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We have gotten to the point in the offseason where we start to look ahead to spring rosters and the impactful players who are returning.
The running back position in the SEC lost tremendous talent after the 2021 season. Brian Robinson, Zamir White, James Cook, Tyler Badie and others are all gone. But that doesn’t mean the conference will be without backs who can light up the scoreboard. The conference will be led by a few returning starters and some explosive newcomers.
Let’s take a look at who will be returning in 2022 to lead their team, based off 2021 numbers.
- Chris Rodriguez (Kentucky)
I absolutely love the way Rodriguez runs the football. He’s determined to run the defender over, but is shifty enough to make plays outside the tackle. He led the Wildcats last season with 1,379 yards rushing and nine touchdowns. Rodriguez averaged 6.1 yards per attempt, making life miserable for opposing defenses at times. The biggest factor in how Rodriguez performs in 2022 will be the amount of help he gets from his teammates. The offensive line and wide receiver group will have to give the man opportunities down the field, not just try to run it up the middle. With Rodriguez and Will Levis returning for Kentucky, opposing defensive coordinators will have their hands full.
2. Tank Bigsby (Auburn)
Bigsby returns to Auburn for his junior season after a nice year on the Plains. He was a threat to opposing defenses when healthy and will look to build off a 1,000 yard season. He finished with 1,099 yards rushing and nine touchdowns and averaged 4.93 yards per attempt. These numbers are great, but Auburn has to figure out better ways to open holes along the offensive line. Let’s not forget that the Tigers are still looking for an offensive coordinator, so it will be interesting to see what kind of changes are made to the scheme. Tank should help Auburn make up for some issues in other areas.
3. Devon Achane (Texas A&M)
Well, the ball has been given to Achane, as Isaiah Spiller heads off to the NFL. Spiller rushed for 1,011 yards and six touchdowns in 2021, but we all witnessed Devon take a big leap as the No. 2 back. After rushing for 910 yards and nine touchdowns last year, Achane could take the reins and become the offensive weapon they’ll need in 2022. With the amount of talent Jimbo Fisher now has on the offensive side of the ball, it will be interesting to see how the offense works around the running game. The Aggies will need to find a second back, but that will come in due time.
4. Jabari Small (Tennessee)
After Tiyon Evans missed a chunk of the 2021 season, Jabari had to step up and fill the spot. Though he played behind an offensive line that was pieced together at times, Small still managed to rack up 792 yards and nine touchdowns last year. I love his shifty running ability, especially outside the tackles. He has the speed to make folks miss, and based on the production of the running game in 2021, he’ll be a very big factor in 2022 with Hendon Hooker returning. The way these two playmakers feed off each other should be fun to watch. The Vols will look towards Jaylen Wright and possibly freshman Justin Williams to help carry the load. I expect pretty big numbers from whoever is rushing the ball for Tennessee in 2022, especially with this offensive scheme, where they can be utilized out of the backfield.
5. Jarquez Hunter (Auburn)
The backup to Tank Bigsby in 2021 put up 593 yards and three touchdowns last season, helping the Tigers when Bigsby wasn’t available. He will give the Tigers a second option in 2022, especially out of the backfield. The freshman showed he has the ability to get down the field as well, so this should be a welcome sight for Bryan Harsin next year.
Other players to watch
If there is one transfer running back to watch this season, it’s TCU transfer Zach Evans. Evans will be a highlight reel for Ole Miss this season if they get him the ball enough. He’s super talented, speedy out of the backfield and will find the gaps along the offensive line.
The other big one will be Jahmyr Gibbs from Georgia Tech. Alabama has found their replacement for Brian Robinson. They will also have Trey Sanders as another serviceable back in 2022, but all eyes will be on Gibbs after the monster season he had for the Yellow Jackets in 2021.
Keep an eye on Stanford transfer Nathaniel Peat, who will have big shoes to fill at Missouri now that Tyler Badie is off to the NFL. The Tigers need a replacement, so maybe Peat can become a factor.
It should be an interesting spring period as we find the next great running backs of the SEC.