GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) The Southeastern Conference has a talented pack of big backs.
The league that has produced countless sizable runners – Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson and Shaun Alexander for starters – has a number of them punishing opponents this season.
And it’s not just yards and touchdowns that make these guys stand out. Looking at heights and weights, this crop just might be special.
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”It’s no different than when you’re buying a boxing ticket,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. ”Do you buy it to go see the featherweights fight or the heavyweights? The heavyweights.”
Suspended Georgia star Todd Gurley, a 6-foot-1, 226-pound junior who leads the SEC at 155 yards rushing a game, is the class of the field. But there are plenty of other big backs making an impact in the league this season, including Gurley’s backup, freshman Nick Chubb. The 5-10, 228-pound Chubb has three consecutive games with at least 140 yards on the ground.
Much like the Bulldogs, Alabama, Arkansas, LSU and South Carolina have two big backs sharing carries.
Derrick Henry, a 6-3, 241-pound sophomore, and T.J. Yeldon, a 6-2, 221-pound junior, have combined for 1,148 yards and nine touchdowns for the Tide.
Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams have been even better for the Razorbacks. The 6-foot, 225-pound Williams ranks third in the league with 877 yards rushing and 10 scores, one spot ahead of his teammate. The 5-foot-11, 215-pound Collins has 840 yards and 10 TDs.
Leonard Fournette, a 6-1, 230-pound, highly touted freshman, and Kenny Hilliard, a 6-foot, 232-pound senior, have helped LSU get back in the SEC West race by winning three consecutive games. Throw in 5-9, 217-pound senior Terrence Magee, and the Tigers have a nearly 700-pound rotation in the backfield.
South Carolina’s duo Mike Davis (5-9, 223) and Brandon Wilds (6-2, 222) have combined for 1,264 yards and 11 scores.
”It’s almost becoming normal with each team having these kind of backs,” South Carolina defensive tackle J.T. Surratt said. ”So we’re just going to do what we’ve got to do to prepare for them.”
The SEC has a storied list of bulky backs, including Heisman Trophy winners Billy Cannon (LSU, 1959), Walker (Georgia, 1982), Jackson (Auburn, 1985) and even Mark Ingram (Alabama, 2009). Alabama’s Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy, Auburn’s Ben Tate, South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore, Mississippi State’s Vick Ballard and Anthony Dixon also were a load to handle in college.
”Watching from afar, I always thought the SEC had big backs,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. ”You see very few small backs in this conference. With that being the case, they’re here to stay. They’re not going anywhere.”
True, but some SEC teams have experimented with smaller backs, believing faster, shiftier guys could get the edge in spread offenses that are designed to run more outside than between the tackles.
It’s hardly the case any longer, with SEC teams more willing to spread defenses out and try to pound them up the middle.
”If you take a 6-2, 230-pounder that’s got good speed as opposed to a 5-9, 175-pounder in our league, in my experience, those guys have a hard time sustaining throughout the entire season to take some of the hits they’re going to be taking,” Muschamp said. ”And certainly having a bigger back who has the top-end speed to finish down the field is critical.”
Muschamp relies on 230-pound back Matt Jones to wear down defenses, saying the junior seems heavier and becomes tougher to tackle as games continue.
”They might be ready to tackle you the first, second quarters, but third and fourth quarter they get tired and are like, `Oh, here he comes again and I’ve got to keep on tackling him,”’ Jones said. ”People get tired of tackling you.”
The running back position has been relatively devalued in the NFL, with the league becoming more passing oriented. Quarterbacks have become more pivotal in the SEC, too, evidenced by the recent success of Heisman winners Johnny Manziel (2012), Cam Newton (2010) and Tim Tebow (2007).
Auburn’s Nick Marshall and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, both running quarterbacks, are widely considered in the mix for college football’s most prestigious award this season.
But neither probably would be as successful without their running mates, Cameron Artis-Payne at Auburn and Josh Robinson at Mississippi State. They rank first and second, respectively, in the league in rushing. The 210-pound Artis-Payne has 974 yards and seven TDs, while the 215-pound Robinson has 951 yards and 11 scores.
They are at the top of the SEC’s big-back attack.
”They’re just all-around freak athletes, and if you can get a guy that big who can move like that, why wouldn’t you,” LSU fullback Connor Neighbors said.
AP Sports Writers David Brandt in Starkville, Mississippi; Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, South Carolina; Brett Martel in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee; Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tennessee; and John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama; contributed to this report.