In the Pac-12, running backs have flourished in a game increasingly predicated around the play of the quarterback. But with heavy turnover in the current offseason and several experienced quarterbacks returning, the conference's recent ball-carrier boom is at a crossroads.
Pac-12 running backs haven't just been good—they have been arguably the best collectively in the nation. Four of the last six Doak Walker Award finalists hailed from the Pac-12, and last year's various All-America teams prominently featured the league's backs.
Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, Stanford's Tyler Gaffney and Washington's Bishop Sankey are all gone next season, leaving tremendous voids both on their former teams, as well as on the conference's running back roll call.
The most productive returning backfields are at Oregon and USC. Both face potential position battles in the offseason with talented Thomas Tyner challenging Byron Marshall at Oregon, and Tre Madden and Buck Allen jockeying for the No. 1 spot in the Trojans' backfield.
Regardless who wins those competitions, both programs are rife with talent and should carry the conference's banner of standout backs. But the Pac-12's depth at the position was its most impressive quality in recent years, and new stars must emerge to continue the trend.
In addition to the trio of Pac-12 All-Americans Carey, Gaffney and Sankey, Arizona State also must replace Marion Grice. Grice, a Swiss Army Knife back, with an ability to both run and receive out of the backfield, would have rewritten Sun Devils' record books were it not for a late-season leg injury.
|Top Departing Pac-12 Running Backs in 2013|
|Player, Team||Carries||Rushing Yards||Rushing TD||Notes|
|Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona||349||1,885||19||2x All-American; 2013 Doak Walker Award finalist; 2012 FBS rushing leader|
|Tyler Gaffney, Stanford||330||1,709||21||2013 All-American|
|Marion Grice, Arizona State||191||996||14||Scored six receiving TD in 2013 and eight in 2012.|
|Bishop Sankey, Washington||327||1,870||20||2013 Doak Walker Award finalist; All-American|
The good news is that these programs have before proven capable of replacing elite running backs. Grice's emergence began in 2012, a season after Cameron Marshall tied the program's single-season rushing touchdown record, and culminated last year.
Of the programs losing top running backs, Arizona State has the most seasoned replacement in D.J. Foster. Foster finished 2013 as the Sun Devils' primary back and showed off some of the same two-way play-making ability that made Grice a touchdown machine.
Arizona State head coach Todd Graham championed Foster following his 124-yard, two-touchdown performance as the starter against rival Arizona, per AZCentral.com.
He’s a great person, a leader on this football team. We didn’t have any doubt that he would step up big time tonight. … I think he was ready to step in and be the guy.
How unselfish he is is what’s been impressive...And he has never ever been a guy to ask how many times he gets the ball, or why didn’t he play this or that. He’s just a winner.
There won't be any question about his role next season. The same isn't true for other Pac-12 teams, however, who enter the spring season with question marks.
A surprise can emerge from the least likely of places. When Chris Polk departed Washington after consecutive seasons of 1,415 yards rushing in 2010 and 1,488 in 2011, Sankey was not even the leading candidate to take over his role. However, a knee injury to Jesse Callier just minutes into the 2012 season opener gave Sankey an opportunity he never relinquished, and made the most of by becoming an All-American in 2013.
New Washington head coach Chris Petersen has a tall task in replacing Sankey, but another Huskies star could be on the roster just waiting for his opportunity a la Sankey. Petersen's already seen Dwayne Washington operate, as Washington scored a touchdown against the coach's Boise State team a season ago.
Another surprise star was Gaffney, who returned from a season playing minor league baseball to rush for over 1,700 yards. He was the answer to the question mark left when Stepfan Taylor's three-year run of 1,100-plus-yard campaigns came to an end—much like how Taylor was the successor to Heisman Trophy finalist Toby Gerhart.
Arizona and Stanford employ strategies conducive to big numbers from their No. 1 running backs. Rich Rodriguez's version of the spread offense helped unlock the potential of notable names like Avon Cobourne and Steve Slaton before Carey, and Stanford's traditional pro-style offense has fostered three different star rushers.
Systems can minimize some of the impact felt from a star back's departure, but as other Pac-12 programs know, replacing a top-tier ball-carrier is hardly as simple as plug-and-play. Consider UCLA, which bid farewell to 2012 Doak Walker Award finalist and program record setter Johnathan Franklin.
Injuries and inconsistency vexed UCLA's running back so extensively in 2013 that Myles Jack—a linebacker—finished the season as the Bruins' most feared ball-carrier. The search for that clear No. 1 running back will continue into UCLA's spring season and perhaps beyond.
UCLA's crosstown rival USC also knows how difficult replacing a premier rusher can be. Until Joe McKnight rushed for 1,014 in 2010, the Trojans went four seasons after Reggie Bush's run to the Heisman Trophy without a 1,000-yard ball-carrier.
The Pac-12 offenses replacing their running backs probably won't have to wait four years for a new star. The quality of quarterbacks and wide receiving corps around the conference will force defenses to adjust to the pass, and running lanes should become plentiful as a result.
But that doesn't mean there isn't some adjustment period ahead for the new backs who are left to fill, then run in, particularly big shoes.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer.