The 2014 season was a big one for Big 12 running backs, especially in a league that has come to be more known for quarterback play over the last decade or so.
2015 could very well be an even bigger year for the conference’s tailbacks, as all five of the league’s leading rushers return, many with nearly equally capable backups behind them.
Out of all the returning Big 12 running backs taking the field in this upcoming season, these five stand above the rest.
1. Samaje Perine – Sophomore – Oklahoma
There should be no debate about this, but there apparently is in some circles.
So, let’s recap Perine’s 2014:
His 1,713 yards led the Big 12 last season, 461 yards more than second place Shock Linwood. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry to go along with 21 touchdowns while being the team’s feature back for the majority of the season, and that title wasn’t even apparent until conference play began. He had three 200+ yard games, which included his single game FBS-record 427 yards against Kansas, breaking the previous mark just a week after Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon set the record at 408 yards. He had no help from the quarterback position, lackluster receiver play, and defenses that were focused on him towards the end of the season.
Oh, and he was a freshman.
The Sooners return a very solid No. 2 back in Alex Ross (595 yards, 6.8 YPC,) and the much-hyped, five-star recruit Joe Mixon will finally make his debut after sitting out last season due to a suspension. It remains to be seen whether or not Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley will go for a committee of running backs, or just stick with Perine for the majority of the carries. Regardless of what direction they go, he will be expected to lead the attack after such an impressive 2014 resume.
2. Shock Linwood – Junior – Baylor
When thinking about Baylor’s offense, their vaunted passing game is no doubt the first thing that comes to mind, and deservedly so. Bryce Petty, and Robert Griffin before him, were masters of their craft, piling up yards through the air over the years against bewildered defenses. It might surprise some that Baylor’s top two running backs combined for 1,776 yards in 2014, with Linwood accounting for 1,252 of them — 446 after contact. No. 2 back Johnny Jefferson was responsible for the other 524 yards, on an impressive 5.2 YPC.
Linwood’s production was certainly a big reason for Baylor’s success through the air last season, as his consistent play kept defenses honest and allowed for more space down field. Bears coach Art Briles relied heavily relied on the running game in 2014, which is a little unusual for a spread offense, but the results speak for themselves all around. With Petty off to the NFL, Baylor’s passing game could very well take a step back for the first part of 2015. If that’s the case, expect Linwood to shoulder the load, with No. 2 back Johnny Jefferson providing the yards when Linwood needs a breather.
3. DeAndre Washington – Senior – Texas Tech
2014 was a rough one for the Red Raiders, as they stumbled to a 4-8 record while head coach Kliff Kingsbury continued to struggle in installing his air raid style of offense. The running game isn’t supposed to be much of a factor in Kingsbury’s offense, but as the year wore on, he opted more and more to use Washington, resulting in 1,103 yards and a massive 5.9 YPC average, becoming the first Texas Tech player since 1998 to pass the 1,000 yard mark in the process. Washington also showed his receiver skills by catching 30 passes for 328 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Washington’s numbers from 2014 are incredibly impressive when considering how much he wasn’t used, reaching the 20 carry mark just four times during the season. It’s very likely that Texas Tech could struggle again in 2015, and Kingsbury would be wise to turn to Washington even more.
4. Aaron Green – Senior – TCU
2014 was a good year for Green, but 2015 could be even better.
He wasn’t initially part of the Horned Frogs’ offensive core last season, but Green definitely came into his own during the last half of the Horned Frogs’ schedule, becoming the starter after B.J. Catalon went down with an injury. After not attempting more than 11 carries in a game all season, Green averaged 108.8 yards per game in TCU’s last five on 6.5 yards per carry, while also adding 14 receptions for 133 yards. Green scored five touchdowns in his final four games and produced 10 rushing plays of 20 yards or more.
Catalon has since left the team for a run at the NFL, but Heisman candidate Trevoyne Boykin, (who is quite the runner himself,) returns behind a stout offensive line, poised for another run at a Big 12 championship and BCS Playoff appearance. All the ingredients are there for Green to have a huge and definitive senior year as the clear starter.
5. Wendell Smallwood – Junior – West Virginia
His 2014 numbers of 722 yards on 148 carries may not stick out that much, but Wendell Smallwood enters his junior year having proven himself as a very balanced running back who is a perfect fit in Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen’s pass-heavy offense. Fellow West Virginia tailback Rushel Shell got more carries last season, but Smallwood accomplished nearly the same amount of yardage on the ground, but with 28 less carries.
Smallwood’s value is boosted by his receiving skills, which he showed by hauling in 31 receptions for 326 yards last year, including 73 yards against a tough Alabama defense in Mountaineers’ season opener.
Shell will be back on 2015, along with standout redshirt freshman Donte Thomas-Williams, but Smallwood will continue to be relied on greatly by the West Virginia offense in every capacity.
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