Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, who led the Pac-12 in average rushing yards per game in the past two seasons, has left the conference and opened a spot for a new face to step into that No. 1 spot in the Pac-12.
So, let’s hear it: Which Pac-12 running back leads the conference in rushing yards per game in 2017?
David Lombardi: Stanford’s Bryce Love
McCaffrey led the Pac-12 in rushing last season despite the fact that Stanford’s offensive line struggled for a large part of the season. McCaffrey also missed two games, allowing the Cardinal to showcase Love — his heir apparent.
Love is smaller than McCaffrey, but he’s faster. In just two 2016 starts, it was clear that Love is one of the most explosive players in the Pac-12. He broke the century mark both times and averaged 5.6 yards per carry in this featured action.
Stanford is confident that its line struggles last season were an aberration, especially after the emergence of freshman guard Nate Herbig and the signings of elite tackle prospects Foster Sarell and Walker Little. The Cardinal expect the front to be rejuvenated in front of Love, and that gives the speedster potential for a massive year.
Then there’s the issue of an unsettled quarterback position. Keller Chryst isn’t expected to be healthy until training camp at the earliest, so Stanford isn’t sure about its Week 1 starter. So aside from being thrust into the full-time top running back role, Love’s running is expected to be the primary weapon. The recipe for a Pac-12 rushing championship is there.
Ted Miller: Colorado’s Phillip Lindsay
Ah, we ask about running back production in 2017, but at least 60 percent of this question doesn't involve those flashy skill dudes, chillin' in the VIP section behind the velvet ropes with wraparound shades. No, the predominant portion of this question is about the large, mostly anonymous fellows in flannel shirts wondering if it would be rude to ask for a second ribeye off the grill.
While, admittedly, this question sets up well for Royce Freeman and Oregon — great back, experienced returning O-line — we’re going to look to Boulder, where things align well for scrappy Colorado senior Phillip Lindsay. Lindsay finished fifth in the Pac-12 with 89.4 yards per game last year, though his 1,252 total rushing yards ranked third.
But this isn’t just about him. It’s about four starters returning on the offensive line, as well as several experienced backups. That line is led by left tackle Jeromy Irwin, who was second-team All-Pac-12 this past season, and Gerrad Kough, who earned honorable mention, as well as some promising youngsters.
It’s also about Lindsay being option A as the Buffaloes break in new starting QB Steven Montez. And it’s about a rebuilding Colorado defense that the Buffs' offense will want to protect with longer drives and more time of possession. So picking Lindsay is a decision based on the senior’s talent and previous production, circumstances and supporting cast.
Chantel Jennings: Oregon’s Royce Freeman
Everything is setting up for Freeman to have a monstrous year.
Offensive line? Check.
Talented, motivated running back? Check.
Good coaching for both the O-line and running backs? Check.
Oregon returns four starters off its 2016 offensive line -- Brady Aiello, Shane Lemieux, Jake Hanson and Calvin Throckmorton. Add to that mix Tyrell Crosby, who missed last season with an injury, and the Ducks have five experienced players who, even if they lose their starting spot to another talented player, will still provide important depth along the line.
The offensive-line coaching has been taken over by Mario Cristobal, who coached a pretty great offensive line at Alabama for the last four seasons. Some of that Crimson Tide's credit should be thrown in Cristobal’s corner, and now he’s running things for the Ducks’ O-line.
And when it comes to Freeman, who will now be coached by Donte Pimpleton, everything seems to be setting up for him to return in a big way. One of the big reasons he came back was to play for new coach Willie Taggart, so he has that motivation on his shoulders. For his future, he wants to prove that he’s a first-round talent after planting seeds of doubt a season ago. And he’s going to be pushed by Tony Brooks-James for the job every single day in practice.