ASU's Marion Grice
The running game is extremely important in football.
It takes time off the clock to secure a team's lead in a tight game. It wears down the opposing team's defense. It opens up the passing game.
Last season three Pac-12 running backs were among the top-10 rushers in the country: Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, Oregon's Kenjon Barner and UCLA's Johnathan Franklin.
Barner and Franklin are gone. Carey's status is a work in progress. And there are a few other teams with question marks in the backfield as well.
Who is set at running back? Who has too many horses in the stable?
And who has a legitimate Heisman candidate ready to be unleashed this fall?
When you think of Washington State and a rushing attack, do you hear Mike Leach making the sound of chirping crickets?
Athlon Sports named Teondray Caldwell a Pac-12 Top 20 running back. OK, what the heck...here's Caldwell.
The Cougars are going to pass the ball on every down if they can. There is no rushing attack.
That's not a ding on Caldwell; it's just that we aren't going to see him posting big numbers due to the offense's design. Pass the ball. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Washington State averaged 29.08 rushing yards per game last year.
Christian Powell will be running in new head coach Mike MacIntyre's pistol offense. Powell could actually post some good numbers for several reasons.
First, I'm a believer in Mike MacIntyre. His turnaround of the San Jose State Spartans isn't quite as epic as Bill Snyder's at Kansas State, but it's still impressive.
Second, the Buffaloes return an experienced offensive line although tackle David Bakhtiari will be missed.
Finally, there is nowhere to go but up for the Buffs. Colorado's rushing attack was ranked No. 113 last season.
Head coach Kyle Whittingham hired Dennis Erickson to serve as co-offensive coordinator with Brian Johnson and the difference has been eye-popping. In the Utes' spring game, the offense racked up 532 passing yards and 265 rushing yards.
No, we're not expecting those kind of numbers this fall—the defense played a very vanilla scheme in that spring game. Still, Karl Williams rushed for 108 yards and three touchdowns; James Poole rushed for 65 yards, and Kelvin York rushed for 79 yards.
The offensive line looks better so we could see a big spike in Utah's rushing game, but I think the running backs will be featured more in the slot—expect to see a lot of play-action passes to the backs.
Head coach Jim Mora hasn't named a starting running back and that may not change this fall. The good news is that the Bruins may not need one—they are loaded with a stable of very good running backs.
Paul Perkins is the most exciting running back, but Malcolm Jones, Jordon James and Damien Thigpen have excellent running abilities as well, if they can stay healthy. Their rushing productivity probably will not match Johnathan Franklin's from last year but with a more mature Brett Hundley at quarterback, maybe it won't matter.
Remember Toby Gerhart? We all thought Stanford wouldn't recover after the Heisman finalist was selected in the 2010 NFL Draft. After Gerhart it was Stepfan Taylor. He too ran amok in the Pac-12 before moving on to play on Sundays.
This season we're not going to underestimate head coach David Shaw's ability to reload skilled players. Running back Anthony Wilkerson will no doubt post good numbers behind a stout Cardinal line—you can count on it. But this year we may not see a featured back because two other backs are also going to support the Cardinal rushing attack.
Tyler Gaffney returns to Stanford after a year-long sabbatical playing baseball. And Barry Sanders Jr.—yes, son of that Barry Sanders—has used up his redshirt and is ready to fire out of the backfield.
Redshirt sophomore Storm Woods had a very productive 2012 season rushing for 940 yards and 13 touchdowns on 192 carries. He could actually better those numbers this year.
The Beavers lost receiver Markus Wheaton to the NFL, and the quarterback situation still isn't resolved—will it be Sean Mannion or Cody Vaz?
Whichever quarterback is tabbed to start, handing the ball off to Woods behind a veteran offensive line should be priority one.
Brendan Bigelow scores one of his two touchdowns against Ohio State
Brendan Bigelow is just waiting to bust out in head coach Sonny Dykes' offense.
With a large number of skill players gone from the team, Bigelow will be the perfect weapon to help break in Cal's new quarterback who is yet to be named.
Bigelow rushed for 160 yards and two touchdowns in just four carries against Ohio State last year.
There are a lot of question marks at Cal but the running back should not be one of them.
Marion Grice is another underrated running back in the Pac-12. Grice finished with 679 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, but he also caught 41 passes for 425 yards and eight touchdowns.
Grice is a dual-threat back who should improve his numbers this year. Moreover, the talent doesn't drop off when Grice catches his breath on the sidelines—D.J. Foster is a talented back who will continue to provide good rushing numbers.
Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian has installed a new no-huddle, uptempo offense for the Huskies. But do the Huskies have the back to make this work?
Bishop Sankey flew under the radar last season due to Ka'Deem Carey, Kenjon Barner and Johnathan Franklin getting most of the spotlight. The league's fourth-leading rusher now has an offense that should feature him more prominently if the offensive line stays healthy.
Sankey is a sleeper in the Pac-12.
USC had a decent rushing game last year, but this year's production could be better if Silas Redd improves his ball security. The Penn State transfer had some fumbles last year that gave Trojan fans angst.
USC is known as Tailback U, but since Reggie Bush's 2005 season, there hasn't been a lot of wild success on the ground. Breaking in a new quarterback this fall should translate to a heavy focus on the ground game.
Redd has very capable reserves to support him, but true freshman Justin Davis may give Redd a serious challenge for the starting spot.
Davis took advantage of Redd's absence during the spring (knee surgery) and impressed the coaches during spring camp.
Last season the Ducks' rushing offense was nationally ranked third. Behind running back Kenjon Barner and quarterback Marcus Mariota, Oregon averaged more than 300 rushing yards per game. Barner is gone but Mariota, the Ducks' second-leading rusher, is back.
Bring on De'Anthony Thomas, one of the most electric runners in the country.
Thomas not only streaks down the sidelines with incredible speed, but he also is one of the most dangerous kickoff returners in the country.
True freshman Thomas Tyner is also an exciting addition who will be ready to compete in the fall.
Ka'Deem Carey didn't participate in spring practice due to his involvement in a couple of off-season incidents. Assuming Carey will not miss any playing time this fall, the nation's No. 1 rusher will probably return with a chip on his shoulder.
Carey rushed for 1,929 yards and 23 touchdowns last season.
It wouldn't be a total shock if the junior surpasses 2,000 yards this season.