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As the SEC has trended toward more pass-happy offenses, rushing production has taken a bit of a step back at some programs recently. Whereas in the past it may have been an assumption that any decent SEC team would have a 1,000-yard rusher on the roster, only six players hit that mark last season as many squads went with a by-committee approach or simply did not run the ball that often.
The change in approach shows via NFL Draft positional rankings. Despite not having a massive number of 1,000-yard rushers, the SEC has five players in Mel Kiper’s early top 14 running backs for the 2022 NFL Draft. Backs like Florida’s Dameon Pierce and Georgia’s James Cook could go early despite not even breaking the 800-yard mark.
Of course, Pierce teamed with a mobile quarterback in Emory Jones while Cook split carries with Zamir White. So context beyond the yardage matters. That means the SEC should still have a great group of running backs next season even without many uber-productive returners.
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Here’s a look at each SEC team’s tentative projected starting running back — it’s early! — with players organized by their 2021 yardage.
Last season: 37 carries, 162 yards, 1 touchdown
This battle could involve some new pieces. It will be tough for Mizzou to replace All-America and All-SEC running back Tyler Badie, who was an absolute workhorse last season. Badie lapped the field in the SEC with 1,604 yards, running for over 200 yards in five different games.
Dawson Downing also departs, but the Tigers will bring in four-star freshman Tavorus Jones. There is a lot of uncertainty with Mizzou’s offense for 2022 with starting quarterback Connor Bazelak also transferring. Stanford transfer running back Nathaniel Peat is another player to watch but does not get the nod here yet since he is not necessarily the clear and obvious starter.
Last season: 44 carries, 211 yards, 1 TD
Although Rocko Griffin is Vanderbilt’s most productive returner after posting 517 yards and four touchdowns last season, Davis is the safe bet to start. Davis transferred in from Temple and looked like the Commodores’ top offensive player before suffering a toe injury against Stanford in Week 3 and missing the rest of the season.
The ‘Dores need to keep defenses honest with their run game to take pressure off of a leaky offensive line. Vanderbilt will have a lot of options in the backfield with true sophomore Patrick Smith and freshmen Maurice Edwards and Chase Gillespie also in the mix.
Last season: 64 carries, 228 yards, 1 TD
Although Juju McDowell posted slightly better stats last season, Lloyd got more carries and projects as the more likely starter at this juncture since he should be further along in his recovery from a torn ACL. It seemed that Lloyd was not completely back to his old self last season, but another few months of workouts should help him in that area.
It will be tough to replace multi-year workhorse Kevin Harris, who departs for the NFL. Carolina should have a decent stable of backs, however, and it’s worth watching Wake Forest transfer Christian Beal-Smith as well.
Last season: 58 carries, 330 yards, 3 TD
Georgia reloads rather than rebuilds, so the Bulldogs should be fine at running back even with White and Cook leaving for the NFL. McIntosh is a perfect example: He was a four-star recruit in the 2019 class, has patiently waited his turn and appears to have all the makings of a featured back from a physical perspective at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds.
Like last year, the Dawgs will likely utilize a stable of backs. Kendall Milton and Daijun Edwards are two more former four-star recruits who should get real playing time. Don’t let the lack of track record fool you when it comes to UGA’s backfield.
Last season: 76 carries, 326 yards, 1 TD
Like with a few players on this list, Wright is in some ways the default choice since he is the most productive returner. Florida could easily go in another direction since it brought in productive Louisiana transfer Montrell Johnson as well as four-star prospect Trevor Etienne, the brother of Jacksonville Jaguars tailback Travis Etienne.
Either way, Wright will be on the field a lot since he is a great threat as a receiver out of the backfield. He could be one of the SEC’s better all-purpose back in 2022.
2020 season: 75 carries, 378 yards, 3 TD
LSU has former four-star recruit Corey Kiner coming back and took promising Penn State transfer Noah Cain, but don’t forget about Emery. The former five-star recruit looked good for LSU in 2020; he was ruled academically ineligible for the NCAA ahead of the 2021 season.
Emery will give coach Brian Kelly a top talent in the backfield, and the Tigers should have a good amount of depth as well. Tyrion Davis-Price earned the majority of LSU’s carries last season, but he’s off to the NFL so plenty of opportunities have opened up for others.
Last season: 106 carries, 416 yards, 6 TD
Dillon Johnson had a slightly more productive 2021 season than Marks and did a really nice job with limited opportunities, but Marks received more carries and thus makes sense as the returning starter. Either way, coach Mike Leach is not going to all of a sudden start relying on the run game to power his Air Raid offense.
State should have a good tandem to turn to, however, if Leach is interested in building a bit more balance. Between these two and quarterback Will Rogers, the Bulldogs have a nice nucleus of talent coming back at quarterback and running back.
Last season: 97 carries, 575 yards, 7 TD
Raheim Sanders should also be in the mix here, but Johnson was much more efficient with his carries last season and has a good chance to be the main guy if he is healthy — that has been a challenge for him. Coach Sam Pittman appears to have a strong duo here that should hold up even if one of the two gets hurt at some point in 2022.
It is hard to expect Arkansas to end up with a 1,000-yard rusher since KJ Jefferson ran for 664 yards himself last season. But all of these players will make each other better since defenses will not be able to key in on just whichever running back is on the field.
Last season at TCU: 92 carries, 648 yards, 5 TD
Although Evans is technically not a returner for Ole Miss, he is a returner in terms of having played college football at the Power Five level. His stats from last season are not particularly inflated considering the Big 12 featured multiple top defenses.
Evans looks like the clear starter for coach Lane Kiffin and should help lead an explosive offense even with the Rebels needing to replace Matt Corral. Ole Miss has some absolutely dynamic young players — Evans and USC transfer quarterback Jaxson Dart in the shotgun together looks like a great combination.
Last season at Georgia Tech: 143 carries, 746 yards, 4 TD
Similar story to Evans, although Gibbs could have more internal competition from Trey Sanders and others. Alabama always has a ton of depth thanks to how it recruits, but Gibbs is a former four-star prospect who played great for Georgia Tech over two seasons.
One of the big reasons why Gibbs is going to be on the field a ton? He is one of the nation’s top receiving backs, having combined for 60 receptions for 773 yards and five touchdowns through the air with the Yellow Jackets. Gibbs and Bryce Young are going to be extremely dangerous together.
Last season: 140 carries, 792 yards, 9 TD
This appears to be one of the more set backfields in the SEC. Small led the Volunteers in yards, carries and touchdowns last season, then backup Tiyon Evans transferred to Louisville. Jaylen Wright had a nice freshman season with 409 yards and four touchdowns, so he should have a big role since Tennessee did not take any transfers at the position.
Small rushed for nearly six yards per carry last season and projects to push hard for the 1,000-yard mark as a junior in 2022, teaming with returning starting quarterback Hendon Hooker.
Last season: 130 carries, 910 yards, 9 TD
Yes, A&M lost one of the nation’s best running backs in Isaiah Spiller, who should be an early-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. But the Aggies also have one of the sport’s best reserves to elevate into a starting role. Achane’s seven yards per carry was the best mark of any high-volume SEC back.
Achane is just 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, so he might not be a true featured back in terms of receiving 200-plus carries. But he was only 49 carries short of Spiller last season and should be expected to take the leading role, even if he is not a full-on workhorse.
Last season: 223 carries, 1,099 yards, 10 TD
It seemed that Bigsby was likely to transfer out of Auburn after last season, but instead he will return to play for embattled head coach Bryan Harsin. Auburn should have one of the SEC’s best backfield tandem between Bigsby and underrated true sophomore Jarquez Hunter, who rushed for 593 yards last season.
Bigsby’s contributions in the passing game probably get overlooked. The former 4-star recruit made 21 receptions for 184 yards in 2021. Incoming four-star freshman Damari Alston could have a shot to get in the mix as well, although Bigsby and Hunter should get the vast majority of the Tigers’ handoffs.
Last season: 225 carries, 1,379 yards, 9 TD
Kentucky will get both of its top two running backs for at least one more season with Rodriguez and Kavosiey Smoke returning, so the Wildcats’ offense has a good chance to keep improving with starting quarterback Will Levis entering his second season with the program. Rodriguez was a huge part of Kentucky’s 10-win season, and he was incredibly efficient considering the heavy workload with 6.1 yards per carry.
It helps that Kentucky is known for its offensive line play. One aspect that Rodriguez and Smoke could improve on is catching the ball out of the backfield, as neither were high-volume receivers a year ago. But it is very fair to say that Rodriguez is the SEC’s top returning running back.
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