- Jake Trotter, ESPN Staff Writer
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With spring ball a month away, we're ranking position groups in the Big 12. These evaluations are based on past performance, future potential and quality depth. Our outlooks will likely look different after the spring. But this is how we see them now. We continue this series with running back:
1. Oklahoma: Samaje Perine led the Big 12 in rushing and touchdowns as a true freshman, and heads into 2015 as the league's best Heisman chance after TCU QB Trevone Boykin. Perine, however, isn't a one-man show in the Sooner backfield. Alex Ross averaged 6.8 yards per carry, and while Keith Ford endured fumbling issues, he has shown he can be effective. The wildcard is Joe Mixon, who was the gem of OU's 2014 signing class before getting suspended for the season. He's back with the team, and possesses enough talent to give the Sooners one of the nation's premier one-two punches at running back.
2. Baylor: Shock Linwood quietly rushed for 1,252 yards and 16 touchdowns in his first season as the full-time starter. With a new QB, the Bears could lean on him even more, but he won't have to shoulder the load alone. Johnny Jefferson is back after totaling 524 yards and six touchdowns, and power back Devin Chafin rounds out a versatile three-man rotation, which could easily extend to five in a pinch with Terence Williams and ESPN 300 signee Ja'Mycal Hasty.
3. TCU: The Horned Frogs boast a deep running back corps, even with B.J. Catalon bolting early for the draft. Aaron Green wound up fourth in the league in rushing despite backing up Catalon for half the year. The former Nebraska transfer averaged a whopping 7.1 yards per carry, including 6.5 as a starter. Kyle Hicks and Trevorris Johnson, who contributed 99 carries last year, and freshman Shaun Nixon, who is expected back after missing last season with a knee injury, give the Horned Frogs plenty of options after Green.
4. West Virginia: After Perine, Rushel Shell was as good as any Big 12 runner between the tackles last season. When healthy, he's a load. Wendell Smallwood also returns as the change of pace back. Together, they formed the only running back tandem to both finish in the top 10 in rushing in the conference last year. Dontae Thomas-Williams, a former ESPN 300 signee, should add to the rotation after redshirting last year.
5. Texas Tech: DeAndre Washington was a revelation last season, becoming the first Tech rusher to break the 1,000-yard barrier in 16 years. He'll be flanked again by Justin Stockton, who showed flashes as a true freshman. The Red Raiders added more talent to the position by inking ESPN 300 runner Corey Dauphine, who operated out of a similar offense in high school.
6. Texas: Coming off the Achilles tear, Johnathan Gray wasn't the same explosive runner he was as a sophomore. Maybe another year away from the injury will help. Running back was a huge need in Charlie Strong's first full recruiting class, and he delivered in signing three backs last week, including ESPN 300 runners Chris Warren III and Tristian Houston. The Longhorns will need at least one to contribute to a backfield that also includes Donald Catalon and D'Onta Foreman, who are both still green.
7. Kansas: Corey Avery was one of the top true freshmen in the conference last year, rushing for 631 yards and five touchdowns. Newcomer De'Andre Mann was effective, as well, with an average of 4.7 yards per carry. Juco addition Ke'aun Kinner should give the Jayhawks more depth than they had in 2014.
8. Oklahoma State: After losing Desmond Roland to graduation and Tyreek Hill to an off-the-field incident, the Cowboys were desperate to sign a running back ready to contribute. The weekend leading into signing day, Oklahoma State landed that back, getting juco four-star Chris Carson to flip from Georgia. Carson could be the starter from Day 1, and should stabilize the biggest question mark of the offense. Besides Carson, the Cowboys still have Rennie Childs, who has been a solid, albeit-injury prone backup the last two years.
9. Kansas State: The running game was the Wildcats' weakness last year. With Jake Waters and Tyler Lockett gone, it will have to be much better for K-State to have any chance of sticking in the upper half of the Big 12. Charles Jones scored 14 touchdowns and will inherit a larger role in the offense, but the Wildcats need one of their younger backs to emerge. Dalvin Warmack, who redshirted last season, is an intriguing possibility. He rushed for more than 4,500 yards and 77 touchdowns his final two seasons of high school. Alex Barnes, who was one of the top additions in the 2015 recruiting class, has the physical maturity to bring help, too.
10. Iowa State: The Cyclones are hurting here with projected starter DeVondrick Nealy no longer with the team. Without Nealy, the Cyclones have little experience returning. Tyler Brown, Martinez Syria and incoming freshmen Joshua Thomas and Sheldon Croney will be vying for the job.