The Oregon football team has become known for three things:
- Flashy uniforms
- Fast play
- Scoring points
… maybe not in that order. Just outside of that top-three list is the Ducks' potent rushing attack, which has been at least solid for quite a while but shifted to another gear when coach Chip Kelly took over as offensive coordinator in 2007.
That season, the Ducks were coming off a 2006 campaign that saw them lead the Pac-10 conference in rushing with 2,364 yards in conference games. In Oregon's first season using Kelly's spread-option attack, the Ducks led the conference with 3,272 yards, a jump of nearly 1,000 yards and 632 ahead of second-place Washington.
Oregon has led the league ever since, never dipping below 3,000 in a season and, heading into 2012, the Ducks are coming off a 4,189-yard rushing season, having averaged 286.2 on the ground in 14 games. Stanford, as it has been for the past three seasons, was second-best with 2,779.
So there would seem to be little question about which team will lead the Pac-12 in rushing in 2012. But ESPN.com's Kevin Gemmell recently asked an interesting question that has a much less cut-and-dried answer: which individual running back will lead the conference in rushing?
Oregon's Kenjon Barner was leading the poll as of Thursday night, and he's probably my preseason pick for the rushing title, as well. Barner is stepping into the starting role for the first time, after three seasons playing behind LaMichael James, but he's no ordinary backup, having rushed for 1,856 yards and 20 touchdowns as a Duck.
That total includes the 939 he put up last season, to go with 11 TDs, on 152 attempts. Barner stepped in for an injured James against Arizona State and put up 171 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries; the following week, at Colorado, he rushed for 115 and two TDs. Those were two of his four 100-yard rushing games in 2012.
But Barner should have heavy competition for the Pac-12 rushing title, including from a teammate. Sophomore De'Anthony Thomas made a name for himself as a returner and pass-catcher in 2011, often lining up in the slot in the "Tazer" role that Kelly created to get three running backs on the field at once. But Thomas was often just as electric on running plays as he was on returns and receptions, and he's in line to get even more carries this season, when he's expected to be No. 2 on the depth chart.
Utah's John White IV has to be considered among the leading candidates to lead the conference in rushing, having gone for 1,519 last season, second in the Pac-12 only to James' 1,805. You wonder how much defenses will be able to key on White during his senior season, however, and if the passing game will be improved enough to take some pressure off of him.
After that, Gemmell listed Cal's Isi Sofele, who rushed for 1,322 yards and 10 TDs in 2011; Stanford's Stepfan Taylor, who had 1,330 yards last season; and Arizona State's Cameron Marshall, who had 1,050 yards. USC's Curtis McNeal would seem to be another obvious candidate, coming off a 1,005-yard season, but the addition of Penn State transfer Silas Redd -- not to mention the Trojans' general depth at the position -- would seem to be an obstacle for McNeal.
Here's a look at the Pac-10/12's rushing leaders for the past six seasons, followed by the runner up. Who do you think it'll be in 2012?
- LaMichael James, Oregon, 1,805
- John White IV, Utah, 1,519
- LaMichael James, Oregon, 1,731
- Chris Polk, Washington, 1,415
- Toby Gerhart, Stanford, 1,871
- LaMichael James, Oregon, 1,546
- Jahvid Best, California, 1,580
- Jacquizz Rodgers, Oregon State, 1,253
- Jonathan Stewart, Oregon, 1,722
- Justin Forsett, California, 1,546
- Marshawn Lynch, California, 1,356
- Yvenson Bernard, Oregon State, 1,307
Sources:Pac-12 football 2011 leaders
Adam Sparks has been following Oregon Ducks football since 1990, and has written about the team as a freelancer since 2009.
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