Vanderbilt tight end Steven Scheu is thankful he plays on offense. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder is preparing to enter his redshirt junior season, one that coincides with one of the deepest classes of SEC running backs in recent memory. Scheu isn’t tasked with defending the league’s bevy of talented rushers, but he knows exactly what kind of challenge lies ahead for defenses.
“That’s one thing that’s going to set the SEC apart from everyone else in the nation, the skill at the running back position,” Scheu said at SEC Media Days in July. “I think it’s tremendous, but I’m just glad I don’t have to figure out how to stop those guys.”
Last season was the year of the quarterback in the SEC. Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Zach Mettenberger and Aaron Murray headlined a group of passers that gave the SEC a decidedly offensive flavor. But with most of the conference's proven quarterbacks now in the NFL, its running back depth is poised to define 2014.
Six of the SEC’s top 10 most productive running backs return this season. Of those, at least three -- Georgia’s Todd Gurley, Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon and South Carolina’s Mike Davis -- could be considered preseason Heisman Trophy candidates. But veterans are only one piece of the league’s embarrassment of backfield riches. Highly touted freshmen such as Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd, Georgia’s Sony Michel and Nick Chubb and, most notably, LSU’s Leonard Fournette have many offensive coordinators salivating.
“If the first running back gets tired, you’ve got a second-string running back just as good as the first one,” Tennessee linebacker Curt Maggitt said. “He’s fresh. That’s something like Georgia has. That’s challenging for a defense, and it wears the defense down.”
The Bulldogs, in particular, might boast the deepest crop of rushers in the league. Georgia has Keith Marshall, Michel and Chubb behind Gurley. Last year Georgia absorbed injuries to both Gurley (ankle) and Marshall (knee). A healthy backfield could propel the Bulldogs to the top of the league this fall. “The only running back I’m interested to see is Todd Gurley,” Vanderbilt defensive end Adam Butler said. “Last year when we played Georgia, he was hurt. I didn’t get to play against him, and I was anxious to.”
Other SEC programs could challenge Georgia’s spot atop the backfield hierarchy. After all, Auburn led the league (6.3 yards per play, 328.3 yards per game) in rushing offense last season. Although Heisman finalist Tre Mason is gone, quarterback Nick Marshall and senior running backs Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne return to the Plains. True freshman Roc Thomas could make an impact, too.
Meanwhile, Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and Korliss Marshall form a potent three-headed monster at Arkansas. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake combine to create a similarly dangerous threat at Alabama. Ole Miss’ I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton both return to Oxford after teaming up for nearly 1,100 yards in 2013. Throw a dart at a wall of SEC rosters, and you’ll likely hit a team with an explosive, multifaceted rushing attack.
“You always know in the SEC you’re going up against a great running back,” LSU linebacker D.J. Welter said. “You really have to bring your A-game. They’re going to be in the hole fast, and they won’t be there long. They’ve got that quick first step.”
It’s possible that the SEC’s most talented running back has yet to play a single collegiate down. The hype surrounding Fournette in Baton Rouge builds with each passing day. LSU loses leading rusher Jeremy Hill along with Alfred Blue and J.C. Copeland, and replacing Hill’s production (1,423 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns) will be no small task.
Still, the 6-1, 224-pound Fournette was the top-rated recruit in the nation when he signed with LSU in February. The New Orleans native rushed for more than 7,500 yards and 88 touchdowns during his prep career at St. Augustine (La.) High. It’s customary for coaches and teammates to temper expectations surrounding highly touted freshmen, but that hasn’t been the case for Fournette.
“Leonard Fournette is doing exactly what he should be doing,” coach Les Miles said at SEC Media Days. "I think if you look at Michael Jordan, he could not have been coached to be Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan accepted the role of expecting him to be better than any. I think [Fournette] has a quiet confidence there that will benefit him, and I think we will always have an opportunity to play at that spot the running backs that are fresh.”
Teammate and fellow running back Terrence Magee said he remains in awe of Fournette’s abilities. “I know you guys have seen Adrian Peterson play,” Magee said at SEC Media Days. “Who wouldn’t want to play in the same backfield as that guy? I feel like I’m getting my opportunity to play with a guy that they’ve compared to Adrian Peterson.”
A Heisman Trophy might not be a priority for LSU or Fournette, but the SEC could have the best shot at snapping the award’s recent quarterback-heavy trend. Twelve of the last 13 Heisman winners have been quarterbacks. With players like Manziel and McCarron now suiting up on Sundays, guys like Gurley and Fournette could be poised to make a charge. In fact, the last back to claim the trophy hailed from the SEC: Alabama’s Mark Ingram in 2009.
Above all else, one thing is clear: The recipe for winning the conference in 2014 should include running the football.