Football

Big 12 RBs: Looking at the top ten returning rushers in conference

Keaontay Ingram (Will Gallagher/IT)
Keaontay Ingram (Will Gallagher/IT)

In the Big 12, where several of the offenses are pass-first, the run game can sometimes fall by the wayside.

That is somewhat reflected in the number of passers and rushers reaching major yardage landmarks in 2018. Last season, the Big 12 had only four running backs (plus QB Kyler Murray) break the 1000-yard barrier. The ACC had seven teams, the Big 10 had nine, the SEC had seven (plus QB Nick Fitzgerald), and the Pac-12 had eight.

In comparison, the Big 12 had five 3000-yard passers, the same amount as the Pac-12 and as many as the ACC and Big 10 combined. The SEC, with four more teams in the conference, had one more break the 3000-yard barrier.

The Big 12 places a huge emphasis on passing thanks to the style of offense that permeates through the league, however the run game is still an important part of the game of football and those offenses. Even Air Raid coaches in conference, with the forward pass an intrinsic part of the name of their offense, know the value of a complimentary run game.

With that in mind, it’s worth taking a look in the offseason at the top returning rushers in the Big 12 by production.

1. Pooka Williams – Kansas
161 car, 1125 yds, 7.0 ypc, 7 TDs

It’s hard to do a lot right to win football games at Kansas these days, but when former KU head coach David Beatty hired Tony Hull it brought on a recruiter with strong connections to Louisiana. Hull leveraged those connections to bring in Pooka Williams, who after just one season is the Big 12’s leading returning rusher.

Williams began his Jayhawk career with 125+ yard games against Central Michigan and Rutgers. Once conference play began, so too did the Jayhawks’s losing ways and William’s production tapered off. However, Williams still presented a threat in multiple aspects of the game. He caught passes out of the backfield and returned kicks.

In Kansas’ eight losses, Williams eclipsed 100 combined rushing and receiving yards six times. His best performance was against a notoriously bad Oklahoma defense. He rushed for 252 yards at 16.8(!!!) yards per carry, and even added a passing touchdown in a loss to the Sooners. That performance caught the attention of Texas’ coaches, who designed a package with Anthony Cook at LB in order to corral Williams.

The Longhorns did for the most part, save for one 57-yard touchdown where Williams bounced outside and found daylight.

At 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, Williams is an elusive player who succeeds in space as opposed to between the tackles, but that could be a symptom of the talent level at Kansas over other factors. When he gets in space, he looks like Kyler Murray running the football. For both, give them a pocket of space to get up to speed, and they are up to speed.

Williams could be the most exciting returning rusher in the Big 12 in addition to his title of the leading returning rusher. However, his status for 2019 remains up in the air. In December 2018, Williams was arrested on suspicion of domestic battery. Per Kansas247, Williams didn’t participate in spring practices, and Kansas head coach Les Miles didn’t provide an update when asked about it on the late April Big 12 Coaches Teleconference.

If he returns to the field, how new Kansas offensive coordinator Les Koenning utilizes him remains up in the air. Hull remained on Miles’ staff, but Koenning’s recent work as offensive coordinator at Southern Miss was anything but consistent. For the next couple of seasons, he may be the necessary cog for Miles to have success – IF he sees the field.

2. Kennedy Brooks – Oklahoma
119 car, 1056 yds, 8.9 ypc, 12 TDs

Brooks was the fourth highest rated running back in Texas in the 2017 composite rankings, but he found a fit that has likely helped his production eclipse that of those ahead of him. He’s got some help with the fact that Toneil Carter has already transferred from his original institution.

Despite there being questions about how Oklahoma’s offense will look after losing four linemen and a Heisman trophy winning QB to the NFL, it’s still going to be good. It’s a very safe assumption under Lincoln Riley.

After redshirting in 2017, Brooks took his spot in the primary Sooner RB rotation in the back half of the season after injuries to TJ Pledger and Rodney Anderson. Brooks found success the way most OU rushers do: getting up to speed behind massive blockers paving through defenders who are already too late to make an impact by the time they have made a decision as to what portion of the Oklahoma offense to defend.

Trey Sermon, Brandon Jones (Will Gallagher/IT)
Trey Sermon, Brandon Jones (Will Gallagher/IT)

The Sooners’ RB room will be strong this year, with Pledger likely returning from injury, and Brooks’ being the 1B to Trey Sermon’s 1A.

3. Trey Sermon – Oklahoma
164 car, 947 yds, 5.8 ypc, 13 TDs

If it weren’t for injury, Sermon and Brooks might be flipped.

Sermon played in every game last season, but his usage and production varied, especially toward the back end of the season following an injury against Kansas. He rushed for 498 yards in the four games prior, and looked to be hitting his stride.

How Sermon returns from another banged-up season to be the power option at running back is interesting to watch, especially when Jalen Hurts somewhat profiles to Sermon’s style of running. Hurts’ presence and ability to run himself, especially between the tackles and in the read game, may mean fewer chances for Sermon to get banged up due to his physical running style.

In a complete RB room, you need a short yardage guy. The combination of Hurts and Sermon should be one of the strongest ‘pick your poisons’ in the nation, but facing the Oklahoma offense is facing a plethora of poisons.

The one area of Sermon’s game that is lacking compared to his Sooner teammates is his receiving out of the backfield. He never had more than four receptions in any game last season and had zero in seven.

4. Kennedy McKoy – West Virginia
145 cars, 802 yds, 5.5 ypc, 8 TDs

Despite former West Virginia HC Dana Holgorsen’s association with the Air Raid, he ran a very balanced offense. In 2018 WVU ran the ball 425 times while throwing 445 times. Over the course of 12 games, that’s practically a 50/50 split.

New WVU HC Neal Brown’s run-to-pass ratio on his way to his third straight 10-win season at Troy? 484 to 372, good for a 57/43 split. Brown had a 1000-yard rusher in three of the last four seasons.

Ian Boyd describes Brown’s offensive philosophy as that of a hybrid bro: “He runs the Air Raid but they put more emphasis on the run game than some and he puts a program-wide emphasis on defense and special teams.”

Brown taking over at WVU isn’t a radical change of philosophy, especially compared to if Brown took over for other Big 12 Raid Bros. As a result, WVU’s run game should see some additional emphasis, and McKoy should be the beneficiary.

McKoy increased his production in every category in his junior season, and lead the Mountaineer’s three-pronged attack of him, Martell Pettaway, and Leddie Brown. He has typical Big 12 RB size at 6-foot-0, 200 pounds and is decisive in his running.

He also tacked on 224 yards out of the backfield, and outside of the bowl loss to Syracuse, was a versatile threat for the Mountaineer offense.

McKoy and the other RBs in Morgantown should see additional carries based on the emphasis Brown places on the run game. It might have to be that way considering Will Grier, David Sills, and Gary Jennings are gone.

5. Chuba Hubbard – Oklahoma State
124 car, 740 yds, 6.0 ypc, 7 TDs

Hubbard constantly finds himself in the second level at the “uh oh, he’s about to bust this one open” spot on the field like Murray and Pooka. He and NFL-bound Justice Hill provided one of the best one-two punches in the league last season.

There’s no reason to think Hubbard will fall off in his redshirt sophomore year. OSU may throw the ball more than they did when Taylor Cornelius was at the helm, but that should still open up things for Hubbard.

More from Ian Boyd: “Insane first step, former track star whose speed translates at 205 pounds or whatever he’s at. He’s probably the best behind Pooka and may be better.”

The Cowboys added a new offensive coordinator from Princeton this offseason, but Mike Gundy still runs the show. He values the run game, and with someone like Hubbard, he’ll continue to.

Hubbard is in an offense with a 2018 run-to-pass ratio of 59/41, and as the heir apparent, he is a strong candidate to eclipse the 1000-yard barrier in 2019.

Even with Hill, Hubbard surged in the last portion of the season. He had 80 yards in four of the final six games, and had at least three receptions in four of the last seven.

He might be the best athlete in the league at running back, and with the spotlight all on him, he should be near the top of next year’s edition of this article.

6. Keaontay Ingram – Texas
142 cars, 708 yds, 5.0 ypc, 3 TDs

The player this site is almost assuredly most familiar with, Ingram was rated as the composite top RB in Texas in the Class of 2018.

Ingram’s best aspect is his fluidity and his all-around acumen. He’s been running behind a zone scheme for years dating back to his days at Carthage, and his experience there only benefited his acclimation to playing at Texas.

Fans likely thought that the coaches gave him too long of an acclimation period, especially in the aftermath of the first couple games of the season. However, the coaches seemed to have been proven right when after just 16 carries in his first two games, Ingram had to miss the third game of the season against USC.

Ingram was never given workhorse carries thanks to the luxury of grad transfer Tre Watson and QB Sam Ehlinger’s running ability. The hope heading into this offseason for Texas was that Ingram would bulk up to the 220 pound range in order to keep his agility while being able to withstand the hits that resulted in several of his first-year bumps and bruises.

The days of the every-down feature back are dwindling, but in the age of the HUNH spread, RBs still need to be able to do everything. Ingram was solid for a freshman in pass-pro, but for a team with conference title (and as a result, playoff aspirations), he needs to be able to stay on the field for all three downs if necessary.

As the most likely starter, Ingram will get a chance to improve on his 708-yard season. He will also be running behind a line replacing several starters but not lacking experience, especially on the left side. Add in the dual-threat nature of his QB, and its likely Ingram can add to his 5.0 ypc, three TD freshman campaign.

7. Sewo Olonilua – TCU
135 car, 635 yds, 4.7 ypc, 2 TDs

TBD pending legal issues (felony drug charges)

8. Martell Pettaway – West Virginia
98 car, 623 yds, 6.4 ypc, 6 TDs

Everything West Virginia used against Texas on offense in 2018 worked. Even without a 55 yard TD run, Pettaway averaged 8.25 ypc against Texas. With it? A whopping 13.4.

Pettaway paced the Mountaineers in a game where they rushed for 7.03 ypc against the Longhorns. Sure, Will Grier had big game with big plays and a game-winning 2 point conversion, but the damage was done on the ground by Pettaway.

As mentioned earlier, the additional emphasis Neal Brown places on the run should boost the stats of all the members of the Mountaineer stable.

9. Darius Anderson – TCU
124 car, 598 yds, 4.8 ypc, 3 TDs

There wasn’t a ton of good things to be said about the TCU offense in 2018. Going through quarterbacks like Sparky Anderson (no relation) went through relievers, TCU couldn’t get going once the wheels fell off of the offense after the Ohio State game.

From the Texas loss in mid-September on, TCU scored more than 20 points three times; in a 52-27 loss to Oklahoma, in a 27-26 loss at Kansas, and in a 31-24 win over Oklahoma State to secure bowl eligibility.

Darius Anderson (Will Gallagher/IT)
Darius Anderson (Will Gallagher/IT)

Like the rest of the offense, Anderson’s numbers took a step back after a solid 2017. In one additional game, Anderson had fewer attempts, yards, touchdowns… fewer everything across major categories.

He still has home run ability at 5-foot-11, 212 pounds as evidenced in the game against Ohio State. However, the Buckeyes were 76th in rush defense S&P+ and 52nd in defensive FEI. Rush defense was not The Ohio State University’s strength, and that game proved to be Anderson’s only outing with more than 100 yards and more than one touchdown.

With Olonilua’s status up in the legal air, Anderson is almost guaranteed to be the starter. He’ll have some talent including Darwin Barlow behind him, but the job should be his.

Anderson is a solid back who can do a lot of damage in a game but the rest of his offense needs to help him out more than it did in his third year. He’s got one more opportunity, but there are more questions than answers surrounding the TCU offense at this point.

10. John Lovett – Baylor
109 car, 573 yds, 5.3 ypc, 6 TDs

Baylor was another Big 12 team with a balanced run/pass ratio. With Charlie Brewer at the helm and ancillaries like Jalen Hurd, Denzel Mims, and JaMycal Hasty, Baylor was good but not great on offense.

Only one Bear rushed for more than 500 yards over the course of the season, and it wasn’t Hasty or even Trestan Ebner. It was Lovett.

Lovett’s sophomore year looked pretty similar to his freshman year, he just had one additional game in 2018. He had a couple of highlight plays, including a long run against Oklahoma State. He must have impressed his teammates in the offseason prior, as they decided he should don a single digit jersey number, a high honor in Matt Rhule’s program.

Rhule expects a lot out of Lovett, possibly even on both sides of the ball. Rhule let Lovett work some at safety this offseason but didn’t close the door on him returning to the offensive backfield.

If Lovett sticks in the secondary, or just simply sees his rushing totals go down by splitting duties, more of the burden falls on Ebner, Hasty, and Brewer (who if you didn’t know didn’t receive a scholarship offer from Texas).

Ebner was third on the team in rushing behind Hasty and Lovett, however he brought a dimension out of the backfield the other two couldn’t provide. Ebner had 12 yards per reception in addition to six yards per carry. He ended up third behind Hurd and Mims in yards from scrimmage.

Hasty also received the honor of a single digit jersey number.

Overall, the Bears have several options at RB. Many are unproven, but if Baylor continues on a positive program trajectory, the Baylor RBs could see their production follow that same line.

A couple of first-year players to follow

Jordan Whittington – Texas
Read this.

Rhamondre Stevenson – Oklahoma
From Ian’s look at the OU class: “Stevenson is a pretty good athlete who also happens to be 235 pounds, which is a lethal combination. When he can get some momentum going he’s an absolute wrecking ball and he’s fluid and quick enough to help himself find space, the OU OL and scheme should be able to do the rest. The Sooner situation must have looked pretty good, he has a chance at 150 or so carries if there’s an injury and then a shot to be “the guy” in 2020.”