The Pac-12 has made a name for itself with quarterbacks and high-scoring offenses, and 2014 was no different, as we were treated to several games whose final scores were closer to resembling a score from a basketball game, along with quarterback stats straight out of Madden ’95.
Somewhere in the shuffle, it’s easy to overlook the running back position in this conference. But here’s the deal — the Pac-12 returns in 2015 with a slew of talented running backs, some who have even made their way on to preseason Heisman watch lists.
The running backs listed below are definitely worth keeping an eye on this season in between all the throws.
1. Paul Perkins – Junior – UCLA
Perkins’ 1,575 rushing yards led the Pac-12 last season as a sophomore, averaging 121.2 rushing yards per game. He also racked up nine scores on the ground, averaged 6.3 yards per carry, and tacked on 201 yards and an additional two touchdowns through the air. All of this was done with one of the worst offensive lines in the league, and in a pass-centered West Coast offense under head coach Jim Mora. Booker ended last season with his best performance of the year in the Bruins’ Alamo Bowl win over Kansas State, where he totaled 194 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carriers.
UCLA comes in to 2015 without the services of quarterback Brett Hundley, who is off to the NFL. Depending on how the new quarterback’s play is, Perkins could be relied on even more throughout the season, and it will be behind an improved line. Even if he gets solid play behind center, there is no doubt that Perkins is in store for an even bigger season, possibly crossing the 2,000 yard mark.
2. Devontae Booker – Senior – Utah
Booker made his first major collegiate season count in 2014, often becoming just the player the Utes could turn to when they really needed a play. Utah returned to their winning ways last season, thanks largely in part to skill position players such as Booker. In 13 games, Booker rushed for 1,512 yards and 10 touchdowns while also catching 43 passes for 306 yards and two touchdowns. Booker led the Pac-12 in rushing attempts with 22.5 per game and totaled seven 100+ yard games, including a 110 yard receiving outing against Oregon.
The Utes had plenty of close games in 2014, and it was in those matchups that Booker stepped up his game even more, most notably in an 29-23 overtime win over Oregon State when he racked up 229 yards and three touchdowns on 32 carries. Utah’s opponents stacked the line against the run often last season, and it rarely worked against Booker. Expect similar results in 2015.
3. Royce Freeman – Sophomore – Oregon
As a true freshman in 2014, Freeman took advantage of an often-injured Thomas Tyner, rushing for 1,365 yards and 18 scores while also catching 16 passes for 158 yards. Freeman recorded six 100-yard games last season, including a 114-yard game against Arizona in the Ducks’ Pac-12 Championship victory.
Oregon running backs coach Gary Campbell has been excellent in developing talent during his tenure in Eugene, and there is no reason to doubt that Freeman will return in 2015 even better. His disappearing act in the national championship game was somewhat concerning, but much of that can be attributed to Ohio State’s game plan thoroughly frustrating the Ducks’ offense. Tyner will be back and healthy in 2015, but Freeman has earned the starting job, and should be expected to keep it, making for one of the top running back duos in the country.
4. Nick Wilson – Sophomore – Arizona
2014 was a great year for freshman at Arizona, as quarterback Anu Solomon and Wilson carried the offense in a 10-win season that saw the team win the Pac-12 South. Wilson led the Wildcats with 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns, despite missing a game against USC with ankle trouble. The freshman Wilson exploded onto the scene during Arizona’s non-conference schedule, and after a slower start to the conference portion, amassed 653 yards and eight touchdowns over a four game period, which included a 218 yard, three score outing against Utah.
Wilson should flourish even more this upcoming season after a full year in Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez’s system, combined with the further development of Solomon. The two are going to be giving Pac-12 defenses fits for the foreseeable future.
5. Daniel Lasco – Senior – California
When thinking about Cal’s offense, your first thought is most likely quarterback Jared Goff, who valiantly led a mediocre Golden Bears team last season with nearly 4,000 yards passing. Meanwhile, Daniel Lasco somewhat quietly rushed for 1,115 yards and 12 touchdowns, while also benefiting from Goff’s skills to the tune of 33 receptions, 356 yards, and two scores through the air.
2014 was Lasco’s first season as a full-time starter, and he more than delivered, taking some of the pressure off of Goff and the Golden Bears receivers with his versatile running ability, which he uses both between the tackles and on the outside. 2015 is Lasco’s final season, and he’d love to end it in a bowl game. With three years of experience under his belt, and with an improved Cal team, Lasco is likely to go out with a bang.
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