- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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We turn our attention today to the running back position in the SEC, which is always loaded.
The 2011 season will be no different:
1. Auburn: Who do you put No. 1? How about the team with the best tandem in the league. Sophomore Mike Dyer can do it all -- run with power, run with speed and break tackles. He’s coming off a 1,093-yard rushing season as a true freshman. The Tigers can also throw their version of “Lightning” at you in junior Onterio McCalebb, who’s one of the SEC’s best breakaway threats. He rushed for 810 yards last season, averaging 8.5 yards a pop, and his 70-yard touchdown run against LSU was the difference in that game.
2. Alabama: Trent Richardson alone gets the Crimson Tide into the No. 2 spot. He’s that good and that dynamic, and he’s going to make up for all those carries he didn’t get the past two seasons while playing in the shadow of Mark Ingram. Simply, he’s the kind of running back who can carry an offense. Sophomore Eddie Lacy would be a starter at a lot of places, and true freshman Dee Hart turned a lot of heads in the spring with his ability to make plays a number of different ways.
3. Arkansas: The Hogs’ depth is outstanding and would have been even better had the bruiser of the group, Broderick Green, not suffered a season-ending knee injury in the spring. Junior Knile Davis demonstrated just how special he was a year ago with 1,322 rushing yards. Bobby Petrino also thinks this might be the year that junior Ronnie Wingo Jr. truly blossoms after showing flashes the past two years, and do-it-all junior Dennis Johnson is back after missing all of last season with an injury.
4. South Carolina: Sophomore Marcus Lattimore is right up there with Richardson when it comes to game-changing running backs who can carry a football team. Willing to tote it 35 and 40 times a game, Lattimore is an entire running back corps unto himself. But he will need some help, and that’s where junior Kenny Miles comes in. Miles had an excellent spring, and it looks like junior Eric Baker is healthy again.
5. Florida: From a pure speed standpoint, nobody can top Florida’s backfield. The Chris Rainey-Jeff Demps combo figures to be a blur in 2011, and new offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is going to see to it that both players get plenty of work. Don’t forget about junior Mike Gillislee, either, and sophomore Mack Brown was one of the highest-rated backs in the country when Florida signed him. The reason the Gators aren’t ranked a little higher is that it remains to be seen if they have that power back who can get the tough yards in this league.
6. Mississippi State: It’s a crime to put the Bulldogs this low, but it goes to show you just how deep and talented the running position is in the SEC. Senior Vick Ballard just missed 1,000 yards last season and scored 20 touchdowns. Sophomore LaDarius Perkins has great speed and is also versatile. He had three receiving touchdowns in 2010. Senior Robert Elliott also returns, and coach Dan Mullen said freshman Nick Griffin might be the best of the bunch once he gets healthy.
7. LSU: Losing a 1,000-yard rusher the caliber of Stevan Ridley is never ideal, but there’s no shortage of returning talent in the LSU backfield. It starts with sophomore Spencer Ware, who’s poised for a huge season. He was one of the best players on the field in last season’s Cotton Bowl. Les Miles likes to use multiple backs, and sophomores Michael Ford and Alfred Blue will also be a big part of the rotation.
8. Ole Miss: There’s not a more versatile (or underrated) running back in the SEC than senior Brandon Bolden. The NFL scouts have had him in their sights for some time. He just missed 1,000 yards rushing a year ago and led the Rebels with 32 receptions. At 221 pounds, he also has a nose for the end zone and scored 17 touchdowns last season. The Rebels have a perfect complement to go with him, too, in speedy sophomore Jeff Scott, while senior Enrique Davis also returns.
9. Georgia: Take Washaun Ealey out of the equation. He’s decided to transfer. It’s now or never for senior Caleb King, who’s a more talented runner than he’s shown to this point. Junior Carlton Thomas is still hanging around, and redshirt freshman Ken Malcome is one to keep an eye, too. But the running back everybody wants to see in Athens is incoming freshman Isaiah Crowell, who has all the tools to be a great one. He’s going to get a chance to show what he can do right away and may get 15 to 20 carries in the opener.
10. Tennessee: Despite Tauren Poole rushing for 1,034 yards last season, coach Derek Dooley came away saying the Vols left too many yards on the field. They finished last in the league in rushing. Nonetheless, Poole is a tough runner who’s proved he can be productive in this league. Sophomore Rajion Neal came on in the spring, and the Vols hope incoming freshmen Marlin Lane and Tom Smith can help provide a few more explosive plays in the running game. Also, don’t sleep on sophomore Channing Fugate, who’s one of the better fullbacks in the league.
11. Vanderbilt: The Commodores have the talent and the depth to really move up this list during the season. Of course, so much of what they do in their running game will hinge on how well the guys develop up front along the offensive line. Injuries derailed Warren Norman and Zac Stacy last season. Neither player topped the 500-yard mark. Both should be healthy in 2011, though, and first-year coach James Franklin was really impressed with sophomore Wesley Tate’s blend of size, power and speed in the spring.
12. Kentucky: Derrick Locke had been the heart and soul of the Wildcats’ running game the past couple of seasons, and now he’s gone. The good news is that sophomore Raymond Sanders was one of the Wildcats’ most-improved players in the spring and looks like he’s more than capable of being their go-to back. Several other younger guys are also waiting for their chance, including redshirt freshman Brandon Gainer, and the Kentucky coaches are extremely high on incoming freshmen Marcus Caffey and Josh Clemons.
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