AggieYell.com will review the top players in the SEC heading into the 2013 season, position by position. Next up: running back.
Top 10 individuals:
1) Todd Gurley, Georgia
2) T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
3) Ben Malena, Texas A&M
4) Jeremy Hill, LSU
5) LaDarius Perkins, Mississippi State
6) Tre Mason, Auburn
7) Jeff Scott, Ole Miss
8) Rajion Neal, Tennessee
9) Keith Marshall, Georgia
10) Trey Williams, Texas A&M/Kenyan Drake, Alabama
Rankings by running back corps:
1) Texas A&M
6) Mississippi State
7) Ole Miss
11) South Carolina
This isn't the easiest of positions to gauge in 2013, because a lot of the names that dominated the conference in 2012 are gone. Marcus Lattimore, Kenny Lacy, Mike Gillislee, Zac Stacy and Kendial Lawrence are all gone, making this as open an argument as the conference has seen in some time.
Gurley gets the nod as the conference's best because he's an emerging superstar. In spite of a senior-heavy class, Gurley (222 carries for 1,385 yards and 17 TDs) led all SEC running backs in rushing (Johnny Manziel led all players) while averaging 6.2 yards a carry. At 6 feet 1 inch tall and 218 pounds, Gurley has great speed and packs a wallop.
Yeldon (175 carries for 1,108 yards and 12 TDs) hit the century mark while backing up Lacy last year, and put up better numbers than guys like Mark Ingram did in their first year. Now that Lacy's gone, he's going to be the key back for the Crimson Tide. Aggie fans may remember him for putting the ball on the ground last year in A&M's 29-24 win, but the rest of the nation knows him as a 5-star prospect two years ago who averaged 6.3 yards a carry in his freshman year.
Malena (138 carries for 808 yards, 8 TDs) may not have the numbers that some of the guys on this list do, but he's deserving of the high ranking. He was A&M's top back all of last year and would have gained more yards had he not been in the backfield with a senior (Christine Michael) and a superstar (Manziel). He averaged 5.9 yards a carry while being an outstanding pass blocker and a reliable safety valve. He shined in his first chance to start and should only be better this year.
Hill (142 carries for 755 yards and 12 TDs) led a loaded LSU backfield in yards last year while only playing in 11 games during his freshman year. A monster at 6 feet, 2 inches tall and 235 pounds, he's the type of bruising back LSU wants to have leading their offense.
Perkins (205 carries for 1,024 yards and 8 TDs) returns to Starkville for his senior season and has something to prove. Like the Bulldogs, he feasted on weaker competition (100 yard days against Troy, Tennessee, Kentucky and Middle Tennessee) and was battered by better opponents (38 yards against Alabama, 42 against A&M). Mississippi State is going to rely on him a lot this season and they'll need him to respond.
Mason (171 carries for 1,002 yards and 8 TDs) was easily the best player on the Tigers' offense in 2012 and is a legitimate big play threat. He struggles a little bit with fumbling and he'll have a lot of people looking to shut him down in 2013, but Auburn's looking for a big junior season out of him.
Scott (197 carries for 846 yards and 6 TDs) won the starting job at Ole Miss during the later part of fall practice last year and showed he was durable in spite of his size (5 feet, 7 inches tall and 175 pounds). With Randall Mackey gone, he'll be the unquestioned go-to guy in 2013.
Neal (156 carries for 708 yards and 5 TDs) is a threat to catch the ball as well as run with it. A north-south runner with explosiveness, he's a guy who could jump up the charts during his senior season if he gets some help from the rest of the Vols offense.
Marshall (117 carries for 759 yards and 8 TDs) would start for a lot of teams, but he has to take what he can get behind Gurley. What Marshall gets a lot of is yardage: 6.48 yards a pop. He enters his sophomore season as part of a potent duo who could pick up the slack if Gurley were to get hurt.
Williams (65 carries for 387 yards and 5 TDs) and Drake (42 carries for 285 yards and 5 TDs) are tied for 10th on the list not for what they've done, but what they can do. Williams is a true home run threat every time he touches the ball, and what we saw against Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl may be just the start for him. Another sophomore, Drake ground up opponents late in games to the tune of 6.7 yards per carry and only lost a total of four yards all season.
The Aggies get the nod in a conference that is reloading at running back due to their depth. With Malena, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams, the Aggies have three backs with the ability to take the ball the distance any time they touch the football. Tra Carson has the size to be a potential grinder and short yardage back to complement them.
With Yeldon on the cusp of being not only the best back in the SEC but maybe in the nation and Drake serving as a strong backup, the Tide have a good one-two punch. Add in three highly rated incoming freshmen and Alabama looks to have restocked nicely.
LSU brings back Hill and Kenny Hilliard, another basher (6 feet, 231 pounds) to pound away at the SEC West. Add in senior Alfred Blue and the Tigers have a trio of grinders to work with.
With Gurley and Marshall, UGA could make a valid argument they're underrated here. The only thing that knocks them below A&M, Alabama and LSU are the sheer numbers the other teams can throw at opponents.
Florida loses Gillislee, but has faith Matt Jones, Mack Brown and 4-star Kelvin Taylor can pick up the slack for him. Jones ended 2012 strong, so he'll be the guy looked to first.
The Bulldogs get Perkins and all three of their top reserves back. They have the talent at running back, it'll just be a matter of whether State's offensive line will be able to hold up against the big boys.
Scott's the man at Oxford, but Ole Miss also returns a couple of backups and has three four-star commits coming in to the running back stable. The potential is there for the Rebels to have a much-improved running game.
If Ole Miss could be the team whose depth helps them jump up the charts, the Vols could be the team who tumbles for the same reason. If Neal gets hurt, the question of who is backup is could be a real question. Junior Marlin Lane got on new coach Butch Jones' bad side almost immediately and was suspended for spring ball. If he's not back, the question of who the primary backup will be is a serious question.
Mason is the key to Auburn's offense, but defenders will be keying on him, too. So who's the backup? That's totally unclear.
Mizzou gets Henry Josey back, and if he's recovered from his serious knee injury in 2011, the Tigers should be better than this ranking. But, at this point, he's not proven to be back -- and the other options are hardly proven at all.
When Lattimore didn't carry the football, the Gamecocks didn't get much on the ground in 2012. Kenny Miles averaged 3.5 yards per carry while Mike Davis averaged 5.3 -- on only 52 carries. Davis will probably get first crack this season and will need to produce.
Kentucky actually has a nice option as a starter, with Raymond Sanders III. Sanders (125 carries for 669 yards and 5 TDs) averaged 5.4 yards a carry last year and now moves into Mark Stoops' wide open offense. Not dissimilar in size to Malena (5 feet, 8 inches tall and 185 pounds), this change could mean a big year for Sanders. But, behind him, there's serious depth questions.
Vandy loses their best running back ever in Zac Stacy and has no real obvious choice for a starter this year. Fall practice will be interesting for them.
Arkansas is a mess at running back, with both Dennis Johnson and Knile Davis gone. Nate Holmes was supposed to compete for the starting job this spring and promptly got suspended. Jonathan Williams is the most experienced returning back, and he hasn't impressed. Highly rated Alex Collins, now that he's escaped from his mom's clutches, may end up starting as a true freshman.