From a physical standpoint, running back is one of the most grueling positions on the football field, and as a result, more and more backs are jumping ship early to the NFL, for good or ill, but who can blame them? With some outstanding backs moving on this season, including Ka’Deem Carey of Arizona and Tre Mason of Auburn, backs who were the heart of their respective offense last season, teams will scramble to replace them. Some programs have the next super-talent waiting in the wings, but for most, the scramble to replace a key starter borders on hope. The teams on this list are lucky – they have their next big thing waiting to step up this season after proving last year that they are ready for the big stage. Players are in alphabetical order. Feel free to add anyone else who may be on the verge of greatness in the comments section below.
Tevin Coleman, Indiana
Coleman could have been a member of the upper echelon already, but for an injury that derailed him for the last 3 games. After being used sparingly in his freshman season, Coleman took advantage of the coaching staff’s dissatisfaction with former starter Stephen Houston to win the starting job in camp. Coleman hit the ground running, gaining 169 yards and 2 scores on just 14 carries in his first game, and had amassed 215 yards and 2 TDs on just 15 carries against Army at the time of his injury. By that point, Coleman had 958 yards, averaging over 100 yards per game, and 12 TDs, scoring at least once in every game despite an offensive line that had some injury woes. He was also a useful receiver, catching 19 passes for 193 yards. Coleman is a strong runner who hits the hole hard, and has the speed to shred defenses. This season, the majority of the offensive line returns, and Coleman should see extra carries as the offense attempts to overcome a sudden lack of experience at receiver. Here’s hoping he can stay healthy.
Alex Collins/Jonathan Williams, Arkansas
Two running backs from the same school on this list? How can that be the case? Well, two words – Bret Bielema. Bielema’s Wisconsin attacks were well-known for multiple 1,000 yard rushers, and he nearly had a couple last season too. Collins started hot as a true freshman, and while he tailed off in production as the schedule stiffened, he still picked up 1026 yards and 4 TDs and showed enough to suggest he’s just scratching the surface of his potential. Looking equally good is Williams, a sophomore who tallied 900 yards and another 4 scores. Like Collins, he started fast, then slowed down as the season went on. Part of the problem was the passing attack, which wasn’t anywhere near good enough to keep opposing defenses from focusing on the run. Also a concern was the offensive line, which saw some lineup switches before the coaching staff finally settled on a front 5. So that’s the bad news. The good news is, the team should be better in 2014. Not only will the offense have some new talent, but a year in Bielema’s system too. Quarterback Brandon Allen struggled, even with the conservative attack, but should be better next season, assuming he keeps his job. The offensive line loses a couple of starters, but some great recruiting suggests any setback will be temporary. Expect increased production from both backs in 2014.
Mike Davis, South Carolina
Step aside, Tre Mason, the next SEC superstar running back is already here. With talented but oft-injured running back Marcus Lattimore cutting short his stint in the NCAA to play with the big boys, the outside (beyond SC) world wondered who would be the top running back. The Gamecocks had some good backs on their roster, but no one who really scared a defense. Oh yeah, except Mike Davis. After showing some flashes as a freshman in 2012, rushing for 275 yards and 2 TDs, Davis burst onto the scene last season, doubling his career stats a couple of carries into week 3. Davis had a great start to the season, gaining over 100 yards in 7 of his first 9 games, before a series of niggling injuries slowed him down towards the end of the season, and led to him being held out against Coastal Carolina (luckily for them). Head coach Steve Spurrier is taking it easy on Davis in spring camp, although Davis has been working on getting stronger to help his body withstand the pounding. If Davis can stay healthy and build on last season, he could make a serious run at the Heisman. Last season he finished with 1183 yards and 11 TDs, and caught 34 passes for 352 yards.
Shock Linwood, Baylor
The freshman wasn’t expected to see a lot of action last season as Lache Seastrunk pursued his Heisman quest and Glasco Martin softened up defenses for him. Unlike the A-Team, plans don’t always come together, and both Seastrunk and Martin spent too much time on the trainers bench, but at least Linwood got some quality reps, and he certainly made the most of them. Linwood had 4 games of 100 yards or more, including consecutive games of 182 and 187 yards against Oklahoma and Texas Tech. He played sparingly over the final 4 weeks as the big boys came back to reprise their roles, but his star had risen by then, and Baylor fans can be confident that the running game will continue to roll in 2014. The offense is taking a hit with some top receivers gone, and more importantly, 3 starting linemen, but it would be a surprise if Linwood didn’t have gaping holes to run through. Head coach Art Briles likes to run the ball frequently, and isn’t afraid to give his backs a hefty workload. Last season Linwood gained 881 yards and 8 TDs on 128 carries. If he stays healthy, he could potentially double it.
Byron Marshall, Oregon
Like some of the backs on this list, Marshall was meant to back up superstar De’Anthony Thomas on his potential Heisman run. As was the case with those other backs, things didn’t go according to plan. With Thomas banged up, Marshall shouldered a heavier load and showed he was more than up to the task, racking up 5 consecutive 100 yards games, before the running back apple cart was upset again. The reason? One could put it simply down to a pair of injuries. The first, a knee injury that severely hampered quarterback Marcus Mariota, meant opponents could focus purely on the running backs without the threat of the dangerous Mariota punishing defenses for doing just that. The second, an ankle injury to Marshall, cost him the guts of 2 games and slowed him in the bowl game. Now he’s healthy, and the offense is bringing back almost everyone from last season except Thomas and receiver Josh Huff. Marshall is somewhat different from other recent Oregon backs – he’s fast, but he’s a banger even though he weighs about 200 pounds – but he will get a lot of carries, especially with Thomas Tyner to help keep him fresh. Last season, Marshall ran for 1038 yards and 14 TDs on just 166 carries. Expect a lot more in 2014.
Tags: Alex Collins Arkansas Razorbacks Baylor Bears Big Ten Football Big Twelve Football Byron Marshall Featured Indiana Hoosiers Jonathan Williams Mike Davis Oregon Ducks PAC 12 Football Popular SEC Football Shock Linwood South Carolina Gamecocks Tevin Coleman