Oregon Ducks, Alabama Crimson Tide Among Top Backfields

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Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin ruffled some feathers when touting his Crimson Tide running back corps as being better than NFL units. That may be a stretch, but Alabama’s is one of the top backfields in college football.

In an era when less and less attention is paid and credit is given to the position, Alabama is a forerunner in a running back revolution. Kiffin continues in the mold of predecessors Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier, who operated the Tide offense with the run game as the primary facet–specifically, a traditional, power style of run game.

The Tide have a dynamic trio of backs, all capable of some gaudy individual statistics on their own. Their solo numbers may take a hit from sharing duties, but the sum of their parts is much greater than any might be alone.

Think of this multiple-man backfield like a college football Voltron.

Alabama is not alone in this regard, however. A few other, noteworthy offenses feature three or more star-potential running backs all in the same backfield.

ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE

Cultivating top-flight running backs is just what Alabama does. In succession, the Tide has gone from Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, to Heisman finalist Trent Richardson, to breakout NFL star Eddie Lacy. Now, Alabama features the SEC’s premier backfield.

T.J. Yeldon

When a team has as many stars as Alabama, someone is bound to be underappreciated. At Alabama, that’s T.J. Yeldon. In 2013, Yeldon rushed for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns. Pretty solid for just 207 carries, eh?

He’s also a reliable option in the passing game, last year hauling in 20 receptions. Yeldon is also responsible for one of the most famous, if not most important receiving touchdowns in Crimson Tide history during his freshman season.

On most rosters, Yeldon would be THE Heisman candidate. At Alabama, he’s A Heisman candidate.

Derrick Henry

Henry became the top all-time rusher in the history of American high school football. Think about every player who has ever put on pads and helmet through the decades, and the magnitude of that achievement really starts to sink in.

In January’s Sugar Bowl, Henry showed off exactly how he set that mark. He was almost singlehandedly responsible for leading an Alabama rally against Oklahoma. And while the Tide fell short, his individual effort set a tone for 2014.

His combination of punishing power and surprising speed make him one to watch for the Heisman Trophy.

Kenyan Drake

Drake rushed for 694 yards and eight touchdowns in 10 games last season–not bad for someone likely to be his team’s No. 3 option.

Drake is the smallest of the three at 6’1″ and around 200 pounds. Now, in most offenses that would qualify as a power-back. At ‘Bama, he’s a change-of-pace guy. Drake is a capable receiving option, and given Kiffin’s penchant for using the backs in passing situations, expect him to get a number of receiving opportunities in 2014.

ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS

For as much as has gone awry in Bret Bielema’s first year-plus as Arkansas head coach–and plenty has gone awry–he embarks on his second season with a stellar backfield trio.

Bielema’s Wisconsin teams routinely showcased at least one star running back. His 2014 Razorbacks are most comparable to the 2010 Badgers, which featured John Clay, Montee Ball and James White, all of whom were in the 1,000-yard range.

Similar output from this group is unlikely given the variety of other issues the Hogs face in 2014. But if the ‘Backs surprise in the SEC West, it will be because of their backs.

Alex Collins

Bielema’s first coup as Arkansas head coach was nabbing Collins from the hometown school, Miami. Collins certainly didn’t disappoint in his first year, either, breaking the 1,000-yard barrier as a true freshman.

Rumors about Collins ran rampant in the spring. He was suspended for a week, and suggestions he’d miss the season opener against Auburn floated. Earlier, unsubstantiated chatter of him exploring a transfer linger.

But that looks to be nothing more than social media and message board fodder for now. At his best and focused, Collins can be one of the top feature backs in the SEC.

Korliss Marshall

The freshman Marshall may be the third man in the Razorback rusher rotation, but he was a star of the Razorbacks’ spring game. That performance shows just how deep this unit goes.

Jonathan Williams

Williams nearly gave Arkansas two 1,000-yard rushers, a remarkable feat for a team that went winless in SEC play. He finished 100 yards short of that milestone, but had just 150 carries. If he gets a more substantial workload in 2014, Williams should have no problem breaking 1,000 yards.

And given how Wisconsin used big, powerful backs like Williams in Bielema’s tenure, it’s not unreasonable to think we’ll see a whole lot more of him making “grown man” plays like the one below.

OREGON DUCKS

Diversity is a central component to Oregon’s explosive offense, and the Ducks’ 2014 backfield has it in bunches. Last year’s two-pronged attack of Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner returns. And despite losing do-everything De’Anthony Thomas, the Ducks actually have more options than in 2013.

The addition of highly rated recruit Royce Freeman, and springtime emergence of redshirt freshman Kani Benoit would leave more capable ball-carriers than touches in most offenses.

But that’s most offenses. Oregon’s approach generates more snaps, which translates to more opportunities.

Royce Freeman

Mark Helfrich beat out Nick Saban for Freeman, a 5-star recruit and bruising ball-carrier whose style is more in line with the traditional Alabama back than it is past Oregon rushers.

That doesn’t mean Freeman won’t have an important place in the Ducks offense almost immediately, though. That he is a deviation from the typical Ducks running back fulfills a need in short-yardage and goal-line situations.

Byron Marshall

Marshall is the Pac-12’s top returning ball-carrier at 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2013. Still, he’s treated as something of an afterthought–particularly after Thomas Tyner’s show-stopping performance in the spring game.

But make no mistake, Marshall remains the top option in one of the top backfields in college football. That’s lofty distinction.

Thomas Tyner

Tyner is arguably the best of Oregon’s backs–lofty praise, given his counterparts. Elsewhere, he may be candidate for a 1,500-plus-yard season, but at Oregon, he is the 1-B option.

That doesn’t mean he’s incapable of emerging as one of the best backs in the country, however. His ability to burst through seams is uncanny, and his pass-catching ability is well-suited to what the Ducks like to do.

USC TROJANS

New USC head coach Steve Sarkisian favored using a clear No. 1 back in his time at Washington. Chris Polk and Bishop Sankey carried 293 and 327 times respectively in their final seasons as Huskies.

However, USC has a tradition of using multiple running backs, most notably the combination of LenDale White and Reggie Bush from Sarkisian’s days there as an assistant coach. With the implementation of a hurry-up, no-huddle offense, the Trojans will have more opportunities to distribute carries among one of the nation’s top backfields.

Buck Allen

Allen’s late-season emergence was one of the Pac-12’s most prominent story lines. Allen was buried deep on the roster during Kiffin’s tenure, but various injuries and offensive coordinator Clay Helton’s retooling of the offense afforded Allen an opportunity.

Allen does just about everything a coach could want from his No. 1 back. He’s explosive through holes and powerful, able to keep his legs churning to grind out additional yards. He’s also a terrific pass-catcher, stepping up as one of quarterback Cody Kessler’s top targets by season’s end.

His play, integral to USC’s strong finish, was yet another reason Trojans fans lament the end of the Kiffin era.

Allen should flourish in USC’s new offense.

Justin Davis

An ankle injury cut Davis’ promising freshman season short midway through. If he returns at full-strength, he could be the perfect change-of-pace complement to Buck Allen and Tre Madden, both of whom are in more of the power-back mold.

Tre Madden

USC’s No. 1 back for the first half of 2013 was a bright spot in an otherwise dismal start. Madden converted from linebacker to running back, and rushes as one might expect of a player who makes such a transition.

He’s powerful and punishing, able to tack on yards through sheer drive. With Allen settling in as the likely feature back, and with the transfer of Ty Isaac, Madden should fill the Trojans’ needs for a short-yardage ball-carrier.

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