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June 27, 2008

SEC position rankings: Running backs

BamaOnLine.com's annual Southeastern Conference position rankings return this summer with a special emphasis on the SEC West, and rankings now divided by division. True freshmen are not listed. The series continues with a look at the running backs around the league.

Running backs

SEC West

1.] LSU
Projected starter: Keiland Williams.
Next up: Charles Scott.
Best of the bunch: Williams would have commanded more carries in almost any other offense in the league last year. He averaged 6.8 yards per carry in a reserve role behind longtime starter Jacob Hester. He is a 20-carry SEC talent, and will prove it soon enough.
Key loss: Hester.
Round Table Ranking: 1.
2007 By the numbers: 1.9 (Williams per-carry average of 6.8 was 1.9 yards better than that of Hester).
2007 high point: The Hester-Williams combo rumbled for a combined 207 yards and three touchdowns on just 19 carries in a blowout win over Virginia Tech.
2007 low point: LSU rushed for just 87 yards at Alabama, the only time it was held under 100 yards all season.
Spring postcard: While Williams is the deserving frontrunner, reserve Richard Murphy stole the show in the spring game with 145 rushing yards on 11 carries with two scores, adding a 53-yard TD catch.
Biggest concern: None. Williams is among the league's best backs and both Scott and Murphy are capable backups.
Biggest reason for optimism: Although Hester was outstanding as a blocker and receiver, Williams provides the Tigers with more of a breakaway threat as a rusher. And with the league's top offensive line ahead of him, there is no reason why a healthy season for Williams can't result in more than 1,000 yards.

2.] Mississippi State
Projected starter: Anthony Dixon.
Next up: Christian Ducre.
Best of the bunch: Dixon rushed for over 1,000 yards a season ago and is primed for a big junior season.
Key loss: None
Round Table Ranking: 2.
2007 By the numbers: 14 (Dixon's touchdown total).
2007 high point: Along with a 100-yard day for Dixon, Ducre pitched in another 63 on just 10 carries against a stout Auburn defense.
2007 low point: MSU's backs went absolutely nowhere against LSU, combining for 41 yards.
Spring postcard: Freshman RB Robert Elliott joined the Bulldogs for spring practice and got six carries (15 yards) in the spring game.
Biggest concern: Dixon has been known to put the ball on the ground, and that's the last thing this offense needs from it's only legitimate star.
Biggest reason for optimism: Dixon is one of the league's best power backs and should be able to overcome a lot of missed blocks with his ability to gain yards after contact. Ducre is a solid No.2 option.

3.] Auburn
Projected starter: Brad Lester.
Next up: Tristan Davis, Ben Tate.
Best of the bunch: Lester missed much of last season but is AU's top talent and showed it against some of Auburn's toughest competition.
Key loss: None.
Round Table Ranking: 3.
2007 By the numbers: 903 (Tate led the team with 903 rushing yards).
2007 high point: Auburn's top three backs last year - Lester, Tate and Mario Fannin - combined for over 200 yards against Ole Miss.
2007 low point: Tate had his lowest production of the year (10 for 17) against LSU as Auburn finished the game with under 100 yards on the ground.
Spring postcard: Based on spring drills, Fannin appears to be headed for a versatile role that will include some work at receiver.
Biggest concern: Can Lester stay on the field for a full season? He's played just one complete season in his career (2006).
Biggest reason for optimism: The combination of Tate and Lester - not one of them alone - is what carries AU's ranking here. Tate proved his worth with over 900 yards last season, while Lester sat out. If either of them were to get hurt, the other could handle full-time duty.

4.] Alabama
Projected starter: Terry Grant.
Next up: Glen Coffee; Roy Upchurch.
Best of the bunch: Although Coffee's overall consistency may get him to the front of the rotation, Grant remains UA's best big-play threat. His 891 rushing yards were the most ever by a UA freshman.
Key loss: None.
Round Table Ranking: 4.
2007 By the numbers: 47 (Alabama's first rush of the season, a 47-yard score by Grant, held up as UA's longest rush all year).
2007 high point: UA's ground game was never more efficient than it was in a win at Vanderbilt as Grant piled up 173 yards and Coffee chipped in 48 more on 11 carries.
2007 low point: In a loss to LSU, Jonathan Lowe led the way with just a 10-for-31 night.
Spring postcard: Coffee was held out of contact for the entire spring following shoulder surgery.
Biggest concern: Is there an every-down back on this team, meaning someone who can deliver 100 yards against SEC opponents and also provide adequate pass protection and receiving skills? Whether among the veterans or the incoming freshmen, that can't be answered during the summer or even in fall camp.
Biggest reason for optimism: Grant's bounce-back from sports hernia surgery was a quick one, and he should enter the season as the big-play threat he proved to be last September.

5.] Arkansas
Projected starter: Michael Smith.
Next up: Brandon Barnett.
Best of the bunch: Smith is small (5-7, 175) but brings explosive speed to the position and averaged 6.6 yards per carry in limited action last season.
Key loss: Darren McFadden, Felix Jones.
Round Table Ranking: 6.
2007 By the numbers: 3,095 (Number of rushing yards lost with the departures of McFadden and Jones).
2007 high point: Has to be South Carolina, when Jones' 166 rushing yards were nearly doubled by McFadden's 321.
2007 low point: Auburn held Arkansas under 100 total rushing yards for the only time all season.
Spring postcard: Smith blistered the Arkansas defense for 157 yards on 13 carries in the spring game.
Biggest concern: Can Smith take the pounding as an SEC starter at his size? Odds are, he'll be more dangerous early in the season than late.
Biggest reason for optimism: Smith gives the Hogs a big-play threat, but more importantly, Barnett gives them a 210-pounder who can carry the load with a more physical style when needed.

6.] Ole Miss
Projected starter: Cordera Eason.
Next up: Derrick Davis.
Best of the bunch: Eason had just three carries all last season, but emerged among a host of candidates and the leading contender to take over a starting spot.
Key loss: Benjarvus Green-Ellis.
Round Table Ranking: 5.
2007 By the numbers: 283 (Green-Ellis and outgoing senior Bruce Hall combined for 283 carries, virtually every tote for Ole Miss backs).
2007 high point: Green-Ellis rumbled through the Missouri defense for 226 yards on 33 carries in the second week of the season.
2007 low point: Vanderbilt clamped Ole Miss' run game for just 54 yards on 32 carries.
Spring postcard: Eason had 101 yards on seven carries in the spring game, including touchdowns of 44 and 46 yards.
Biggest concern: Fumbles were a problem in the spring for Eason, and could cost him the job if not corrected.
Biggest reason for optimism: If Eason falters, watch out for the super-hyped Enrique Davis of Hargrave Military Academy, a former five-star prep recruit.

SEC East

1.] Georgia
Projected starter: Knowshon Moreno.
The bottom line: With 1,334 yards and 14 touchdowns a season ago, it's easy for those who didn't pay attention to assume that Moreno was a one-man show in the Georgia backfield. In fact, Thomas Brown made seven starts and carried 148 times - and it wasn't mop-up duty, either. That foretells two things for Moreno - 1) As a full-time, 25-carry-a-game back, his potential numbers are downright frightening; and 2) Defenses might actually rather dare QB Matthew Stafford to beat them rather than watching Moreno beat a seven-man front for six yards a carry.

2.] Tennessee
Projected starter: Arian Foster.
The bottom line: It's hard to believe Foster is well on his way to becoming UT's all-time rushing leader, especially after a junior season in which the Vols threw over 500 passes. He still managed nearly 1,200 yards, and his skills as a receiver and pass protector ensure he'll be an every-down back. With Tennessee turning over at the quarterback position, expect Foster to be given every chance to carry this offense. And with four starters back on the offensive line, there is no reason he can't. Montario Hardesty will be the backup once again, but this is Foster's year.

3.] South Carolina
Projected starter: Mike Davis.
The bottom line: Davis takes over for Cory Boyd as the Gamecocks' top rushing option, and has more than enough raw talent to handle the role. With a one-game suspension looming, however, Davis hasn't shown to be the team leader Boyd was. Davis ran for 518 yards on 114 carries in a platoon role with Boyd last year. Freshman Eric Baker leads a group of second-string candidates.

4.] Florida
Projected starter: Kestahn Moore.
The bottom line: The experience edge goes to Moore, but despite a 5.6-yard average, fumbles make his hold on the job tenuous at best. The fact that a quarterback (Tim Tebow) and a wide receiver (Percy Harvin) combined for 293 rushes last season tells you all you need to know about the faith UF's staff has in Moore. Freshman Chris Rainey, said to be the fastest player on the team, will issue a challenge along with a host of other reserves. If someone emerges as a more reliable option, Tebow and Harvin will be free to play more of their own positions and less of someone else's.

5.] Kentucky
Projected starter: Tony Dixon.
The bottom line: The mass exodus of offensive skill talent UK lost from last season extends to the backfield, where Rafael Little's 1,013 rushing yards must be replaced. Dixon is a reliable, experienced senior who should handle the bulk of the rushing load. His 5.7-yard average last year (72 for 411) was even better than Little's. Derrick Locke provides more explosiveness than Dixon and netted 521 yards as a freshman last year, but at just 180 pounds, he is better off remaining as the change-up in the backfield.

6.] Vanderbilt
Projected starter: Jeff Jennings.
The bottom line: The most experienced returner, Jennings provided 346 yards on 96 carries in backing up Cason Jackson-Garrison last year. Now a senior, Jennings will have every chance to be the Commodores' full-timer in a one-back set. He'll have to do it behind an offensive line of five first-year starters, so the going could be very tough during the SEC schedule. Jared Hawkins will provide depth.

BOL's top five overall

1. Knowshon Moreno (Georgia)

2. Arian Foster (Tennessee)

3. Keiland Williams (LSU)

4. Anthony Dixon (Mississippi State)

5. Terry Grant (Alabama)



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