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June 30, 2013

Big 12 Fantasy Rankings: Running Backs

MORE RRS: Houston-area LB has Texas Tech on top | Red Raiders offer East Texas CB

For many years in Fantasy Land, securing a stable of talented running backs was looked upon as the first and most essential step to a league title. It's still an integral part of any fantasy gameplan, but whether you're playing college or NFL fantasy football, you may have noticed the stranglehold that RB's used to have atop the draft board eroding. This trend is happening in large part because of the time shares we see at the NFL and college level. More running backs are splitting carries than ever before in an effort to avoid injury and the tolls a full workload can take on a back's body. Plus, it seems the depth of running back talent has increased over the years and most college and pro backfields have numerous capable options. This will knock some studs like Texas' Johnathan Gray down a slot or two and in the case of Iowa State, there's not enough separation between their five options to place any one back in our top ten -- although, I'm intrigued by Aaron Wimberly.

With that in mind, let's look closely at what the Big 12 running backs are projected to do in 2013. I've broken down the league's premier rushers into four tiers and then an additional section that features newcomers, players still locked in camp battles and other backs with upside but question marks as well.

In addition to the workload factor mentioned above, we also need to take into account the strength of the running back's offensive line, redzone chances and health concerns. Please understand that this is not a ranking of who the best backs in the Big 12 are, but rather how they stack up based on fantasy projections. Also note that players listed in the same tier are close to interchangeable in value -- in this case, there's not a huge difference between the No. 2 back and the No. 7 back. In fact, as you'll read below, No. 7 in the Big 12's top returning rusher.

Scoring Format Used:

6 points for every rushing or receiving touchdowns
1 point for every 10 rushing or receiving yards

This is not a PPR (point per reception) format, but if it was, backs like Charles Sims would have even more value.

Big 12 Fantasy Football Power Rankings - RUNNING BACK - TIER 1
The Big 12 Offensive Newcomer of the year was an absolute beast in the second half of 2012. Lache Seastrunk averaged almost 140 rushing yards and a touchdown per game in the final six contests of the year -- including 185 yards in an upset of top-ranked Kansas State -- and then proclaimed in December that he planned on winning the 2013 Heisman Trophy. Vegas thinks he's got a 20-1 shot at taking home that hardware, but regardless of whether or not he gets an invite to New York City as a Heisman finalist, he has the only invitation to the top tier of the Big 12's Fantasy Football RB rankings.

2012 stats: Rushing - 131 att., 1,012 yards, 7 TD; Receiving - 9 rec., 107 yards TD

Pros: He's the B.M.O.C. of Big 12 backs, and would be the league's top returning rusher had he gained one more yard -- Kansas' James Sims had 1,013 yards in 2012. He is the focal point of a Baylor offense that is expected to post some huge totals and he's got as much motivation as anybody after setting the loftiest of goals for himself. The Oregon transfer will feast on some cream puffs early in the schedule which should lead to big fantasy stats and some early justification for his self-created Heisman hype.

Cons: The Baylor offensive line has a couple of holes to fill and lost starting right tackle Troy Baker to an ACL injury in the spring. It's still an impressive unit though. Glasco Martin will get a steady diet of carries as well, but not enough to push Lache off the top spot in the Big 12 pecking order. The self-induced pressure to perform could weigh on him if any struggles set in, but even his Big 12 schedule is backloaded, so big numbers should be expected every week through October.

Expert's take: "Besides his sprinter's speed, he has a very quick burst at the line of scrimmage that gives him separation. He can also cut at full speed to avoid defenders. He relishes the big game and bright lights. He is very confident in his abilities which carries over with his teammates."
- John Morris, play-by-play voice of the Baylor Bears
Big 12 Fantasy Football Power Rankings - RUNNING BACK - TIER 2 
Is John Hubert the second-most talented back in the Big 12? No, not at all. But again, we're talking fantasy here and there's a lot to love about Hubert's situation at K-State. Either one of the Sims backs below could leap frog him on this spot, but if drafting today, it's hard to pass on a guy that scored 15 times a year ago, has his entire offensive line back and no real threat to steal critical carries away. It may not be the sexiest pick, but it's a safe bet with nice upside.

2012 stats: Rushing - 189 att., 947 yards, 15 TD; Receiving - 18 rec., 98 yards, TD

Pros: He should be one of the top touchdown producers in the league. Collin Klein got Hubert into the redzone plenty of times in 2012, but also claimed 23 of the paydirt trips. If Daniel Sams wins the quarterback job, he'll hog plenty of the goal line touches too, but not as many as Klein did. Hubert will be running behind one of the best offensive lines in the league and all five offensive line starters are back from a year ago. Unlike Charles Sims, Damien Williams and Johnathan Gray, Hubert doesn't have much competition in his own backfield to share time with. He looks poised for his first 1,000 yard season with plenty of scoring chances as well.

Cons: If the transition at quarterback to Sams or Jake Waters doesn't go as smoothly as predicted, Hubert's numbers could suffer a bit. Historically, he hasn't proven to be much of a threat to catch passes out of the backfield -- 18 receptions in 13 games last year. His non-conference schedule certainly isn't difficult, but it has more teeth than initially meets the eye with North Dakota State having won the last two FCS titles and UL-Lafayette being a bowl team.

Expert's take: "From a fantasy football standpoint, he's going to rack up big stats -- especially early in the year when they're trying to figure out life after Collin Klein. He's a really smart runner. He's not big, he's not overly fast, he's just very efficient in what he does. He's great a finding space, especially around the goal line.

"In this conference of so many big time throwing quarterbacks, K-State runs the ball significantly more than most and he is THE guy in the backfield, none of his backups are proven so I expect expanded stats over what he did last year."
- Tim Fitzgerald, publisher of GoPowercat.com
See the upward arrow next to Charles Sims name? He could easily check in at No. 2 on this list and push Seastrunk as well -- especially when you factor in his receiving yards. The former Houston star is a transfer and play immediately addition to an already crowded backfield in Morgantown. I like Dreamius Smith's upside and we've seen plenty of what Andrew Buie (Holy Bevo, what a game in Austin!) and Dustin Garrison are capable of, but Sims is the back to own here. He reunites with Dana Holgorsen and the WVU coaches are already burning through packs of chalk drawing up creative ways to get the ball in his hands. Sims caught 70 balls out of the backfield in Holgorsen's last year in Houston.

2012 stats: Rushing - 142 att., 851 yards, 11 TD; Receiving - 37 rec., 373 yards, 3 TD (Houston)

Pros: He's a consensus top five senior running back nationally. He's reunited with a coach that knows just how high his ceiling is and wants to get him there. His ability to make plays catching balls out of the backfield should be utilized considerably with the Mountaineers. Oh yeah, and the NFL scouts drool over him too.

Cons: There are several other capable backs that will steal plenty of carries, and the WVU offensive line has had undergone some changes due to graduation and injury. In Holgorsen's system, Sims could be used more in the passing game than as a traditional runner, will that lead to enough rushing yards in addition to the receiving stats?

Expert's take: "The thing that excites you about Sims is that he had his most productive season at Houston when Holgorsen was there. He can really catch the ball out of the backfield and they ran special plays for him to do that at Houston and I think you'll see West Virginia do similar things. He may be used even more as a pass catcher out of the backfield than a traditional running back."
- Tony Caridi, play-by-play voice of the Mountaineers
Some would rank Jeremy Smith a spot higher based on a 6.2 yard per carry career average and the hype that comes with being the lead back in Oklahoma State's high scoring attack. I'm a bit more conservative in my expectations for Joseph Randle's former sidekick. I still need to see him avoid the nagging injuries that have plagued him in the past and prove capable of a full workload for all 12 games.

2012 stats: Rushing - 70 att., 371 yards, 8 TD; Receiving - 3 rec., 32 yards

Pros: Smith has shown plenty of flashes that he's ready for a big time role -- particularly in 2011 when he averaged over seven yards a carry and scored nine times. He's got the system and plenty of ability going for him and could easily be an All-Big 12 back in 2013. If he plays a full season, it's not unreasonable to expect a touchdown per game average and over 1,000 yards.

Cons: Durability is the primary concern and he's never posted many receiving stats, although he could be due for an uptick there with Randle gone. The offensive line lost a couple of starters including All-Big 12 pick Lane Taylor, but should be more than solid in 2013.

Expert's take: "Jeremy would have started on a lot of Big 12 teams the past couple of years. At OSU he was used a lot in goal-line situations and redzone. He has deceptive speed, certainly more than he gets credit for.

"He hasn't been seriously injured, but has had the nagging injuries that make you wonder can he handle the full workload over an entire season. There's a big misconception about OSU football that as much as they like to air it out, they don't run as much, but as Joseph Randle proved, they can certainly have a potent ground attack. If he can stay healthy, I think he can definitely be a 1,000 yard back."
- Gina Mizell, Oklahoma State beat writer for The Oklahoman
The two Bedlam backs could easily be 4A and 4B and again, everyone in this tier is basically interchangeable. I think the All-Big 12 second team RB will likely be right back on that second team again in 2013, only this time eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark while posting comparable touchdown numbers. He does have a better crop of backfield mates around him though, that could certainly vulture some time and touchdowns.

2012 stats: Rushing - 176 att., 946 yards, 11 TD; Receiving - 34 rec., 320 yards TD

Pros: Despite losing left tackle Lane Johnson, the OU offensive line should be a big strength in 2013 with everyone else back including All-Big 12 pick Gabe Ikard. Plus, with Williams, you get some productivity as a pass catcher in addition to rushing points. He had four 100-yard rushing games last year and that figures to repeat or even improve in 2013.

Cons: Fellow rusher Brennan Clay will steal away some touchdowns, as will quarterback Blake Bell. The Sooners also has the top rookie running back in the league and in the minds of some, the best freshman in the conference in Keith Ford. Plus, we can't forget about Alex Ross either, another heavily touted prep star who redshirted last year. It's tough to tell as we sit here in June just what impact those gifted rookies will have and thus, how much of a dent they put in Williams workload.

Expert's take: "Running back is the strongest position on the team, and it'll be interesting to see how they divide the carries. I think Williams will get in the 15-20 carry range. They really like his one-cut ability and his ability to break big runs. Keep an eye on Ford and Ross though and expect 7-10 carries a game from Brennan Clay."
- Jake Trotter, ESPN.com
Johnathan Gray oozes upside, and the potential of potent fantasy numbers, but when you're sharing as many carries as he figures to at Texas -- at least entering the season -- it's hard to place him much higher than this spot. Personally, I think he has a breakout, 1,000 yard season with way more than the three touchdowns he posted a year ago. I think he noticeably pulls away from Malcom Brown and Joe Bergeron this year. Major Applewhite promises all three will have a key role though, and knowing what a touchdown vulture Bergeron can be, that's just enough to curb my enthusiasm a bit.

2012 stats: Rushing - 149 att., 701 yards, 3 TD; Receiving - 11 rec., 151 yards, TD

Pros: Gray was the top ranked running back recruit nationally in 2012 for good reason; he's an absolute stud. He led the team in rushing as a freshman (701 yards) and I think he could easily add 300-400 more yards to that total in 2013 behind an improved offensive line that returns all five starters.

Cons: Bergeron won't command 16 endzone trips this season, but at least half of those need to go to Gray if he wants to climb the list of elite Big 12 fantasy backs. I'd also like to see him provide a little more in the receiving stat categories if he wants to jump into the top three.

Expert's take: "I don't think there's a more important player on the entire team than Jonathan Gray. The way I see him making plays in practice, and spring ball, I think he should be their identity. He'll be a big, big part of what they do.

"Whatever the total carries will be, you've got to give him half of them… and then split the other carries with Brown and Bergeron - I just don't know if their going to go that far."
- Chad Hastings, radio host for ESPN Austin
James Sims posting a 1,000 yard season despite missing the first three games (suspension) was certainly head-turning in 2012. In light of that, there are some publications that see Sims as a preseason All-Big 12 pick right behind Seastrunk. I think he's put himself in position to have a very productive senior year and is a strong second tier fantasy back, but there are a couple of detractors to his value that knock him down a bit on my list.

2012 stats: Rushing - 218 att., 1,013 yards, 9 TD; Receiving - 14 rec., 168 yards, TD

Pros: Sims averaged 112 yards and a touchdown per game in 2012 and is the unquestioned No. 1 back at Kansas. He's steadily gotten better and better as his career has gone on and constantly outperformed incoming recruits that were suppose to surpass him based on better burst, speed, etc.

Cons: Three multi-year starters on the offensive line are gone and former four-star prospect Darrian Miller returns after being shown the door following the 2011 season because of an off-the-field issue. He's a more dynamic back and could eat into Sims workload. Plus, Tony Pierson should do most of pass catching out of the backfield. Bottom line: It'll be hard to duplicate his per game averages from 2012, but his cumulative numbers could be the same over course of a 12 game slate, which is still very impressive.

Expert's take: "James Sims has proven he not only can handle but also deserves the lion's share of the workload, but they have a luxury in the fact that they have other guys that they can give carries to, especially with the return of Darrian Miller. I think that should help to keep Sims fresh."
- Matt Tait, Kansas beat writer for the Lawrence Journal-World
Big 12 Fantasy Football Power Rankings - RUNNING BACK - TIER 3
If it wasn't for the DeAndre Washington factor, Kenny Williams would have been a Tier 2 guy and easily could climb there. His 824 yards last season paced the team and five touchdowns were respectable for the breakout sophomore. Questions abound on the offensive line though, which is a slight hit to his value as well.

2012 stats: Rushing - 143 att., 824 yards, 5 TD; 16 rec., 163 yards, TD

Pros: Williams averaged almost six yards a carry last season in outshining senior Eric Stephens. He looks to get 50 percent of the carries in Lubbock this fall, and based on the offense he plays in, that could be lead to plenty of red zone chances.

Cons: Washington is back from an ACL tear in 2011 and many feel could steal Williams' thunder. The offensive line lost three starters and has real depth concerns as well.

Expert's take: "Williams' yards per carry average of 5.76 was the best mark in the Big 12 among players that averaged at least 11 rushes per game last year. He was clearly their No. 1 back, but Stephens was given the ball in critical situations which probably cut back on Williams' touchdown numbers. The big question facing Williams in 2013 will be the role of DeAndre Washington."
- Aaron Dickens, managing editor of RedRaiderSports.com
Waymon James is another running back with Tier 2 potential. He averaged over seven yards a carry two years ago and was off to hot start last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury at Kansas in week two -- he had 99 yards on 12 carries before going down in a heap on the Memorial Stadium turf. He did light work in the spring and should be at full speed by fall camp. But will he be eased back into his feature back role once the real bullets start to fly?

2012 stats: Rushing - 17 att., 168 yards, TD; Receiving - 3 rec., 38 yards

Pros: James led TCU with 875 yards in 2011 and had big expectations for his debut Big 12 campaign before the knee injury derailed his season. He's the featured back in a strong offense and has a nose for the goal line -- I think he could score 10-plus touchdowns if he stays healthy.

Cons: The seasons opens Aug. 31 against LSU. So much for easing back into it for James. The offensive line has a couple of holes to fill and not great depth. James also has some impressive backfield competition that could pilfer away some fantasy points.

Expert's take: "He'll start, there's no doubt about it. He's the best back we've got, but there's capable help. B.J. Catalon did a lot better than anyone ever thought he'd do. Aaron Green, a transfer from Nebraska, had a great spring. The other two guys are going to get a lot of time, and a lot of carries especially early on, as they work Waymon back into it. Down on the goal line, he's really strong, runs low and he'll score a lot of touchdowns. I think he has real dark-horse, sleeper potential since he's coming off an injury."
- John Denton, color analyst for TCU's radio broadcast
Two Baylor backs crack the top ten and why not when the two combined for 1,901 yards last season. While it's Seastrunk with the Heisman hype, Glasco Martin is an impressive threat as well and would be a great No. 2 RB on your fantasy team just as he is in Art Briles' reality backfield.

2012 stats: Rushing - 179 att., 889 yards, 15 TD; Receiving - 1 rec., 2 yards

Pros: While Martin won't likely sniff the 15 touchdowns he had a year ago, he'll still get enough red zone chances riding shotgun with Seastrunk to garner considerable fantasy attention. I'm more curious about his yardage, but many in Baylor circles think he can post at least 800 on the ground.

Cons: He's Scottie Pippen to Seastrunk's Jordan, Robin to Lache's Batman, Beavis to... well, you get the point. Unless Seastrunk goes down, he won't have No. 1 RB numbers, but being No. 2 in Waco this year won't be bad thing at all.

Expert's take: "Although he's cast in the shadows of Lache, Glasco Martin finished strong last season and gives the Bears more of a power attack who can also hit the home run with surprisingly good speed. As his 15 touchdowns show, he's almost a sure thing on the goal line."
- Jerry Hill, editor of Baylor Bear Insider
Big 12 Fantasy Football Power Rankings - RUNNING BACK - TIER 4
2012 stats: Rushing - 61 att., 324 yards, 4 TD; Receiving - 15 rec., 112 yards, TD

Pros: Malcolm Brown led the Texas backfield with 5.3 yards per carry last year despite playing in only eight games.

Cons: Gray is the horse to bet on and own in this backfield, but Brown is a nice handcuff player.

Expert's take: "After Gray, Bergeron and Brown will still have a place and Brown is obviously the more complete back. His value could hinge on Gray's health though."
- Chad Hastings, radio host at ESPN Austin
2012 stats: Rushing - 127 att., 567 yards, 16 TD; Receiving - 9 rec., 84 yards

Pros: Joe Bergeron had a whopping 16 touchdowns last year and if he's given the same goal line glory in 2013, he'll not only leapfrog teammate Malcolm Brown, but perhaps another back or two on this list as well.

Cons: If Gray does, indeed, take another step forward, both Bergeron and Brown's number of chances will suffer. You hate to put all your eggs in the touchdown basket unless he's delivering at least one a week (which he did last year, but that will be tough to repeat).

Expert's take: "Bergeron could take on the role of a Mike Alstott type in the 3rd or 4th quarters when he starts bashing on people. I think his TDs will be down, but will still make a sizeable impact."
- Chad Hastings, radio host at ESPN Austin
James White is ISU's top returning rusher. Shontrelle Johnson is still working his way back from an ACL tear. DeVondrick Nealy stood out in the spring. Jeff Woody excels in short yardage situations. And then there's Iowa Western Community College transfer Aaron Wimberly, who might have the biggest upside of them all.

2012 stats: N/A

Pros: It's a deep position on a team that wants to run behind a veteran offensive line.

Cons: They are way too many cooks in the kitchen. That backfield is more crowded than the Brady household after Mike and Carol hooked up. White will likely get the first crack at it, but there's not much separation heading into fall camp.

Expert's take: "It really is going to be a by committee approach. White - based on his experience and being a captain last year -- I think he'll get the first carries of the year. Does Shontrelle come back or redshirt? We don't know yet. My guess is that he'll come back, but it's too early to know how he'll factor in. Jeff Woody has experience too and is the bruiser back type to use in short yardage situations.

"Wimberly is a guy that they feel really good about and he gives them an element of speed and elusiveness that I'm not sure they've had with these other guys. He can also catch the ball very well out of the backfield.

"Nealy had as good a spring game as anybody in that group. I think it's possible that five different guys out of that backfield that could touch the ball on a weekly basis."
- John Walters, radio play-by-play voice of the Cyclones
DeAndre Washington hasn't played since 2011 but he's made a lot of believers in Lubbock in his skill set. He's expected to contend for as many as half the carries and should provide a great 1-2 punch with Kenny Williams in a potent Tech offense.

2012 stats: N/A

Pros: Tech fans have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Washington's untapped potential. He averaged just under five yards a carry as a true freshman in 2011 and showed a nice ability to catch passes out of the backfield late in the year.

Cons: He'll deal with the same offensive line concerns Williams will and unless Williams gets hurt or underachieves, his workload won't warrant RB1 consideration.

Expert's take: "I think there are too many unknown variables -- workload, coming off of injury -- with Washington to be super confident about him being a higher fantasy choice this season. There's no doubting his talent and he'll get a good amount of carries, but will he be the team's No. 1 rushing option in the redzone or on the goal line?"
- Aaron Dickens, managing editor of RedRaiderSports.com


(In no specific order.)

Andrew Buie, West Virginia: 851 yards last season, a fourth of which were at Texas.
Dreamius Smith, West Virginia: Highly touted JUCO transfer was looking as good as any Mountaineer back until Charles Sims was added to the mix.
Brennan Clay, Oklahoma: 555 yards and 6 TD last year -- very solid fantasy contributions.
Keith Ford, Oklahoma: Some consider the Cypress star the top rated freshman in the conference.
Alex Ross, Oklahoma: Former four-star stud took a redshirt last year
Desmond Roland, Oklahoma State: A necessary handcuff for Jeremy Smith owners.
Aaron Green, TCU: Nebraska transfer sat out last year, but is ready to roll in 2013.
B.J. Catalon, TCU: Filled in admirably for James in 2012 and backed it up with a strong spring.
Darrian Miller, Kansas: Former four-star prospect that was welcomed back on the team after being dismissed upon Charlie Weis' arrival.
Tony Pierson, Kansas: explosive four star talent that will catch plenty of balls out of the backfield.

In summary, there's terrific depth in the second tier of the Big 12's fantasy running back pool. Personally, I'd grab an elite QB first and then go after an RB in the No. 2-7 range. Some of the third tier sleepers could bring home big returns as well.

Brian Hanni is the play-by-play voice of Texas Tech Men's Basketball and Baseball and co-hosts a mid-day show on Double T 104.3 in Lubbock. Reach him on Twitter @BHanni.

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