August 14, 2022

Ranking the SEC’s best running backs of 2022

Texas A&M Aggies Football

Texas A&M running back Devon Achane carries the ball in the second quarter against Colorado Saturday September 11, 2021 on Empower Field at Mile High Stadium. (Lynn Harrington/stayaliveinpower5)

It’s a league that packs speed and physicality.

Every autumn Saturday there’s bone-jarring collisions and game-changing plays on the gridiron. The SEC is filled with talented rushers, who are looking to build on last season’s success, while others are established workhorses hoping to make an impact on their new team.

These 14 individuals are on a journey this fall that will bring them blood, sweat and tears, but once the smoke clears, they’ll all be certified running backs in the toughest Power Five conference.

14. Josh Williams, LSU: The Houston native was the Bayou Bengals’ third-leading rusher last season. Williams had a season-high, 32 rushing yards in the bowl game against Kansas State. He rushed for 28 yards in the victory over Florida. Williams will be in a three-way battle with Tre Bradford and Armani Goodwin in fall camp. All three of the running backs are pretty much green up to this point, and none of them has ever scored a touchdown for LSU. Bradford has generated 69 yards on the ground over the past two years, while Goodwin rushed for 65 in 2021. New Coach Brian Kelly must establish a ground attack, after the Bayou Bengals finished 13th in the SEC and 114th in the FBS in rushing yards per game. If neither one can emerge as the clear-cut starter, then expect a running back by committee approach.

13. Nathaniel Peat, Missouri: The hometown kid played the last three seasons at Stanford before he transferred to Missouri this past January. Peat led the Cardinal in rushing yards in 2021. He rumbled for a season-high, 115 yards on the ground and a touchdown in the victory at USC. Peat also generated a rushing score in road tilts at Vanderbilt and Oregon State. The former three-star prospect had one of his best games in the overtime win against Oregon, when he steamrolled for 78 yards on 15 carries, which was a season-high. Peat stockpiled 665 rushing yards and four touchdowns during his time at Stanford. The 5-foot-10, 198-pounder brings experience, leadership and production to an offense that’s replacing a 1,600-yard rusher. Now Peat has an opportunity to be the local star again in Columbia.

12. Christian Beal-Smith, South Carolina: The North Carolina native led Wake Forest in rushing yards and tied for second in touchdowns on the ground last season. Beal-Smith has a nose for the endzone, and had at least one rushing score through seven of the Demon Deacons’ first eight games. He generated 74 yards on the ground and two touchdowns in the opener against Old Dominion. Not to mention he carried the ball 19 times for 95 yards in the victory over Florida State, which were both season-highs. Beal-Smith also scored against Norfolk State and in road victories at Syracuse and Army. He’ll be in a three-way battle with rushers JuJu McDowell and Marshawn Lloyd in fall camp. Neither McDowell or Lloyd had more than 14 carries in a single game in 2021, and combined for 476 yards and three scores.

11. Rocko Griffin, Vanderbilt: The former three-star prospect led the Commodores in carries, yards on the ground and rushing touchdowns last season. Griffin is tough as nails, and displayed workhorse capabilities. His coming out party was against Stanford, when he rushed for 107 yards. Griffin punched the ball in the endzone in the victory over Connecticut and at South Carolina. The Georgia native carried the pigskin 26 times for a season-high, 117 yards and a score at Ole Miss. He left a lasting impression with a season-high, 30 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown in the finale at Tennessee. Griffin will have to hold his own in fall camp, with fellow rushers Patrick Smith and Re’Mahn Davis, who was injured most of last year, battling him for carries. Regardless, he has a leg up in experience and production.

10. Dominique Johnson, Arkansas: The former three-star prospect led the Razorbacks in rushing touchdowns last season. Johnson is a bruising, downhill runner, with some power behind his six-foot-one, 228-pound frame. He rushed for a touchdown in each of Arkansas’ first three games. The Texas native carried the ball 17 times, for 107 yards and two touchdowns in the victory over Mississippi State, which were all season-highs. Johnson also generated a rushing score against Auburn and Alabama. Not to mention he hauled in a 43-yard touchdown pass in the overtime victory at LSU. Johnson missed spring ball while he rehabbed from off season surgery on his leg. He’ll battle Raheim Sanders in fall camp, who rushed for 139 yards at Ole Miss and scored two touchdowns apiece in Arkansas’ final two games.

9. Kenny McIntosh, Georgia: The Florida native was the reigning National Champs’ third-leading rusher last season. McIntosh can hurt defenses in the Bulldogs’ ground and aerial attack. He rushed for a touchdown against Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Georgia Tech. Not to mention he caught a touchdown against UAB and Charleston Southern. McIntosh carried the ball 10 times in the shutout victory over Arkansas, which was a season-high. He’ll be in a heated battle with Kendall Milton for the starting position this fall. Milton stockpiled 264 yards on the ground in 2021. He had a season-high, 66 rushing yards against South Carolina. Milton’s 12 carries and rushing touchdown against the Razorbacks was his most of the season. Georgia ranked fifth in the league in rushing offense, so both backs must keep the wheels rolling.

8. Zach Evans, Ole Miss: The Houston native led TCU in rushing yards last season, despite splitting carries in a crowded backfield. Evans eclipsed the century mark in rushing in four of the Horned Frogs’ first five games. His 22 carries for 190 yards in the win over California, were both season-highs. The following week against SMU Evans generated 113 yards on the ground and hauled in a 46-yard touchdown pass. Evans rushed for 113 additional yards and a score against Texas. He steamrolled for 143 yards and two touchdowns in the victory at Texas Tech. Evans stockpiled 1,063 rushing yards and and 10 total touchdowns over the past two seasons with TCU. The Rebels lost their top-four rushers from last season, and Evans will battle Ulysses Bentley and Kentrel Bullock for carries this fall.

7. Jabari Small, Tennessee: The Memphis native led the Volunteers in yards on the ground and rushing touchdowns in 2021. Small rushed for 117 yards and a touchdown in the opening win over Bowling Green. He steamrolled for 103 yards on the ground and two scores in the victory over Vanderbilt. Small also had two rushing touchdowns against South Alabama. The 5-foot-11, 206-pounder found the endzone against Pittsburgh, Ole Miss and Kentucky. However, Small saved his best performance for last, when he carried the ball 26 times for 180 yards in the bowl game against Purdue, which were both season-highs. The former three-star prospect compliments quarterback Hendon Hooker very well in the backfield, but needs to become more involved in the aerial attack. Still, he’s poised for an All-SEC campaign.

6. Jo’Quavious Marks, Mississippi State: The Atlanta native led the Bulldogs in rushing touchdowns, and was second on the team in receptions last season. Marks’ vision and soft hands allows him to hurt defenses on the ground and through the air in Mike Leach’s Air Raid attack. He scored three total touchdowns in the opening win over Louisiana Tech. The former four-star prospect generated a rushing touchdown and carried the ball 20 times, which was a season-high, in the victory over Kentucky. Marks also registered a rushing score against Vanderbilt, Tennessee State and Ole Miss. The 5-foot-10, 205-pounder hauled in a touchdown pass against LSU and Arkansas. Over the past two seasons with Mississippi State, Marks has rushed for 728 yards, caught 143 balls and scored 12 total touchdowns.

5. Jahmyr Gibbs, Alabama: Nick Saban landed a gem from the transfer portal last December when the talented rusher decided to climb aboard. Not only is Gibbs an elite weapon in the ground and aerial attack, but he’s also a special teams demon. He led Georgia Tech in carries and rushing yards, plus he caught 35 balls out of the backfield in 2021. Gibbs scored seven total touchdowns, including a 98-yard punt return at Boston College. The Georgia native also garnered second-team, AP All-America honors as an all-purpose player. No returning Crimson Tide rusher had over 72 carries last season. Meanwhile Gibbs brings leadership, experience and versatility to the unit. He’s recorded 1,206 yards on the ground, 773 through the air and scored 13 total touchdowns over the past two years with the Yellow Jackets.

4. Montrell Johnson, Florida: The former three-star prospect led Louisiana in carries and rushing touchdowns as a true freshman last season. Johnson generated a jaw-dropping, four rushing touchdowns against Ohio. He rumbled for 103 yards and a score in the victory over Appalachian State. Johnson had a season-high, 150 yards on the ground and two touchdowns in the win at Arkansas State. Not to mention he was named the league’s Freshman of the Year and earned second-team, All-Sun Belt honors. The New Orleans native followed Billy Napier to Florida and will try to keep the wheels rolling for an offense that averaged 208.7 rushing yards per game in 2021. Johnson could easily become one of the best backs in the SEC East, and the Gators first 1,000-yard rusher since Kelvin Taylor accomplished that feat in 2015.

3. Devon Achane, Texas A&M: He’s considered by many as one of the fastest players in College football. Achane had 49 less carries that Isaiah Spiller last season, but still led the Aggies in rushing touchdowns. The Texas native is a two-sport athlete, who also excels in track as a sprinter. Achane used his breathtaking speed and averaged seven yards per carry, which was the best in the FBS. He took a 96-yard kickoff to the house in the monumental upset over Alabama, which was Coach Jimbo Fisher’s first over an AP top-ranked team. The former four-star prospect rushed for 124 yards apiece in wins over Kent State and Missouri, plus he caught a touchdown against New Mexico. Achane rumbled for a season-high, 154 yards in the victory over South Carolina, and steamrolled for 110 and two touchdowns at Ole Miss.

2. Tank Bigsby, Auburn:  The former four-star prospect raised some eyebrows across the SEC when he decided to return for another season on the Plains. Bigsby has led the Tigers in carries and rushing yards for the past two years. He secured his first 1,000-yard campaign in 2021. The six-foot-one, 215-pounder is extremely physical. He surpassed the century mark in rushing in each of Auburn’s first three games, including a 102-yard performance at Penn State. Bigsby steamrolled for 140 yards on the ground and a score in the win over Ole Miss. His season-high of 164 rushing yards happened against South Carolina. The Georgia native also found the endzone against Georgia and Arkansas. Bigsby has racked up 1,933 yards on the ground over the past two seasons, and earned second-team, AP All-SEC in 2020.

1. Christopher Rodriguez Jr., Kentucky: The former three-star prospect is one of the most productive backs in the country, with 2,697 yards on the ground and 26 rushing touchdowns over the past three years. Rodriguez was No. 2 in the league in rushing yards per game last season. He averaged 6.13 yards per carry, which was second-best in the SEC also. He surpassed the century mark in rushing in nine of Kentucky’s 13 games, including a 207-yard outing in the win over Missouri. Although Rodriguez had some fumbling issues, he still capped of his 2021 campaign with second-team, All-SEC honors. The Georgia native has a jaw-dropping, 15 100-yard games in his career with the Wildcats. It’s unfortunate that Rodriguez will likely be suspended for at least one game because of a DUI arrest earlier this month.