Who is the SEC's Next Great Freshman Running Back?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Will the conference keeps its streak of great freshman runners alive?

Last year I observed that the SEC has had a streak of impact freshman running backs who go for at least 800 yards. I went through last year's crop and reasoned that the best candidates to do it again were Alex Collins and maybe Kelvin Taylor. Collins ended up going for 1,026 yards, while Taylor was the next-highest freshman rusher with 508 yards.

Since it went so well last year, I'm giving it another shot this year. Which freshman running backs have the best chance of coming in and making an instant impact?

The characteristics I focused on last time were four- and five-star guys who ideally are joining teams losing their leading rushers. High talent levels with open competition for carries makes for a great situation here.

Well, here are the incoming freshman backs who rated at least four stars in the 247sports Composite rankings:

Signee School
Roc Thomas Auburn
Sony Michel Georgia
Nick Chubb Georgia
Leonard Fournette LSU
Darrel Williams LSU
Aeris Williams Mississippi State
Jalen Hurd Tennessee

Two guys we can eliminate right off the bat are Michel and Chubb. At the very least, they'll be behind Todd Gurley on the depth chart. As long as he stays healthy, Gurley will get the majority of the carries and probably be a legitimate Heisman candidate. They might be behind Keith Marshall too, depending on how his ACL continues to heal up.

Even in the worst case scenario for Marshall where he has to redshirt, the prospects still aren't great. Marshall himself didn't hit 800 yards alongside Gurley in 2012. There are still Brendan Douglas and redshirt freshman A.J. Turman in the mix too, and of course, carries for one means fewer carries for the other. Michel and Chubb both received five star ratings in the composite, but they're actually the first cut.

Aeris Williams at Mississippi State is a fairly easy cut too. Dan Mullen's offenses at Florida and Mississippi State have produced a grand total of zero seasons with multiple 800-yard rushers. The most likely guy to top that mark this year is the guy who did it last year: Dak Prescott. Even if Williams can pass up the older guys on the depth chart like Josh Robinson and Ashton Shumpert, it probably won't matter. It's more likely than not that MSU won't have a single 800-yard rusher from the running back position.

Thomas is walking into a situation at Auburn where there will be plenty of rushing yards to go around and the leading rusher from 2013, Tre Mason, is gone. However, we can probably also cross him off of the list anyway. He's got a great chance to be the team's primary back in 2015, but not in 2014. Being that primary back is what it's going to take to get over 800 yards, and he's just not likely to get there this fall.

Gus Malzahn's offenses produce multiple 800+ yard rushers with regularity, but they've yet to produce more than two in a year. This fall Nick Marshall is going to be one of the two. As for the other, there's already a battle going on with seniors Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne, sophomore Johnathan Ford, and redshirt freshman Peyton Barber. It wouldn't shock me to see Auburn have four running backs go at least 600 yards. I don't think more than one is hitting 800 though, and Thomas will have lots of competition to be that guy.

Hurd is a solid maybe for Tennessee. He excelled in spring practice as an early enrollee, and Rajion Neal and his 1,124 yards are no longer on campus. Senior Marlin Lane is back as 2013's next-leading rusher with 534, and he earned some raves from coaches in spring practice too. Lane is Hurd's primary competition, but Hurd was the leading rusher in the spring game for what that's worth.

Butch Jones doesn't have a history of platooning major running backs, though, as his offenses as head coach have never produced more than one 800-yard rusher. His instinct is to have a clear top back, and if Lane wins that job, Hurd will have a tough time hitting 800. It's not clear yet, though, that Lane will nail that job down, and Hurd will be the undisputed guy at the position should Lane get hurt. Devrin Young is returning to the position after playing receiver last year, but the fact he played something else last year alone suggests he won't pass up Hurd. He's got a real chance.

That leaves us with the LSU guys. I'm going to go ahead and cross off Darrel Williams because it's all about the No. 1 overall recruit in the composite, Leonard Fournette. The pieces are all there: Les Miles loves to run the ball, an unsettled quarterback position likely means leaning on the run game, and two of 2013's top three leading rushers are gone.

Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard are still around and will get some carries, but none of them has as high a ceiling as Fournette does. The situation Fournette is coming into is similar to what Collins walked into last year, as the team likes to run but doesn't have a true feature back returning. He's a little behind because he was not an early enrollee, but running back is one of the easiest positions to transition from high school to college. He might not get quite as many carries as you'd think, as his inexperience will make him a liability in pass blocking and blitz pickup, but he's too good to ride the pine for long.

So there you go. Fournette is the most likely freshman back to make an instant impact by rushing for 800 yards or more, and if there's a second one, it'll be Hurd at Tennessee.

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