For a conference whose reputation is built on high flying offenses and quarterbacks slinging the ball down the field at least 40 times per game, the offensive strength of the Pac 12 sits with the running backs right now.
There were eight 1,000-yard rushers in the conference in 2018. Six of them return in 2019. Some teams have depth at the position behind a significant starter. Others rely heavily on the “one guy.” There are many upperclassmen in the conference hierarchy and a couple of youngsters who are standouts already. It is never just about stats when it comes to running backs, but their impact on the team. This is our look at the Pac 12’s Five Best Running Backs
Pac 12’s Best Running Backs
- J.J. Taylor; 2019 Redshirt Junior, Arizona Wildcats. Our point about conference depth at the position is made right here, by placing a guy who was a third-team AP All American last year and saying he is the fifth best running back in the league. He was also All-Pac 12 first team, (Coaches’ vote) last season. He had an impressive 1,434 yards rushing last season, and that ranked as the fourth best Wildcats rushing season in program history. But his real value is as an all-purpose back. Taylor averaged a little more than 175 yards per game in all-purpose yards. He had 16 receptions for 133 yards on the season and returned 22 kicks for 540 yards. He is not higher because the Arizona offense starts and ends with quarterback Khalil Tate. As a result, Taylor had only six touchdowns on the season. He is not yet counted on to be the scoring punch for the offense.
4. C.J. Verdell; 2019 Sophomore, Oregon Ducks. Verdell broke on to the scene in a big way in his freshman season in 2018 with 1,018 yards rushing and 315 receiving. He also had 12 total touchdowns. He had a rushing and receiving touchdown in a game twice in 2018. That is a lot for a guy who appeared in all 13 games but only made five starts because he shared the backfield with fellow freshman Travis Dye and then-senior Tony Brooks-James. Verdell is only 5-9 but weighs 209 pounds so durability would not seem to be an issue. He and Dye will both be getting carries in 2019, but Verdell should be the primary ball carrier.
3. Eno Benjamin; 2019 Junior, Arizona State Sun Devils. Let the fighting begin. Arizona State fans vocally believe Benjamin is the best running back in the conference. There are arguments to be made on his behalf. He led the Pac 12 in carries last season. In fact, he was such a workhorse in that category that it was he and quarterback Manny Wilkins with the brunt of the ball carrying work for ASU. The two combined for 412 of the team’s 502 rushes on the season. Therein lies a glitch, if you will. Yes, Benjamin rushed for 1,718 yards and 16 touchdowns.
But context is important with his stats. The totals were based on 300 carries over 13 games. In other words, for the dazzle of the total yards, the most in school history, his yards per game average is a good, but not great 126.3, considering how many times he had his hands on the ball every game. We would also be remiss if we did not mention that Benjamin had a stat-building day against Oregon State, the conference’s doormat last year. He had 312 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 30 carries to go with a receiving touchdown.The two players we have placed ahead of him did not get to feast on the poor Beavers defense last year.
He was AP third-team All American, and deservedly so. Now with Wilkins and receiver N’Keal Harry gone, Benjamin will have to carry more of the offensive responsibility and that will give him a chance to prove he can do even more.
2. Joshua Kelley; 2019 Redshirt Senior, UCLA Bruins. Kelley gets the number two spot for a somewhat subjective reason that will not show up in the stats. UCLA was a poor 3-9 in 2018. They would not have had even the three wins without Kelley. For the first time since Paul Perkins in 2015, the Bruins had one go-to guy in the backfield. Kelley finished with 1,243 rushing and 12 touchdowns on 225 carries. But like Benjamin, some context is needed to warrant his placement. He got all of 11 carries total in the first two games and did not play in week three.
So, while he played in 11 games, he really did not see starter level work until week four. That means his totals are really broken down over nine games. And while it is a misnomer to say someone “came out of nowhere,” (the laws of physics make that impossible), no one saw this coming from Kelley when the season started. He was a transfer from UC Davis who sat out 2017. The Bruins were expected to have a running back by committee offense with a lot of possibilities, but no obvious head of the class. That was until his 124 yards on 12 carries in week four against Colorado.
After that, it was all Kelley. The high point was his 40 carries for 289 yards and two touchdowns in the rivalry game win against USC. The carries were the third most in school history. Kelley returns with some very young backs behind him, but the offense is his in terms of the rushing game.
- Zack Moss; 2019 Senior, Utah. Moss has great numbers for the last two years, and yet because of injuries is nowhere near his ceiling. He played in nine games last year prior to a season-ending injury. Yet he still had 179 carries for 1,096 yards and 11 touchdowns. Out of his nine games, six were 100+ yards and one was 211 yards with three touchdowns (versus UCLA). 2018 was his second straight 1,000+ yard rushing season. In 2017, he had 1,173 rushing yards and 243 receiving yards. He is one of four players in Utah football history with back-to-back 1,000+ yard rushing seasons. Without the injury last year, Moss probably declares for the 2019 NFL draft and would be getting ready for Summer camp somewhere, because he definitely had the attention of NFL scouts before getting hurt. He is only 5-10, but at 222 pounds can be a bruising running back who wears down defenses over the course of a game. He can run for power, he can run for speed, he can make you miss, and he can catch the ball. No one is going to accuse Kyle Whittingham of running a titillating offense, which makes Moss all the more critical to Utah being a contender for the Pac 12 South. He missed Spring camp but is expected to ready this Summer. A healthy Moss should be a stat leader in the conference in 2019.
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