SEC slant: More RBs the better

September, 4, 2014
Sep 4
2:00
PM ET
Gone are the days of Herschel Walker and Barry Sanders. We may never see another Eddie George or Ron Dayne pounding between the tackles for four quarters. Feature backs have gone the way of the dodo as more and more teams have moved toward multiple-back offenses. Part of it is the position's devaluation, part of it is getting the most bang for your buck.

There are no more workhorses

College football has, for the most part, stopped relying on one running back to shoulder the load. Alabama doesn't ask T.J. Yeldon to tote the rock 30 times a game. LSU spreads it around, too. At Wisconsin, Heisman Trophy contender Melvin Gordon splits carries with Corey Clement.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon, Terrell Chestnut
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsAlabama's T.J. Yeldon was one of four players to notch rushing carries in the Crimson Tide's win against West Virginia in Week 1.
Thirteen backs averaged 20 carries per game last season. In 2004, that total number was 23.

Despite having fewer feature backs, running games haven't diminished. Last season, 30 teams averaged 200 yards rushing per game. In 2004, only 19 teams reached that magic number.

By rotating in fresh legs, both overall production and effectiveness have improved. In 2004, 57 teams averaged 4 yards per rush or more. Last season 83 teams hit that number. Over that same period of time, the number of teams with a touchdown-per-rush percentage of at least 6.0 rose from 11 to 29.

In 2004, FBS teams averaged 58 runs of 10 yards or more. In 2013, that number rose to 70.

Two backs means double trouble for defenses

Over the past decade or so, coaches have learned that featuring multiple running backs is better not just for the player's health, but for the team.

In the SEC, only former Auburn player Tre Mason had more than 220 carries last season. Thirty-four players in the league had at least 400 yards rushing, compared to 18 in 2004.

When the defense wears down, Alabama can substitute in fresh legs. If Yeldon has carried the ball on consecutive plays, coach Nick Saban can bring on Derrick Henry. Good luck to the tired linebacker trying to hold on to that 6-foot-3, 240-pound truck.

And if that's not enough, late in the fourth quarter, Kenyan Drake can pop off the bench and sprint past the gassed defense.

"I would rather have guys touch the ball 15-20 times a game for every game all year than a guy that has to be a workhorse and do it 30 or 35 times, and at some point in the season he's not the same kind of guy," Saban said.

Take Georgia's Todd Gurley, for instance. Instead of hitting the defense over the head with Gurley, coach Mark Richt can vary the looks he gives offensively, throwing a change-up with the slippery Keith Marshall, a fastball with burner Sony Michel or a brush-back pitch with the physically imposing Nick Chubb.

During the first half on Saturday, Georgia had just 45 yards on 12 carries. In the second half, it turned up the heat on Clemson, rushing for 283 yards on 29 carries.

The NFL agrees

If you're a running back in high school, think about trying out a new position. As Saban explained, "It's the position that has the shortest shelf life relative to your career."

ESPN.com's Chris Low detailed the decline in the value of running backs for ESPN The Magazine. In his piece, he raised the non-existent interest of Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, who won the Pac-12's offensive player of the year award one year, posted even better numbers the next and then fell all the way to the fourth round of the NFL draft. Low went on to cite this eye-catching statistic: In the past five NFL drafts, only three running backs have been top-20 picks.

Like the college game, the NFL has seen the number of one-back offenses dwindle. Even in Seattle, star running back Marshawn Lynch accounted for slightly less than 60 percent of all Seahawks' rushing attempts last season, sharing carries with the likes of Robert Turbin. LeSean McCoy led the league in rushing attempts last season with 314. But that number pales in comparison to a decade earlier when Ricky Williams ran the ball 392 times.

It just doesn't pay to be a workhorse anymore. According to NFL.com, none of the NFL's 20 richest contracts for 2014 belong to running backs, and only Peterson cracks the top 28.

Missing the good 'ol days

The Heisman Trophy is, in all its bronzed glory, a sculpture of Ed Smith.

Who is Ed Smith you ask? Well, he was a running back at NYU in the early 1930s.

Unless you live in a time capsule, that should seem like a long time ago. NYU, after all, doesn't have a football team anymore. What's more, the Heisman rarely goes to running backs now. It used to, with 17 of the first 25 award recipients playing the position, but today quarterbacks have confiscated the trophy.

The past four Heisman winners -- Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton -- all played quarterback. Since 2000, 12 QBs have won the award, with only Alabama's Mark Ingram and USC's Reggie Bush breaking up the streak. And in the case of Bush, he had to return the trophy at the behest of NCAA investigators.

There's some hope this season with Gurley leading the Heisman charge after his three-TD performance in Week 1, but even so there are concerns about his durability. Yeldon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah are in the mix, too, according to ESPN's panel of experts, but whether they'll get enough carries to post eye-popping numbers is up for debate. Nonetheless, the majority of Heisman contenders are quarterbacks.

Don't expect that to change anytime soon. Because while multiple running back systems pay dividends for teams on the field and for players' careers at the next level, it does nothing to help their chase for the game's ultimate trophy.

Alex Scarborough | email

Alabama/SEC reporter

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