- Chantel Jennings, ESPN Staff Writer
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So long, Year of the Quarterback. Hello, Year of the Running Back.
You had a good run, quarterbacks, but now it's time to see a group that actually runs. Or, to more aptly describe this bunch, bulldozes.
The prowess of Pac-12 quarterbacks was such that even really good players, such as Taylor Kelly or Cody Kessler and Anu Solomon, were forgotten amidst the exploits and historic pursuits of Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley and Sean Mannion.
This year, the same will be true with running backs. The league has its top dog in Utah's Devontae Booker, the player who in the course of a year has gone from unknown juco to darkhorse Heisman candidate.
Booker is expected to put the entire Utah offense on his back this season, absorb the brunt of opposing defenses and still pick up yards after contact. But if he's not your cup of tea, there are plenty of other backs to choose from. This year's RB selection is like an all-you-can-eat buffet of smash-mouth football.
How about UCLA's Paul Perkins, the guy who led the league in rushing last season?
Amazingly, he was one of the least talked about returning players this summer. He had the most rushes of 10-plus yards and with a freshman quarterback handing off to him in 2015 there's a good chance that Jim Mora will lean on him even more.
Maybe you prefer Arizona's Nick Wilson, who led all freshmen in rushing yards in 2014, and has added 11 pounds since last season. Apparently, that's not enough to win the starting job outright. Rich Rodriguez has listed Wilson a "co-starter" with Jared Baker -- consider it fire added under Wilson's feet.
If it's touchdowns you prefer, look no further than Oregon's Royce Freeman, who led the league with 18 rushing touchdowns and is even stronger this year.
If you're looking for a surprise back, consider Oregon State's Storm Barrs-Woods. Beavers fans would add a note of caution, considering Woods' injury history, but it's hard to argue against the Gary Andersen effect. Just ask Melvin Gordon. Or Robert Turbin.
It doesn't end there.
Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey might be the most versatile offensive weapon the Cardinal have had in years. And while on the topic of versatility, lest we forget former running backs turned wide receivers in Oregon's Byron Marshall and Arizona State's D.J. Foster -- they could mix it up, get some carries and make things interesting for defenses.
If Cal fans were not upset enough that a rival school co-opted the nickname of one of their most famous alumni, then they are surely wondering why it's taken so long to mention their running back, Daniel Lasco. Much attention will be paid to Jared Goff and his slew of receivers so Lasco should have plenty of opportunities to damage opposing defenses. Last season, he led the conference with the highest percentage of his runs going for at least five yards.
We end with USC -- you know, the school responsible for more accomplished tailbacks than any program in college football.
Tre Madden gets the nod for the Trojans' first game but Justin Davis -- if he can ever get healthy -- could give Madden a run for his money. Regardless, coach Steve Sarkisian has declared that even though USC has Cody Kessler, his team will look to run the ball first, so whichever back takes the majority of the carries should get some major yardage and big opportunities to find the end zone.
When Sarkisian was at Washington, his lead back got better every year, from his first season with Chris Polk in 2009 (1,113 yards and five touchdowns) to his last season with Bishop Sankey (1,870 yards and 20 touchdowns). In Year 1 at USC, Sarkisian inherited Buck Allen, who rushed for 1,489 yards and 11 touchdowns. An improvement off those numbers would be impressive but not surprising.
And that'll be the trend this year -- Pac-12 running backs will dominate the fields and thus, the conversations as well. It all starts tonight when none other than Booker takes the field in the Pac-12 opener against Michigan.
Is there a better way than that to usher in the Year of the Running Back?
"Maybe," the other running backs in the league might say. And they have the next 14 weeks to prove us wrong. For the love of great football, please, please do.
1dTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney