August 1, 2011

SEC once again loaded with big-time backs

The 1980s in the SEC was the time of Herschel, Bo and Emmitt.

SEC teams routinely had some of the best running backs in the nation. From 1981-90, a dozen SEC running backs were taken in the first round of the NFL draft. That doesn't include Herschel Walker, who would have been the first player selected had he not opted to sign with the fledgling USFL.

Then, in 1990, Steve Spurrier arrived at Florida with his new-fangled "Fun 'n' Gun" offense. The next thing you know, it seemed everybody in the league - heck, almost everybody in other conferences, too - was putting more emphasis on the passing game and less on running.

By the numbers
A look at how each projected SEC starting tailback fared last season:
THE STARTER: Tent Richardson
LAST SEASON: As a backup, rushed for 700 yards and six TDs
THE STARTER: Knile Davis.
LAST SEASON: As the starter, rushed for 1,322 yards and 13 TDs
THE STARTER: Michael Dyer
LAST SEASON: As the starter, rushed for 1,093 yards and five TDs
THE STARTER: Jeff Demps
LAST SEASON: As the starter, rushed or 551 yards and three TDs while missing all or parts of eight games with injuries
THE STARTER: Isaiah Crowell
LAST SEASON: As a high school senior at Columbus (Ga.) Carver, rushed for 1,721 yards and 18 TDs
THE STARTER: Raymond Sanders
LAST SEASON: As a backup, rushed for 254 yards and three TDs
LSU
THE STARTER: Spencer Ware
LAST SEASON: As a backup, rushed for 175 yards and a TD
THE STARTER: Brandon Bolden
LAST SEASON: As the starter, rushed for 976 yards and 14 TDs
THE STARTER: Vick Ballard
LAST SEASON: As the starter, rushed for 968 yards and 19 TDs
THE STARTER: Marcus Lattimore
LAST SEASON: As the starter, rushed for 1,197 yards and 17 TDs while missing all or parts of three games with injuries
THE STARTER: Tauren Poole
LAST SEASON: As the starter, rushed for 1,034 yards and 11 TDs
THE STARTER: Warren Norman
LAST SEASON: As the starter, ran for 659 yards and four TDs before missing the final four games with an injury
This season, though, it's as if the SEC is traveling back in time. Forget quarterbacks throwing the ball; this season in the SEC will be all about stud tailbacks carrying the ball.

Each league team except Kentucky has a proven tailback, and it wouldn't be a shock if there are as many as 10 1,000-yard rushers in the conference this season.

Arkansas' Knile Davis, Auburn's Michael Dyer, South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore and Tennessee's Tauren Poole reached the 1,000-yard plateau last season; Dyer and Lattimore did it as true freshmen. This season, Mississippi State's Vick Ballard, Ole Miss' Brandon Bolden, Georgia's Isaiah Crowell, Florida's Jeff Demps, Vanderbilt's Warren Norman, Alabama's Trent Richardson and LSU's Spencer Ware will be bidding to join the aforementioned quartet as members of the 1,000-yard club.

Demps and Ware (because they will share carries), Crowell (because he's a true freshman) and Norman (because he's on a bad team) might be long shots to reach the 1,000-yard mark, but Ballard (968) and Bolden (976) were close last season and Richardson will be the Tide's feature back for the first time this fall.

So, does that cadre of talented runners - combined with a lack of proven quarterbacks - mean the conference is undergoing a change back to a run-oriented league?

"I don't think so," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "Philosophically, we're not certainly going to change how we play offensively. I think you have to be able to run the ball to be successful, whether it's in the red area or take the air out of the ball at the end of the game. I also think you have to have the ability to make explosive plays, and that's usually made in the perimeter by throwing the ball. ...

"That balance on offense is critical to being successful. And even though there may be some unproven quarterbacks, I think there are some talented guys who probably will surprise and be some of the outstanding players in the future in this league."

As for the present, though, the league's outstanding offensive players are running backs. Only one returning SEC receiver, South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery, had more than 50 receptions last season and only four had more than 40 catches.

As the preseason all-conference quarterback, coaches selected Georgia's Aaron Murray, a sophomore. The second-teamer was South Carolina senior Stephen Garcia, who currently is suspended and has made more off-field headlines than on-field ones.

Compare the paucity of proven talent at those positions to the talent at running back, where Davis, Lattimore and Richardson have received preseason notice as potential Heisman contenders.

"Running backs have been a huge part in this league since I walked on campus [at Kentucky] in 1981," said Kentucky coach Joker Phillips, who also played for the Wildcats. "I don't think anything's changed there. ... It's still a running back league."

Still? A case could be made that the SEC had become a quarterback league. No SEC quarterbacks were named All-Americans in the 1980s, but seven have been selected since 1994. Danny Wuerffel, Tim Tebow and Cameron Newton won the Heisman, while Peyton Manning, Eli Manning and Rex Grossman were finalists. Since 1994, 11 SEC quarterbacks have been selected in the first round of the NFL draft and six went No. 1 overall.

Of course, some would say that the stellar quarterback play opened opportunities for running backs.

Last season, Arkansas opponents probably were more concerned with quarterback Ryan Mallett than Davis. Defenses facing South Carolina couldn't solely key on Lattimore because of the Garcia-to-Jeffery passing combination. And no doubt Dyer found running room because Auburn opponents were preoccupied with stopping Newton.

"They weren't really in systems that you lined up in the 'I' and you started hammering the ball," Georgia coach Mark Richt said of the SEC's running backs. "They were in systems that were very diverse, had a lot of spread to them. People are spread out trying to cover guys. All of a sudden it creates space for these runners.

"I think they'll continue to use those guys in that way. I think people understand that does provide more problems for defenses when you are versatile in that way."

Systems may have helped, but guys such as Davis, Richardson and Lattimore would excel in any offense.

Davis led conference running backs in rushing with 1,322 yards and gained more than 100 yards in six of the last seven games of 2010. Yet he was a preseason All-SEC second-team pick; Lattimore and Richardson were the first-team picks.

"There's a lot of talent there, there's no question about it," Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said.

So who is the best running back in the SEC?

"In my opinion, you can't put us one, two, three, four, overall," Mississippi State's Ballard said. "Now, in one aspect of our game, that might be better. For me, I try to be as balanced as I can so I can stay on the field as long as I can. They've all got God-given ability, that's for sure."

Added Davis: "I think I'm right up there with the rest of the great backs in the SEC, and we do have some very good ones. My main thing is just to get out there and compete with them and see how it turns out."

Lattimore wouldn't say, either: "There are a lot of great backs in the SEC. It just proves why we're a great conference."

It's star time
Rivals.com college editor Mike Huguenin picks the best league at each position:
QUARTERBACK: Pac-12
RUNNING BACK: SEC
WIDE RECEIVER: Big 12
OFFENSIVE LINE: Big Ten
DEFENSIVE LINE: SEC
LINEBACKER: ACC
SECONDARY: SEC
Many observers feel Richardson, who has exceptional power and great speed, will prove to be the best. He has averaged better than 5.5 yards per carry and scored 14 touchdowns in a backup role in his first two seasons. He could put up Ingram-like numbers as a fulltime starter this fall.

"Where do I stand? I don't know," said Richardson, who went to the same high school, Pensacola (Fla.) Escambia, as Emmitt Smith. "I know that I want to be one of the best - not just in the conference, although the conference is great and has some great backs - but one of the best backs in the country.

"I want to have my name remembered, be one of those players you can see on the greatest games, someone who was one of the best on the field."

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.




 

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