STARKVILLE, Miss. — Historically, and over the last two decades especially, Mississippi State football maintained a proud tradition at running back. Workhorses Anthony Dixon, Jerious Norwood, Josh Robinson and Vick Ballard, all of whom made it to the NFL, pepper the program record books.
Mississippi State’s typically productive ground game took new shape in 2015-16, as quarterbacks Dak Prescott and then Nick Fitzgerald led the team in rushing. Prescott accounted for 10 rushing touchdowns as a senior, and Fitzgerald ran for 1,375 yards and 16 scores last fall as a sophomore.
We can in part attribute that lack of balance to inconsistent offensive line play; since 2014, only one former Bulldogs lineman was drafted into the NFL (Justin Senior). But tailbacks Brandon Holloway and Ashton Shumpert were found wanting as seniors at times in 2016, hence the emergence of Aeris Williams last November.
The return of Williams, who ran for 720 yards as a sophomore and has receiving skills, gives Mississippi State a potential do-it-all back in 2017. More important, the running backs room should be stronger, deeper and more competitive this fall.
“We’ve got three backs capable of being really, really good SEC backs,” running backs coach Greg Knox said last month, referring to Williams, redshirt sophomore Nick Gibson and redshirt junior Dontavian Lee.
Gibson rushed for 108 yards on 17 carries during Mississippi State’s spring game and had a handful of impressive runs, including a 25-yarder in the first half. It was only a glorified scrimmage, of course, but the tough running Gibson displayed had to be promising for Dan Mullen and his coaching staff.
“We kept it really simple for [Gibson],” Mullen said after the game. “And you saw he has some ability running the football. Now what we got to see is the other things from him.
“And that’s always been the case for him. Route running, pass protections, blocking, some of those things. The consistency of performance. He’s got the running part down. We want to see the complete game.”
A former 4-star recruit in the 247Sports composite rankings, Gibson said he gained 10 pounds this offseason so that he “could take more punishment” in the fall. He was 5-foot-11, 211 pounds on the spring roster.
“He got smarter as well,” Williams said. “Just being around Coach Knox, he’s going to get smarter anyways, man. His pad level got better over the spring. He’s been running the ball pretty good.”
Then there’s Lee, a rising junior from Hattiesburg listed at 6-1 and 235 pounds. He ran for 49 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries in the spring game and, according to coaches, is a lot healthier than he was last season.
“That ankle injury held him back,” Knox said. “And then mentally, he’s making better decisions.”
The Mississippi State running backs room will add talent once Kylin Hill, a prized 4-star signee out of Columbus (Miss.) High School, begins participating in fall camp. Without committing to anything, Knox made it clear he expects his newest blue-chip standout to compete for early playing time.
“We’ll get him here, give him every opportunity and see how he does,” Knox said. “We’ll go from there with it. But he’s going to get every shot.”
If any combination of Gibson, Lee and Hill can establish themselves as reliable options in the running game, that would not only ease the workload for Williams but also Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald ran the ball 195 times last season — more than Alabama’s Jalen Hurts did — and while it’s obvious the junior quarterback can handle the beating he takes on those inside option runs, Mississippi State might consider managing his workload a little more carefully this year. For a Mississippi State rushing attack that finished fourth in the SEC as The Nick Fitzgerald Show, throwing more bodies into the mix should give the unit a boost.
The X-factor, of course, again will be the offensive line. Tackle Senior and center Jamaal Clayborn graduated, and two of the projected starters missed all of spring practice while injured (Elgton Jenkins and Deion Calhoun). The result was a first-team line that looked like this: Greg Eiland at left tackle, Dareuan Parker at left guard, Martinas Rankin at center, Darryl Williams at right guard and Stewart Reese at right tackle. Of those players, only Rankin started last season, and that was at left tackle.
When Jenkins and Calhoun return to the fold, there will be more shuffling up front and adjustments from there. It’s a tricky situation for position coach John Hevesy.
If Williams’ opinion counts for anything, though, Mississippi State fans can expect more performances reminiscent of what they saw during the spring game, in which Williams and Gibson each averaged more than 6 yards per carry.
“It is going to be a lot of days like this in the fall,” Williams said. “I promise you that.”
Perhaps no conference has a deeper tradition of excellence at running back than the SEC. From Herschel Walker to Bo Jackson, Emmitt Smith, Kevin Faulk and Shaun Alexander, the list is littered with some of the best to ever play college football.
If talent is any indicator, the 2017 SEC running back class looks poised to keep the league’s proud legacy alive. Eight 1,000-yard rushers return this fall, along with a host of other studs, and they’ll be supplemented by the addition of six blue-chip signees.
Picking the best of this stacked bunch is about as difficult as picking your favorite Martin Scorsese film (for the record, it’s Goodfellas). That also means it’s really hard to pick a bad one.
Because we’re nearing the height of power rankings season, SEC Country made a feeble attempt to sift through the conference’s best tailbacks and, somehow, rank them. Below is the result. We tried!
Najee Harris, Alabama: The latest 5-star running back to join the Crimson Tide dynasty rushed for 7,948 yards and 94 touchdowns during his high school career. The 247Sports composite listed Harris as the No. 3 prospect in the country. He’d start immediately at about 10 other SEC schools, but because Nick Saban hoards blue-chip running backs like no man before him, Harris could only see limited time this season.
Keith Ford, Texas A&M: A former 5-star recruit himself, Ford transferred from Oklahoma and quickly proved himself a quality addition to the Aggies’ backfield. He wrapped up last season by combining for 186 yards on 25 carries against LSU and Kansas State.
Kerryon Johnson, Auburn: Lest we forget about Auburn’s other capable bell cow, Johnson began the season as Gus Malzahn’s primary tailback before an injury to his right ankle hampered his breakout year.
Devwah Whaley, Arkansas: Rawleigh Williams retiring from football means Whaley should receive a bunch of carries in 2017. He flashed potential as a true freshman, most notably rushing for 112 yards against Mississippi State, and has a 4-star pedigree.
John Kelly, Tennessee: The Vols offensive line was an unqualified disaster last season. Kelly somehow averaging 6.4 yards per carry behind that mess, even against a softball November slate of Tennessee Tech, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt, deserves recognition. He should spearhead the UT rushing attack this fall with Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara out of the picture.
Jordan Scarlett, Florida: The Gators also suffered from some seriously inconsistent O-line play, but Scarlett managed to separate himself as the clear leader in an otherwise crowded UF running backs room. He looked good during 100-yard games against Missouri, South Carolina and LSU, and his position coach wants him to be a 1,000-yard back in 2017. Scarlett just missed the top-10 cut.
Tier III: The new kids
We begin this top-10 countdown with a trio of rising sophomores, all of whom came out of high school as (relatively) low-rated prospects. Trayveon Williams was a 4-star, per the 247Sports composite, but 19 other running backs were ranked higher than him. Damarea Crockett was only the No. 43 recruit at his position. And, apparently, 881 Class of 2016 prospects were supposed to be better than Benny Snell.
All three broke the 1,000-yard rushing mark as true freshmen. Funny how that works out.
10. Damarea Crockett, Missouri
2016 stats: 1,062 yards rushing, 6.9 YPC, 10 TDs
100-yard games: 5
Best performance: Tennessee (24 carries, 225 yards, 1 TD)
Crockett comes off maybe one of the quietest 1,000-yard freshman seasons in recent memory. He set program records for single-season rushing, single-game rushing and single-season rushing touchdowns for a freshman, and he did it in just 11 games behind a disjointed offensive line. Had the 4-8 Tigers not been so awful, more folks might have paid attention.
Best performance: Tennessee (28 carries, 217 yards, 1 TD)
Williams, like most of Texas A&M’s roster, started the year strong only to fade down the stretch. He rushed for 704 yards in the first six games and barely ended up eclipsing 1,000 yards on the season.
Of course, most of the Aggies’ November woes were rooted on the defense side. Williams still averaged more than 5 yards per carry over the final four games, which is dang good for a newcomer in the SEC West.
If Texas A&M can really start maximizing his big-play potential — Williams, Derrius Guice and Leonard Fournette were the only SEC tailbacks to reel off multiple 70-plus yard runs last season — the sophomore will have another good year. Using him more on kickoff returns would be a good start.
8. Benny Snell, Kentucky
2016 stats: 1,091 yards rushing, 5.9 YPC, 13 TDs
100-yard games: 5
Best performance: Georgia (21 carries, 114 yards, 2 TDs)
Is this too low for Snell? Maybe. The guy is an absolute battering ram who gave the Kentucky offense an element it had otherwise lacked under coach Mark Stoops. Boom Williams had home-run potential on every carry, but Snell lived between the tackles and really shouldered a heavy load.
However … he also did most of his damage against weaker opponents, highlighted by 100-yard games against New Mexico State, Austin Peay and Missouri. UK’s stiffest competition kept him pretty well contained. The underrated offensive line is due a fair share of credit for Snell’s breakout year, too. Props for being a workhorse, but he’s not quite the complete package (yet).
Tier II: The underappreciated guys
With so many top running backs in the SEC, it’s easy for fans to overlook a few great ones. These next three guys fit the bill.
Best performance: Georgia Tech (19 carries, 170 yards, 1 TD)
Michel is an NFL-caliber running back who would start on most teams. The former mega-recruit’s hands are a major asset, as evidenced by his 55 career catches, and his speed is deadly at the second level. He has the ability to break any game open with a big play.
Georgia hasn’t used Michel as much as some of the other backs on this list — partly because of durability, and partly because of the depth chart — but when called upon, he has come up big. The rising senior logged 15-plus carries in five games last year and averaged well above 5 yards per carry in all of them, including his absolute field day against the Yellow Jackets.
2016 stats: 1,037 yards rushing, 7.1 YPC, 4 total TDs
100-yard games: 4
Best performance: Southern Cal (9 carries, 138 yards)
Is it remotely possible for anyone to overlook a Crimson Tide running back? When the do-it-all quarterback contends for the Heisman as a true freshman, and he isn’t even the best tailback on his own roster … yes, yes it is.
Harris certainly doesn’t fit the one-man-wrecking-crew mold we’ve come to expect from Alabama’s lead backs, but don’t let that take anything away from the junior. He was a highly-efficient cog in the Lane Kiffin offense, averaging more than 7 yards per offensive touch, and he hit 1,000 yards despite never logging a 20-carry game.
How often new coordinator Brian Daboll uses Harris will be a major source of intrigue this fall. It’s wild to think a player like Harris probably won’t be the featured weapon in Saban’s stacked backfield.
An underappreciated Vanderbilt football star. Imagine that.
Webb surprised some by returning for his senior season, and it’ll be a huge boost for the Commodores after they lost Zach Cunningham to the NFL. He has been as reliable as anyone over the past three seasons, amassing 3,342 yards and 24 total touchdowns behind a Vandy offensive line, and he’s done so on some pretty bad teams.
In fact, since Webb was a freshman, Vandy has never averaged more than 200 yards passing per game. Opponents know exactly what’s coming, but even that isn’t always enough the stop the 5-foot-10, 202-pound bruiser.
Tier I: The high draft picks
Four elite rushers remain. All of them are on track to earn a nice NFL payday, and they’ll start 2017 on at least a few Heisman watch lists. The ceiling is sky-high here.
4. Kamryn Pettway, Auburn
2016 stats: 1,224 yards rushing, 5.9 YPC, 7 TDs
100-yard games: 7
Best performance: Ole Miss (30 carries, 236 yards, 1 TD)
Here’s where I foresee our Auburn readers getting worked up. Nothing against Pettway, who led the SEC in rushing despite logging stats in only 9 games, but does he deserve top-3 status just because Gus Malzahn fed him the rock all-you-can-eat-buffet style?
Auburn arguably fielded the conference’s best offensive line in 2016, and the Tigers handed the ball to Pettway a league-high 20.9 times per game. His per-carry average? It was 5.9, good for just 13th-best in the conference. Of his five 150-yard games, four came against Mississippi State (bad run defense), Arkansas (worse run defense), Ole Miss (worst run defense) and Arkansas State (laughably outmatched).
That said, Pettway is exceedingly tough to bring down and could’ve gone pro this year. He is a grinder, and Jon Gruden would love him if he paid attention to any position besides quarterback.
3. Bo Scarbrough, Alabama
2016 stats: 812 yards rushing, 6.5 YPC, 11 TDs
100-yard games: 2
Best performance: Washington (19 carries, 180 yards, 2 TDs)
Crimson Tide fans were finally treated to the full Bo Scarbrough experience at the end of last season, and boy, was that a treat. Hampered by injury for much of the year, including a sprained knee that forced him to miss two games, the junior finally found his groove in late November and carried the good mojo into the College Football Playoff, where he combined for 273 yards rushing and 4 touchdowns.
He is, quite simply, a freak. He looks like Derrick Henry 2.0 and runs with that same sort of reckless abandon, too. Had he not broken his right leg in the third quarter of the Clemson game, we’d probably be talking about Saban’s sixth national title right now. If Scarbrough can produce like that over a full season, the Heisman might be back in Tuscaloosa this winter.
2. Nick Chubb, Georgia
2016 stats: 1,130 yards rushing, 5.0 YPC, 9 total TDs
100-yard games: 5
Best performance: UNC (32 carries, 222 yards, 2 TDs)
The joint return of Michel and Chubb at Georgia is pretty shocking. With his injury history and more than 500 carries to his name, Chubb had every reason to go pro. But he’ll be back, much to Kirby Smart’s delight, to spearhead one of the best rushing attacks in the country alongside his senior backfield mate.
Those who watched Chubb play before his horrendous 2015 injury know that, while he was healthy in 2016, he hadn’t quite gotten his full burst back. Still, that didn’t stop him from dropping a 200-yard effort on UNC just 11 months after tearing multiple ligaments in his left knee. He broke 1,000 yards behind a weak offensive line, on an offense that was often listless, and helped freshman quarterback Jacob Eason adjust to the SEC.
With another offseason of rest and training under his belt, Chubb should regain that explosiveness. Combine that with his punishing style, and it’s not hard to foresee a huge year for him.
Best performance: Texas A&M (37 carries, 285 yards, 4 TDs)
We’d call Guice the successor to Leonard Fournette — which he clearly is — but, in reality, he seized that title well before the end of last season. With his superstar teammate limited by a lingering ankle injury, Guice absolutely steamrolled his way through most of LSU’s opponents while averaging an SEC-best 7.6 yards per carry. Oh, and he broke the LSU single-game rushing record that Fournette had set earlier in the season. Ridiculous.
The two major roadblocks for Guice, Alabama and Wisconsin, both ended the year with top-3 run defenses, and it’s not like teams were scared of Brandon Harris or Danny Etling. Everyone knew to expect a heavy dose of power running, and Guice still managed to lead the charge in dominating fashion.
Guice is a ferocious runner who’s shifty, smart and a threat to house it on every play — basically everything you look for in a college running back. And he’s the best in the SEC.
You may remember our own Marq Burnett posing the question last month asking Alabama fans to pick the two best non-Heisman Trophy-winning running backs from the Nick Saban era. His selections were Trent Richardson and T.J. Yeldon.
Considering the depth of talent the Crimson Tide have had at the position, it’s one of those questions that probably doesn’t have a wrong answer.
But who would you consider to be the best non-Heisman-winning running backs in Alabama history?
Fifty-eight Crimson Tide players have topped 1,000 career rushing yards, but only 11 have topped 2,500 yards:
Derrick Henry (2013-15) — 3,591
Shaun Alexander (1996-99) — 3,565
Bobby Humphrey (1985-88) — 3,420
Kennedy Darby (2003-06) — 3,329
T.J. Yeldon (2012-14) — 3,322
Mark Ingram (2008-10) — 3,261
Trent Richardson (2009-11) — 3,130
Johnny Musso (1969-71) — 2,741
Dennis Riddle (1994-97) — 2,645
Bobby Marlow (1950-52) — 2,604
Johnny Davis (1974-77) — 2,519
Take out the two Heisman winners — Henry and Ingram — and add Damien Harris, who has 2,194 career rushing yards and is attempting the become the first Alabama player to notch three straight 1,000-yard seasons, and we have our 10 finalists.
Among those just missing the cut include Sherman Williams, Eddie Lacy, Shaud Williams, Ricky Moore, Glen Coffee and Siran Stacy.
However, there are numerous other things that should be taken into consideration. Among them:
• Humphrey still holds the Alabama record for career all-purpose yards with 4,958, edging Richardson (4,580), Alexander (4,433) and, believe it or not, cornerback Javier Arenas (4,006), who returned punts and kicks. Humphrey’s career average of 141.7 per game is almost 15 more than the next-best player, Shaud Williams at 127.3.
• Marlow has the best yards-per-rush average (minimum 400 carries) at 6.3, ahead of Henry (6.0) and Richardson (5.8). Harris is averaging 6.7, and has averaged approximately 140 carries the last two seasons, so he has a good chance to top the mark if he can stay healthy.
• In terms of honors, Richardson was the first Alabama player to win the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s best running back. Alexander was the player of the year in 1999. Humphrey was a two-time All-American and selected as Alabama’s offensive player of the decade for the 1980s. Musso was an All-American and an academic All-American.
• Henry had the most 100-yard games with 16, followed by Alexander and Humphrey with 15, and Richardson with 12. Henry and Humphrey had the most 200-yard games with four, while Alexander did it three times.
• Alexander still holds the mark for most career carries with 727, ahead of Darby (702), Humphrey (615) and Riddle (612). Because the college football season can now last up to 15 games, one would expect that to result in more attempts. That hasn’t been the case. Among the top 10 in career attempts, only four players are from the Saban era: Henry (602), Yeldon (576), Ingram (572) and Richardson (540).
For a comparative look at how Saban’s used his running backs, here are the game, season and career rushing leaders for when was the coach at Toledo in 1990, Michigan State from 1995-99, LSU from 2000-04 and Alabama:
Rushing leaders by game
Derrick Henry, Alabama at Auburn, 2015 — 271
Alley Broussard, LSU vs. Ole Miss, 2004 — 250
Mark Ingram, Alabama vs. South Carolina, 2009 — 246
Sedrick Irvin, Michigan State vs. Penn State, 1997 — 238
Derrick Henry, Alabama at Texas A&M, 2015 — 236
Marc Renaud, Michigan State vs. Minnesota, 1995 — 229
Glen Coffee, Alabama vs. Kentucky, 2008 — 218
Derrick Henry, Alabama vs. LSU, 2015 — 210
Derrick Henry, Alabama at Mississippi State, 2015 — 204
Marc Renaud, Michigan State, 1995, 1997 — 355-1,848
(Note: Jalen Hurts is close with 1,809 yards. If sacks didn’t count against him, the quarterback would already have 2,000 career rushing yards).
Even though it’s difficult to compare players from different eras, using different schemes and playing behind different offensive lines — and doesn’t take into consideration crucial elements such as blocking or holding on to the ball — one thing that transcends the years is the NFL draft.
Richardson was the third overall selection in the 2012 draft. Granted, it didn’t work out, but it still indicates what NFL teams thought of him and his ability.
Humphrey was a first-round selection in the 1989 supplemental draft. Alexander was the 19th overall selection in 2000. Alabama’s only other first-round running backs over the last 50 years were Ingram and Wilbur Jackson (1974).
Fans always are going to have their favorites (Musso remains extremely popular with the Crimson Tide faithful, and with good reason), but statistically that appears to be the appropriate order: Richardson, Humphrey and Alexander, who went on to be the NFL’s MVP in 2005, a very close third.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The genesis of Dan Mullen’s spread-based offense starts with the ground game.
The focus from the outside might understandably lean toward the quarterback and how he works with the 10 players surrounding him. Without an effective running attack, however, the passing attack will become moot.
Fortunately for Mullen, his running back room now has two more players who can make an impact early in signees Dameon Pierce and Iverson Clement.
Each has their strengths that should only bolster a running back group that includes three returning players in Lamical Perine, Malik Davis and Adarius Lemons.
In four years, Pierce solidified himself as one of the top prep running backs the state of Georgia has ever seen. The hard-nosed tailback who was ranked as the 10th-best running back in the 2018 class amassed 6,779 yards during his tenure at Bainbridge High, a mark that ranks ninth in Georgia history.
“The thing about him is just how he finishes runs. He’s probably the best I’ve seen in a long time,” Florida running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider said Wednesday during an in-house interview. “He’s an SEC back.
Clement is officially listed as an athlete by 247Sports, but he will likely get looks at running back during the spring. Clement also could get looks at both kickoff and punt return spots.
“He’s a guy who is a playmaker in and out of the backfield, open space runner, can get him the ball in the open field,” Mullen said.
How much playing time either will receive in his first season will be determined down the road by their performance over the next eight months, but their ceilings are high. The fact that Davis is recovering from knee surgery and his return time is up in the air could play a factor as well.
“The biggest thing is they’ll fit in the room,” Seider said. “One of the things we talk about is having the right fit, a brotherhood in the room, leave your egos aside. Big team, little me because we have some pretty good players in that room. “
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Damien Harris couldn’t help himself. The junior running back was going past the University of Alabama football team’s media room when teammate Josh Jacobs was being interviewed, and popped in just in time to hear the question: “Can you throw the ball as well?”
“No, he can’t,” Harris bellowed from behind the row of cameras. “No, he can’t. No, he can’t. I’m here to tell you all, he can’t throw the ball.”
And just for good measure, he added another: “No, he can’t.”
Alas, someone seems to have finally found something that a Crimson Tide running back can’t do on the field this season, although it should be noted that Jacobs did play some quarterback in high school. He was more of a wildcat-style quarterback at Tulsa (Okla.) McLain, but still completed some passes.
“When you haven’t thrown a ball in a year and a half …” he said.
Harris gave a final “No” while heading for the door, but at this point no one should rule anything out when it comes to the Crimson Tide backfield. Through seven games, Alabama’s running game may be unparalleled in college football.
There’s talent, depth and versatility, plus an offensive line that’s really come together, making it the biggest strength of the offense. The No. 1 Crimson Tide have taken full advantage, with 2,118 rushing yards already.
The 302.6 average leads the SEC and is seventh nationally.
But the carries are just the beginning.
With Jacobs’ successful return from a foot injury, the group is finally at full strength for the first time, which is rare for a team in mid-October. In addition to Harris and junior Bo Scarbrough, there’s freshmen Najee Harris and Brian Robinson, plus junior Ronnie Clark scored his first career touchdown after coming back from two torn Achilles injuries.
That kind of mix wouldn’t work at a lot of places, with egos getting in the way and players fighting for touches.
Not with these guys. Even though they have very different personalities — Jimmy Fallon could have a field day with his superlatives segment on the “Tonight Show” with this bunch — everyone is contributing.
“Damien, uh, he’s goofy. He’s definitely goofy, always trying to make jokes. But he’s cool,” said Jacobs, then adding after Damien Harris left the room: “He’s kind of like a big brother, really.
“Damien would probably be class clown. Bo would probably be the hype man. Brian Robinson would be the sleeper. And Najee would probably be chill.”
Their differences and versatility translate to the field, utilizing both power and speed, with the blocking and receiving abilities to match.
For example, the coaches can insert Robinson as a fullback, use Jones as a change-of-pace back, line up someone wide or put two running backs in the backfield and really confuse the defense with what’s coming.
They can also call for something specific, like on the first play of the Arkansas game. The play was a sweep to the right, but Damien Harris was looking for a big hole on the cutback if the Razorbacks over-pursued. They did, and he went 75 yards for the touchdown.
We haven’t even gotten to arguably Alabama’s most dangerous player in the running game, sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts.
You always hear about how offenses can get a defense on its heels by having balance between the ground game and the passing attack because they don’t know what’s coming. Well, Alabama can do something similar with its rushing alone, especially when factoring in the quarterback.
If a defense spies someone over the top, Hurts becomes a decoy. An interior linebacker clears out on a fake or to pick someone up in coverage, and Hurts has an easy first down. You get the idea.
Even with his sack yards, which count against rushing totals at the collegiate level, Hurts is second in team rushing with 557 yards on 79 attempts and 6 touchdowns.
Damien Harris just took over the team lead with his third 100-yard performance in four weeks, giving him 625 yards on 58 attempts and 9 touchdowns. Consequently, coach Nick Saban described him as being the Crimson Tide’s most consistent player on offense so far, with junior wide receiver Calvin Ridley second.
It really shows in his yards per carry average of 9.2.
Damien Harris doesn’t have enough attempts to qualify for the national leaders, but if so, he would be second behind only Stanford’s Bryce Love (10.27). Hurts does qualify and is 13th at 7.06. He was in the top 10 heading into last weekend’s game against Arkansas, when he had a season-low 41 rushing yards.
The only quarterback in the nation with a better average per carry is Army’s Ahmad Bradshaw at 7.72, but the Black Knights have only passed for 125 yards as a team all season. Hurts has thrown for 1,025 and taken off most fourth quarters.
“I’ve only played two full games this season,” Hurts said.
To put both averages into perspective, consider that the Alabama record for yards per carry is 6.5, set by Eddie Lacy in 2012 (1,322 yards on 204 attempts). That’s with a minimum of 200 attempts, while for 100 attempts the mark is 7.5 by Bobby Marlow in 1950 (882 yards, 118 attempts).
Want to take a guess who is second behind Marlow? It’s Damien Harris at 7.1, set last season (1,037 yards, 46 attempts).
It took me a while to come around. But Damien Harris is my favorite player on the team now. Shows up to play every game. So consistent.
Hurts is also closing in fast on the Alabama career record for rushing yards by a quarterback. Crimson Tide legend Harry Gilmer had 2,025 from 1944-47, while the 19-year-old Hurts already has 1,512.
In case you’re wondering, Gilmer averaged 5.2 yards per carry.
So one way or another, Alabama’s running game has been too much for most defenses to handle, especially in SEC play. It had 496 rushing yards at Vanderbilt, 365 against Ole Miss, 232 at Texas A&M and 308 versus Arkansas. That’s 1,401 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground, during which the Crimson Tide defense yielded 226 and one score.
It works out to a difference of nearly 300 yards per game, 350.2 to 56.5.
Nevertheless, the number to watch with Alabama’s running game is still 140. When the Crimson Tide have topped that in rushing yards, they’re 98-5 since 2008. They’ve reached that mark in 30 of the last 37 games, including all seven this season.
“That’s kind of what we take pride in, in whoever’s number’s called to being able to make the play,” Harris said. “We don’t care who makes it, as long as the play is made when it needs to be.”
If ever there was a perfect metaphor for a football season, it’d be the 2017 Tennessee Vols and their smokey grey, “Team 121” emblazoned trash can, because it so succinctly encapsulates everything about the Butch Jones era on Rocky Top that has drawn ridicule and eye-rolling.
It’s not that Jones is an awful football coach — Derek Dooley was an awful football coach. Defenders of Jones are quick to point out the mess he inherited from his predecessors, the lack of NFL-caliber talent on the roster and the general malaise hanging over the program.
The problem is Jones will all-too-quickly point that out, too. You’ve probably heard it before: Back-to-back 9-win seasons and top-25 finishes. Three consecutive bowl wins. Earlier this season, we heard 17 wins in the last 21 games. Nobody’s getting fooled here; everyone with a vested interest in Tennessee football knows these rose-colored glasses stats are coming from the program itself.
Then there’s the corny, schmaltzy, rah-rah Butch sayings we hear when he’s behind the mic: Brick by brick. 5-stars hearts. Champions of life. Most recently, when asked about two of his players fighting, he responded with a question: “What do we want out of our media?”
It was bizarre and seemed to highlight the extent to which Jones is freelancing at the podium.
He can’t get out of his own way off the field, or on it. There’s no authenticity to what he says in a public forum; it feels like fabricated, half-hearted nonsense that doesn’t seem to resonate with fans, boosters, reporters and, perhaps to some degree, his players. Therein lies the problem.
A key part of being a head football coach, cliche though it may sound, is being able to effectively communicate and sell a vision to recruits, players, the administration and fans (via the media and social media). Tennessee football is a brand, yes, and Jones is the de facto CMO. Because of him, it is a brand all of the above now identify with a trash can, Champions of Life, self-congratulation for modest achievements and, most recently, losing.
Jones made a mention of fake news last week. Here’s some real news he might want to digest before pointing fingers:
Tennessee is 7-6 in its last 13 games, dating back to the Texas A&M loss.
Tennessee is 2-6 in its last eight SEC games, the same as Missouri.
The Vols are 14-20 in SEC games under Jones. They are also 0-8 against the SEC West, 1-3 against Florida and 2-2 against Vanderbilt under Jones.
The 2017 Tennessee offense is averaging 5.19 yards per play, which is 10th-worst among Power 5 teams.
Excluding John Kelly, Vols skill players have combined for 1,336 total offensive yards in five games, or 227.2 yards per game. That means without Kelly, Tennessee would have the second-worst offense in football — better only than UTEP, whose coach just resigned.
Among SEC teams, Tennessee ranks third-worst in turnover margin, third-worst in time of possession and second-worst in red zone scoring percentage.
Tennessee has scored 3 or fewer points in 10 of its last 12 quarters played.
We could go on, but it’s clear by this point that plenty of people around Rocky Top are sick of it. The only question that matters now, in a season that likely holds a few more losses for the Vols, is whether John Currie and the boosters feel the way many fans do.
Maybe these media folks like Ed Orgeron because he talks funny, and he had a nifty story about some binder that supposedly won Joe Alleva over and proved that Coach O was new and improved. Wrong! Orgeron, if you recall, was essentially Plan C for the Tigers once Jimbo Fisher and Tom Herman were ruled out.
Orgeron is still the same guy who went 10-25 at Ole Miss. Winning games with rented players is not the same as running your own show, and LSU fans were dealt a harsh reminder of that Saturday night. The offense looked abysmal, finishing 0-for-9 on third down and committing 4 turnovers; Danny Etling and Myles Brennan each threw an interception, while the ground game averaged a relatively shocking 5.6 yards per carry.
LSU is 3-2 entering back-to-back games against Florida and Auburn. The Tigers also travel to Tuscaloosa in a month. They’ll almost certainly lose all three if the offensive line is getting knocked around like that and the quarterback play continues to resemble a “worst hits of the Big Ten” album.
3. Nobody’s going to crown either offense yet, but Georgia and Auburn have very, very good defenses
Auburn is allowing 3.77 yards per play (No. 3 in the FBS) and has played Clemson (No. 26 offense), Missouri (No. 44 offense) and Mississippi State (No. 59 offense).
Georgia is allowing 3.8 yards per play (No. 4 in the FBS) and has played Notre Dame (No. 30 offense), Mississippi State and … Tennessee. The Vols are bad, but a shutout is a shutout.
Point is, both of these defenses look elite, and the numbers back that up. Kevin Steele has overseen a defensive renaissance on The Plains powered by some astounding signings on the defensive line and quality development of its linebackers and secondary. Kirby Smart and Mel Tucker have done the same in Athens, developing key stars like Roquan Smith and recruiting tons of depth on the D-line.
The Week 11 clash between these two in Auburn will be fun.
Interesting SEC stats from Week 5
Alabama’s average margin of victory this season is 37.6 points. I’ll write that again: Alabama’s average margin of victory this season is thirty. seven. point. six. points.
The only team to not commit a single turnover in 2017 … is Alabama. The Crimson Tide have a plus-10 turnover margin through five games.
Tennessee hadn’t been shut out in 23 years before Georgia blanked the Vols at home on Saturday. The Bulldogs haven’t won an SEC game by 41-plus points since 2013, when it beat Kentucky 59-17.
Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur is tied for the SEC lead in passing touchdowns (11), and his 197 passing yards per game has the junior on pace to finish third on the Commdores’ single-season passing leaderboard.
The SEC is home to three of the country’s best five punters, if we’re judging them by average punt distance. Johnny Townsend, Trevor Daniel and Corey Fatony are all netting more than 46 yards per punt.
Maybe the stat of the year so far: UGA is now 17-for-17 in the red zone. Playing Smart.
Highlight of the week: An aptly-named freshman appears
This might not be the sort of jaw-dropping highlight we typically fawn over at SEC Country, but look at the initial burst and then the leg-churning power of Georgia tailback D’Andre Swift on this third-down handoff. The kid has some good football ahead of him.
Alabama: So far it’s Alabama 125, SEC 3. And here’s a scarier thought: Will any of the Crimson Tide’s next six opponents fare any better? Texas A&M, Arkansas, Tennessee, LSU and Mississippi State could all turn into blowouts. (Last week: 1)
Georgia: Speaking of blowouts, the Bulldogs have a mighty impressive defense. What Jim Chaney and Smart decide to do with the quarterback situation will remain a source of intrigue, but that stable of running backs has Alabama-like depth. (Last week: 2)
Auburn: Back on the right track, the Gus Malzahn squad only has two true challenges left on the schedule. If the Tigers can continue to find their footing on offense, they’ll remain a top-ranked team leading into the Iron Bowl. (Last week: 3)
Florida: The Gators continue to win ugly, even as injuries deplete their offense at the skill positions. No Antonio Callaway, no Jordan Scarlett and now, no Luke Del Rio. If the offensive line keeps playing like that, it might now matter. (Last week: 5)
Mississippi State: Were the losses to Georgia and Auburn abysmal? Yes. Will the Bulldogs lose this badly again, outside of their matchup with Alabama? Probably not. The nature of these blowouts has been surprising, but the talent and the coaching are enough to orchestrate a rebound. (Last week: 4)
Vanderbilt: The other reason MSU slotted in at No. 5 is because, frankly, there’s a complete absence of quality teams after the top-four. LSU? Lost to Troy. Kentucky? Almost lost to Eastern Michigan. Vandy? Yeah, OK. The Commodores gave the Gators a game in The Swamp, at least, so here we are. (Last week: 8)
Texas A&M: Beat a decent South Carolina team at home. This team should be 5-0, but as Twitter likes to point out, the Aggies ain’t played nobody yet, Pawl, and their next four games are against Alabama, Florida, Mississippi State and Auburn. (Last week: 9)
LSU: How much trouble are the Tigers in here? A loss to Troy is inexcusable, but the talent is there to be better than that. Coach O and Matt Canada need to step their games up. (Last week: 6)
Kentucky: This is a team that keeps playing to the level of its competition. That’ll result in heart-attack games like the one we saw Saturday, but it’s also might be enough to finish third in the SEC East. (Last week: 7)
South Carolina: The N.C. State win is beginning to feel more like a mirage. Kind of like the Gamecocks’ running game, which ranks 12th in the conference this season. (Last week: 10)
Arkansas: New Mexico State is a decent team — one that nearly beat Arizona State and Troy. The Hogs need to show much more life against the Power 5 for anyone to be happy, though. (Last week: 12)
Tennessee: The Vols could just as easily be 1-4 had the Georgia Tech and UMass games not fallen in their favor. And in a head-to-head matchup, Arkansas would probably win. Burn it all down. (Last week: 10)
Ole Miss: There are only two questions worth asking about the Rebels right now: How badly will the NCAA hammer them, and who will the next coach be? (Last week: 13)
Missouri: The Tigers had one heck of a game against Bye Week. They really gave it their all. We promise. (Last week: 14)
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The No. 20 Florida Gators know the challenge Kentucky will present to the running game on Saturday.
The Wildcats come into the game ranked third in the nation in rush defense, allowing an average of just 57 yards per game. Through three games, they have yet to allow a rush longer than 11 yards.
Meanwhile, Florida’s rushing offense has been anything but intimidating during Jim McElwain’s tenure. Over McElwain’s first two seasons, the Gators ranked in the bottom two of the SEC in total rushing offense.
And there’s this: Florida hasn’t scored a rushing touchdown in its last eight games. In that span, the Gators are averaging just 81.9 rushing yards per game, just 2.8 yards per rush, and have three games with 12 yards or fewer.
The Gators will get another chance to prove themselves Saturday.
“It’s going to be tough for us,” right tackle Jawaan Taylor said. “We’re just going to have to work hard in practice and prepare for Kentucky’s defense, which I know they’re a good defense. It’s going to be a challenge for our offensive line. We’ll prepare for it.”
Florida hopes to build on the momentum it gained on the ground against Tennessee last weekend. The Gators compiled 168 rushing yards and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. It was Florida’s best rushing game in terms of total yards since its 20-7 win over South Carolina (171) on Nov. 12, 2016, and the second best in terms of yards-per-carry under coach McElwain (7.4 against Missouri on Oct. 15, 2016).
“Just showing us, the offensive line, that when we do our job, our guys can create plays,” Taylor said. “It helped us tremendously.”
It also helped Florida realize that it has three running backs capable of handling responsibilities when they split carries.
Freshman Malik Davis has shown the most promise, gaining 102 yards on just five carries. He almost ended Florida’s rushing touchdown drought when he broke past a pair of Tennessee defenders and ran 72 yards down the sideline before being stripped from behind and watching the ball roll out of the end zone.
Sophomore Lamical Perine and Mark Thompson are the workhorses and have had moderate success through two games. Perine has 63 yards on 18 carries while Thompson has 43 yards on 12 touches. The duo had 85 combined yards against Tennessee on 18 carries.
“They’re extremely talented,” offensive lineman Tyler Jordan said. “The one thing we have to do to help them is we have to create more explosive runs because there were a lot of 2- and 3-yard runs. That falls on us. We have to make the holes to let them make 7-yard plays and score and go to the house.”
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“South Carolina has the offense to keep up with Missouri, but I believe this week we are going to see a heavy dose of the running game to try to keep that Tigers offense off of the field,” wrote Chapman, calling for a score of 42-39 in favor of the Gamecocks. “The Gamecocks were able to rush for almost 180 yards last year against the Tigers, and I think they have an excellent shot at getting more than 200 yards on the ground on Saturday.”
McGranahan predicts a 45-40 win for the Gamecocks, with South Carolina’s running back corps playing a major role in the win.
The Gamecocks are looking for their first road win since beating Vanderbilt in the 2016 season opener.
“I think we’ll run the ball a lot more this week,” Dowdle said. “You’ll see a better rotation, also at running back this week. You should see a lot more carries. I think North Carolina State was one of the better defenses that we’ll play this season.”
In their 31-21 win against the Missouri last season, the Gamecocks ran for 174 yards, their highest total in SEC play in 2016. Dowdle led the way with 27 carries for 149 yards and 1 touchdown.
“I’ve heard from one source who thinks Dax Hollifield will choose South Carolina or Virginia Tech,” McGranahan wrote. “He’s one prospect who’s really paying attention to what the Gamecocks’ record is this season. Fortunately, for them, they have a need at linebacker, and Hollifield knows it.”
Hollifield is rated as the No. 125 overall prospect in the Class of 2018, according to the 247Sports composite.
“I know [Roper’s] a great guy, superprestigious QB coach with great insight and I’d love to play for him,” Hilinski said. “We’ve already built a great relationship, so it’s going to be fun to see how it goes down the road.”
Roper offered the younger Hilinski a scholarship on Sunday, joining the likes of Boston College, Fresno State and others in pursuit of the 3-star quarterback.
The 6-foot-3.5, 218-pound Orange, Calif., native is rated as the No. 580 overall prospect in the Class of 2019, according to 247Sports.
“The University of South Carolina called and said they’ve got room for me on the [athletic department]plane that leaves out in the morning,” Hollingsworth told Ben Breiner of The State. “Ray Tanner got this thing organized in a quick fashion. I’ll be going.”
Hollingsworth has been to an incredible 295 consecutive South Carolina football games.
Hey #GamecockNation I wanna thank every1 from bottom of my❤ all the kind words trying to get me to Mizzou. Was just informed I WILL B GOING!
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama football continues to push through fall camp as it works toward the season opener against Florida State.
The Crimson Tide worked in full pads for its seventh workout of camp on a humid Thursday afternoon.
Running back Najee Harris was limited during practice on Thursday. Harris stood near the running backs holding two footballs, but he did not participate in any drills.
Linebacker Jamey Mosley was back on the field, but he wore a black, non-contact jersey and did not participate in any drills.
Freshman linebacker VanDarius Cowan is still wearing a black, non-contact jersey.
Cornerback Anthony Averett was limited to start drills. He didn’t participate when Alabama’s cornerbacks worked on tackling and shedding blocks. Averett went through all the other drills, though, after not doing much during the viewing period on Wednesday night.
What we saw
We got our first look at the shell of Alabama’s nickel package. The first group had Trevon Diggs at left corner, Averett at right corner, Tony Brown at star (nickel defensive back), Ronnie Harrison and Minkah Fitzpatrick at the safety spots, and Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans as the two linebackers. Outside of Diggs, this is an experienced group. Diggs has continued to get reps with the first group, which means the coaching staff believes he can be a key player for the defense.
The second group was a little more cluttered. Jared Mayden was at left corner with Nigel Knott shadowing him. Levi Wallace was at the right corner spot. Hootie Jones worked at one safety spot with Deionte Thompson shadowing him. Freshman Xavier McKinney lined up at the other safety position with Keaton Anderson shadowing him. Shyheim Carter worked at star with Kyriq McDonald shadowing him. Josh McMillon and Dylan Moses worked together at one linebacker spot while Mack Wilson and Keith Holcombe were at the other one.
Former Alabama defensive back and return specialist Javier Arenas was spotted near the secondary.