Philadelphia, PA – Several high profile tailbacks had their 2011 seasons cut short due to injury. Lofty expectations were dashed, both for the players and their respective teams. While some programs were able to assuage the loss and record successful seasons, others were unable to adapt.
The hope is that the injury bug will stay far away from these five talented rushers in 2012, as the entire group of rushers could find themselves worthy of numerous postseason accolades:
MARCUS LATTIMORE: Heading into 2011, it wasn't Alabama's Trent Richardson who was regarded as the SEC's best tailback. That distinction went to South Carolina's supremely gifted sophomore. The 6-foot, 220-pound Lattimore was the entire package coming into 2011 after a freshman year (2010) that saw him amass 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground. He also caught 29 balls, for 412 yards and two more scores, en route to being tabbed the unanimous National Freshman of the Year, as well as an All-SEC first-team selection.
It looked like Lattimore would be exempt from a sophomore slump, as he rushed for 818 yards and 10 TDs in the first seven games of the season before going down with a devastating knee injury against Mississippi State. Coach Steve Spurrier worked some magic and to South Carolina's credit the Gamecocks stayed the course and finished the season at 11-2.
By all accounts, Lattimore is ahead of schedule on his rehabilitation and should be at full strength in the fall. Whether or not the Heisman Trophy hype follows him into the season remains to be seen, but Spurrier certainly hopes his offensive centerpiece returns to form in Columbia.
KNILE DAVIS: After years of mediocrity, Arkansas was a program on the rise heading into 2011, one in which the Razorbacks were supposed to push Alabama and LSU for SEC supremacy. Those plans were attacked immediately when All- American candidate Knile Davis went down with a season-ending injury.
It was supposed to be an Arkansas offense that revolved around the 6-0, 230- pound Davis, who had rushed for 1,322 yards and 13 TDs in 2010. Well, Arkansas recovered thanks in large part to quarterback Tyler Wilson and a stable of serviceable rushers, as the team lost just twice, albeit to the aforementioned Crimson Tide and Tigers.
Although, the Razorbacks have now lost their coach (Bobby Petrino) to a recent scandal, whoever comes in to run the show in Fayetteville will have Davis at 100 percent. A freak of nature, the big back is as nimble and quick as he is powerful, and he will be eager to prove he is as good as ever.
RAY GRAHAM: Pittsburgh has long been a haven for quality running backs and last year it was Ray Graham's turn to become the go-to guy. The 5-10, 195- pounder was coming off a 2010 in which he rushed for 922 yards and nine TDs in 12 games, with just two starts.
His 2011 campaign got off to a fast start, as he led the nation in rushing with 958 yards and nine TDs before going down with a knee injury against Connecticut in late October. The Panthers finished the season at 6-7 and were blown out by SMU, 28-6, in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
With Graham on schedule to return for the fall, new head coach Paul Chryst has something to work with on the offensive side of the ball. How successful Graham is in his rehab will go a long way in determining Pittsburgh's fate.
MONTEL HARRIS: A highly successful stint in Chestnut Hill took a devastating turn last year, when Boston College's veteran tailback suffered a season- ending knee injury. The 5-10, 205-pound Harris is already BC's all-time leading rusher with 3,735 yards, with 22 100-yard games to his credit.
Harris earned a fifth year of eligibility thanks to a medical hardship waiver, but struggled with the knee during spring practice. If he returns healthy and stays that way, Harris will become the ACC's all-time leading rusher in 2012 and with it, he could make the Eagles relevant once again, following a horrific 4-8 season last year. Head coach Frank Spaziani certainly hopes that is the case.
DOMINIQUE WHALEY: One of the best stories coming out of Oklahoma to begin the 2011 season was this 5-10, 200-pound walk-on. Whaley burst on the scene in the spring and summer and captured the Sooners' starting tailback gig and literally ran away with the job, as he rumbled for 627 yards (5.5 yards per carry) and nine TDs in seven games, prior to a broken ankle suffered in late October against Kansas State.
Whaley is on course to return for fall camp and the hope is that with him healthy, Oklahoma, which won 10 games a year ago, can factor into the national title picture once again.