Today, we're going to focus our attention on the running backs of the SEC, the real offenders in this down and dirty game of football.
SEC running backs are the guys you call on when you need help with the schoolyard bully. In this ever-increasing age of pass-happy offenses, they have the ability to inflict punishment and take entire games away from defenses. It's at that point where the coaches come together and say, "The plan ain't working and this guy is on a hot streak. Feed away, son."
LSU used this numerous times as recently as last season with the aforementioned Fournette, but against Chip Kelly's Oregon team in 2011, it was almost operatic. What about Mark Ingram in 2009 against a feisty South Carolina team? Will Muschamp's swan song against UGA in 2014, where a remarkable SIX passes were attempted the entire game.
Derrick Henry effectively won the Heisman by carrying the ball 90 times over two games at the end of last season. All this to say, running backs are the big brothers of the offense.
As with the Davey O'Brien Award, the same rules still apply. This is only a guesstimate of the potential SEC stars at the running back position in 2016.
*Note: Alabama's Bo Scarbrough will not be included below for the simple reason that his resumé up to this point does not warrant inclusion.
Nick Chubb (Georgia)
It's probably a lot to ask of a football player coming off a devastating leg injury to be the bell cow at his position, but Chubb strikes me as the type willing to meet it. The numbers speak for themselves: 13 straight 100 + yard games prior to the injury, approximately 7.8 yards per carry, over 120 yards per game, etc. It's nuts. And he was the guy who filled in for a suspended/injured Todd Gurley during his freshman season.
Before his injury on the first play of the game against Tennessee in 2015, Chubb had broken Herschel Walker's record of consecutive 100 + yard games. And he did it in a perpetual downpour against a stifling Alabama defense. His credentials are in good order.
For all his talent, you will not see Chubb's name in the three deep of preseason All-Americans. It will be his recovery from the leg injury that will determine Chubb's fate by season's end. Whether he puts up the numbers this season that his previous games prefigured, time will tell. Save for maybe Fournette, though, he is the most proven running back in the SEC and none should be surprised if he's a first-team All-American by December.
Sony Michel (Georgia)
They just keep churning them out, don't they? The argument over the last decade about who has claims to Running Back U in the SEC is a hefty one. Todd Gurley made his feelings known about the matter and it's hard to put up a fight about it. It is this writer's opinion that Alabama still has a slight edge with three different Heisman finalists and two winners at the position in the last ten years, but Athens certainly attracts great ones and Sony Michel is no deviation.
Michel came to UGA the same year as Chubb and he did so with a higher recruiting ranking in some circles. Yet, it was Chubb who broke out during their freshman season. Michel was able to perform the same function for Chubb last season by running for over 1,100 yards following Chubb's injury.
Michel is a physical specimen. Having been featured on Tim Tebow's MUCH-lauded "Freak of the Week" series, you will see that his workout numbers, alone, are staggering. Right now, he's Nick Chubb's backup, but piggybacking off his recent success, Sony Michel should be his partner in 2016, sharing a number of the carries in Jim Chaney's new-fangled offense.
Stanley "Boom" Williams (Kentucky)
Yet, another "Freak of the Week" pick from Mr. Tebow (Does he not look he's on Crossfire every time he introduces this segment?) where Williams is shown benching and squatting an absurd amount of weight for his size. Unlike many of his conference peers, Williams will never wow you with his size. What he will do is run very fast past you. Here's an example of a fast safety with a decent angle who's close but not really.
Based off his highlight reel alone, Williams' nickname is not quite as apt as you would think. Usually, you just see him finding the hole and bursting through said hole with the acceleration of a greyhound, leaving a trail of winded defenders in his path. His ability to take a hit, though, is obviously worthy of the designation.
He only seems to get stronger the closer he gets to the end zone. His tougher, "Boom"-like runs are exactly that: tough and physical. He's also very patient and obviously knows where he's supposed to be and when. He's not the sexiest pick when thinking of Doak Walker possibilities, but he's strong heading into his junior season and with four of Kentucky's five offensive linemen returning, you may see more the greyhound stuff, which means BIG yards.
Leonard Fournette (LSU)
The highlights. Oh, dear, the highlights. The idea that defensive backs feel like they have to literally take to the air to achieve some sort of success in bringing this redwood of a human being down is reason enough for him to be considered. Honestly, Leonard Fournette is the most recognizable and arguably the best player in the conference this year, offense or defense.
His senior year of high school might as well have been his rookie year at LSU, because he was on several pre-season Heisman Hopefuls lists and he hadn't played a down yet. Baton Rouge, and really the entire CFB country, spun yarns about Fournette as if the guy had been retired from the sport for 20 years. Yet, by the end of 2014, he was simply destroying the aforementioned defensive backs and by his sophomore season, it wasn't really fair.
In 2015, he had a two-game lull that kept him from breaking Herschel's single-season rushing record before Derrick Henry got to it. Other than that, he was only averaging 183 yards per game. That's all. Nothing too special that the 2013 Seattle Seahawks couldn't stop. Barring a catastrophic injury, Leonard Fournette WILL be a Doak Walker Award finalist. It's his junior year and he hasn't hit his ceiling yet. He's a beast and he's angry. Good luck to you, rest of the SEC.
Jalen Hurd (Tennessee)
You look at Jalen Hurd. You see his measurables and you think, this guy's going to be a terrific receiver at the collegiate level. He looks just like Julio Jones. Then, you hear that Julio Jones is actually a running back and he has several running back gears. Hurd is quite good at catching the ball out of the backfield, but that's not the point. The dude is very athletic and he can run behind a lineman as good as anyone in the country.
If you watch any highlight run from Hurd, you'll notice that his presence on the field is conspicuous. Linebackers have sussed him out once he receives the ball and depending on the blocking job from Hurd's offensive line, he's sometimes caught behind the line of scrimmage. Then, Jalen Hurd "The Wonder Magician" turns on the gears and he's twenty yards down the field.
Hurd runs with excessive power and his elusiveness is something to be marveled at considering his 6'4", 240-pound frame. Just watch this and tell me that you wouldn't turn down the tackle. Hurd will go as far as Mike DeBord's offense will let him, but with a 1,200-yard season last year, chances are he and Josh Dobbs form a nifty little backfield tandem. Hurd is a guy national pundits will be aware of by season's end.
Ralph Webb (Vanderbilt)
You're not going to hear a lot about Ralph Webb. He hasn't penetrated the social consciousness of college football like the other running backs. All he's done, though, in two seasons at Vanderbilt is run for over 2,000 yards while playing in an offense that could, at best, be described as ineffective.
Also, if you look at his rushing touchdown numbers, they don't necessarily jump off the page. Last season, he found the end zone only 7 times (5 rushing, 2 receiving) and in 2014 it was only 4. So, what does it say about a player that he can't seem to score touchdowns as often as the Fournettes or Chubbs of the world? It says, that the kid is a slow burn who will wear you down for the betterment of his not-so-stellar offense.
Most likely, Webb won't be on the short list for the Doak Walker Award based just off sheer exposure. Vanderbilt won't be on CBS or ESPN enough to give him much consideration. I beseech those cynics, though, to give him a watch sometime. The least amount of carries he received in 2015 was 15 and that was against Austin Peay. If quarterback play isn't functional (and that's likely the case for Vandy), then Webb will receive the ball a fair amount. Pencil him in for the two-deep in the All-Conference voting.