Among all the running backs you’ll see in the PAC-12 this season, there is a tightly-packed group of them at the top of the list. Each will play a significant role for his respective team, and one or two of them will effectively be asked to carry the team. At least one will be high in the Heisman Trophy race and one more is among the most underrated in college football.
Here now are (arguably) the six best running backs in PAC-12 football you’ll see in 2012.
1. DeAnthony Thomas, Oregon
2011: 55 carries, 595 yards, 7 TDs; 46 receptions, 605 yards, 9 TDs
Thomas is expected to emerge from the shadow of LaMichael James and overtake senior Kenjon Barner for the starting job in the league’s most prolific offense. Thomas, already a Heisman favorite, was a co-Freshman of the Year for 2011 and uses great size-speed, excellent hands and superb return skills to bring the total package to the field. The only thing holding him back, aside from Barner commanding significant snaps, is a downward turn for the Ducks’ offense.
2. John White, Utah
2011: 316-1,519, 15 TDs; 13-44, 2 TDs
As a JuCo transfer last season, White was a workhorse for the Utes in 2011 with over 300 carries and 1,519 yards (ninth in Div. 1-A). Of course, when quarterback Jordan Wynn went down, the passing game faltered and White carried the load. This season, while the Utes have filled in some holes in the backfield, White will still be the man. At 5-foot-8 and 188 pounds, White is more the elusive speed back than he is a bruiser, but he’s also a tough runner with a seemingly unstoppable motor. Look for White to garner serious national attention with another year of major college ball under his belt.
3. Kenjon Barner, Oregon
2011: 152-939, 11 TDs; 17-184, 3 TDs
The senior spelled James exceptionally well last season when James was hurt or just getting a breather. Starting three games for James, Barner notched over 500 yards and 8 touchdowns in total offense. If teammate Thomas wasn’t there this year, Barner would be set as Oregon’s No. 1 back, and he could still nail that role down with Thomas seeing significant playing time.
4. Johnathan Franklin, UCLA
2011: 166-976, 5 TDs; 9-74, 1 TD
Pro scouts look at Franklin as a future third-down specialist in the NFL, but he’s going to be the Bruins’ bell cow this year and while he will put up more yardage than he did in 2011, he still needs to cut down on the turnovers and run with more powers. However, he has experience and could break out if the UCLA passing game and Kevin Prince can take some of the load off his back.
5. Stepfan Taylor, Stanford
2011: 242-1,330, 10TDs; 25-182, 2 TDs
Three years ago, the Stanford offense as basically driven by power back Toby Gerhart. Then, after Gerhart was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings, the Cardinal became Andrew Luck’s team. Now that Luck is gone, has the Stanford offense been handed over to Taylor? He already has two consecutive 1,000-yard seasons to his credit, gaining over 1,300 yards on the ground with Luck and stellar tight end Coby Fleener on the field last year. The biggest factor for Taylor in 2012 will be the loss of Luck as well as two starting offensive linemen, David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin. Still, Taylor might be the PAC-12′s best kept secret.
6. Isi Sofele, Cal
2011: 252-1,322, 10 TDs; 6-33
Sofele is on the rise but will toil in fringe with Thomas, Barner and White taking up the spotlight. But he may be Cal’s best weapon and could give the Golden Bears a shot at an upset or two in the tough PAC-12 North. Despite his size, Sofele is a tough, consistent runner.