We continue our Big 12 Rankings series today with the Running Backs (Quarterback rankings are here). The league’s top 5 rushers return, and though only 3 players broke 1000 yards last season, there is cause for optimism across the conference. Depth appears to be the theme of the year, as even Oklahoma stud/workhorse Samaje Perine is backed up by two players with a chance to make a big impact this season, one of whom finds his way on to this list. West Virginia, no stranger to loaded backfields, has so many talented runners that two former team rushing leaders had to leave the program to find playing time. Baylor’s top two backups return, after accounting for 14 touchdowns and nearly 1,000 yards in 2014. The conference may be light on true star power at the position, but there is more than enough talent to carry the league through what could be a down year for Big 12 passing attacks.
Once again, the rankings are based on 2015 performance projections and come with a personal guarantee to be accurate – except for your favorite player, who I assume is ranked too low. That is, of course, unless your favorite player is Samaje Perine, in which case I commend your taste in ball carriers.
1. Samaje Perine, Oklahoma, Sophomore
One cannot imagine any debate over this spot in the ranking. One of the nation’s best freshmen in 2014, Perine burst onto the scene with a devastating performance at West Virginia in week 4, but really took off over a four game stretch to end the season. During that period, Perine ran for 925 yards and 10 touchdowns, and set the NCAA single game rushing mark along the way (427 yards vs Kansas). At 5-11 243 lbs the returning sophomore proved to be too much too handle for opposing defenses, as his rare combination of strength, speed, and balance has him comfortably atop this list, and many others.
2. Rushel Shell, West Virginia, Junior
Shell was not among the 3 players to break 1000 yards last season, but finds himself at number 2 on this ranking as a result of talent and opportunity. Gone are carry-vultures Dreamius Smith, Andrew Buie, and Dustin Garrison, 3 very capable backs that allowed the Mountaineers to get as many as 7 players involved in the running game each week. The former 5-Star recruit and Pittsburgh transfer stands to be the immediate beneficiary of the thinned herd. Shell plays like a Diet-Perine and is very capable of carrying an offense on a weekly basis. Despite only having 176 carries on the season, the returning junior had 4 games with 20+ attempts, averaging 5 ypc, scoring 5 touchdowns, and leading the Mountaineers to a 4-0 record in those games. Shell is not just an athlete either, as he was apparently able to talk himself out of a lifetime conviction for stiff arming this poor kid into center of the Earth.
3. Shock Linwood, Baylor, Junior
Armed with an amazing name and incredible vision between the tackles, Baylor’s Shock Linwood has already amassed over 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in his career. One of the nation’s best short-yardage and goalline backs, the Bear’s leading rusher in 2014 returns with hopes of taking the next in his evolution into an all-purpose player. Lacking the overall athleticism of Perine, and pass-catching abilities of Shell, Linwood currently relies on physicality and balance to win play to play. For Head Coach Art Briles’ offense however, that may be all they need. Designed to get the ball outside and/or downfield, it is the interior running game, and Linwood’s mastery of it, that either keeps defenses honest, or punishes them for losing assignment discipline. Against the Mountaineers, however, in the face of DC Tony Gibson’s undeniably gutsy gameplan to load the box, clog caps, and pressure QB Bryce Petty up the middle, the interior running game was stifled. The game, in which RB screens or outside running plays could have beaten the immediate, up the middle pressure, saw Linwood unable (or, at best, not asked) to beat West Virginia in that fashion, and he finished the day, a loss, with just 69 yards on 21 carries. For Linwood to truly enter the conversation for best back in the conference, he will have to show that he is capable of being more than just pile pusher.
4. Wendell Smallwood, West Virginia, Junior
This PBS documentary discusses the existence of other, parallel, universes. I am certain that in at least one of those universes, Wendell Smallwood is the Big 12’s best back. No other player on this can match his variety of skills, and no other player is asked to fill as many roles, as West Virginia’s Swiss Army knife. The junior could start at slot receiver for most teams in the conference, and plays there often for his Mountaineers. If given the opportunity, Smallwood has the ability to be an 800/800 player – and all signs point to that being the case this season. Benefitting from the same talent exodus that pushed lead back Rushel Shell up this list, WVU’s do it all back will receive the bulk of the RB touches in the passing game (a hallmark of the Holgorsen Air Raid), and has already proven to be a game changing ball carrier (722 yards in 2014). I am willing to stake my reputation as one of America’s greatest living writers on this claim – Wendell Smallwood will be counted among the Big 12’s best players by the end of his junior season.
5. DeAndre Washington, Texas Tech, Junior
If anyone can challenge Smallwood for the title of Big 12’s best all-purpose back, it is Texas Tech’s DeAndre Washington. In fact, he is probably already the most commonly selected candidate for the honor. Returning to Lubbock after a season of nearly 1,500 yards from scrimmage, the senior is once again primed to be a focal point of the Red Raiders offense. Washington was Tech’s first 1,000 yard rusher in over 15 years, and adds an element of speed to the rushing attack that has been absent for almost as long. Not as natural a pass catcher as Smallwood, and not as physical as the other runners ahead of him on this list, Washington has also struggled to find the end zone in his career, and doesn’t always know what to do when he gets there.
6. Aaron Green, TCU, Senior
One half of the league’s best QB/RB running attack, Aaron Green filled the void created by BJ Catalon’s season ending injury in week 8 of last year, and has established himself as TCU’s lead back. Explosive and versatile, the former Nebraska transfer is in his third season in Fort Worth and displays a full grasp of the offense. Dangerous as a runner (7.2 ypc in 2014), and useful in the passing game, Green’s versatility pairs well with the many tools of quarterback Trevone Boykin, and allows the Horned Frogs to attack in a variety of ways, without having to alter their backfield personnel. The senior separates himself from the rest of the Big 12 RB group with his speed and lateral agility. The league’s best big play runner, Green could easily find himself at the top of this list if TCU’s season goes the way Coach Patterson hopes it does.
7. Johnathan Gray, Texas, Senior
After serving mostly in a backup role in 2014 to Malcom Brown, Johnathan Gray hopes to be fully recovered from a 2013 Achilles injury that seemed to rob him of his usual explosiveness last season. Dangerous on the second level, and a capable receiver, the only question about Gray is if he can handle the workload. The senior is 5-11 210 lbs, hardly small, but has never has over 160 carries, and has never broken 800 yards rushing. As a senior, and after splitting time for his first three years in Austin, Gray seems poised to take the role as lead back in the Longhorn offense. The Spread offense, we are told, will be wearing burnt orange this season, so the opportunities for operation in space will be there. Until he proves he can carry an offense, however, there will be doubts about the impact Gray can have over a full season. The near complete absence of a passing game will not help either, so look for the rushing attack to struggle until defenses are forced to defend the whole field.
8. Joe Mixon, Oklahoma, Redshirt Freshman
After serving all of 2014 on suspension for an off the field incident, former five star recruit Joe Mixon returns to serve as the classic lightning counterpart to Samaje Perine’s thunder. Mixon will likely be asked to serve as a weapon in the passing game, though a young players biggest hurdle in that regard is often pass blocking, and it is difficult to prove an ability to do that while wearing a jogging suit on the bench. The freshman was last seen playing football in 2013, and until he shows something on the field, it is difficult to count on him for anything more than a brief change of pace to the star ahead of him on the depth chart.
9. Chris Carson, Oklahoma State, Junior
There is room in Stillwater for a star running back, and Chris Carson is first in line to get his shot. A top recruit out of the JUCO ranks, Carson faces little competition within the Cowboy program, as only Rennie Childs returns with any notable experience, success, or pedigree. Carson was recruited to play, and he very likely will. At 6-2 210lbs, the former Georgia commit (who wouldn’t be scared away by this?) is not your prototypical running back, and staying healthy may be an issue for such a tall running back, especially one expected to be asked to carry the full load. We can be certain of one thing though, if Carson struggles on the field, I will not write about it. I don’t want to get yelled at.
10. Trevone Boykin, TCU, Senior
I know I know I know. He did run for over 700 yards though (over 800 if you don’t repeat the NCAA’s ridiculous practice of counting sack yardage quarterbacks), and I just really wanted to post this. The fact is, Boykin should probably be higher on this list. He is absolutely one of the 10 best running weapons in the conference.