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Running with the Pac: Who's strong at running back?

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Pac-10 teams should be able to run the ball in 2009.

Or at least they should if we base analysis on returning talent at running back.

Only two of the conference's top 10 rushers are gone, and one of those is Stanford's Anthony Kimble, who was Robin to Toby Gerhart's Batman in 2008.

The other is Oregon's Jeremiah Johnson, who's ready-made replacement is 1,000-yard rushing LeGarrette Blount.

Assuming, of course, Blount takes care of the issues that got him suspended.

As it stands, five 1,000-yard rushers return, topped by California's Jahvid Best, who is a leading Heisman Trophy candidate, and Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers, who was only the conference's Offensive Player of the Year as a true freshman.

In fact, it's fair to say that no team is in lousy shape with its running backs.

Offensive lines? Well, that's not our topic today.

Great shape

  • California: Best may be the most explosive player in the nation. He's a home-run threat every time he touches the ball, and, oh by the way, backup Shane Vereen ranked 10th in the conference in rushing and averaged 5 yards per carry.

  • USC: Stafon Johnson, Joe McKnight and C.J. Gable -- and all the other guys. The Trojans averaged 195 yards rushing per game last year, and with all five offensive linemen back and a new starting quarterback, that total figures to perk up quite a bit.

  • Oregon State: Rodgers will be limited during spring practices due to a shoulder injury and the depth behind him is a bit uncertain, but you cannot ignore a freshman rushing for 1,253 yards.

  • Stanford: The Cardinal will be looking to bolster depth behind Gerhart during spring. Gerhart, who scored 15 touchdowns and rushed for 1,136 yards in 2008, won't be around because he's playing baseball. And therein lies a problem for Stanford fans. Gerhart might get picked high enough in the major league baseball draft -- and get offered a big enough signing bonus -- that he bolts school. That would be a huge hit.

  • Arizona: Who had a better running game last year: Arizona or Oregon State? Well, the production for both was nearly identical in terms of yards, but the Wildcats had 33 rushing touchdowns -- second in the conference only to Oregon's stunning 47 -- while the Beavers had 21. And the Wildcats have a nice one-two punch in Nic Grigsby, who rushed for 1,153 yards last year, and Keola Antolin. Grigsby does have a bit of a fumbling problem, though.

Good shape

  • Oregon: The overwhelming assumption is Blount will be back, which would put the Ducks in the "Great Shape" category. Still, that uncertainty is an issue heading into spring practices.

We'll see

  • Washington State: The Cougars fall just short of good shape because they were awful running the ball last year -- 2.7 yards per carry -- and California transfer James Montgomery is unproven. But everyone on the 2008 depth chart is back and Montgomery was a touted recruit, so this is one position coach Paul Wulff probably isn't losing sleep over.

  • Washington: The good news is everyone is back -- Terrance Dailey, Brandon Johnson, David Freeman, etc. The bad news is the running game was terrible last year. It's tempting to promote the Huskies just because a healthy Jake Locker should dramatically improve the rushing totals, but until someone tells us otherwise, Locker is a quarterback.

  • UCLA: The good news is it would be hard for the running game to get any worse than 116th in the nation (82.75 yards per game). Still, while Kahlil Bell is gone, there's tons of young talent at running back, led by Derrick Coleman and Aundre Dean. Of course, there's that offensive line ...

  • Arizona State: Said the Sun Devils: Thank God for UCLA. Otherwise, their 89 yards rushing per game -- 113th in the nation -- would rank last in the Pac-10. Keegan Herring is gone, but the rest of the depth chart is back and some folks in Tempe are intrigued with redshirt freshman James Morrison, a walk-on sensation who might have seen a lot of carries last year if he didn't get hurt. Still, the tailbacks suffer here because of the woeful offensive line.