The Big 12 has chiseled its high-octane, high-scoring offenses of recent years on the forward pass. That represents almost a total shift from the ground-pounding, smash-mouth offensive game that the conference was best known for prior to becoming the Big 12.
All of this to say that, if you hope to slow down the aerial assault that has become the calling card for the best programs in the Big 12, you better be able to stop the running game. And contrary to popular belief, there are some outstanding running backs in the Big 12, which is precisely what makes the offensive production in the league so prolific and video-game like.
In the coming days, we will examine the key offensive positions of running back, quarterback and pass receiver, as well as special teams placekickers and return specialists and breakdown the five projected to be the most productive in the coming 2014 season.
Today we are focusing on running backs and the five I believe to be the five best in the Big 12 and the ones to watch for heading into 2014.
5. Keith Ford, Oklahoma
Ford, a sophomore out of Cypress, Texas, was a five-star recruit out of high school and started at running back for the White team in the 2012 Under Armour High School All-Star game. As a freshman, he played sparingly for the Sooners, but was explosive when he was in the game. He rushed for 19 yards on three carries against the tough Alabama defense in the 2014 Sugar Bowl and had 34 yards vs. Texas on six carries in the 2013 Red River Rivalry game. For the season, he gained 134 yards for an average of 5.4 yards per carry. The sophomore bruiser will have to do a better job handling the ball in the coming season (he was in Bob Stoops’ doghouse for a part of the 2013 season because of this). With the Sooners top three running backs departed from last season’s team, Ford should get plenty of opportunity his sophomore season. Ford will have competition from Alex Ross and another top-rated freshman, Joe Mixon, which should help bring out the best in him.
4. Rushel Shell, West Virginia
This is a new name for many Big 12 fans, but hopefully not for fans of West Virginia. Shell played at Pittsburgh his freshman year, where he gained 641 yards on 141 carries, a 4.5-per-yard average. The 6-foot, 2015-pound back transferred to West Virginia from Pitt and had to sit out a year, but he will be ready to go come the start of the 2014 season. The Mountaineers lose Charles Sims, the team’s leading rusher a year ago, but still have Dreamius Smith and now Shell, along with another promising running back in sophomore Wendell Smallwood. “He’s a physical, up-north back,” West Virginia running backs coach JaJuan Seider told a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “A physical, tough, take-my-lunchpail-to-work back. He’s going to bring a dimension to our offense that we need – some physicality to it.”
3. Desmond Roland, Oklahoma State
The Oklahoma State senior began the 2013 season as the No. 2 Cowboys’ running back behind Jeremy Smith. But that all changed six games into the season, when Roland moved to No, 1 on the depth chart. Roland’s rise was not all that surprising, given that he led all OSU running backs his sophomore season, averaging 6.5 yards per carry and was fourth on the team with four rushing touchdowns. The 6-2, 210-pound running back started the final seven games last season and ended up with 811 rushing yards, eighth in the Big 12, on 176 carries and 16 touchdowns (13 rushing). He ran for 144 yards in a loss to Oklahoma in 2013 regular-season finale. Roland’s versatility also showed on special teams last season. He had seven kickoff returns a year ago, averaging 22 yards per return. Oklahoma State has a proud history of outstanding running backs (Thurman Thomas, Barry Sanders, Kendall Hunter, Joseph Randle). Roland could be the next great one to come out of Stillwater.
2. Shock Linwood, Baylor
Shock Linwood started the 2013 season as the No, 3 running back on the Baylor depth chart behind the Big 12′s leading rusher a year ago, Lache Seastrunk, and Glasco Martin. Linwood played in 12 games his redshirt freshman year in 2013, but his breakout game came in the Bears’ big 41-12 victory over Oklahoma. Both Seastrunk and Martin were injured in that game, and the Bears were forced to go with Linwood at running back for most of the game. All Linwood did was shock the Sooners and the rest of the Big 12 Conference, running through and over the OU defensive front for 184 yards on the ground and an average of 7.9 yards every time he touched the ball. After that career-best performance, Linwood saw a lot more playing time the rest of the season. He finished the season with 881 net rushing yards on 128 carries, an average of 6.9 yards per rushing attempt, good enough for second best on a team (behind Seastrunk) that ranked 13th in the country in rushing offense. Linwood isn’t likely to shock opposing teams in 2014, but barring injury, he should put up big numbers again for what should be another high-powered Baylor offense.
1. Malcolm Brown, Texas
Brown will be a senior and the number one running back in new head coach Charlie Strong’s offense in 2014. The 6-foot, 225-pound back was the top ground gainer on the third best running team in the Big 12 last season. The combination of Brown and junior Jonathan Gray was a tandem like no other in the conference in terms running the football. Brown had 904 rushing yards in his junior season in 2013 and almost 1,100 all-purpose yards. His 2013 rushing performance was the best by a Longhorn since Jamaal Charles ran for over 1,600 yards in 2007. Brown’s backfield mate Gray suffered an Achilles injury late last season. What impact the injury will have on Gray’s future performance remains to be seen, but we can probably expect to see even more of Brown in 2014. Brown’s junior-year performance a year ago got stronger as the season went along. Eight of his nine rushing touchdowns came in the final seven games. He gained 841 of his 904 rushing yards last season over the final eight games and averaged 105 yards per game in the process. Brown capped off the 2013 season with a 130-yard game on the ground in an Alamo Bowl victory over the Oregon Ducks, the third most rushing yards in his career.
Other 2014 running backs of note: Dreamius Smith, West Virginia; Wendall Smallwood, West Virginia; Jonathan Gray, Texas; Aaron Wimberly, Iowa State; Joe Mixon, Oklahoma; Trevor Knight, Oklahoma; DeAndre Washington, Texas Tech