Ranking the Pac-12's running back rooms going into 2022 season
Throughout the Pac-12, the 2022 season will be marked by change at the running back spot. Among the league’s 10 leading rushers last season, only three return. And one of those three returners changed his address for the upcoming season. Some teams brought in transfers from the Group of Five level to plug and play, some will be relying on promising youngsters.
All things considered, the league looks to have a good stable of running backs from top to bottom. At the top, there are true superstars. At the lower levels, there’s still intrigue.
We ranked the Pac-12’s likely starters at quarterback last week. This week, we’re taking a look at the conference’s running back rooms.
No. 12: Washington State
Likely No. 1: Nakia Watson
Other notable backs: Djouvensky Schlenbaker, Kannon Katzer, Dylan Paine
We probably know the least about the Washington State group. Nakia Watson, a former Wisconsin Badger, transferred to Washington State last season and served as the team’s No. 3 back. Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh ahead of him both had strong seasons for the Cougars, but Watson struggled to find a groove, averaging 3.2 yards a carry on just 36 attempts. He’s also never been much of a threat out of the backfield, and with Washington State ushering in a new era of the Air Raid in Pullman, it’ll be interesting to see how the backfield adapts. None of the other three backs listed have a collegiate carry to their name, with Schlenbaker a true freshman and mid-year enrollee. Borghi was one of those guys you’d see on the “great talent, insulting recognition” bar graphs; replacing him is quite the task.
No. 11: Stanford
Likely No. 1: EJ Smith
Other notable backs: Casey Filkins, Caleb Robinson, Arlen Harris Jr.
There is a ton to like about EJ Smith. The 6-foot, 213-pound runner was the team’s No. 3 back last season behind Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat. Despite transfers from both of its top two backs, Stanford has some confidence in what it has at the position largely because most seem to think Smith can step into that No. 1 job with ease. He ran for 133 yards on 26 carries last season and caught 14 balls out of the backfield. As a runner and an option in the passing game, Smith certainly has potential. But we’ll have to see it. Stanford had one of the least efficient run games in all of college football last season, and the depth behind Smith is questionable given the experience level.
No. 10: Arizona
Likely No. 1: Michael Wiley
Other notable backs: Jonah Coleman, Drake Anderson, Rayshon Luke
Wiley led the team in carries last season (92), but Anderson led the way in yardage (383 from 86 attempts). Coleman and Luke are freshmen, but they both look spry. The former is a 5-foot-9 mid-year enrollee who turned in a wonderful spring period. The latter is a former 4-star recruit and All-American Bowl MVP. Coleman and Luke can both factor into the passing game as options out of the backfield or flexed around. Luke has fantastic speed. Wiley provides a good deal of consistency as an experienced veteran.
No. 9: Colorado
Likely No. 1: Alex Fontenot
Other notable backs: Deion Smith, Jayle Stacks, Victor Venn, Anthony Hankerson
This group lost Jarek Broussard to transfer, then added Ramon Jefferson to fill the void, then lost Jefferson before he ever arrived. Jefferson was expected to compete with Fontenot for the starting job; now it seems all but assured the 6-foot, 200-pound senior will be the team’s top-line rusher once again. In 2019, Fontenot served as the No. 1 option out of the backfield, rushing for 874 yards and five scores on 185 carries. He topped 100 yards three times that season. Smith carried the ball 53 times last season for 192 yards and two scores. Venn and Hankerson are both freshmen. According to BuffZone’s Brian Howell, CU was expected to delay Hankerson’s enrollment until January 2023, but with Jefferson’s decommitment from the team, they’ll look to bring him in now.
No. 8: California
Likely No. 1: Damien Moore
Other notable backs: DeCarlos Brooks, Jaydn Ott
The 5-foot-10 Moore is a lock to be the Golden Bears’ starter when they open the season. Behind him, Cal looks like it’ll have a more-than-competent three-man rotation with Brooks and Ott—a freshman who enrolled early and took part in spring ball. Moore had 515 yards and six rushing scores last season while averaging north of 5 yards a carry. He’s also a quality option in pass-pro. The issue that needs ironing out is his fumbling. Moore lost three last season, and as the featured guy in a run-first attack, that’ll need to change. Brooks looked good in limited action and Ott enters as one of the highest-rated signees Cal has had at the position in the 247Sports era.
No. 7: Washington
Likely No. 1: Aaron Dumas
Other notable backs: Jay’Veon Sunday, Cameron Davis, Wayne Taulapapa, Will Nixon, Richard Newton
Dumas ran for 647 yards and two touchdowns with New Mexico last season. He averaged 4.8 yards a carry and forced 32 missed tackles. If we’re penciling in likely starters after a spring period that saw Davis and Newton sit out, Dumas feels like the safest bet. Things could change when Taulapapa, the Virginia transfer, or Nixon (hybrid wideout/back from Nebraska) arrive but that’s how I’d put things now. Behind Dumas, Washington just has so many scholarship options it’s hard to think at least one or two guys won’t rise up and be serviceable rotation pieces on Saturdays. Sunday had a strong spring. Davis had his moments last fall.
No. 6: Arizona State
Likely No. 1: Xazavian Valladay
Other notable backs: Daniyel Ngata, George Hart III, Tevin White
Out goes Rachaad White and his 1,006 yards and his 15 touchdowns and his 5.5 yards-per-carry clip, in comes Valladay and his 1,070 yards and his 5.1 yards-per-carry clip. The 6-foot senior transfer from Wyoming should step in right away as the leading man in the Sun Devils’ backfield and that helps everything else to make sense. Ngata has promise, he worked as one of the top guys during the spring. Hart is a vet in the room. White is a 4-star freshman who can ease his way into things. Valladay should carry the load when healthy. He’s a powerful and explosive runner, and I’m expecting his production from Wyoming to immediately translate.
No. 5: Oregon State
Likely No. 1: Deshaun Fenwick
Other notable backs: Damien Martinez, Jamious Griffin, Trey Lowe
The three-back rotation in 2021 produced 2,143 yards. Each of the three guys—BJ Baylor, Fenwick, and Lowe—averaged at least 5.7 yards a carry. Behind the offensive line Oregon State had and projects to have once again next season, even just competent looks good. The Beavers should have another three-back rotation again in 2022, and the options are promising. Fenwick feels like the likely next man up after rushing for 448 yards and four scores on just 78 attempts last season. At 6-foot-2, 231 pounds, and with four years of experience in college strength programs, he’s a tough back to handle. He forced 20 missed tackles and had nearly half his yardage come after contact. Martinez, the true freshman, is a similarly well-built back behind him who had a really strong spring period. The Beavers also have Lowe, who ran for 359 yards and 10 explosive plays on just 56 carries last season, and Georgia Tech transfer Griffin. Plenty to like in this backfield.
No. 4: Oregon
Likely No. 1: Byron Cardwell
Other notable backs: Sean Dollars, Noah Whittington, Mar’Keise Irving
Even after losing Travis Dye to USC and CJ Verdell to the NFL, Oregon’s running back room looks stocked pretty deep with talent. Cardwell looks destined to be the next big thing in the Oregon backfield. He has size and skill set of an upper-echelon tailback, physically well-built with good hands out of the backfield and the speed to hit home run plays when they present themselves. The California native ran for 417 yards and three scores as a true freshman last season. To round out the room, Oregon brought in the best back on Western Kentucky’s roster last season (Whittington) and the best back who saw the field for Minnesota after Mo Ibrahim went down with injury (Irving). Whittington had 619 yards on 102 carries, with a near-20% explosive run rate. Irving had 699 yards and four scores on 133 carries, with 36 missed tackles forced. The Ducks also have Dollars, who received some run during the spring and looked promising in the team’s spring game.
No. 3: UCLA
Likely No. 1: Zach Charbonnet
Other notable backs: Deshun Murrell, Keegan Jones, Tomarion Harden
The Bruins have the best back in the conference in Charbonnet. So why No. 3? Replacing Brittain Brown is a serious task, and the depth behind Charbonnet is very unproven. Murrell didn’t receive a carry as a freshman last season. Jones has seen action in 18 games during his three seasons in Westwood, but most of that work has been on special teams; he has just 41 rushing attempts in three years and a 3.4 yards-per-carry clip. Harden is a 2022 mid-year enrollee. Brown carried the ball 102 times for 615 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Who is stepping into that role? That’s the big question, but contextually that’s not the worst problem to have. Charbonnet can and should be the bell cow, and maybe he takes a few more carries a game while UCLA tries to solidify the No. 2 spot, but we’re talking about the No. 2 spot here at the end of the day.
No. 2: USC
Likely No. 1: Travis Dye
Other notable backs: Austin Jones, Darwin Barlow, Raleek Brown
It’s easy to get lost in all the passing game goodness with USC and forget about the 5-foot-10 Dye. In the former Oregon Duck, you have a player who fits perfectly into Lincoln Riley’s offense. When the super senior committed to play his final season in Los Angeles, it was a major win for Riley’s first team, his offense, and his locker room. Dye has played for championships. He’s a voice the entire room will either listen to and benefit from or ignore and struggle to see the field. Dye finished second last season in the league in rushing with 1,271 yards on the ground and first in all-purpose yardage with 1,673. He’s a problem in space and a weapon as a pass-catcher. Beyond him, though, USC has proven talent and promise (If you were wondering why the Trojans are above the Bruins, UCLA’s No. 1 is better, USC’s room is deeper). Jones has 278 career rushing attempts and USC’s coaches seemed to like what they saw from him during spring ball. Barlow had 289 yards as a first-year Trojan last season, and ran for 527 yards on 95 carries in two seasons prior with TCU. Brown was one of the best running back prospects in the 2022 class, another true move-him-all-over kind of back. A four-man room is a little short on depth, though, and if there’s one thing this group is lacking is a bigger-bodied, short-yardage runner.
No. 1: Utah
Likely No. 1: Tavion Thomas
Other notable backs: Micah Bernard, Jaylon Glover
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better running back room in college football. Would, what, 90% of FBS coaches trade for these top three guys? Thomas and Bernard are holdovers from last season. Thomas led all Power Five players in rushing touchdowns with 21, an absurd mark for a player in his first year with an offense and spending his time in a three-man rotation. Bernard had the fourth-highest PFF grade last season among returning qualified backs. He also forced 33 missed tackles in 87 rushing attempts and averaged the second-most yards per carry after contact… behind his former teammate TJ Pledger. Pledger is off to the NFL, and his spot in the three-man rotation probably goes to Glover, the true freshman who had a strong spring ball. There are backs for every occasion. The 6-foot-2 Thomas is a thumper. Bernard can make highlight-reel catches as a wide receiver. Glover was a nightmare to try and bring down at the high school level—quick, compact, and balanced.