published Sunday, August 28th, 2011

SEC loaded with top tailbacks in 2011

RUSH TO GLORY

The top returning rusher at each SEC school with his 2010 total and yards per carry:

  1. Knile Davis* Arkansas 1,322 6.5

  2. Marcus Lattimore S. Carolina 1,197 4.8

  3. Michael Dyer Auburn 1,093 6.0

  4. Tauren Poole Tennessee 1,034 5.1

  5. Branden Bolden Ole Miss 976 6.0

  6. Vick Ballard Miss. State 968 5.2

  7. Trent Richardson Alabama 700 6.2

  8. Jeffrey Demps Florida 551 6.0

  9. Warren Norman Vanderbilt 459 6.0

  10. Jordan Jefferson LSU 450 3.7

  11. Carlton Thomas Georgia 272 4.2

  12. Raymond Sanders Kentucky 254 3.7

* out for the season with an ankle injury

indefinitely suspended following bar fight


DEEP COULD HAVE BEEN DEEPER

None of the SEC's top 10 rushers in yards per game were seniors last season, but only half will play in the league this year. Where they are now:

  1. Cam Newton Auburn Carolina Panthers

  2. Knile Davis Arkansas season-ending injury

  3. Marcus Lattimore S. Carolina back for sophomore year

  4. Stevan Ridley LSU New England Patriots

  5. Brandon Bolden Ole Miss back for senior year

  6. Vick Ballard Miss. State back for senior year

  7. Mark Ingram Alabama New Orleans Saints

  8. Tauren Poole Tennessee back for senior year

  9. Michael Dyer Auburn back for sophomore year

  10. Washaun Ealey Georgia Jacksonville State

Tennessee tailback Tauren Poole rushed for 1,034 yards last season and 5.1 yards per carry.

His six 100-yard games tied a Southeastern Conference high, and he had 117 yards against Alabama, becoming the first tailback in 41 games to crack the century mark against the Crimson Tide. Yet when it came time this summer for league coaches to make their preseason all-conference selections, Poole was omitted from the first, second and third teams.

"I guess I didn't do enough," Poole said.

After a season in which none of the SEC's top 10 rushers were seniors, a plethora of returning talent has many believing the league could relive its ground glory of the 1980s. That decade began with Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson and ended with Emmitt Smith and may never be matched, but this year's deep tailback class at least can evoke memories.

Just how deep?

Well, Auburn's Michael Dyer finished ninth in the league a year ago in yards per game yet amassed 1,093 yards and was the offensive MVP of the BCS title game as a freshman.

"Running backs have been a huge part of this league since I walked on campus in 1981, and I don't think anything has changed," Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said. "Kentucky did become more of a passing team back in the late 1990s, but still people threw it to the running back, and the running back made plays. It's still a running back league."

Said Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino: "There is a lot of talent there. There is no question about it."

Petrino's Razorbacks took a substantial hit at the position earlier this month when junior Knile Davis suffered a season-ending ankle injury. Davis was the SEC's top returning rusher after racking up 1,322 yards a year ago, and his 6.48 yards per carry led all NCAA rushers who had 200 or more carries.

Davis was not, however, a first-team preseason pick of league coaches before his injury. That status went to South Carolina sophomore Marcus Lattimore and Alabama junior Trent Richardson.

Lattimore rushed for 1,197 yards last season and had a staggering 578 against the trio of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee to catapult the Gamecocks to their first SEC East title. He is considered the league's top Heisman Trophy candidate after Auburn quarterback Cam Newton and Alabama tailback Mark Ingram won the past two trophies and has no problem with such a label.

"I've got a great offensive line," Lattimore said. "I think the game has slowed down a little bit more. I've been in the film room a little bit more. I think I've got a shot."

Richardson got a first-team nod despite rushing for only 700 yards a year ago, but his total occurred on 112 carries for a 6.2-yard average. He will be running this season behind an offensive line that has combined for 74 career starts.

"Where do I stand? I don't know," Richardson said. "I just know that I want to be one of the best backs -- not just in the conference, but one of the best backs in the country. I want to have my name remembered -- one of those players you can see on the greatest games."

Brandon Bolden of Ole Miss and Vick Ballard of Mississippi State each came within 40 yards of 1,000-yard seasons a year ago, and Georgia fans are hoping heralded freshman Isaiah Crowell can match the first-year success of Lattimore and Dyer.

It wasn't long ago that quarterbacks headed the SEC with Tim Tebow at Florida, Ryan Mallett at Arkansas, Greg McElroy at Alabama and the one-year wonderment Newton provided. And at least one league coach isn't selling the quarterbacks short this season.

"I think you have to be able to run the ball to be successful," Alabama's Nick Saban said, "but I also think you have to have the ability to make explosive plays, and that's usually made in the perimeter by throwing the ball much more easily and effectively than it is breaking long runs.

"Even though there may be some unproven quarterbacks, I think there are some talented guys who probably will surprise and be some of the outstanding players of the future in this league."

Still, the SEC's current tailback depth is undeniable.

Tennessee coach Derek Dooley joked with Poole about the preseason balloting, pointing out that South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier believes Lattimore is the best of the bunch. Dooley told Poole that he agreed with Spurrier, but not before adding that he wished his program "had 100 Tauren Pooles."

Poole hasn't complained about the voting, but not everyone is taking that stance.

"In my opinion, you can't put us one, two, three and four overall," Ballard said. "Now, in one aspect of our game, that might be better. For me, I try to be as balanced as I can, so I can stay on the field as long as I can, but all of us have God-given ability, that's for sure."

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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