An embarrassment of riches at running back in the Pac-12

Year of the RB in the Pac-12

ESPN college football reporters Chantel Jennings and Ted Miller discuss the Pac-12's depth at running back. The conference returns eight of its top 10 rushers from last season.

If 2014 was the "Year of the Quarterback" in the Pac-12, 2015 will focus more heavily on the ground game. Trying to decide which running back at best feels childish. It's like listening to 5-year-olds argue over their favorite snacks -- one reminds you of the next, which reminds you of the next ...

So, in that vein, Ted and I decided to argue like 5-year-olds about the running backs that we believe will lead the Pac-12 into the 2015 season, which we're calling "The Year of the Running Back."

Paul Perkins, UCLA: I think we have to start with Perkins, right? He led the conference last season with 1,575 rushing yards and he returns alongside a veteran offensive line. Plus, Jim Mora will likely rely on Perkins even more this season, considering the Bruins will have considerably less experience at quarterback, regardless of who ends up winning the starting job. It's going to be a defining year for Perkins, and don't be surprised to see him improve upon last season's production. Perkins had six 100-plus yard rushing games last season, five of which came in tough environments and/or against tough opponents: 126 on the road against Texas, 137 on the road against Arizona State, 187 against Oregon, 116 against Stanford and a season-high 194 in the Bruins' bowl win over Kansas State. -- Chantel Jennings

Devontae Booker, Utah: Booker, a 5-foot-11, 212-pound senior, runs with speed and power, but it's the blending of the two that creates Booker's violent running style. Booker runs hard with a great lean, a whirling dervish who seems to get the best of most contact situations. A defense knows he's coming -- see the Utes' anemic passing attack last year -- but it can't do much to slow him down. He rushed for 1,512 yards as a first-year JC transfer, averaging 5.2 yards per carry with 10 touchdowns, and also proved to be a capable receiver, with 43 catches for 306 yards and another two scores. With one of the best offensive lines in the Pac-12 blocking for him, all those numbers could go up steeply. That could make Booker a Heisman Trophy candidate. He, in fact, will get a great opportunity for a "Hello World" moment in the season opener against Michigan, Jim Harbaugh's debut fronting the Wolverines. -- Ted Miller

Royce Freeman, Oregon: The Rolls Royce is back in Eugene and ready to go. His arms still look like legs and he's even hungrier than last year. Freeman led the league last season in rushing touchdowns (18) and though he'll be working with a less experienced quarterback and offensive line (in some regards, play the injury-bug debate however you'd like), I think he's going to be just fine. He'll be better at reading defenses this season, making him even more of a force to be reckoned with in the open field. But the red zone will be where he makes his greatest impact. Only three running backs nationwide were better than Freeman in the red zone last season. There, Freeman accounted for 15 touchdowns and 251 yards on 66 carries. I'll be shocked if there's anyone better this season. -- C.J.

Daniel Lasco, California: Lasco was one of the most anonymous 1,000-yard rushers in the Power 5 a year ago. Cal is known for passing in Sonny Dykes' spread offense, and quarterback Jared Goff is a top NFL prospect because of it. But Lasco was a critical component of the Bears' improvement in 2014, and he likely will be a big reason if they make a move in the North Division and earn bowl eligibility this fall. The 6 foot, 210-pound senior rushed for 1,115 yards and scored 12 touchdowns last year while averaging 5.3 yards per carry. He also caught 33 passes for 356 yards -- 10.8 yards per catch -- with another two TDs. His numbers might not be appreciably better this fall because there's improving depth behind him, particularly with the rise of power back Vic Enwere, a 225-pounder who will add another dimension to the Bears attack, but there's no question Lasco is the lead dog. -- T.M.

Nick Wilson, Arizona: Wilson had one of the most underrated seasons of any player last year. He actually rushed for more yards and accounted for more 100-yard games than Freeman even though he played in fewer games. I wrote about him Monday, but he's a kid who doesn't get phased by any of the spotlight and doesn't feel nerves. I think we saw evidence of that last season, and we'll see an even calmer version of Wilson this year (if that's possible). He told me that he feels more prepared for this season in every facet -- physically, mentally, emotionally. He seemed like he was pretty darn ready last season when he was thrown in to the fire, but if there's more to come, watch out, Pac-12. -- C.J.

De'Chavon Hayes, Arizona State: You might say, "Who the heck is this guy?" for multiple reasons. For one, Hayes is known by his nickname, "Gump," to most Sun Devils. Second, Arizona State welcomes back 1,000-yard rusher D.J. Foster, as well as his top backups Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, a thunder and thunder combo of physical runners. Third, Hayes redshirted last year, ergo we have no fancy numbers for you. But if you were looking for a likely breakout player in the Pac-12, Hayes might be it. He sat out last year after arriving late due to academic reasons, but he was often the star of practices with his speed and big-play ability. He's a big reason coaches felt comfortable moving Foster full-time to slot receiver. He can do a lot of things well, so the expectation is he'll be a hybrid player. The certainty, at least based on Todd Graham's gushing, is Hayes is going to get plenty of touches. -- T.M.

Storm Barrs-Woods, Oregon State: Barrs-Woods is a bit of a dark horse among top conference running backs. He only had five touchdowns last season, but how about the fact that he led the conference in yards per rush (6.33)? That's not too shabby. That's certainly aided by a few explosive runs he made during the season but it's not to be overlooked. He'll have his chance to make a mark in the Pac-12 in Gary Andersen's offense. He exhibited flashes last season alongside a few less impressive performances, but if he can get more consistent, he could really blossom in this new Beaver offense. Don't sleep on this storm. -- C.J.

Justin Davis, Tre Madden, Ronald Jones, USC: The general narrative is that the Trojans are questionable at running back after the departure of Javorious "Buck" Allen, who rushed for 1,500 yards last year. And there are some "ifs" here, as Davis and Madden are unproven and injury prone -- particularly Madden -- while Jones is a true freshman. Yet if things come together, this could be one of the nation's most potent troikas, particularly with what figures to be a much saltier offensive line this fall. Davis rushed for 595 yards as Allen's backup, while Madden was outstanding to start 2013 before he had a run of bad injury luck. Jones was rated as the nation's No. 1 prep running back in 2014, which suggests the Texas product isn't likely to sit on the bench. Fact is, USC was pretty mediocre running the ball last fall, averaging a middling 4.0 yards per carry. If this threesome stays healthy, that per carry average should go up by a half a yard, which could mean big things for QB Cody Kessler and a veteran offense. -- T.M.