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If there are going to be Heisman Trophy contenders at running back this season, a good bet would be two of the leading returning rushers from the Big 12. The talent doesn’t just stop with those two guys, however. The conference is littered with productive, effective runners.
When it comes to ranking the top returning running backs from the Big 12, things get a little more difficult after the first two. A 2020 opt-out will return, but he’ll now have a transfer cutting into his workload. Plus there’s a versatile back who has been productive, but he’s extremely undersized.
These lists also always include at least some speculation and guesswork. Some may disagree with the first player on my list, but there isn’t a lot of film on this guy yet. Don’t worry though. That will all come in due time.
Honorable mention: Leddie Brown, West Virginia; LD Brown, Oklahoma State
5. Zachary Evans, TCU
Zachary Evans has only 62 career touches, so how could I possibly list him over a 1,000-yard rusher like Leddie Brown from West Virginia? Well, I did say this was going to include some speculation, and I’m totally willing to bet on Evans heading into 2021.
The team’s leading rusher from last season, Darwin Barlow, has transferred to USC to finish his college career. I don’t think that’s a coincidence, as many already see the writing on the wall with Evans. Yes, sophomore Kendre Miller (54 carries, 388 yards, two touchdowns) returns, but Evans will still have opportunities.
Though once committed to Georgia, the former five-star prospect found his way to Forth Worth. His 7.69 yards per carry as a first-year player was impressive, even if it’s not sustainable with a larger workload. But if you watched him at all, you understand the potential here.
4. Deuce Vaughn, Kansas State
How in the world did Deuce Vaughn make the kind of first-year impact we saw from him in 2020? Coming out of high school, he was rated as a three-star prospect, the nation’s No. 1,236 overall player and the No. 16 all-purpose running back. Folks, he stands 5-foot-5, 171 pounds.
Has that stopped him? Absolutely not. In his first season at Kansas State, he produced over 1,000 total yards (642 rushing, 434 receiving) and nine total touchdowns on 148 touches. He did that in only 10 games too.
If Vaughn had prototypical size for the position, he’d probably rank even higher on this list. I understand that’s unfair, and I do feel a little guilty about it. But based on what I saw from him last year, I think he’s the sort of guy who is going to love making me pay for not listing him higher.
3. Kennedy Brooks, RB, Oklahoma
Kennedy Brooks is back in Oklahoma’s backfield after opting out of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Will that year off from football create some rust? It’s possible, but the last time he was on the field for the Sooners, he produced over 1,000 yards rushing and six touchdowns while averaging 6.52 yards per carry.
It was his second consecutive season of rushing over 1,000 yards, bringing his career total to 2,067 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Yes, Tennessee transfer running back Eric Gray is going to cut into his opportunities, but that shouldn’t create too much of a concern. In Lincoln Riley’s offense, multiple players can have success and be productive. Even as recently as 2016, we saw Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine both have 1,000-yard seasons.
Brooks won’t offer up much as a receiver out of the backfield, but he doesn’t need to with Gray in town.
2. Bijan Robinson, Texas
Bijan Robinson was the top high school running back in the country during the 2020 recruiting cycle, and he did not disappoint during his first season in Austin. The Tucson, Ariz. native totaled 899 yards (703 rushing, 196 receiving) and six touchdowns on only 101 carries.
His staggering 8.17 yards per carry ranked second in the nation amongst running backs with at least 60 carries last season, and his 13.1 yards per catch is exceptional for a player at his position. He’s easily one of the most explosive ball carriers we’ve seen in recent memory, and he should be a Heisman Trophy contender in 2021.
Roschon Johnson (469 total yards, seven touchdowns) and the newly added transfer, Keilan Robinson, from Alabama should also have roles within Steve Sarkisian’s offense. But after watching what Najee Harris did for the Crimson Tide in 2020, we know that the new Texas head coach will find ways to utilize Bijan Robinson properly.
1. Breece Hall, Iowa State
Despite a shortened COVID season, Breece Hall put up spectacular numbers for the Cyclones. His 1,572 rushing yards lead the nation, while his 21 rushing touchdowns was second only behind Najee Harris. As if that wasn’t enough, Hall also added another 180 yards receiving and two touchdowns on 23 receptions.
As much as I wanted to rank Robinson first on this list, I couldn’t do it. Hall took over for a talented David Montgomery, and the Iowa State offense didn’t miss a beat. In fact, Hall might actually be the better running back of the two, which is scary to think about.
Yes, Brock Purdy had some good moments last season. But there were some rough spots in there as well, including against Louisiana-Lafayette, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma — the only three losses on the schedule. On the other hand, Hall produced 416 total yards (367 rushing, 49 receiving) and four touchdowns in those same games.
At the end of the day, the offense’s success is mostly dictated by Hall. He’s the best running back in the Big 12, even if only by a slim margin.
Follow Clint Lamb on Twitter @ClintRLamb.