Running it up

2011 could see surge in SEC backfields

LSU running back Spencer Ware runs against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl in January. Ware appears to be in line to start for the Tigers in 2011.
LSU running back Spencer Ware runs against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl in January. Ware appears to be in line to start for the Tigers in 2011.

The 2010 football season in the Southeastern Conference belonged to one player: Cam Newton.

The Auburn superstar led the conference in total offense and in rushing, the first quarterback to lead the SEC in both categories in the same year since Auburn’s Jimmy Sidle in 1963.

While mobile quarterbacks will continue to gain yards with their legs — LSU’s Jordan Jefferson certainly comes to mind — a squadron of outstanding running backs expect to resume their rightful place atop the rushing list.

Indeed, this could well be considered the year of the running back in the SEC. Virtually every team features one — or more — outstanding ball carriers.

No less that eight SEC running backs made their way onto the preseason watch list for the Doak Walker Award, given annually to the nation’s best running back.

It isn’t hard to imagine one of those running backs hoisting the Heisman Trophy at season’s end as well.

For LSU, after losing leading rusher Stevan Ridley (1,147 yards, 15 TDs, 249 carries) a year early to the NFL, it looks like running back by committee going into the season.

Sophomore Spencer Ware appears to be the man to beat for the starting spot after a breakout performance against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl (10 carries, 102 yards) and a strong spring.

For the season, though, Ware had just 24 carries for 175 yards, TD), fewer yards and carries than wide receiver Russell Sheppard (32 carries, 253 yards, 2 TDs).

Sophomore Michael Ford is LSU’s top returning rusher among running backs with 45 carries for 266 yards and three TDs, but appeared to lose ground to Ware during the spring. Behind both of them will be sophomore Alfred Blue (20 carries, 101 yards, TD), sophomore Cleveland Davis (no stats), and incoming freshmen Kenny Hilliard (participated in spring practice) and Terrence Magee.

Baton Rouge native Brandon Bolden of Ole Miss is arguably the most versatile player in the SEC. The senior is the Rebels’ top returning rusher (976 yards, 14 TDs on 163 carries), receiver (344 yards, 3 TDs) and even passer (1 of 1 for 7 yards).

The coaches’ preseason All-SEC team tabbed Alabama junior Trent Richardson and South Carolina sophomore Marcus Lattimore as their first-teamers.

Richardson split time with 2009 Heisman winner Mark Ingram last season but still had 700 yards on 112 carries with six touchdowns. Lattimore, a rising star for a Gamecocks team that made it to the SEC Championship game for the first time in 2010, piled up 1,197 yards and 17 TDs on a workmanlike 249 carries.

When people thought of Arkansas’ offense last year, quarterback Ryan Mallett is the name that came to mind most often. But the Razorbacks’ ground game wasn’t shabby at all, led by junior Knile Davis, the SEC’s top returning rusher. A shifty back who rarely takes a solid hit from tacklers, Davis had 1,322 yards and 13 TDs on 204 carries in helping the Razorbacks reach the Sugar Bowl.

Auburn sophomore Michael Dyer got lost in Newton’s wake last season but still rushed for a highly efficient 1,093 yards and five touchdowns on 182 carries. He’ll be counted on to carry much of the load for a retooled Auburn offense.

Tennessee senior Taurean Poole also put together a 1,000-yard season, rushing 204 times for 1,034 yards and 11 TDs. Mississippi State senior Vick Ballard was a touchdown machine in 2010, rushing 186 times for 968 yards and 19 TDs, second only to Newton in that category.

The eighth Doak Walker candidate from the SEC is Florida’s Jeff Demps, who shares most of the Gators’ rushing duties with fellow senior Chris Rainey. Demps lad 551 yards and three TDs on just 92 carries last season, a tidy 6.0 yards per attempt.

Vanderbilt junior Warren Norman isn’t one of the SEC’s biggest stars but nonetheless ranks as one of the conference’s top two-way threats. He missed the last four games (and spring practice) with a hand injury but still led the Commodores with 459 yards and four touchdowns on 77 carries and 25.4 yards per kickoff return.