Philadelphia, PA – Quality at the running back position at the FBS level could mean the difference between simple bowl eligibility and BCS consideration.
Programs across the nation are looking for a rusher who can either electrify in the open field, continue to move the chains and chew up the clock, or punch it into the end zone around the goal line. Very few teams will find all those qualities in a single back and while these featured tailbacks bring different talents to the table, they are all expected to be "difference-makers" for their respective teams in 2012:
MARCUS LATTIMORE: After a truly remarkable freshman season that saw him earn All-American and All-SEC honors, as well as being tabbed the National Freshman of the Year, the 6-foot, 220-pounder hopes to build on a year and a half of superb work. This South Carolina Gamecock headed into 2011 as a viable Heisman Trophy candidate, but suffered a serious knee injury midway through the season, after racking up 818 yards and 10 TDs. Although he missed the spring, Lattimore is on pace to return to the field in the fall. A complete player, he has the ability to make plays as a workhorse back, or as a receiving threat coming out of the backfield. If he returns to form early enough in 2012, South Carolina may just find itself with a real shot at the SEC crown.
MONTEE BALL: A finalist for last year's Heisman, this Wisconsin Badger put up one of the most productive seasons by a tailback in recent memory. A consensus Firt-Team All-American, the 5-11, 215-pound Ball tied Barry Sanders' NCAA record with 39 TDs on the season (33 rushing), while leading the nation in rushing with 1,923 yards. He absolutely dominated the competition, including averaging 164 yards per game against five ranked foes in 2011. After flirting with the idea of leaving early for the NFL, Ball made the decision to return to Madison, and he should pick up where he left off. Matching last year's remarkable stats isn't likely, but he will once again find himself in the running for the Heisman Trophy, as long as the Wisconsin offense is fueled by his rushing exploits.
KNILE DAVIS: The Arkansas offense was supposed to feature the talented Davis last year, but that plan was scrapped when the 6-0, 225-pounder was lost prior to the start of the season with an injury in early August. When healthy, Davis is a dynamic playmaker, with a rare size/speed ratio. He can run through would- be tacklers or around them and has the kind of quickness that is impossible to run down from behind. The Razorbacks will be under new management and although Arkansas was able to thrive with Tyler Wilson under center in 2011, new head coach John L. Smith would be best served to get Davis back into the flow early on in 2012. A productive passing attack along with a healthy Davis could push Arkansas to the top of the SEC mountain this season.
JOSEPH RANDLE: Despite rushing for 1,216 yards and finishing third in the country with 24 rushing TDs, the 6-1, 195-pound Randle was an unsung hero in 2011. It certainly had nothing to do with his ability to run the football, but more because of Oklahoma State's prolific passing attack led by quarterback Brandon Weeden and wide receiver Justin Blackmon. Both were first-round selections in the recent NFL Draft, leaving Randle as perhaps the centerpiece of the 2012 Cowboys offense. A patient runner, Randle allows plays to develop in front of him before exploding into action. Breaking in a new signal-caller may hamper his TD total this year, but becoming a focal point of the offense should increase his rushing yards when all is said and done.
REX BURKHEAD: Nebraska's first season in the Big Ten had its ups and downs, but a constant was the play of Burkhead in the backfield. The 5-11, 210-pounder earned All-Big Ten First-Team honors as well as some All-American accolades, after fueling a devastating ground game for the Cornhuskers. Burkhead finished the season with seven 100-yard rushing performances, amassing 1,357 yards and 17 total TDs. He doesn't possess blazing speed like some of the guys on this list, but makes up for it with great football instincts. Now that Burkhead has proven capable of carrying the workload in Lincoln, expect inflated numbers in 2012.
LE'VEON BELL: Earned the starting gig midway through last season, leading Michigan State in rushing with 948 yards, with 13 TDs. A huge tailback at 6-2, 240 pounds, Bell wrestled the starting job away from the talented Edwin Baker and is now the back of choice in East Lansing. Bell should be better than he has shown in terms of earning the tough yards inside. He is more of an explosive runner, with the ability to make defenders miss. He also caught 35 balls last year and is a versatile playmaker who may be poised for a real breakout season in 2012.
STEPFAN TAYLOR: While Andrew Luck stole most of the headlines on the Farm, Taylor made things a lot easier for his quarterback. The 5-11, 210-pounder is heading into his senior season and will need to now be the focal point of the Stanford offense. He has done quite well as "second fiddle" over the last two seasons. After earning All-Pac-10 honorable mention as a sophomore in 2010 (1,137 yards, 15 rushing TDs, one receiving TD), he put up 1,330 yards and 12 scores in 2011, en route to All-Pac-12 second-team honors. He finished off the season in grand fashion, rumbling for a career-high 177 yards and two TDs against Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. Taylor was never used a workhorse before that contest (35 carries), but may see his carries increase significantly in 2012,
GIOVANI BERNARD: It took a little longer than expected, but the 5-10, 205-pound Bernard finally got on the field in 2011 and made North Carolina's opponents pay the price. Bernard tore an ACL prior to the start of the 2010 season and was lost for the campaign. He made up for lost time, however, making his debut in 2011, much to the chagrin of the rest of the ACC. Bernard became just the second freshman tailback in UNC history to earn All-ACC First-Team honors, rushing for a school-freshman record 1,253 yards and leading all tailbacks in the conference with 13 rushing scores. A good receiver out of the backfield (45 receptions in 2011), Bernard isn't going to bowl any defenders over, but he is shifty and dangerous in the open field. Just hitting his prime, if this Tar Heel can stay healthy, the sky is the limit.
KENJON BARNER: An extremely gifted tailback, the 5-11, 195-pounder has waited patiently behind LaMichael James at Oregon for the last couple of years, doing whatever was required of him in limited action. He averaged 78.2 yards per game as a junior in 2011, finishing up with 939 yards and 11 TDs on just 152 carries. While once again James' stats dwarfed that of Barner's, a 6.2 yards- per-carry average has the Oregon faithful confident that Barner will be ultra- productive now that James has moved on to the NFL. It certainly won't hurt to have sophomore sensation De'Athony Thomas (10.8 ypc, Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year) in the backfield, either.
RAY GRAHAM: The Pittsburgh Panthers have turned out some talented tailbacks in the recent past and the 5-9, 195-pound Graham was supposed to be the next one. Playing a more complementary role in years past, Graham accepted the role of workhorse in 2011 and was well on his way to a highly successful season. However, a knee injury shelved him after just eight games of action. He was still able to finish with a team-high 958 yards and nine TDs (119.8 ypg) on 164 carries (5.8 ypc). If he returns to form in 2012, Graham could once again be among the nation's best.
HONORABLE MENTION: Andre Ellington (Clemson), Cierre Wood (Notre Dame), Eddie Lacy (Alabama), Christian Michael (Texas A&M), Spencer Ware (LSU), Johnathan Franklin (UCLA), Zac Stacy (Vanderbilt), Fitzgerald Toussaint (Michigan), Ed Wesley (TCU) and Curtis McNeal (USC).