1. Ka’Deem Carey, Arizona
Tucson local product broke out in Rich Rodriguez’s offense, rolling off 1929 yards to lead the nation. Carey was the first Wildcat to do so since the “Cactus Comet” Art Luppino in 1955.
UA is likely to rely more heavily on the run in 2013 than in 2012, with outstanding dual-threat quarterback Matt Scott gone. Particularly early into the campaign, when the Wildcats face a leaner portion of the schedule and are breaking in Scott’s replacement, look for Carey to rack up monster yards — perhaps setting a foundation to reach the elusive 2000-yard milestone.
2. Bishop Sankey, Washington
Washington lost outstanding ball carrier Chris Polk after the 2011 campaign, but the Huskies’ ground game didn’t miss a beat with Bishop Sankey taking over. Sankey was just 49 yards off of Polk’s 2011 pace (1539 to 1588), and Sankey scored four more touchdowns (16 to 12).
Sankey enters 2013 a very legitimate Heisman Trophy prospect whose ceiling has yet to be met. Should quarterback Keith Price regain the touch he exhibited in 2011, defenses must remain honest. That could give Sankey even more opportunities to break out.
3. De’Anthony Thomas, Oregon
Oregon’s quicker-than-a-hiccup, do-everything back could move into the feature back role with Kenjon Barner’s departure. DeAnthony Thomas’ move to the No. 1 position is something fans of his explosive style have craved for a while now. His touches-to-touchdowns ratio was off-the-charts last season, as Thomas reached the end zone 18 times (11 rushing, five receiving, one on both kick and punt returns) via 166 total opportunities.
His multidimensional game is what makes Thomas so special. He scored four different ways in the 2012 season, coming a pass shy of matching the magic five-tool milestone C.J. Spiller last accomplished in 2009. Don’t be shocked if Mark Helfrich gives Thomas that opportunity this season. The biggest question for the Black Momba is his durability. At under 180 pounds, he’s built more like a change-of-pace back than a true feature back — and Oregon has prototype feature backs at its disposal. Then again, UO had success with undersized LaMichael James carrying the bulk of the run game for three seasons.
4. Storm Woods, Oregon State
Oregon State struggled to establish a consistent running game in its first season without Jacquizz Rodgers, ranking at the bottom of the conference in 2011. Storm Woods’ breakout, debut season was a big reason the Beavers enjoyed a six-win turnaround. Woods rushed for 940 yards and 13 touchdowns, establishing himself as Oregon State’s No. 1 back and ending the carousel Mike Riley had running at the position a season prior.
Woods also provides an outstanding receiving option. He caught 38 passes for 313 yards.
5. Silas Redd, USC
Penn State transfer Silas Redd broke 1000 yards in his debut campaign with the Trojans. A knee injury sidelined Redd for most of USC’s spring practice season, but head coach Lane Kiffin said he anticipates Redd’s return by the Trojans’ season opener August 29 at Hawaii.
Sidelined late because of injury, Redd’s overall production dipped from his final season at Penn State (905 yards in 2012 vs. 1241 in 2011). He averaged more yards per carry (5.4 vs. 5.1) and scored more touchdowns (9 vs. 7), though. With Curtis McNeal gone and Redd the clear-cut No. 1 back, expect more carries for him in his senior season.
6. Marion Grice, Arizona State
Cameron Marshall returned to ASU after an outstanding 2011, but struggled with inconsistency under the new coaching regime. Marion Grice emerged as the Sun Devils’ top ball carrier in 2012, breaking off an impressive 6.6 yards per attempt with 11 touchdowns. Grice is also one of the best pass-catching running backs in the nation. Last season, he hauled in 41 passes and eight touchdowns.
Entering 2013 as the undisputed No. 1 running back, Grice will see more carries. Don’t expect his receiving opportunities to drop too substantially, if at all. He’s a proven commodity for offensive coordinator Mike Norvell’s potent spread offense.
7. Brendan Bigelow, Cal
A hallmark of Cal Golden Bear team in the last decade is a succession of standout running backs. Similarly, Sonny Dykes’ wide open, air raid system facilitates big performances from ball carries. Look no further than Louisiana Tech’s Kenneth Dixon for proof. Dixon led the nation in rush touchdowns a season ago.
Bigelow was third on the Cal running backs depth chart behind C.J. Anderson and Isi Sofele, but showed flashes of brilliance in his limited opportunities, including a touchdown rush of over 80 yards against Ohio State.
Bigelow was the No. 3 option in the Golden Bear offense last season, garnering just 44 carries, but averaged a whopping 9.8 yards on those opportunities.
8. Christian Powell, Colorado
A glimmer of hope in Colorado’s otherwise bleak 2012 was the breakout performance of freshman running back Christian Powell. Powell cracked the conference’s top 10 in rushing last season, accruing 691 yards with seven touchdowns.
Powell is a big, powerful back at 6-foot, nearly 240 pounds. His size gives new head coach Mike MacIntyre to use smaller, shiftier Tony Jones in a true change-of-pace fashion.
9. Thomas Tyner, Oregon
Highly touted, local prospect Thomas Tyner arrives with immediate star potential. Tyner is Rivals.com’s second overall ranked running back in this year’s signing class, and a five-star prospect. At 6-foot, 200 pounds, he has more prototypical feature back size than veteran Duck De’Anthony Thomas.
10. Tyler Gaffney, Stanford
Tyler Gaffney rejoins the Cardinal football team after spending the past year playing Minor League Baseball. Gaffney was a key contributor in the Cardinal’s Orange and Fiesta Bowl runs of 2010 and 2011, scoring a combined 11 rushing touchdowns and surpassing 700 yards those two seasons as the complement to Stepfan Taylor.
With Taylor gone from the program, Gaffney returns to provide a veteran presence in the backfield alongside quarterback Kevin Hogan.
11. Byron Marshall, Oregon
With Thomas potentially moving to the feature back role, and five-star Thomas Tyner arriving in Eugene, Byron Marshall is something of an afterthought. But don’t count Marshall out. He had a solid spring practice season, including a 60-yard performance in the spring game that included a touchdown.
Even if he’s unable to beat out Thomas or Tyner on the depth chart, Marshall should still play an integral role in Oregon’s multifaceted ground game, which he proved a season ago. Marshall gained 447 yards and reached the end zone four times as the Ducks’ third option.
12. Anthony Wilkerson, Stanford
Anthony Wilkerson looked like he was primed to be Stanford’s next great running back when, as a freshman in 2010, he gained 408 yards on 89 carries and scored four touchdowns. His workload decreased substantially the last two seasons, down to 56 and 50 carries the last two seasons — though, he missed three games in 2012.
Stepfan’s Taylor departure does mean more opportunities, and Wilkerson is a co-No. 1 with Gaffney on the post-spring depth chart. Should he regain some of the flashes he exhibited in 2010 with his hard-running style, Wilkerson could be a vital cog in Stanford’s defense of its conference title.
13. Jordon James, UCLA
Damien Thigpen’s ACL tear late in the 2012 season complicated the Bruin running back competition moved Jordon James up in the depth chart. He was the Bruins’ fourth rushing option last season, after Johnathan Franklin and Thigpen at running back, and dual-threat quarterback Brett Hundley. However, a strong spring has James in position to assume Franklin’s position — not a bad place to be.
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s system fosters running backs’ production. Before Doak Walker Award finalist Franklin went off for 1734 yards and 13 touchdowns under Mazzone’s guidance, Arizona State’s Cameron Marshall set a program record for rushing touchdowns in a single season with 18. Whichever of the backs jockeying to replace Franklin wins out — James is competing with Paul Perkins and Thigpen when he returns — has the right system to shine.
14. Daniels Jenkins, Arizona
In one of the most bizarre transfer scenarios in recent memory, Jenkins took advantage of the NCAA’s immediate eligibility rule to compete for the starting job at Washington State. But last week, he made his return to Arizona.
Jenkins gives Rich Rodriguez’s multifaceted rushing attack needed depth. He surpassed 300 yards rushing last season and scored two touchdowns. A bulk of Jenkins’ workload was late in the season, including a 78-yard performance against rival Arizona State. Jenkins is also a solid kick returner, racking up 329 yards in special teams during the 2012 campaign.
15. Justin Davis, USC
A strong spring propelled may have propelled Justin Davis into the second spot among Trojan running backs. USC’s coaching staff raved about Davis’ performance. He ended the spring listed as a co-No. 1 with Redd and Tre Madden, and USC is also bringing out ballyhooed recruit Ty Isaac. Lane Kiffin has no shortage of depth at the position, and Davis has a crowded backfield in which to gain carries.