NCAA Football: West Virginia at Texas Tech

There are just three Saturdays left until we get to our first major college football Saturday (sorry, I’m still not counting those games on August 26th, it’s all about September 2nd). So it’s that time of year again to begin our position group rankings in the Big 12 conference. Here are our rankings of the 2017 Big 12 running backs heading into the college football season. Since running backs have become more than about just a featured player in the backfield, these rankings are not simply done by who has the best running back, but rather the running backs on each team, as a group. 

1. West Virginia Mountaineers

Not only do the Mountaineers return the Big 12 conference’s leading rusher in Justin Crawford, but it’s a group with plenty of depth to it. Crawford was also tops in the Big 12 in yards per carry, and sixth nationally, at 7.3. Then there’s sophomore Kennedy McKoy should see more touches after a great freshman campaign where he racked up nearly 500 rushing yards, averaging 6.5 YPC. McKoy also has the ability to be more of a pass catching threat out of the backfield. Martell Pettaway, who was supposed to redshirt last season, but injuries forced him into action, burst onto the scene against Iowa State with 30 carries for 180 yards. Incoming freshman Tevin Bush might see some carries as well. This is a ton of talent and experience for Will Grier to work with in the backfield.

2. TCU Horned Frogs

The Horned Frogs return Kyle Hicks, a 1,000-yard rusher, and one of the most under appreciated players in the Big 12 conference. But Hicks also did something no TCU player had done in 20 years: lead the Horned Frogs in rushing and receiving (47 catches, 417 yards). If Kenny Hill can become more consistent his final season in Fort Worth, it should open up even more running lanes for a TCU backfield that has solid depth to it as well. Darius Anderson was a 4-star running back coming out of Rosenburg, Texas, choosing the Horned Frogs over Alabama, Texas and Texas A&M. As a freshman he averaged a ridiculous 8.5 yards per carry on 27 rushes. Meantime, fellow backfield mate Sewo Olonilua is a rising sophomore and was a 4-star recruit as well, while being ranked the No. 1 athlete in Texas by 247 Sports. Olonilua ended the season with plenty of promise, starting in the Liberty Bowl and rushing for 122 yards on 15 carries with a touchdown.

3. Kansas State Wildcats

The Wildcats are led by a very quality 1-2 punch of Justin Silmon and Alex Barnes. Silmon is your classic Bill Snyder player: former walk-on who has exceeded traditional expectations. Silmon has plenty of experience, with 25 games played the past two seasons, while rushing for 464 yards on 86 carries. Silmon ended the regular season with career highs against TCU rushing for 133 yards and two touchdowns. Meantime, Barnes is another powerful running back who rushed for more than 400 yards and averaged 7.9 yards per carry as a redshirt freshman, which led the Big 12. Meantime, veteran Dalvin Warmack could easily find himself back in the mix and redshirt freshmen Mike McCoy and Tyler Burns were top-10 players in the state of Kansas who could be competing for carries. We know Kansas State loves to run the the ball, so there will be no shortage of opportunities in Manhattan.

 

4. Oklahoma State Cowboys

The Pokes have one of the top running backs in the conference in Justice Hill, but the depth remains a question. Hill burst onto the scene in 2016 as the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year and a Freshman All-American. He totaled 1,142 rushing yards which broke the freshman record at Oklahoma State and led all FBS freshman as well. He’s now reportedly but on 20 pounds of muscle as he looks to take his game to the next level. But behind Hill remains a bit of a mystery. Jeff Carr is still looking to live up to expectations. He only had 12 carries last season for under 100 yards. An ace in the hole for Mike Gundy could be incoming Canadian freshman Chuba Hubbard, who was a Top 25 running back prospect in the Class of 2017 and is a world-class sprinter. LD Brown is a redshirt who should get touches this fall.

5. Oklahoma Sooners

There are big shoes to fill in Norman with the losses of Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine. The good news is, whoever gets most of the touches will be running behind a great offensive line. Abdul Adams returns with the most experience. He played in 7 games with 53 carries and 283 rushing yards. But the former 4-star recruit will have plenty of quality players pushing him. Rodney Anderson missed all of last season due to injury, but his freakish strength and ability gained a ton of attention this past spring. Meantime, true freshman Trey Sermon from Georgia enrolled early as the Top 10 running back is ready to hit the ground running (literally) after picking Oklahoma over Alabama, Michigan and Ohio State. And don’t forget about Marcelias Sutton, the No. 2 JUCO running back in the nation, and another 4-star freshman in Kennedy Brooks. This group has arguably the most talent of any in the conference, but it is largely unproven, which slides it down to 5th in the conference.

6. Texas Longhorns

Can these guys stay healthy? That’s the big question for the Longhorns running backs. Chris Warren III went down with a season-ending injury a month into the 2016 campaign and has battled some nagging issues this spring. Warren had two-straight 100-yard games against Big 12 opponents before going down last season. Kyle Porter should be right there with Warren after playing in 11 games as a freshman last season and racking up 205 yards on 46 attempts. The former All-American has a chance to take over as the No. 1 back in Tom Herman’s offense. Kirk Johnson has been another running back with potential, but he’s dealt with injuries his first two seasons on campus. Then there’s incoming freshman All-American Toneil Carter, who should find himself with plenty of opportunities early in his career.

 

7. Baylor Bears

This group has talent, but it is likely to be held back by its spotty offensive line. Terence Williams ranked 4th in the Big 12 conference last season with 5.6 yards per carry and earned Honorable Mention All-Big 12. Williams racked up over 1,000 rushing yards last season and has played in 21 games over his career. Also in the backfield, JaMycal Hasty is a third-year back who is more elusive and quick than Williams, creating a nice balance between the two. I’ll be interested to see if Hasty is used as a pass-catcher on screen passes out of the backfield. If Baylor’s offensive line is as weak as some project, running between the tackles may not be the main option for Coach Rhule. At this point, there does not appear to be a clear No. 3, but if Williams and Hasty stay healthy, that will be enough.

8. Iowa State Cyclones

The Cyclones are led in the backfield by David Montgomery, who was tops on the team in rushing last season as a freshman with 563 yards. It was an unexpected twist as Montgomery was expected to back up Mike Warren, who was the returning Big 12 Freshman of the Year in 2015. But Warren appeared to fall out of favor with head coach Matt Campbell, and Montgomery became the lead back. We’ll see how Warren has matured from last season and if he and the coaching staff are on the same page in 2017. If so, this is a solid 1-2 punch. Elsewhere, Kene Nwangwu could get some carries this season after impressing on special teams in 2016, averaging 26.4 yards per return, which ranked 2nd in the Big 12 conference.

9. Texas Tech Red Raiders

Justin Stockon and Da’Leon Ward lead a group that doesn’t get a exorbitant amount of action under Kliff Kingsbury’s pass-happy system. Ward became the first true freshman to lead the Red Raiders in rushing since Shaud Williams in 1999. Ward came on late in the season and picked up four starts and enters 2017 as the No. 1, with Stockton, the rising senior, his 1A. Stockton was utilized more in the passing game last season, picking up 220 receiving yards vs. 154 rushing yards. DeMarcus Felton was the team’s second leading rusher last season before going down with an injury. Felton can also catch the ball out of the backfield. It’s a group with depth and experience, but it remains to be seen if one can become a star.

10. Kansas Jayhawks

This group has potential to pull itself out of the basement by season’s end. But I can’t move ’em from the #10 spot until I see it with my own two eyes. Dom Williams is the star freshman who chose Kansas over several other quality FBS programs. With Ke’aun Kinner having graduated, Taylor Martin is the leading rusher with 107 carries for 366 yards. But of returning players, Khalil Herbert (44 carries, 189 yards) probably has the higher ceiling after being thrown into the action for eight games as a freshman in 2016. Octavius Matthews is an incoming JUCO player who received a 4-star rating by ESPN and should get immediate playing time after averaging over eight yards per carry over his two seasons at Itawamba CC. There’s potential, but the group has to prove it.

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