- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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One thing the SEC will never be short on is talented running backs. This league is consistently very deep at the position, and 2015 is no exception. The league is loaded with immediate star power and has a few youngsters waiting in the wings to really strut their stuff in 2015. Good luck defenses.
1. Arkansas: The Razorbacks are the only team in the SEC to return two 1,000-yard rushers in Jonathan Williams (1,190 yards) and Alex Collins (1,100). Each averaged more than 5 yards per carry and scored 12 touchdowns. Behind them, the Hogs have some talented depth to keep any eye on, starting with redshirt freshman Juan Day and fullback Kody Walker, whom the coaches really like, and 2015 signee Rawleigh Williams III.
2. Georgia: There’s no debate right now that sophomore Nick Chubb returns as the SEC’s best running back. Actually, after rushing for 1,547 yards (7.1 yards per carry) and 14 touchdowns with only eight starts (all 100-yard performances), Chubb might be the nation’s best returning running back. Fellow sophomore Soachny Michel rushed for 410 yards and five touchdowns last year, and veteran Keith Marshall is almost back to full speed after dealing with injury yet again last year.
3. Alabama: Derrick Henry is one of the SEC’s best pure athletes and led the Crimson Tide in rushing last year (990) despite having 22 less carries than starter T.J. Yeldon. Henry is a bull and homerun threat, but the return of veteran Kenyan Drake (leg) will provide Alabama with the perfect complement in the backfield with his tremendous speed and elusiveness. The arrival of talented freshman Bo Scarbrough was a blessing with the transfer of Altee Tenpenny and the indefinite suspension of Tyren Jones.
4. Tennessee: There certainly is something special about sophomore Jalen Hurd, and it’s scary to think what he’ll learn/do in 2015. There’s little doubt that Hurd will surpass his 899 yards from last year. The Vols are pretty thin here, but the arrival of junior college transfer – and former Alabama running back – Alvin Kamara is a very welcomed one. The coaches think the shifty back could be special and should complement Hurd well. Tennessee also signed John Kelly.
5. LSU: Leonard Fournette took a little longer to develop than Chubb, but there’s no denying his ability, strength and athleticism. Fournette finished his freshman year with 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns, but should be even better in 2015. Sophomore Darrel Williams (302 yards) is a fan favorite, but depth is on the unproven side. LSU did sign three running backs this year, including two ESPN 300 members.
6. Auburn: The Tigers lost two productive seniors, including SEC leading rusher Cameron Artis-Payne, but sophomore Roc Thomas could be a special talent. However, keep an eye on Jovon Robinson, who was the nation’s No. 1 juco running back. He rushed for 2,387 yards and 34 touchdowns in 2013, and might be the favorite to start. Peyton Barber is another solid option returning, but in Gus Malzahn’s system, any running back can be uber-successful.
7. Missouri: Russell Hansbroughh is one of the league’s best and had a breakout year in 2014 with his 1,084 yards and 10 touchdowns. His role will increase even more with the departure of Marcus Murphy. The Tigers then have some unproven parts though. Freshman Ish Witter ran for 101 yards last year, and Morgan Steward could be the No. 2 back if he can successfully return from last year’s hip injury. Youngster Trevon Walters is a speedster, and the Tigers finally got JUCO Chase Abbington on campus.
8. Texas A&M: Trey Williams’ somewhat surprising depature to the NFL leaves a hole at running back, but Tra Carson and Brandon Williams are back. Carson, who led the team with 581 rushing yards last year, should be the feature back, but Brandon Williams has a lot of potential; he just needs to put everything together. The coaches are also excited about sophomore James White, who played sparingly last year, but can do a little bit of everything at running back.
9. South Carolina: Mike Davis’ departure hurts, but the Gamecocks are in good hands with former walk-on Brandon Wilds taking over the lead back role. The senior has 1,277 career rushing yards, including gaining 570 last year. Redshirt sophomore David Williams has caught the eyes of his coaches after his reserve role in 2014. Maybe this is the season senior Shon Carson, who has shown flashes in the past, can finally contribute more, too.
10. Florida: The Gators lost their best running back in Matt Jones to the NFL draft, but it’s time for junior Kelvin Taylor prove that he can be a leader and an every-down back for the Gators. He has just one 100-yard game in two seasons. Redshirt sophomore Adam Lane showed some promise with his 109-yard bowl performance, and you have to wonder if undersized Brandon Powell will stay at running back. Freshman Jordan Scarlett could see immediate playing time this fall.
11. Mississippi State: Bowling ball Josh Robinson is gone, but the there’s certainly some depth to work with in Starkville. However, no one there is quite sure who is going to be the lead back or if things will operate by committee. Ashton Shumpert played well down the stretch last year, but impressions out of practice were that freshman Aeris Williams might have been the best of them all. Like Shumpert, Brandon Holloway also rushed for nearly 300 yards last year.
12. Kentucky: The loss of Braylon Heard to the NFL early didn’t help, but this position was in need of some major work anyway. Stanley “Boom” Williams and Jojo Kemp were OK last year, but the Wildcats need them to be much better this fall. The two combined for 809 yards and nine touchdowns. Sophomore Mikel Horton rushed for 302 yards last year, so he’ll definitely be in the mix, too.
13. Vanderbilt: Sophomore Ralph Webb almost ran for 1,000 yards last year, and might be the Commodores’ best offensive threat. However, the Dores will need more than just Webb to get the running game going, and right now that’s a problem with only two other returning backs. Sophomore Dallas Rivers is the only other back returning with any sort of real production (218 yards). Vandy will have to get their two incoming freshman ready immediately.
14. Ole Miss: The Rebels weren’t great here last year to begin with. Ole Miss ranked 74th nationally in rushing and Jaylen Walton led the team with 586 yards and five touchdowns, averaging only 45.1 yards per game (fewest of any starting SEC running back). Bigger back Jordan Wilkins needs to be more productive than his 361 yards from last year. I’Tavius Mathers and Mark Dodsonhave transferred, leaving Ole Miss thin here. A lot will be expected – and likely needed -- from freshman Eric Swinney.