We will continue our series going through each position group to see where Utah ranks among their peers in the Pac-12. The transfer of Armand Shyne makes the top spot more interesting. While it is easy to understand why Shyne would want to transfer (sitting behind Zack Moss and a talented group of youngsters hungry for reps), Shyne coming back for his senior season would have given the Utah backfield the best one-two punch in the Pac-12. There were eight 1,000-yard rushers in the Pac-12 last year, six of whom are back in 2019. Teams are ranked based on the whole running back group rather than just quality of the starter (though that, like the quarterback rankings) is a big factor. Teams use more than one running back, and with the amount of hits the position takes, depth is very important.
The bottom three all lack returning experience at the position, with none of the three teams featuring a back who totaled over 250 yards rushing last year. The top six were all really tough to rank because each team brings back a 1,000-yard rusher, so depth really came into play to differentiate all of the teams. 4-6 all have a great running back but relatively young/unproven depth behind the starter, while 1-3 all have a talented starter and proven depth.
The bottom spot was a tough choice between the Buffs and Bears. Neither team has a proven running back. I opted to put Colorado last because their top returning running back, Beau Bisharat, has not produced for three years and enters his senior year never having rushed for even 150 yards in a season. Losing Travon McMillian could really hamper the CU offense in 2019, especially with the graduate of Kyle Evans as well. Colorado may end up starting a running back with no carries at the college level.
Patrick Laird is gone, leaving a big hole in the running game. Sophomore Christopher Brown Jr. is expected to step into the starting role. He saw limited action as a freshman, with under 3.0 carries per game and under 150 yards for the season. He should improve with another year of experience, but like Colorado’s, Cal’s running backs have a lot to prove for an offense that struggled in 2018.
It seems weird to have the Cardinal this low (and a case could be made for them to be dead last in the conference), but they struggled to run the ball last year, and both Bryce Love and Cameron Scarlett are gone. Stanford’s top returner is Trevor Speights, but there should be an open competition for the starting spot. Highly touted recruit Austin Jones could push for playing time as a true freshman. Because of their history running the football under David Shaw, Stanford gets a little bit more benefit of the doubt than Cal or Colorado, giving the Cardinal the slight edge (but again, I would not argue with you if you ranked them last).
9. USC Trojans
There is talent and potential in this group, but 2018’s top rusher Aca’Cedric Ware is gone. Stephen Carr, a former five-star recruit, has shown flashes of potential in his two years at USC and is a candidate to be a breakout player in 2019 (I thought he would be in 2018). Vavae Malepeai, the bruiser from Hawaii, has also shown flashes in his USC career and provides a nice compliment to Carr. He actually led USC in rushing touchdowns last year.
Myles Gaskin, who rushed for 1,000+ yards in each of his four years in Seattle, is gone. He became Washington’s career leading rusher in his stellar career. It is tough to replace such a talented back like Gaskin. Salvon Ahmed was a great compliment to Gaskin last year, with his big-play potential, but can he be an every down back in the Pac-12? Two other sophomores, Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant, both flashed potential last year and give the Huskies depth. While this group is not green, they have to replace a Husky legend, which is always tough.
It feels wrong ranking a team that runs the ball so little this high, but it is important to remember that running backs serve a different purpose in Mike Leach’s air raid offense. They figure prominently into the passing attack. James Williams actually led the Cougars in receptions last year, and Max Borghi was fifth. Williams had over 600 receiving yards and over 500 rushing yards, meaning he went over 1,000 yards from scrimmage. He also totaled 16 touchdowns. There is a case to be made to have WSU higher on this list, but their lack of a commitment to the running game prevents me from putting them in the top half of the conference.
6. UCLA Bruins
Joshua Kelley was excellent for the Bruins last year. The depth behind him is young, but players like Kazmeir Allen did some really nice things in limited carries. Again, this was tough to differentiate the top six, but Kelly is not quite as good as some of the backs in the conference, and the depth lacks experience.
Some will argue (incorrectly) that Eno Benjamin is the best running back in the Pac-12, but the depth behind saw limited action. Benjamin was such a bell cow for the Sun Devils last year (he led the conference in carries) that there were few other carries to go around, and Manny Wilkins took most of them. Isaiah Floyd is the main backup behind Benjamin, and he had just over 200 yards last year.
4. Utah Utes
Yes, Benjamin had more yards than Moss last year, but he over three more carries per game than Moss, and his numbers are inflated from torching Oregon State for over 300 yards (a team Moss did not get to face). Moss also missed games down the stretch due to injury or he likely would have led the conference in rushing. Of the eight running backs to top 1,000 yards last year, Moss was the only player to average over 6.0 yards per carry. While there are some seriously talented backs in the Pac-12, Moss is the best one. While I really like the depth behind Moss, it is true to say it is a group that has not seen a ton of action without Shyne. I really like what Devontae Henry-Cole, TJ Green, and Devin Brumfield bring to the table behind Moss, but not has rushed for 300 yards in a season. Also, Jordan Wilmore, who arrives this fall, should push for reps as a true freshman. Each brings something unique to the table, and I have a feeling this group will prove to be the best in the conference at the end of the season, but I tried to take off my red goggles and evaluate critically what the group behind Moss has done up until now to be fair. Even though I think the four young running backs behind Moss have a higher ceiling than Shyne and could be better than him in 2019, Shyne proved he could move the ball against Pac-12 defenses and had two 100-yard rushing games in his career, losing him does create some minor questions behind Moss.
Freshman Jermar Jefferson was one of the few bright spots for an awful Beavers team in 2018. Behind him is Artavis Pierce, one of the better backups in the conference, having produced 300 or more yards in each of his three seasons. Jefferson should be even better as a sophomore, and Pierce is a nice backup/insurance policy if Jefferson goes down.
J.J. Taylor is probably the third-best back in the conference after Moss and Benjamin. However, Arizona has a more seasoned backup in Gary Brightwell, who put up over 500 yards last season on almost 100 carries. If Taylor misses time, Arizona has to feel confident that Brightwell can step in and handle the load. While this is about running backs, I have to mention quarterback Khalil Tate here as well. Having such a dynamic running quarterback (when healthy) only adds to the potency of Arizona’s rushing attack.
1. Oregon Ducks
Oregon was led by two freshmen last year, CJ Verdell and Travis Dye. Verdell went for over 1,000 yards and Dye had over 700. Oregon enters 2019 with the best one-two punch in the conference. They are likely the only team with a real shot of two 1,000-yard running backs (Arizona could have two as well but one would likely be Tate, who is not technically a running back). Both should be even better in their sophomore campaigns. Cyrus Habibi-Likio, who had seven touchdowns on just 18 carries, is also entering his sophomore season and could be a big factor in the Ducks’ rushing attack.