1. SOUTHERN CAL
Tailback U is continuing the tradition into the new millennium. The Trojans have the deepest group of talented backs of any of the teams that the Irish face this year. Junior Stafon Johnson is USC’s leading returning rusher with 673 yards and five touchdowns on 98 carries. Junior C.J. Gable was the starter heading into 2007 and averaged 11 yards a carry (143 yards on 13 attempts), but was sidelined after three games with an abdominal injury. Marc Tyler redshirted his freshman year in 2007 with an injury, but could get his chance to show why he was such a highly-rated prospect in high school. Junior Allen Bradford will give Carroll a reliable option who can be useful in short yardage and goal line situations and as a receiver out of the backfield. The Trojans also have one of the top lead blockers in the nation in sophomore Stanley Havili. And that list does not include sophomore Joe McKnight, who is one of the most exciting young players in the country and has the potential to be a Reggie Bush clone.
2. MICHIGAN STATE
This spot was a close call between Michigan State and Pittsburgh, but in the end it was experience that gave the Spartans the edge. Senior running back Javon Ringer is rated by many as the top senior back in the country and that rating has carried over to other NFL Draft experts. For the first three years of his career, Ringer split time with Jehuu Caulcrick, but Ringer will get his chance to carry the full load in 2008. As a freshman in 2005, Ringer led the Spartans with 817 yards, including a 194-yard performance against Illinois. As a sophomore Ringer missed four games with a knee injury and was at less than 100% in three other contests, but still led the Spartans with 497 yards. Ringer also had 14 catches for 96 yards in 2006, including a 26-yard touchdown reception on a trick play against Notre Dame. Last year, Ringer busted out, gaining 1,447 yards on 245 attempts (5.9 yards per carry). But while Ringer led the team in rushing for his third straight season, it was Caulcrick who was getting the ball in the endzone, scoring 21 touchdowns to Ringer’s six. Depth could be a question with Caulcrick no longer in the picture, but head coach Mark Dantonio has said that his system will work in multiple backs. While Dantonio could elect to use junior A.J. Jimmerson in goal line situations, if Ringer stays healthy his TD total should improve by more than 100%.
If Ringer is not the top individual back that Notre Dame will face then that honor will probably go to Pittsburgh sophomore LeSean McCoy. McCoy burst on the college football scene with 1,328 yards and 14 touchdowns on 276 carries (4.8 average) in 2007. McCoy also snagged 33 passes for 244 more yards and another score. He became the first Pitt freshman to rush for over 1,000 yards since 1988 and his 15 touchdowns broke Tony Dorsett’s freshman scoring record. At 5-11, 210 pounds, McCoy's size, speed and natural ability make him the top running back in the Big East in just his second year. McCoy’s lead blocker senior Conredge Collins is a three-year starter and one of the top fullbacks in the country. Senior LaRod Stephens-Howling was the starter before McCoy arrived and provides depth, but if it weren’t for McCoy, the Panthers would be much lower on this list.
4. NOTRE DAME
The Irish have a good mix of backs with junior James Aldridge and sophomores Robert Hughes and Armando Allen, but they need one to step up and become the guy. Many are leaning toward Hughes grabbing that role, especially after some solid performances at the end of the year. Hughes finished a difficult freshman season with 294 yards on 53 carries (5.5 average) and four touchdowns. Hughes had 110 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries against Duke before rushing for 136 yards and the winning touchdown on 18 carries in the season finale against Stanford. As he got more and more carries toward the end of the season, Hughes showed a good balance of size and speed that could eventually land him the lead role. Hughes is the only returning running back who had a rushing touchdown in 2007. Still, it was Aldridge who was listed atop the depth chart heading into spring. Aldridge is the leading returning rusher with 463 yards on 121 carries (3.8) last year. Aldridge had a career-high 125 yards against Navy. If Aldridge can finally return to the form that he showed before a knee injury in his final high school season, he could grab the job. Allen brings speed that neither of the other candidates can, but the bulb never seemed to go off in 12 games last year. Charlie Weis talked about Allen starting to play faster as the season progressed, but Allen never got the chance to display that breakaway speed on the game field. Allen finished the season with 348 yards on 86 attempts (4.0). He also gained 704 yards on 33 kick returns (21.3) and 124 yards on 24 receptions. If incoming freshman Jonas Gray can play himself into a role, the Irish would be the deepest team aside from the Trojans.
In addition to returning their starting quarterback, the Boilermakers also bring back all three of their top rushers from 2007. Senior Kory Sheets led the team with 859 yards and 11 touchdowns on 168 rushes (5.1 average), while classmate Jaycen Taylor had 560 yards and four scores on 107 carries (5.2 average). Dan Dierking gained 181 yards on 42 attempts (4.3 average) and scored twice as Purdue’s third-leading rusher last year. Sheets has 32 career rushing scores, while Taylor has just eight, but Taylor is more dependable as Sheets has had some issues securing the ball. Taylor has not been as durable as Sheets and missed three games last season, but if he can stay healthy in 2008, he could become the primary ball carrier.
The Midshipmen don’t have the talent of any of the teams ahead of them, or even behind them for that matter, but there is no denying that Navy’s system works. Navy has led the country in rushing four of the last five years, including the last three. Although the Midshipmen rely on their quarterback for much of their running game, senior Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada is almost like another running back. Fullback Eric Kettani led Navy with 880 yards on 152 carries (5.8 average) and 10 touchdowns while Kaheaku-Enhada gained 834 yards on 180 attempts (4.6 average) and 12 scores. Senior Shun White has averaged 9.4 yards per carry through three years and is listed as a starting slot back along with sophomore Andre Byrd, who could be a home run threat. Backup quarterback Jarod Bryant will also see time as a backup slot back as will senior Greg Shinego.
7. NORTH CAROLINA
The only statistical leader that the Tar Heels won’t have back on offense this year is leading rusher Johnny White, who gained a team-high 399 yards on 95 carries (4.2 average). White will be on the team, but coach Butch Davis feels good enough about his tailbacks that he has moved White to cornerback. The number one guy that Davis is excited about is former Notre Dame commit sophomore Greg Little. Little was recruited as a wide receiver, but started the last two games of the 2007 season at running back. In those two games, Little rushed for 247 yards on 50 carries and had a 25-yard touchdown run in overtime to beat Duke in the final game of the year. As a former receiver, Little will obviously be a weapon for the Tar Heels in the passing game out of the backfield. Davis has compared Little to Willis McGahee, who he coached at the University of Miami. Even at 6-3, 210, Little will be one of the smaller backs on the team with redshirt freshmen Devon Ramsay (6-2, 240) and Robert Houston (6-2, 255) as reserves. Davis also moved one of his other top tailbacks, sophomore Anthony Elzy, who gained 321 yards and scored five times last year, to fullback. Elzy will battle with junior Bobby Rome for snaps at fullback.
The Wolverines graduated their all-time leading rusher in Mike Hart who finished his career with 5,040 yards and 41 touchdowns. With new coach Rich Rodriguez installing the spread this year in Ann Arbor, it is unclear exactly how intends on using his running backs. Rodriguez will have some veteran options in juniors Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown, but they may not have the kind of speed to play on the edges. If Rodriguez wants fast backs, he will probably have to turn to some of the talent that the Wolverines have coming in. Freshmen Sam McGuffie, Michael Shaw and Terrence Robinson all possess elite speed and Rodriguez will undoubtedly put them in the position to use it.
The Cardinal suffered a pair of key injuries at the tailback position last year, but that could serve as a positive in 2008. Senior Anthony Kimble has started since he was a redshirt freshman but has battled injuries throughout. Kimble led Stanford with 509 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 115 carries (4.4 average), but missed five games with an injury. Junior running back Toby Gerhart rushed for 140 yards on just 12 attempts (11.7 average) in the 37-0 win over San Jose State, but that was the only game that he played in last year after suffering a knee injury. Both Kimble and Gerhart are expected to be 100% this season, but their absences provided playing time for junior Tyrone McGraw and sophomore Jeremy Stewart. Stewart got 105 carries and gained 343 yards (3.3 average), but McGraw gained 294 yards on just 64 attempts (4.6 average).
The Orange have some quality running backs coming back, but injuries have been an issue. Junior Delone Carter is expected to be the starter after sitting out 2007 with a dislocated hip. Syracuse is hoping he can return to his 2006 form when he was named a Freshman All-American after rushing for 713 yards and four touchdowns. Senior Curtis Brinkley figures to be number two on the depth chart after leading the team with 371 yards on 111 carries (3.3 average) in Carter’s absence. But even Brinkley couldn’t stay healthy and was replaced by sophomore Doug Hogue after breaking his leg against Buffalo. Hogue played well in relief against Buffalo, but struggled the rest of the way. Incoming freshman Averin Collier could also see time at tailback, as could fellow newcomer Carl Cutler, who will back up senior Tony Fiammetta at fullback.
The Huskies graduated last year’s leading rusher, Louis Rankin, who gained 1,294 yards. Aside from quarterback Jake Locker, Washington’s top returning rusher is sophomore Brandon Johnson who had 196 yards on 51 carries (3.8 average). Johnson is at the top of the depth chart ahead of redshirt freshmen Willie Griffin and Brandon Yakaboski as well as incoming freshmen Johri Ferguson and Demitrius Bronson. Incoming freshman Chris Polk could provide the Huskies with a dynamic threat, but it appears that the staff is convinced that he can help the team more as a wide receiver right now rather than a runner in the backfield. Fortunately for the Huskies, they can rely heavily on their quarterback for much of the rushing attack.
12. BOSTON COLLEGE
The Eagles are high on potential, but low on depth and, with their top returning rusher having just 14 yards last year, even lower on past production. Incoming freshman Josh Haden appears to be number one on the depth chart and although he was one the top-rated runners in the latest recruiting cycle, it will be a heavy load for him to carry. If the Eagles had a more experienced runner to go along with Haden, even if he was less talented, Haden would have someone to help him, but that is not the case. Listed behind Haden on the depth chart is redshirt freshman Dan Mulrooney, who was a safety last year and was only moved to offense after backup running back A.J. Brooks was suspended indefinitely in December. Fullback James McCluskey is the leading returning rusher with 14 yards on eight carries, although he did have three touchdowns last year.
13. SAN DIEGO STATE
The Aztecs’ leading rusher last year was their quarterback and not only is he gone, but so is their top running back. Graduated quarterback Kevin O’Connell led the team with 408 rushing yards last year while Brandon Bornes was second with 354. San Diego State returns its next four leading rushers, but they combined for a total of 443 yards on 118 carries (3.8 average). The Aztecs’ leading returning rusher is sophomore Brandon Sullivan, who moved past junior Atiyyah Henderson during 2007. Henderson was all-conference honorable mention choice as a freshman in 2006, but has been slowed by injuries ever since. Sullivan gained 220 yards on 58 carries (3.8 average) while Henderson had 183 yards on 44 carries (4.2 average). Sullivan is considered the more consistent back while Henderson is more of the home run threat, which is an ability sophomore Davon Brown could also bring. The Aztecs averaged 103.9 rushing yards per game (105th nationally) and with their two leading rushers gone, it’s hard to see that number improving much.