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Friday, July 29, 2011
Ranking the Big 12's top 10 running backs

By David Ubben

We wrapped up our position rankings by team a bit earlier, but we'll move on in ranking the 10 best players at each position.

Here's the top 10's you've missed so far:
Running back is one of the weakest position groups in the Big 12 heading into 2011, a change from last year's extremely strong class. Just one of the league's top 11 rushers returns, and part of the success from last season was because of so much experience at the position. There are a few guys on this list with upside, but only a few are truly established. Some guys might make good on their upside, but for now, running back joins cornerback and defensive line as the league's weakest positions.

Also, if you haven't played a snap in the Big 12, you're not included on this list. (Also, if your last name is Brown.)

Cyrus Gray
Texas A&M's Cyrus Gray is among the Big 12's most experienced returning tailbacks.
1. Cyrus Gray, Texas A&M -- Gray took over late last season and returns as the only Big 12 player to rush for more than 750 yards last season. He finished with 1,133 yards and 12 scores, but 938 of those yards and 10 of those touchdowns came in the season's final seven games, most of which came after the No. 2 guy on this list got hurt.

2. Christine Michael, Texas A&M -- Before Gray took off, Michael was far outperforming his teammate and looked headed for a 1,000-yard season after rushing for 844 yards and 10 scores in 2009. He was at 631 yards through eight games before breaking his leg, and no player in the Big 12 could top his 2009 effort. Despite playing just over half the season, he still ranked 14th in the Big 12 in rushing. Considering 10 of the top 11 rushers in the league are gone, it's easy to see why the powerful, 5-foot-11, 215-pounder is No. 2 on the list.

3. Roy Finch, Oklahoma -- Finch showed lots of flash last season in spot duty behind DeMarco Murray before aggravating a foot injury that kept him out of the first half of the season. He'll have to stay healthy to make good on his potential, and despite being on the All-Big 12 preseason team, he's not on his own team's depth chart just yet. He'll have to jump over Brennan Clay and Jonathan Miller to get his touches in a crowded backfield that will likely carry the load by committee this season.

4. Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State -- Randle was extremely valuable last season out of the backfield, catching 37 passes for 427 yards and a key touchdown against Texas A&M. That was more receptions than any running back outside of DeMarco Murray, but this year, he'll join Jeremy Smith in trying to replace Kendall Hunter, who ran for more than 1,500 yards last season.

5. Eric Stephens, Texas Tech -- Stephens has been underrated and underexposed behind starter Baron Batch, but his time looks like it has finally come. The Red Raiders have a deep backfield, but Stephens is its top talent, averaging 5.26 yards on his 127 carries last season, leading the team with six touchdowns.

6. James Sims, Kansas -- Sims was one of the bright spots in a dark year for Kansas football last season, taking over the starting role after a season-opening loss to North Dakota State and rushing for 101 yards in an upset win against Georgia Tech. Sims also scored four of his nine touchdowns in a comeback win against Colorado. I'd expect Sims' touches to take a slight hit with Darrian Miller on campus now, but he was extremely productive considering the Jayhawks' lack of a passing game, which ranked 105th nationally last season.

7. Shontrelle Johnson, Iowa State -- Johnson's lateral movement reminds me a bit of Finch, but he's got a lot of speed and if Iowa State's offensive line gets him a crack, he can be a home-run hitter. He was stuck behind Alexander Robinson last season, but Johnson averaged 6.2 yards on the limited carries he got, turning them into a pair of touchdowns. That's the highest average of any returning Big 12 back.

8. De'Vion Moore, Missouri -- Missouri doesn't have a big time back, but it doesn't need one. Moore led a group of four backs that combined to rush for more than 1,500 yards and 19 touchdowns last seaosn. Look out for shifty Henry Josey to slide in and unseat Moore to lead the team in rushing, but Moore will get lots of touches in the red zone this season, and he's great at finding a crease. No Tigers running back got more than 100 carries last season, and that might still be the case, but Missouri truly proved that a running back platoon can be extremely successful, even if it lacks a game-changer at the top of the depth chart.

9. Terrance Ganaway, Baylor -- Ganaway is the bowling ball third of a good trio at Baylor. Jarred Salubi is the shiftier third and Glasco Martin is the young guy with lots of hype. All three should form a solid group. Art Briles said this week at media days that he'd love for one of them to separate themselves, but also understands it might not happen with this group.

10. Fozzy Whittaker, Texas -- Whittaker has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career, but rushed for 351 yards last season and enters the season as the starter ahead of Cody Johnson. He'll have to hold off promising freshman Malcolm Brown as well as Johnson, but for now, the Longhorns' running backs have a lot to prove in a new offense built to help them succeed.