Although the Pac-12 is looked upon by many as a “pass happy” conference, the talent laced at running back out west cannot be denied.
The nation’s No. 1 rusher from last season was a member of the Pac-10 and that fleet-footed runner returns to dazzle us with another spectacular season.
While LaMichael James will undoubtedly fall as No.1 on most people’s running backs list, there are several other great names in the Pac-12 that could steal the spotlight.
Let’s take a look at the Top Running Backs in the Pac-12.
No. 1: LaMichael James, Oregon
LeMichael James led the nation with 144.25 yards per game (y/g) last year. The Heisman Trophy candidate should not have a problem producing similar numbers in 2011. With the majority of the Ducks’ offense returning, James should, once again, consistently light up the scoreboard.
No. 2: Chris Polk, Washington
If you haven’t started paying attention to Chris Polk, then you are definitely missing out. Polk ranked second in the Pac-10 last season with 108.85 y/g, and he will be leaned upon heavily by the Huskies in 2011. With a new quarterback taking the reins, Polk should be incorporated into Washington’s offense even more.
With these extra chances to shine, Polk definitely has the talent to challenge James for the top rushing spot in the conference.
No. 3: Rodney Stewart, Colorado
Rodney Stewart’s numbers have consistently improved since his freshman season, finishing third in the Big 12 last season with 109.67 y/g.
Because of Colorado’s follies at quarterback, Stewart needed to bear the Buffaloes load, leading his conference with 22.92 carries per game. However, with Colorado’s potential at QB spiking this spring, this could relieve some of the pressure on Stewart during the year.
No. 4: Johnathan Franklin, UCLA
Johnathan Franklin was a pleasant surprise for UCLA’s offense last year. As a sophomore, Franklin finished third amongst returning Pac-10 running backs with 93.92 y/g, by far the most productive part of the Bruins temperamental offense.
Franklin is certainly capable of improving on these numbers, and if UCLA can finally find a quarterback, the Bruins offense could be a threat.
No. 5: Stepfan Taylor, Stanford
With the spotlight shining so bright on Andrew Luck, it is easy for Stepfan Taylor to get lost in the shadows.
Taylor rumbled his way into the end zone 15 times last season, enough to land second amongst Pac-10 running backs. While everyone knows Stanford’s offense runs through Luck, the balance brought to the squad by Taylor will be equally as important to the Cardinal’s success.
No. 6: Marc Tyler, USC
Marc Tyler had big shoes to fill last season after the departure of Joe McKnight. Although he wouldn’t be able to duplicate McKnight’s production, Tyler managed to post decent numbers. He finished the year tied for third amongst Pac-10 running backs with nine touchdowns and fell just a smidgen short of 1,000 yards.
Watch out for Dillon Baxter, though. This kid could nip at Tyler’s heels all spring.
No. 7: Kenjon Barner, Oregon
As Kenjon Barner bides his time for the starting role at Oregon, he definitely does not hesitate to shine when presented with the opportunity. Whether it was spelling James or taking over for him due to injury, Barner ignited the turf, leading all Pac-10 running backs with 6.18 average yards per carry.
Chip Kelly must sleep well at night knowing that the Ducks have this second explosive option waiting in the wings.
No. 8: Deantre Lewis, Arizona State
Although Deantre Lewis is slated behind Cameron Marshall on the Sun Devil’s depth chart, watch out for this sophomore running back to blaze a few trails in 2011. As a freshman, Lewis averaged 5.84 yards per carry, leading all ASU running backs with three 100-yard rushing games.
Lewis will certainly play a huge part in Arizona State’s explosive offense, even as a back-up.
No. 9: Derrick Coleman, UCLA
Playing behind Johnathan Franklin may have cut down Derrick Coleman’s touches, but it hasn’t stopped his productivity. Last year Coleman averaged 5.94 yards per carry and crossed into the endzone five times.
Expect another solid back up performance from Coleman in his final year as a Bruin.
No. 10: Keola Antolin, Arizona
Keola Antolin unexpectedly emerged last season, stealing the starting role from then-senior Nic Grisby. Since gaining the coveted position, Antolin has not looked back, expected to start again in his senior year.
Antolin needs to and can be that second dimension to Arizona’s offense in order for the Wildcats to exceed preseason expectations. If he improves on last year’s totals (668 yards, 4TD), Arizona could be hard to stop.