Despite losing talent such as Najee Harris, Larry Rountree III and Eric Gray, the SEC remains strong at the running back position. Three of the top five rushers in the league from 2020 are returning, and we expect several further down the list to make a significant jump in the near future.
The SEC has five of the top 10 running back recruits for the 2021 class coming in, but this list won’t be discussing those guys. Their time will come later, but for now, let’s put our focus on the top five SEC rushers who will be returning this season.
This list isn’t just about their statistical impact. Instead, it’s about overall impact and who I think the top 5 running backs are in the conference at this moment. This list can — and probably will — change once we finally get to see some of these guys in action.
Honorable mention: Jerrion Ealy, Ole Miss; Brian Robinson Jr., Alabama
5. Zamir White, Georgia
Zamir White has an opportunity to climb this list. And when I say climb, I mean could end up at or near the top before it’s all said and done. The former five-star prospect has everything you could look for in a future star at the position.
He’s big (6-foot, 215), he’s explosive, and he has the ability to make impactful plays in a variety of ways. From everything reported, White is also an extremely hard worker, which explains why he’s been able to overcome multiple knee injuries in his career.
With James Cook, Kenny McIntosh and Kendall Milton all still on the roster, White will continue to cede some of the workload, especially in obvious passing situations. That’s part of the reason he checks in only at No. 5 on this list. But like most Georgia running backs, he makes it work.
4. Chris Rodriguez, Kentucky
Chris Rodriguez is one of the most underrated running backs in the country. He finished No. 6 in the SEC in rushing yards (785) last season, but he played in only nine games. Most others fighting for the top spot played in 10, while Najee Harris got 13 to boost his stats.
The star Wildcat also put up 11 rushing touchdowns (tied for No. 4 in the SEC) and averaged an eye-popping 6.6 yards per carry.
Rodriguez did this while sharing a backfield with Asim Rose (666 yards, two touchdowns), Kavosiey Smoke (229 yards, one touchdown) and running quarterback Terry Wilson (424 yards, five touchdowns). That’s a lot of mouths to feed, but Rodriguez stood above the rest.
At 5-11, 224 pounds, he’s a power runner who also does great work on the goal line, which is reflected by his 11 rushing touchdowns in 2020. With Rose out of the picture, there should be even more work in Rodriguez’s future. That’s a scary thought for opposing defenses.
3. Kevin Harris, South Carolina
Najee Harris finished with the most rushing yards in the SEC last season (1,466), but like I said before, he did it in 13 games. So who finished with the most rushing yards per game then? Well, it was a Harris, but not Najee. His name is Kevin Harris, and he’s an absolute load to handle.
Let’s be honest here: Harris was the Gamecocks’ offense last season. With the quarterback situation a mess and the other side of the ball ranking No. 12 in the SEC in scoring defense, Harris was the main reason for the little success they did have. He rushed for 1,138 yards and 15 scores while averaging 6.2 yards per carry.
The 5-10, 225-pound bulldozer might have to share the load with former top-5 high school running back MarShawn Lloyd, who is returning from a season-ending torn ACL back in August of 2020. But that shouldn’t be a problem. Shane Beamer has a nice 1-2 punch in Year 1 to build around on offense.
2. Isaiah Spiller, Texas A&M
Over the last two seasons, Isaiah Spiller has become a vital part of Jimbo Fisher’s offense.
In 2019, he totaled 1,149 yards (946 rushing, 203 receiving) on 203 touches. That was in 13 games. This past season, he stepped it up a notch, totaling 1,229 yards (1,036 rushing, 193 receiving) in only 10 games. He scored 19 touchdowns during that 23-game stretch as well.
Spiller is an effective runner and a playmaking presence out of the backfield, which makes Texas A&M’s offense all the more difficult to defend. There’s no way the Aggies would have contended for a spot in the College Football Playoff last season without him.
Teaming Spiller up with sophomore Devon Achane and versatile, do-it-all weapon Anias Smith gives Fisher plenty of options to choose from, but there won’t be many situations where he’s got Spiller standing on the sidelines next to him.
1. Tank Bigsby, Auburn
When Tank Bigsby chose Auburn, everyone knew he was going to be a complete stud. Despite being listed at 6-0, 208 pounds, he’s built like a Mack truck — and he plays like one too. When the Tigers ran the offense through the freshman, they had tremendous success. The previous coaching staff just didn’t do it enough early on.
Don’t expect new offensive coordinator Mike Bobo to have that same problem. When Bobo was South Carolina’s offensive coordinator last year, he knew the offense was most effectively run through Harris. That’s why he gave the capable workhorse 18.5 carries per game.
That was good for No. 4 in the SEC, but it could’ve been higher had South Carolina’s poor offense been on the field more. In other words, expect Bigsby to see work early and often for the Tigers, and also expect plenty of success to follow as a result.
As long as he can stay healthy, Bigsby should emerge as one of college football’s elite running backs in 2021 and beyond. The previous staff hyping a future Heisman Trophy winner might seem far-fetched with the award trending towards quarterbacks, but it shouldn’t. The rising sophomore has the talent to compete for the award.
Follow Clint Lamb on Twitter @ClintRLamb.