'll see Matt Jones on offseason lists touting him as one of the SEC's potential breakout stars in 2013.

    Nothing could be further from the truth.

    He actually broke out late last season while running in the shadow of former Gator Mike Gillislee.

    Jones rushed for 275 yards and three touchdowns last season, including an 81-yard performance versus Florida State—the nation's third-best defense. He picked up the blocking scheme this offseason, which solidified his role as the top running back in Gainesville.

    “That was one of the things we really like about him other than his physical run style," Muschamp told the Gainesville Sun last week. "Very good in protection. Very intelligent. He's got the whole package as far as a back. Now, he's just got to continue to do it consistently.”

    Mack Brown sits second and true freshman Kelvin Taylor third on the Gators' depth chart, but don't expect either to steal many carries from Jones. He's rather low on this list now, but has the talent and scheme to wind up at or near the top of this list after the season.

10. Wesley Tate, Vanderbilt Commordores

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    Wesley Tate is in an interesting place. With Zac Stacy gone, Tate stands in line to step in and become the workhorse for the Commodores as they look to take the next step and become a contender in the SEC East.

    He rushed for 376 yards and eight touchdowns last season, and he will see more of those tough carries in 2013. But sophomore Brian Kimbrow finished second on the team in rushing yards with 413 last season, and can be a dynamic playmaker in space.

    It's going to be more of a by-committee approach with Tate, Kimbrow and Jerron Seymour, with Tate being the centerpiece.

    If he can be successful—and there's nothing to suggest that he can't—it could take this offense to the next level.

9. Henry Josey, Missouri Tigers

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    Henry Josey? Remember him???

    SEC traditionalists might not considering he hasn't logged a carry in conference play yet. But in 2011 when Missouri was still in the Big 12, Josey was a boss rushing for 1,168 yards and nine touchdowns in 10 games.

    He missed all of last season recovering from a devastating knee injury, but looked good this spring according to ESPN.com. That would be big for Missouri, which is looking to re-establish the offensive prowess that made them the ninth-best rushing attack in the country in 2011.

    At 5'10", 190 pounds, Josey has "superstar" written all over him as long as he returns to his 2011 form. If he does, he could be the piece that jump starts the Tiger offense in 2013 under first-year offensive coordinator Josh Henson.

8. Jeff Scott, Ole Miss Rebels

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    Jeff Scott is the veteran and the headliner of the talented Ole Miss Rebel running back corps.

    The 5'7", 170-pound speedster has established himself as more than just a changeup back during his career in Oxford. He led the Rebels in rushing last season with 850 yards and added 16 touchdowns, averaging 16.42 carries per game.

    Sure, his size suggests that he's a bit more of an injury risk than other running backs, but his resume should eliminate that concern.

    He's the perfect fit for second-year head coach Hugh Freeze's system, and he will be looking to cap off his college career with a solid senior season for the resurgent Rebels.

7. Rajion Neal, Tennessee Volunteers

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    Patience is something that Tennessee fans have become familiar with over the last six years, having gone through four head coaches over that stretch.

    The 2013 season will be no different, but the one bright spot for the Vols' offense this season is that it already has a solid foundation at running back with senior running back Rajion Neal.

    Neal was solid as the every-down back last season, rushing for 708 yards and five touchdowns despite missing two games with an ankle injury.

    After spending some time at wide receiver during his career, he has settled in as the No. 1 running back behind that stellar Vol offensive line. With Alden Hill likely gobbling up some short-yardage carries, Neal should be able to avoid some of the tough carries which will keep him fresh well into the season.

    Hill will also be a contributor for the Vols this season, along with Marlin Lane if and when he returns from suspension.

6. Jeremy Hill/Alfred Blue, LSU Tigers

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    Jeremy Hill's future with the LSU football program is in doubt after his arrest for simple battery last month. But whether it's Hill or senior Alfred Blue taking the first-team handoffs, the Tiger running game is in good hands.

    Hill burst on the scene as a freshman last season, rushing for 755 yards and 12 touchdowns in essentially a half-season of work last season. He has the speed to take it to the house but is punishing between the tackles late in games, with 490 of his yards and 10 of his touchdowns coming in the second half.

    Blue emerged as LSU's top running back at the beginning of last season. After rushing for 270 yards and two touchdowns in two-and-a-half games last season, Blue suffered a season-ending knee injury versus Idaho in Week 3. He had 539 yards and seven touchdowns while working in that crowded backfield in 2011, and is fully-capable of handling the load in Baton Rouge.

    Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee will also get carries in 2013, which will allow the entire group to stay fresh as LSU looks to regain its championship form.

5. Ben Malena, Texas A&M Aggies

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    Quarterback Johnny Manziel led the Aggies in rushing last season, but Ben Malena is no slouch.

    The rising senior rushed for 808 yards and eight touchdowns last season, averaging 5.86 yards in the process. The 5'8", 195-pounder packs a mean punch—as former Florida Gator Josh Evans found out the hard way last season—and is the perfect piece to complete the Aggie offensive puzzle.

    He sneaks up on linebackers in the hole, can run around defenders in space and is a weapon as a receiver out of the backfield. Basically, he creates plenty of headaches for opposing defensive coordinators.

    Malena will have to fend off a talented group of Aggie running backs for carries this season, including the speedy Trey Williams, Oklahoma transfer Brandon Williams and Oregon transfer Tra Carson. 

4. Tre Mason, Auburn Tigers

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    Tre Mason was Auburn's lone offensive bright spot last season, rushing for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns for a team that was woefully inept and remarkably predictable on offense. 

    But with first-year head coach Gus Malzahn and his run-based spread offense back on the Plains, Mason is in the perfect position to become a superstar at running back in 2013.

    The 5'10", 198-pounder has breakaway speed and is slippery between the tackles. 

    Malzahn's offense has produced at least one 1,000-yard rusher every year since 2006 and nine total during that seven-year span.

    That bodes well for Mason, and his running back mates Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant—both of whom could also have really big seasons.

3. LaDarius Perkins, Mississippi State Bulldogs

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    Very quietly, LaDarius Perkins has put together quite a solid career in Starkville for Dan Mullen and the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

    The rising senior 1,024 yards and eight touchdowns last season, shedding the "changeup back" label in terms of a more appropriate one—"workhorse."

    The 5'10", 190-pounder is a perfect fit for what Mullen wants to do offensively and could be counted on even more in 2013 after roster turnover has forced the Bulldogs to replace their top three receivers.

    Perkins is a legitimate superstar in the SEC, but gets overshadowed by the talented backs playing for higher profile programs. He has the talent and the platform to repeat his 1,000-yard season again in 2013.

2. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama Crimson Tide

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    T.J. Yeldon made his college debut as a freshman last season, and my, what a debut it was.

    Serving as Eddie Lacy's primary backup, Yeldon rushed for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns in his true freshman campaign, adding 11 catches for 131 yards and a touchdown as a receiver out of the backfield.

    Not bad...if you like dynamic, versatile and ultra-athletic running backs.

    Alabama has transformed itself to a modern day "Running Back U," after producing Lacy, Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram during head coach Nick Saban's time as head coach.

    The 6'2", 216-pound Yeldon will enter the season as Alabama's No. 1 running back with a group of superstars waiting in the wings. With freshman Derrick Henry likely gobbling up some short yardage and goal-line carries, that will free Yeldon up to potentially improve on his 6.33 yards per carry average.

    That's scary.

1. Todd Gurley, Georgia Bulldogs

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    While Yeldon has the ring, Gurley won the award last season as the most productive freshman running back in 2012, rushing for 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns—the highest marks among running backs in the SEC.

    He beat out fellow freshman Keith Marshall for the top spot on the depth chart prior to last season, and maintained a firm grasp of it throughout his stellar freshman campaign. 

    The 6'1", 218-pounder has game-breaking speed and is incredibly powerful, creating a dangerous combination for opposing defensive coordinators to scheme against. If not for quarterback Aaron Murray, Gurley would be a full-fledged Heisman contender in 2013—and still may be before all is said and done.

    It speaks volumes that he's the unquestioned No. 1 back between the hedges, because Marshall—his primary backup—is probably one of the five best running backs in the SEC.

     

    Previous Post-Spring Position Rankings:

    Quarterbacks