The SEC has churned out top running back talent for several years now. Over the last 11 years, 36% (8-22) of running backs selected in the first round of the NFL Draft were from the Southeastern Conference. Two of those were Heisman Trophy winners. In 2017, the SEC sent Kerryon Johnson, Ralph Webb, Derrius Guice, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Bo Scarbrough, John Kelly, Keith Ford, and Jordan Wilkins to the NFL. That’s a tough group to replace.
But in the SEC, they reload at running back. Here are the top five returning SEC running backs in 2018.
Top Five Returning SEC Running Backs In 2018
It’s impossible to produce a definitive list of anything subjective. This is a holistic approach, including past performance, future potential, system, and performance in different situations. Most importantly, it considers who would get picked if we were building our own team from each position group around the conference.
5. D’Andre Swift, Sophomore, Georgia
Swift was part of the best backfield in college football last season. Even with having to share the carries with NFL Draft picks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, Swift managed 618 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 7.63 yards-per-carry (YPC). The 7.63 YPC was second best in the league. Second best in a league that sent nine players to the NFL and returns at least four future NFL players.
While Swift will still have to split carries with Elijah Holyfield and Mecole Hardman, he’ll be the featured back in 2018 and get the bulk of the carriers. It’ll be enough for him to get his numbers without wearing him out. With Jake Fromm, another year older, the passing game should also be better. Again, the passing game should pair well with Swift and complement his numbers.
4. Trayveon Williams, Junior, Texas A&M
Trayveon Williams’ numbers actually regressed in 2017. After having 1,057 yards and eight touchdowns in his 2016 freshman campaign, the shifty Williams managed just 798 yards last season. That was splitting carries with Keith Ford, behind an inconsistent offensive line, and with inconsistent quarterback play. Circumstances are set up for Williams to return to his freshman form this season.
Williams is a shifty back, with sneaky toughness, much like Alvin Kamara. He’ll feature out of the backfield but will also be used in the short passing game. He’s the type of back that brings the “X Factor” to each game and is a nightmare to scheme against. With the Aggies looking to get back to the top of the SEC West, they’ll need Williams to put up big numbers.
3. Aeris Williams, Senior, Mississippi State
Aeris Williams is easily the most underrated running back in the SEC entering the 2018 campaign. He was an absolute workhorse for the Bulldogs last season, recording 236 carries (4th in the SEC), 1,107 rushing yards (6th in the SEC), and 85.15 YPC (also 6th in the SEC). Williams put up these numbers sharing the carries with quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and without an effective passing game.
Williams was incredibly impressive on first down. He averaged 5.4 YPC on first down. Every offensive coordinator in the country would take 2nd & 4 if you gave it to them. And that’s essentially what Williams did for Dan Mullen last season. Williams might also benefit from the arrival of head coach Joe Moorhead, who will likely rely a little more on Fitzgerald throwing the ball rather than carrying the ball 25 times a game.
Williams doesn’t have impressive overall yards-per-carry numbers (4.61 YPC), but at 6’1″, 220, he has the physical make-up to be effective between the tackles. Mississippi State will need that if they want to keep Fitzgerald–and the offense–healthy this season.
2. Damien Harris, Senior, Alabama
And the beat goes on. Damien Harris chose to stay at Alabama after posting two consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in 2016 and 2017. As a reward, he’ll have to fight Najee Harris for the Tide’s starting spot. Either way, he’ll get plenty of carries and he’ll be behind a mobile quarterback, either Jalen Hurts or Tua Tagovailoa.
Harris, while splitting carries with Scarbrough, had 1,037 rushing yards in 2016. He followed that up with 1,000 rushing yards in 2017. He was seventh in the SEC with 11 rushing touchdowns last season. He was third in yards-per-carry in the league last year with 7.41 YPC. At 5’11”, 221, he’s the prototypical modern NFL running back. You’ll be hearing his name often this fall, and you’ll hear it again next April.
1. Benny Snell, Jr., Junior, Kentucky
With all the talent that the SEC lost to the NFL, none of those guys had more touchdowns in 2017 than Kentucky‘s Benny Snell, Jr. There’s probably no one in the conference that’s as important to the success of his team in 2018 than Snell, Jr. He had 69% of the running back carries for Big Blue last season.
Snell, Jr. had 19 rushing touchdowns last season for the Wildcats. In addition to leading the league in touchdowns, he was second in total carries, third in total yards (1,333), and third in yards-per-game (102.54). His most impressive statistic is that his yards-per-game against SEC teams (107.75) is higher than against non-SEC teams. There’s something in Snell that makes him play better against better competition. That’s the type of guy you want carrying the rock for your team.
Moreover, he got better later in the season. With Kentucky having late-season collapses in 2014, 2015, and 2016, Snell, Jr. made sure it didn’t happen again in 2017. He averaged 149.25 yards in November against Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Georgia, and Louisville. He converted 16 of 25 carries on 3rd down and less than four yards to go.
In summary, he’s as clutch as a running back can be. He doesn’t have the flash of Williams or the program pedigree of Harris, but he’s head and shoulders the best returning SEC running back in 2018.
Lamical Perine: With an unstable quarterback situation at Florida, it’ll again be up to Perine to provide some stability.
Devwah Whaley: How will Chad Morris’ new offensive scheme further complicate Whaley’s standing with Razorback fans?
Najee Harris: Another Crimson Tide future NFL player. He’ll be here next season.
Elijah Holyfield: Like Harris, he’s just biding his time behind Swift for his turn in the spotlight.
Also, watch my discussion with Mark Rogers TV on best returning SEC QBs and RBs: