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Staying grounded could be key in 2011

Scott Haynes, College Football Senior Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - There are a number of different ways that a collegiate tailback can make an impact in a game. Whether it is a true workhorse that churns out hard-earned yardage to keep drives alive, a homerun- hitter that can break through the initial line of scrimmage and is gone or a goal-line specialist that has a nose for the end zone. There is even still, that back that can do a little bit of everything, including catching the ball out of the backfield and/or sharing blocking duties.

The 2011 campaign is sure to have its share of all of the above. Here are a list of the top running backs who are likely to become household names by season's end, if not already.

LAMICHAEL JAMES - One of the favorites in the Heisman race to begin this season, James returns to Eugene with a sense of unfinished business. He could have easily joined the professional ranks after his second successful season with Oregon. Unlike the NBA star with the same surname, this James knows how to finish games. After rushing for 1,546 yards and 14 TDs as a freshman in 2009, James dwarfed those numbers with 1,731 yards and 21 TDs last year, en route to a third-place finish in the Heisman balloting and becoming Oregon's first-ever unanimous All-American. Last year's Doak Walker Award winner will once again be a featured back in Oregon's potent offensive attack and rightfully so, averaging 6.3 yards per carry and 131.1 yards per game over his two-year career. Junior Kenjon Barner is another exciting back for the Ducks, but will once again have to wait his turn behind college football's King James.

TRENT RICHARDSON - This talented tailback has had to bide his time in Tuscaloosa, relegated to backup duty behind Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram the last two seasons. However, 2011 will be the time for Richardson to step out of the shadows and shine. Carries have been sparse for the 5-11, 224- pounder the last two seasons, but he has made the most of his touches, rushing for 751 yards and eight TDs (145 carries) in 2009 and 700 yards and six TDs (112 carries) in 2010. Richardson is a versatile back with the ability to run through would-be defenders or leave them in the dust. He will be the go-to-guy in Nick Saban's offensive gameplan week-in and week-out and could very well be the second Crimson Tide tailback to win the Heisman in the last three seasons.

LaMichael James is one of the favorites to win the Heisman.
MICHAEL DYER - When last seen on the gridiron, it was this talented tailback that was leading the Auburn Tigers down the field on a decisive scoring drive that cemented the national title, not Auburn's Heisman-winning QB. The 5-9, 206-pounder set the Auburn freshman record with 1,093 yards, including a game- high 143 yards and the winning TD scamper on the biggest of stages in Glendale, en route to being named the Offensive MVP of the BCS National Title Game. Gone is Cam Newton, and as a result, Dyer should see his workload increase exponentially from last year's 182 carries (6.0 ypc).

KNILE DAVIS - There is some serious talent at the running back position in the SEC and Arkansas' workhorse is as good as any. The 6-0, 225-pounder rushed for just 163 yards in 2009 as a freshman. The 2010 campaign was a different story however, as Davis rumbled for 1,322 yards and 13 TDs on 6.5 yards per carry for an Arkansas squad that threw the ball an awful lot. What makes him so explosive is his size/speed combination, running a sub 4.4 forty. With QB Ryan Mallett moving on, Arkansas will rely more on the rushing exploits of Davis in 2011. Not a bad gameplan.

MARCUS LATTIMORE - The "Ole Ball Coach" went young with inserting this talented freshman in the lineup in 2010 and it paid huge dividends as Spurrier and South Carolina went on to win the SEC East Division. The 6-0, 231-pounder rushed for 1,197 yards and 17 TDs. For his part, Lattimore was named to several All-American lists, was the National Freshman of the Year, the SEC Freshman of the Year and an SEC First-Team selection. A natural talent with a superior work ethic, Lattimore has yet to hit his true potential, a scary thought for USC's opponents in 2011.

RONNIE HILLMAN - The resurgence of San Diego State sports is not limited to the hardwood. The Aztec football team has something going for it as well, as evidenced by SDSU's nine wins a year ago (the most since 1977). There was an anticipation regarding Ronnie Hillman when he arrived on campus and the 5-10, 180-pound youngster did not disappoint. When all was said and done, Hillman was named the Mountain West Freshman of the Year and picked up All-American accolades as well. A highlight reel waiting to happen, Hillman rushed for a whopping 1,532 yards last year, with 17 TDs. New head coach Rocky Long may be a defensive-minded guy, but it doesn't take an offensive guru to know that SDSU will be best served to get Hillman's hands on the ball as much as possible.

MONTEL HARRIS - A rare veteran on this list, Boston College's Harris epitomizes the term "workhorse." Already the school's all-time leader in carries (756) and 100-yard rushing games (21), he also holds the ACC record for rushing yards through junior year and is second on the school's career list with 3,600 yards. The 5-10, 200-pound senior is looking to finish a remarkable collegiate career on a high note in 2011, after rushing for 1,243 yards and eight TDs in 2010. One thing is for sure, barring an injury, Harris is sure to get the requisite carries to get the job done.

CHRIS POLK - The Huskies were led by star quarterback Jake Locker, who was a first-round selection in the recent NFL Draft, but perhaps more valuable on the field week-in and week-out for Washington was the 5-11, 214-pound Polk. There were signs of Polk's talent, as he set the UW freshman record for rushing in 2009, with 1,113 yards. He took it to another level as a sophomore, amassing 1,415 yards and nine TDs, on 5.4 yards per carry last year. He has 486 carries in his first two seasons with the Huskies and with Locker now having moved on, it isn't likely that head coach Steve Sarkisian is going to curtail Polk's workload for 2011.

DAN HERRON - Yes he is going to miss the first five games of the season due to suspension, but this is a list of the most talented tailbacks in the country and Herron belongs in the conversation. The Buckeye program is in disarray right now, but head coach Luke Fickell would be best served to get Herron the ball often when he is finally eligible to suit up. The 5-10, 210-pounder will have a shortened season, but he is always consistent when on the field. Last year, he netted 1,155 yards and 16 TDs on 5.3 yards per carry. The absence of OSU's talented but troubled Terrelle Pryor could increase Herron's workload on a per game basis in 2011. The overall numbers may not reflect it, but this is an extremely talented playmaker.

JAMES WHITE/MONTEE BALL - It was a three-headed monster in the backfield for Wisconsin last year, but one/third of that has moved on with John Clay's departure to the NFL. White had the least amount of carries among the big three, but finished with the most yards, averaging 6.7 yards per carry, 1,052 rushing yards and 14 TDs. White was named an All-Big Ten Second-Team member and was tabbed the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year for his efforts. Ball just missed his own 1,000-yard campaign with 996 yards, but he did score a team- high 18 TDs, en route to All-Big Ten Honorable Mention. Wisconsin loves to run the football and why not with the stable of backs that reside in Madison.

HONORABLE MENTION: Edwin Baker (Michigan State), Isaiah Pead (Cincinnati), Jeff Demps (Florida), Bryce Beal (Houston), Doug Martin (Boise State), Lance Dunbar (North Texas), Bobby Rainey (Western Kentucky).

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Scott Haynes at shaynes@sportsnetwork.com.

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