Rob Malara

2014 Pac-12 Preview: Running Back


Over the past few years, the Pac-12 has had a plethora of proven talent in the running backs position. For the 2014 season however, there is not a lot of elite production returning, but there are players with elite athletic potential returning to their team’s backfield. While the conference will be deep at quarterback, running back will need a bit more replenishing and development time over the early part of the season. In terms of production, the Pac-12 had only three running backs average more than 100 yards a game last season, and each player went on to be selected in May’s 2014 NFL Draft. In fact, the top four rushers in terms of yardage have all moved on to greener pastures.

While the conference lost top-level talent such as Ka’Deem Carey, Marion Grice, Bishop Sankey and Tyler Gaffney to the NFL, all hope is not lost.  Chances are if a team has talent at the position in the Pac-12, it has a lot of it.  This is the case especially at Oregon, Southern Cal, and Arizona State where there is enough depth down the roster at the position where it could supply starters throughout the rest of the conference.

For arguments sake, Myles Jack and Shaq Thompson have been left off the list even though both linebackers may get carries with their teams this fall.


1. Byron Marshall, Oregon (Junior)

2013 Rushing 168 carries / 1,038 rushing yards / 14 touchdowns

2013 Receiving 13 catches / 155 receiving yards

Marshall enters Ducks fall camp as the leading rusher returning from last season in the conference.  He is also the only returning 1,000 yard rusher, and in case you were unaware, the younger brother of former Sun Devil running back Cameron Marshall.

In 2013, he was the most solid back of the trio of junior D’Anthony Thomas and freshman Thomas Tyner.  While he isn’t a huge back, he really made big improvements over the course of the season to get where he is on this list, specifically getting over his ball security issues suffered as a sophomore..  Has a nice stutter move and then cuts explosively.

He shows the best combination of consistent speed and power of any back in the conference.  And while he may not approach the same amount of carries this year that he had last year, you can still expect the yards per carry output as well as a similar amount of touchdowns being the back that does most of the heavy lifting for the Ducks.

It’s surprising he doesn’t get more hype than he does as the lead back in the Oregon machine on offense.  But at Oregon where your quarterback is a heisman hopeful in Marcus Mariota, and your fellow running back is a local phenom in Tyner you can understand how he gets overshadowed.  In actuality however, that’s what Marshall uses to his advantage: the ability to punish defenses that have to respect the playmaking ability of Mariota and the explosiveness of Tyner.  We’ll see what Oregon running backs do behind Helfrich’s newly shaped yet experienced offensive line that has gained some weight and added strength to its off-season chores.


2. Buck Allen, USC (Junior)

2013 Rushing  135 carries / 785 rushing yards / 14 touchdowns

2013 Receiving  22 catches / 252 receiving yards / 1 touchdown

One of the bigger starting running backs in the league, Allen was originally recruited as a linebacker for the Trojans.  After the injuries to Tree Madden and Silas Redd, Allen stepped in to be one of the biggest reasons the Trojans won seven of nine games under the leadership of Ed Orgeron and Clay Helton after Lane Kiffin’s firing.  He was especially huge down the stretch as one of the Trojans playing his heart out for coach O recording at least 123 yards in four of USC’s final five regular season games in 2013.

Much like Marion Grice, he has an innate ability to find the end zone, recording five games with at least two touchdowns on his way to fourteen for the season.  The Trojans hadn’t seen that type of productivity out of the position since agents were “allegedly” buying Reggie Bush’s family houses filled with suitcases of cash

With the hiring of Steve Sarkisian, many will wonder if he can continue to develop into the coach’s next  Bishop Sankey.  It doesn’t hurt that he also has good hands out of the backfield to help out the passing game.

3. D.J. Foster, ASU (Junior)

2013 Rushing  135 carries / 785 rushing yards / 14 touchdowns

2013 Receiving  22 catches / 252 receiving yards / 1 touchdown

The original crown jewel of Todd Graham’s first recruiting class in 2012, the junior now has the position all to himself this fall.  If Thomas Tyner is the most explosive back in this group, and Marshall is the most underrated, that leave Foster as the most versatile.

The former Saguaro High star lead the nation in receptions and receiving yards by a running back, playing in Mike Norvell’s offensive system where two running backs are utilized in formations both behind center and outside the tackles.  Much like Marion Grice he just seems so natural catching footballs, and throughout 2013 was far and away the best route-runner on the team.

He goes into 2014 looking to match his great acceleration through the hole and after the catch with his new frame, thanks to adding twenty pounds over the past two seasons

With Grice dealing with a broken leg late in the year, Foster stepped into the lead back role and the Devils run game didn’t miss a beat. As a Sun Devil, you are always remembered in part by how you played against the University of Arizona.  And in last years 58-21 win over rival Arizona, he ran for over 120 yards and two scores.

Some are concerned that moving Foster to the lead role will decrease his effectiveness in the passing game with Taylor Kelly.  But remember that Grice represented 18 percent of Kelly’s completions, Foster 21 percent.  Combined that’s 39 percent of all Kelly completions in 2013 going to the two running backs.  So there’s no reason Kelly won’t stop throwing to players in large quantities not named Jaelen Strong.  ASU got off an average of 81.5 plays per game last season, so there’s plenty of touches to be spread out among the group of talented playmakers playing at Sun Devil Stadium this fall.


4. Thomas Tyner, Oregon (Sophomore)

2013 Rushing  115 carries / 711 rushing yards / 9 touchdowns

2013 Receiving  14 catches / 134 receiving yards

Oregon’s fast-paced high scoring offense prides itself on having multiple options out of the backfield.  Second year head coach Mark Helfrich looks to rekindle the success he had as an offensive coordinator back in 2012 when he had the likes of LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner applying constant pressure to defenses both running the ball down hill as well as running fly sweeps in their multiple tailback sets.  We saw with Tyner last season that he has the ability to be an even better running back that James, Barner, or even his backfield mate Marshall.

He was a local sensation in high school rushing for 643 yards and 10 touchdowns during his senior year; in one game.  But on the 2013 Ducks team he had to wait his turn and finished the season with the third highest rushing total behind Marshall and Mariota.

With Marshall hurt for the Civil War game to end the regular season, Tyner showed that he was indeed ready for the big time, rushing for 140 yards and a touchdown.  At 5-foot-11, 215 pounds he is a bigger back than Marshall, not to mention a quicker one (ran a 10.35-100 meter in high school).  But much like ASU, with Oregon getting off 76 snaps a game he will get his 15 carries a game.


5. Tre Madden, USC (Junior)

2013 Rushing  138 carries / 703 rushing yards / 3 touchdowns

2013 Receiving  15 catches / 201 receiving yards / 4 touchdowns

The Trojans have an embarrassment of riches at the running back position, even with the recruiting limits imposed on them over the past few years.  Madden was the mirror image of Buck Allen in 2013.  He nearly ripped off five consecutive hundred yard games to start the season (93 rushing yards against Utah) before sustaining a hamstring injury that cost him the starting role to Allen, not to mention the last few games of the season.

While not as fast as some of the other backs on this list, he has a well-rounded game and is the best with equal parts strength, balance, and vision.  He is another running back that was converted from linebacker by Lane Kiffin in a stroke of masterpiece, and partly out of necessity.  One of the few offensive moves Kiffin made during his reign that resulted in positive results.

Washington averaged nearly 13 more plays on average per game than USC last year.  With Sarkisian overseeing the offense Madden will be playing in a faster paced offense, where he will be getting carries out of the pistol and shotgun, so adjustments will need to be made.  But between improved health, and more carries available to be made, Madden could help provide USC with a 1-2 punch that rivals only Oregon in the conference.


6. Jordan James, UCLA (Senior)

2013 Rushing  101 carries / 534 rushing yards / 5 touchdowns

2013 Receiving  10 catches / 55 receiving yards

In its peak during the first half of the season, the Bruins offense was one of the more balanced in the country before injuries set it at the running back and offensive line position.  During that time, James was the most productive back on the team.  He’s a bit smaller than Paul Perkins, and was banged up for parts of the season.  He’s not going to blow you away with his ability, but is productive with the amount of touches he receives.  Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone has stated he could be more productive if he adjusts to becoming more of a one-cut runner behind an improved offensive line in 2014.


Other Notables:

Barry Sanders Jr, Stanford (Sophomore)

With Tyler Gaffney moving on this is a position in flux for the Cardinal who also replace four on the offensive line.  Sanders is first and foremost a standout returner on a team already possessing Ty Montgomery.  Brian Shaw has always preached fundamental football with his players, so it could come down to the player who holds on to the ball in fall camp and who excels in blitz pickups becoming the starter.  Sander’s explosive athleticism showed in glimpses last year in a limited role.  Given the opportunity, he could become the next 1,000-yard Stanford running back.

Bubba Poole, Utah (Junior)

Playing under yet another offensive coordinator, but also has his big play quarterback and wide receiver returning.  Poole surprisingly finds himself in a talented backfield much like Sanders, but unlike Sanders, he has experience on his side.  Poole recorded two 100-yard rushing games for the Utes in 2013 against the stout Stanford Cardinal and the underrated Oregon State.

Storm Woods, Oregon State (Junior)

Woods’ 2013 season was shortened due to a head injury sustained during the third game of the season against Utah while throwing a block.  He did however make his presence felt in the Beavers bowl win over Boise State with a 100 yard rushing game to close the season.  The passing game was explosive the past two years, but with no Markus Wheaton or Brandin Cooks they will need production from the running back position to be the third best team in the division

Christian Powell, Colorado (Junior)

Injuries and poor play by the offensive line held the big and powerful Powell back in 2013.  There’s only expectations for improvement with the Buffs solidifying the quarterback position teamed with new additions to the offensive line.  Not to mention the loss of Paul Richardson at the receiver position.

Khalfani Muhammed, Cal (Sophomore)

The former California high school sprint champion knows that it can’t get much worse in 2014 after his team’s horrendous 2013.  He beat out the highly regarded Brendan Bigelow as a freshman and provided the only semblance of a run game and return game that Cal possessed all year leading the team with 1,638 all-purpose yards.  If quarterback Jared Goff can find ways to get him the ball out in open space Muhammed might be able to make room for this Bear Raid offense for other players down field.

About Rob Malara

Rob Malara

Rob Malara is a 2002 Sun Devil grad having spent the majority of his time in Tempe as a football, basketball, and baseball season ticket holder and front row inhabitant. A member of the Football Writers Association of America, he hosted the ASU Devils podcast and was its sub-optimal technical producer through its lifespan. Currently the president of the ASU Alumni Association's Northern Colorado Club, he is part of a family of maroon and gold residing in Fort Collins with his Sun Devil wife and nearby Sun Devil sister.

Recommended for you

You must be logged in to post a comment Login