Football is increasingly recognized as a quarterback's game throughout the sport. Don’t tell the Pac-12 running back corps of 2013 that the position is becoming obsolete, though.
The current wave out West is the reemergence of the star running back.
This season, the league is loaded with backs of all styles and skill sets. There couldn’t be two more different rushers than the Arizona Wildcats' Ka’Deem Carey, the nation’s leading rusher in 2012, and Oregon Ducks speedster De’Anthony Thomas.
Carey crashes through the tackles, running with power that keeps his legs churning until a two-yard gain becomes eight. Thomas is a blur who flourishes on the edges and in space.
Carey and similarly skilled Washington Huskies back Bishop Sankey collided Saturday at Husky Stadium, and both failed to disappoint. Carey rushed for 132 yards, scored a touchdown in his 12th consecutive game and made a fourth-down reception on a wheel route run to perfection.
Sankey one-upped him with 161 yards on a program-record 40 carries and, in the process, reclaimed the Bowl Subdivision rushing lead. His performance was the kind of workmanlike effort more closely associated with an era long since passed by the pass.
"Bishop was awesome. His focus was there, his body language didn’t change from his first carry to his last one," Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian said in his postgame press conference, per GoHuskies.com.
The success of returners like Sankey and Carey comes as no surprise. Carey led the nation in rushing a season ago, an achievement Sankey now holds through five weeks after he was No. 19 a season ago.
Though an ankle injury sidelined him in Saturday’s defeat of Cal, Thomas is still among the nation’s top-50 rushers thanks to a whopping 8.5 yards-per-carry average.
Their performances aren't what make the conference’s collective running back play so impressive, but rather the emergence of several new faces.
The Pac-12 could have understandably taken a step back from 2012, when half of the conference ranked among the top-48 rushing offenses in college football.
Gone from that class are Doak Walker Award finalists, Johnathan Franklin (UCLA) and Kenjon Barner (Oregon), as well as multiple-year starters and 1,000-yard rushers, Stepfan Taylor (Stanford) and John White (Utah).
All are on pace to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark, save Tyner—and the true freshman is only off the same course because he plays in a loaded Oregon backfield.
Instead of stepping back, the Pac-12 now boasts four of the nation’s top-13 rushing attacks and six in the top 33.
At No. 31 is Utah, with a primary back in Poole who was buried on the depth chart during spring practices.
“He is a guy that is a great example of perseverance and hard work and just staying after it, and it paid off for him,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said in his weekly press conference per UtahUtes.com. “He’s now the lead guy, and he's running the ball effectively.”
Who is the best running back in the Pac-12?
USC has been without workhorse Silas Redd, but his absence has allowed for the emergence of Tre Madden. The sophomore has four 100-plus-yard games on the season, putting him on track for the highest output from a Trojan ball-carrier since Reggie Bush’s 1,740-yard, 2005 Heisman campaign.
Scour the conference and there is one running back success story after another.
Take Arizona State’s Marion Grice, who is tied for college football’s lead for rushing touchdowns at eight. With 12 scores overall, he’s among the most productive offensive weapons in the nation.
If the Sun Devils can enter the Pac-12 championship fray, Grice’s production could make him a potential Heisman candidate. But then, he’s just one of several in the conference’s deep running back class with a strong, early case to end both the position’s and Pac-12’s drought for that most coveted piece of individual hardware.
Bush was the penultimate running back to win that most coveted piece of individual hardware, and the last representative from the Pac-12.
The Pac-12 has continuously produced great running backs. Stanford’s Toby Gerhart and Oregon’s LaMichael James were Heisman finalists in 2009 and 2010, and the NFL is rife with prominent Pac-12 alumni like Marshawn Lynch and Jacquizz Rodgers.
Never has the conference boasted quite as deep a crop, though. And that depth extends to individual rosters.
The aforementioned multifaceted running attack at Oregon sets the league's standard, but the Ducks’ counterparts are rolling with their own diverse looks.
UCLA, for example, has three different running backs with multiple touchdowns through just three games, as Paul Perkins and Malcolm Jones have capitalized on opportunities behind breakout star James.
Though Washington’s Sankey is the top ball-carrier in FBS, teammate Jesse Callier has three scoring rushes and a 6.5 yards-per-carry average to bolster the Husky ground game.
So many trends start on the West Coast, including on the football field. This running back boom in the Pac-12 may prove to be the latest, and perhaps signify the return of the star rusher to the quarterback’s game.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45.