As we move closer to the start of the college football season, House of Sparky will begin with its look at the Pac-12 conference as we preview each position group leading up to the start of the 2016 season. On Monday, we started with the quarterbacks. Today, we take a look at the league's running backs.
Best Returning Player: Christian McCaffrey, Stanford Cardinal
While the rest of the country was affirmatively acquainted with McCaffrey during Stanford's demolition of Iowa in the 2016 Rose Bowl Game, the Pac-12 was tormented by the Heisman runner-up all season long in just about every way conceivable.
McCaffrey is a true playmaker. His 3,496 all-purpose yards set an NCAA record, and he was a threat to go the distance just about any time he touched the ball.
McCaffrey makes the Cardinal offense multi-dimensional, however with the losses of quarterback Kevin Hogan, several key receivers and two of the best offensive linemen in the nation, McCaffrey will be relied on to shoulder an even heavier load in 2016.
His teammates say he looks even better this offseason than he did last year, and if that's truly the case, well, the Cardinal won't be relinquishing their hold on the Pac-12 any time too soon.
Most Underappreciated Player: Ronald Jones II, USC Trojans
While Oregon's Royce Freeman is someone whose star may seem dimmed because of the existence of McCaffrey's gravitas, his production may not be considered as vital to his team's success as Jones' performance will be key to USC's success this season.
As a true freshman, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound speedster finished his first campaign with 987 yards and 8 touchdowns, while averaging 6.5 yards per rush.
Jones is the most dynamic runner of any of the Trojans' backs, and that became apparent to head coach Clay Helton as the season progressed; Helton increased Jones' carries per game from 7.3 rushes through the first six contests of the season to 13.9 rushes over the last eight.
Yes, the Trojans are loaded at receiver even outside of redshirt junior JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is touted by many as the best receiver in the nation. Regardless, Helton will rely on the run to try and pace the offense as he did last year, especially with a new starting quarterback.
Player with the Most to Prove: Myles Gaskin, Washington Huskies
Gaskin, like Freeman, could very easily have a case as the most underappreciated runner in the conference.
He had an impressive freshman campaign, running for 1,302 yards and 14 touchdowns to spearhead the Huskies offense.
The question is whether or not he can replicate that sort of production his sophomore year. During the offseason, quarterback Jake Browning fielded much of the praise for the competitive play of the young Washington group, leaving Gaskin further under the radar.
Another strong performance this year, and that will no longer be the case.
Backfields to Watch
Oregon: Royce Freeman, Kani Benoit, Taj Griffin
Freeman is the bell cow of the Ducks backfield, but Griffin and Benoit makes this unit a three-headed beast.
After logging 19 touchdowns and over 2,000 yards from scrimmage (1,836 rushing, 348 receiving), Freeman is expected to push McCaffrey for title as the best running back in the conference.
ASU: Demario Richard, Kalen Ballage
Prepare for trouble—and make it double.
Richard eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career, and Ballage etched out 653 yards of his own in 2015.
With an inexperienced signal-caller starting this year, the duo will be leaned on to carry the offense.
Good thing Richard is getting prepared to shoulder all of the load, and then some, should he have to.
Baby Beast Mode or
Baby Muscle Hamster?
Arizona: Nick Wilson, Orlando Bradford
Can Wilson regain his 2014 form when he rushed for 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns as a true freshman? As a sophomore, he missed four games because of injury, and only managed to half the output of his breakout season.
In his stead, Jared Baker primarily muscled the load, but he's now graduated. This leaves the Wildcats with Bradford to spell Wilson should he go down, and after rushing for 61 yards in their bowl win over New Mexico to close the season, they may not be too bad off.
UCLA: Soso Jamabo
With Paul Perkins having moved on, Jamabo inherits his feature back role, but junior Nate Starks will see his fair share of touches, too.
With the Bruins installing a pro-style offense to cater to quarterback Josh Rosen's abilities, head coach Jim Mora saying his offense will be "big, strong and physical" is a clear sign Jamabo and Starks will have a significant role in the UCLA offense.
Utah: Joe Williams
At times, Devontae Booker looked like the best runner in the country in his final year at Utah. An injury prematurely ended Booker's career, and Williams stepped in and performed admirably; he recorded back-to-back 100-yard outings in his first two starts, then rushed for 91 yards and two touchdowns against BYU in Utah's Las Vegas Bowl victory.
Entering his senior year, Williams appears primed and ready to shoulder the heavy load.
California: Tre Watson, Vic Enwere, Khalfani Muhammad
Tailback Daniel Lasco may not have earned the same recognition as quarterback Jared Goff, but proved he was still a very talented and effective rusher when provided the opportunity.
Enter Enwere, Muhammad and Watson to fill that void left by the team's lead back.
Oregon State: Ryan Nall
Storm Barrs-Woods' final season in Corvallis didn't exactly go as planned, but it did provide Beavers fans a preview of their new feature back in Nall.
As a true freshman, Nall tallied 455 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 6.2 yards per carry.
If the passing game—buoyed by star receivers Jordan Villamin and Victor Bolden—can get going, Nall may be the beneficiary.
Power Rankings (programs ordered according to current composition of running back unit)