LITTLE ROCK — A diminished commodity in the NFL, running backs will be front and center in the SEC this year for two reasons.
A handful are already proven and gone are the starting quarterbacks for seven of the eight teams .500 or better in the SEC in 2013.
At Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Vanderbilt, and Texas A&M, the new quarterbacks will not be trusted to the same degree as A.J. McCarron, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger, Jordan Rodgers, and Johnny Manziel. At Missouri and South Carolina, Maty Mauk and Dylan Thompson have more starting experience than the other new No. 1s. With Nick Marshall back, Auburn is the exception.
The demise of the running back in the NFL is well documented. Somebody else did the research that shows not one NFL running back averaged 20 carries per game last year. Ten years earlier, a dozen backs averaged 20 carries or more.
The last two years, no running back has been drafted in the first round. Since Arkansas’ Darren McFadden was the No. 4 pick in the 2008 draft, only C.J. Spiller in 2010 and Trent Richardson in 2012 were among the first 10 selected.
Including two from Arkansas, five of the top running backs in the SEC are back for 2014. Among the departed are Nos. 1 and 2, Auburn’s Tre Mason and LSU’s Jeremy Hill. At this point, the names of their replacements are still in flux although Leonard Fournette — the consensus No. 1 recruit in the country — is the first player mentioned in speculation from Baton Rouge. At 6-1, 225, with 4.35 speed, he has been compared to Adrian Peterson.
Personal projections for the most productive running backs who return for another go-around:
↓ No. 3, T.J. Yeldon, Alabama, 207 carries, 1,235 yards. Bigger than Yeldon at 6-foot-3, 238, Derrick Henry will get more opportunities. Recovering from a broken leg suffered in spring practice, he had six carries for 111 yards vs. Arkansas in mid-October. Carrying the ball in three of the last six games, he netted 186 yards on 17 attempts. Plus, Yeldon lost five fumbles in 2013, all inside the opponents’ 20. Yeldon is 14-1, Henry 20-1 in the early odds on the Heisman Trophy.
↑ No. 4, Mike Davis, South Carolina, 203, 1,183. He sat out the Coastal Carolina game where a dozen carries might have added 150 yards to his total and was hampered by injuries the last five games. The Capital One Bowl was supposed to kick off his Heisman campaign, but he had only nine carries for 49 yards.
↓ No, 8, Alex Collins, Arkansas, 190, 1,026 and No. 10, Jonathan Williams, Arkansas, 150, 900. Korliss Marshall figures to take away a few carries per game from both Collins and Williams. Marshall has more speed than the other two and is touted as an excellent inside runner by those who watched spring practice. On occasion, Marshall and Collins could be on the field together.
↑ No. 9, Todd Gurley, Georgia, 165, 989. He suffered a thigh injury in the season opener, hurt his ankle vs. LSU, played in only 10 of the Bulldogs’ 13 games and had single-digit carries in two of those games. Part of the equation is whether fellow running back Keith Marshall, who suffered a knee injury vs. Tennessee, can be effective and attract attention.
Because he is a quarterback, Auburn’s Marshall was not included in the look-ahead even though he was seventh in rushing with 1,068 yards. Beginning with the Arkansas game, he carried 75 times for 560 yards in the last five games of 2013. During those same games, Mason carried 20 to 46 times and netted 115 to 304 yards.
Considering Gus Malzahn’s predilection for the run, Marshall’s skill with the read option, four returning starters from an offensive line that was dominant and an Arkansas defense with question marks, Mason’s replacement is eligible to impress on Aug. 30.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. Email: email@example.com.