- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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A year ago, it was receivers.
And for that matter, when is the SEC not loaded with great defensive players across the board?
But this season, the SEC's position of power is at running back.
It's a group that's so deep and talented that the league's leading returning rusher from a year ago, Arkansas' Knile Davis, wasn't selected first-team preseason All-SEC by either the media or coaches. And all Davis did last season was rush for 1,322 yards, average 6.5 yards per carry and score 14 touchdowns.
Unfortunately, Davis injured his left ankle during practice Thursday, an injury Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said would likely sideline Davis for the entire 2011 season.
Lattimore, who's bulked up to 230 pounds, was the National Freshman of the Year last season. He rushed for 1,197 yards and scored 19 touchdowns, falling one short of the SEC record for touchdowns by a freshman.
Richardson gets his shot as Alabama's go-to back after sharing duties with Mark Ingram the past two seasons. Freakishly strong, the 5-foot-11, 224-pound junior is just as fast and will be the centerpiece of the Crimson Tide's offense this season.
"You line up against a great one every Saturday in this league," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said.
He has one of his own in sophomore Mike Dyer, who ran for 1,093 yards last season and broke Bo Jackson's freshman rushing record at Auburn. The 5-foot-9, 210-pound Dyer is a human bowling ball with his low-to-the-ground style and teams with junior Onterio McCalebb to give the Tigers the top running back tandem in the league. McCalebb is one of the premier breakaway threats in college football. He scored 10 touchdowns last season and has five scoring runs in his first two seasons that were 48 yards or longer.
The running back in the SEC that everybody might not know about right now, but will know plenty about come October and November is LSU sophomore Spencer Ware. A quarterback in high school, Ware is a superb athlete who has electrifying moves in the open field and the ability to turn missed tackles into touchdowns.
If you saw any of his 10-carry, 102-yard performance in the Cotton Bowl last season, that was just a taste.
The most underrated running back in the league is Ole Miss' Brandon Bolden. In fact, Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower said at the SEC media days that the 5-foot-11, 221-pound Bolden was one of the best players he's faced. Bolden, a senior, rushed for 976 yards last season, led the Rebels with 32 catches and scored 17 touchdowns.
Two other SEC running backs who probably don't get the respect they deserve are Tennessee's Tauren Poole and Mississippi State's Vick Ballard. Poole topped the 1,000-yard mark last season and had six 100-yard rushing games to tie for the SEC lead. Ballard came in from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and rushed for 968 yards and scored 20 touchdowns during his first season in the SEC.
At Georgia, they're hoping true freshman Isaiah Crowell can come in and do for the Bulldogs what Lattimore did for the Gamecocks last season. It's been an impressive start to preseason camp for Crowell, who was ESPN's No. 1 running back prospect in the country last year.
If you like speed, Florida's Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey are sure to leave a few vapor trails this season. Demps has run a wind-aided 9.96 in the 100 meters, and Rainey might be even faster in the 40-yard dash. He's been timed at 4.24 seconds.
Granted, neither has prototypical size for an SEC running back. But as Florida offensive tackle Xavier Nixon said, "You've got to catch them before you can hit them."
When it comes to marquee running backs in 2011, everybody else in the country will be trying to catch the SEC.