SEC: Jared McGriff-Culver

Lunchtime links

May, 3, 2013
5/03/13
12:00
PM ET
TGIF! Now get that fancy Kentucky Derby attire ready!
We continue our position rankings by looking at some of the hardest working players in the league. Running backs are very important in the SEC and more is always better around these parts.

Past rankings:
On to the running backs:

[+] EnlargeSpencer Ware
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesThe powerful Spencer Ware should be a key part of LSU's running back depth this upcoming season.
1. LSU: The Tigers claim the top spot thanks to depth, talent and more depth. They have five guys back there who could start for a lot of teams. Michael Ford is the speed guy. Spencer Ware is a bruiser who also has great cutting ability, Alfred Blue is extremely versatile and strong, and Kenny Hilliard is an even bigger bruiser. This group combined for 2,338 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns last fall. Keep an eye out for freshman Jeremy Hill, too.

2. South Carolina: Marcus Lattimore alone would warrant the Gamecocks being near the top. All reports coming out of Columbia are that he’s healthy and ready to pick up where he left off when he hurt his knee. Sophomore Brandon Wilds was excellent in filling in for Lattimore last season, veteran Kenny Miles has said he will be back for his senior season and the talented Shon Carson should be back after his ACL injury.

3. Arkansas: It was a close call between the Hogs and the Gamecocks. Similar to Lattimore, Knile Davis insists he’s as good as new after missing all of last season with a fractured ankle. Dennis Johnson can do a little bit of everything and certainly won’t be forgotten about in the Hogs’ offense, while Ronnie Wingo Jr. returns for his senior season.

4. Alabama: Eddie Lacy gets his shot to be the Crimson Tide’s feature back now that Trent Richardson is gone, but Nick Saban prefers to share the wealth. Who wouldn’t when you’ve got a true freshman on campus as talented as T.J. Yeldon? Don’t forget about Dee Hart, either. Hart would have played some last season had he not been injured. And Jalston Fowler adds another big, bruising body to Bama's backfield.

5. Texas A&M: If the NCAA rules that Oklahoma transfer Brandon Williams is eligible this season, the Aggies may move up this list. Williams was sensational this spring, and Christine Michael also returns after rushing for 899 yards last season prior to tearing his ACL. In addition, incoming freshman Trey Williams was one of the premier running back prospects in the country.

6. Vanderbilt: We're still not sure what Warren Norman can do, as he returns from his knee injury. Jerron Seymour is a do-it-all guy. The centerpiece of the Commodores’ offense will again be Zac Stacy, who set a school record last season with 1,193 rushing yards. He’s the leading returning rusher in the SEC. Highly-touted freshman Brian Kimbrow could also be used at running back.

7. Mississippi State: The competition this preseason at running back ought to be fierce at Mississippi State. Speedy LaDarius Perkins is the likely starter, but the Bulldogs’ coaches can’t wait to see what a healthy Nick Griffin can do. There are two talented redshirt freshmen -- Josh Robinson and Derek Milton -- who’ve also been waiting their turn.

8. Georgia: Losing Isaiah Crowell was a real blow for the Bulldogs, but they’re not lacking in talent. We won’t have to wait long to see if true freshman Keith Marshall is the real deal, but he's at his best when he's in space or used in the passing game. Ken Malcome had a very good spring and was a co-starter heading into summer. Incoming freshman Todd Gurley will be called upon this fall as well.

9. Auburn: Onterio McCalebb remains one of the top breakaway threats in the league, but he's going to need help. Tre Mason could emerge as the Tigers' every-down back. Transfers Mike Blakely and Corey Grant also impressed this spring and will add good depth. Either way, losing a player the caliber of Michael Dyer always stings.

10. Missouri: People forget that Kendial Lawrence was the starter before he went down with an injury last year. He regrouped well and was even better this spring. Marcus Murphy was out last season with a shoulder injury, but will be back and adds explosion to the backfield. Big-bodied rising senior Jared McGriff-Culver returns and should get carries along with redshirt sophomore Greg White. It still looks as though leading rusher Henry Josey won't be healthy enough for the fall.

11. Florida: Mike Gillislee has been inconsistent during his career, but is perhaps the key to the team and is the first downhill runner Florida has had since Tim Tebow. The Gators also hope this is the year finally Mack Brown comes on. Hunter Joyer might be best true fullback in the league and Trey Burton will also play a role as an H-back/fullback.

12. Tennessee: The Vols will be searching this preseason for their go-to back. Junior Rajion Neal has gotten bigger and stronger and may be the most explosive back. He left spring practice tied with an improved Marlin Lane and Devrin Young for the starting spot. Tennessee's rushing game has to improve greatly, as it ranked 116th nationally last year.

13. Kentucky: All four top rushers are back, but none eclipsed the 500-yard mark last year. The Wildcats hope Josh Clemons can recover from a knee injury that cut short his promising freshman season. CoShik Williams was Kentucky's leading rusher last year (486) and is one of the Wildcats' more elusive backs. Jonathan George will be in the mix again, while Raymond Sanders figures to be healthier this fall.

14. Ole Miss: The Rebels can’t afford to lose top back Jeff Scott, whose academics are still being monitored. Seniors Devin Thomas and H.R. Greer provide depth, but have combined for 125 career rushing yards. Redshirt sophomore Nicholas Parker has dealt with shape issues and has yet to see any game action, while Tobias Singleton moved from receiver to running back this spring. The Rebels will have to turn to their incoming freshmen for help here.

Missouri spring wrap

May, 15, 2012
5/15/12
8:30
AM ET
2011 record: 8-5
2011 conference record: 5-4

Returning starters

Offense: 6; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

OT Elvis Fisher, RB Henry Josey (injured), QB James Franklin, OT Justin Britt, WR T.J. Moe, DE Brad Madison, LB Andrew Wilson, CB E.J. Gaines, CB Kip Edwards, LB Will Ebner, LB Zaviar Gooden

Key losses

OG Austin Wuebbels, OT Dan Hoch, OG Jayson Palmgren, TE Michael Egnew, WR Wes Kemp, NG Dominique Hamilton, DE Jacquies Smith, S Kenji Jackson, LB Luke Lambert

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Henry Josey* (1,168 Yards)
Passing: James Franklin* (2,865 yards)
Receiving: T.J. Moe* (649 yards)
Tackles: Andrew Wilson* (98)
Sacks: Jacquies Smith (5)
Interceptions: Kenji Jackson (3)

Spring answers

1. Lucas' development: Missouri entered the spring looking for a downfield receiving threat at wide receiver and left feeling much better about the situation. T.J. Moe returns as the most productive receiver, but he's not a deep-play threat. The coaches are hoping Marcus Lucas can be that guy. He had a very solid spring in Columbia and was much more consistent in practices. He got over some of his lazy tendencies and showed off more explosiveness in Missouri's vertical passing game. With L'Damian Washington banged up, Lucas took full advantage of getting more reps.

2. Running back depth: Kendial Lawrence picked up where he left off last season. With Henry Josey's status still doubtful for the fall, Lawrence is the unquestioned leader of the group. Behind him, offensive coordinator David Yost was impressed by redshirt sophomore Marcus Murphy, who missed 2011 with a shoulder injury. Murphy showed the big-play ability that the coaches coveted his freshman year. The big Jared McGriff-Culver will be used at running back, a blocker and an H-back, while redshirt sophomore Greg White showed a lot of improvement this spring and is in line for carries this fall.

3. Mizzou's confidence: All this SEC talk is getting to Missouri. It's not that the Tigers aren't excited about their move. They're just tired of hearing about how tough it will be, and they're tired of answering adjustment questions. Yost and his players made it clear that the offense isn't changing a whole lot to their spread attack. That's what this team wants and it doesn't matter what others think. Gary Pinkel is the eighth-winningest active coach in the FBS, with his 158 wins, so he knows how to win. He's done plenty of it at Mizzou and intends to continue that in the SEC. He and his players know it won't be easy, but they have the right attitude and confidence entering the league's toughest football conference.

Fall questions

1. Defensive tackle: The depth at defensive tackle is a concern for the Tigers entering the summer, as Missouri is looking to replace both starters up front. With Sheldon Richardson rehabbing from shoulder surgery this spring and Marvin Foster, who was expected to be No. 2 at defensive tackle, tearing his ACL before spring, Missouri entered the spring with four tackles having six combined starts. All of them are from rising senior Jimmy Burge. Strides were made by Lucas Vincent, and former tight end-turned-tackle Matt Hoch, but there's no doubt that coaches are worried about depth.

2. Offensive line: Missouri's coaches insist there is more experience than meets the eye on the offensive line, but with Anthony Gatti, Mark Hill and Connor McGovern banged up, the offensive line had holes to work around this spring. Sixth-year senior Elvis Fisher will be back, but even he was limited this spring as he recovered from the knee injury he suffered last offseason. When this unit is healthy, there is experience to be found, but Mizzou still has to replace three quality linemen and there's also that issue of being a much lighter unit than most lines in the league.

3. Size: Both of Missouri's lines are lacking in the size department, but it doesn't look like the coaches are ready to change that anytime soon. Yost said he's happy with an offensive line that averages roughly 295 pounds. The defensive line comes in at about 262 pounds as well. While SEC linemen get a lot of credit for their athleticism, they also pack a little more girth than what Mizzou has. The coaches say it won't be a problem, and they say players will combat size with strength, making offseason workouts even more critical. This is something to monitor on as the season progresses. If these lines wear down it will be a long first year for the Tigers.
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Missouri is bringing some unconventional offensive looks to the SEC, but there is one part of the Tigers’ offense that coach Gary Pinkel is sure will fit right in -- there's plenty to work with in his running game.

“The depth at that position is always critical,” Pinkel said. “That means you probably need four guys ready to go (in a game).”

If you can’t run the ball in the SEC you won’t get very far. Last season, six SEC teams -- LSU, Alabama, South Carolina Auburn, Mississippi State and Georgia -- ranked in the top 40 nationally in rushing. But none ranked higher than Missouri, which was 11th, averaging 244 yards per game.

As Missouri gets ready for the offseason, it does so with a lot of confidence in its running game yet again.

Missouri will likely be without last year’s leading rusher in Henry Josey, who suffered a devastating knee injury against Texas last year but was still second in the Big 12 in rushing. However, it’s not like Missouri will have a stranger taking over.

Before anyone had even really heard of Josey, Kendial Lawrence was Missouri’s starting running back. He broke his fibula during the second practice week of the season and missed three games, paving the way for Josey. Lawrence then returned against Texas, rushing for 106 yards and a touchdown. He went on to average 93 yards in the last four games of the season – all wins – and score three touchdowns.

“There’s no question Kendial Lawrence can be our lead back and we can win games with him,” offensive coordinator David Yost said.

For the 5-foot-9, 195-pound Lawrence, this spring was about slowing down what he saw in order to speed his game up on the field. Even when Lawrence was the undisputed starter, he admits he rushed a lot of what he did and wasn’t patient, which stunted his development.

This spring, Lawrence changed his approach. He studied film more to find better holes on tape. Once Lawrence could focus and trust in his line, he was able to make bigger and better plays because he could play both outside and in between the tackles.

“I just hit it when I get it,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence won’t be alone. Big-bodied rising senior Jared McGriff-Culver, who rushed for 111 yards last season is back and will be used as both a running back, a blocking back and an H-back. Redshirt sophomore Greg White improved a lot this spring and redshirt sophomore Marcus Murphy returned after missing the 2011 season with a shoulder injury.

Murphy made a few big plays in practice this spring and is in line to get a good amount of carries this fall.

Yost also said he can throw receivers into the backfield for direct snaps, use the read option and jet sweeps in his run attack.

“We can also put those wrinkles in and try to give people different looks and try to stretch people in different ways because we’re not just going to line up with a tight end and two backs in the backfield and say, ‘Hey, see if you can stop us running the power,’” Yost said. “That’s not what we do and it’s not what we’re going to hang our hat on.”

What Missouri can hang its hat on is the fact its quarterback can run too. James Franklin was second on the team in rushing, and sixth in the Big 12 last season with 981 yards and 15 touchdowns.

While Franklin would like to be more of a pass-first player this fall, his coaches understand they’ll need his feet just as much this fall.

“It’s easy to fall in love with running the quarterback because that’s the guy a lot of defenses have the hardest time defending,” Yost said.

That’s because a running quarterback opens things up the passing game and takes defensive attention away from running backs.

Lawrence respects Franklin’s ability, but he wants the running backs to be the reason SEC defenses have a hard time stopping Mizzou. Franklin can do a lot, Lawrence said, but a group of running backs can help to pound opposing defenses and create more balance.

“It’s real important because you don’t want to be one dimensional,” he said said. “You want to give the defense different looks every time in running and passing and different situations that will put them in a bind.”

Lunchtime links

March, 15, 2012
3/15/12
12:31
PM ET
Put those brackets down for a second and check out some SEC links.

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