Who are the potential breakout running backs in 2012? Glad you asked, because ESPN's KC Joyner tackled that very question and a pair of Pac-12 running backs landed on his top five list.
USC running back Curtis McNeal checks in at No. 1 overall. With a moderate strength of schedule and four returning offensive linemen, here's what Joyner had to say about McNeal:
Losing first-round NFL draft pick Matt Kalil at left tackle is a negative, but getting the other four starting offensive linemen back means the quality portion of these numbers can be replicated. And since McNeal is likely to get a significant portion of the 125 carries Marc Tyler (lost to graduation) posted last season, it means McNeal's chances of getting an increased quantity of carries are also quite strong.
Not far behind McNeal in the No. 3 spot is Oregon running back Kenjon Barner, who is expected to have three of his big men back in front of him next season.
Here's Joyner's take:
The Ducks' run-blocking win rate was also quite impressive, so much so that Barner would likely have ranked higher than this were it not for Oregon losing two starting offensive linemen to graduation. Losing quarterback Darron Thomas also could cause some early transition issues, even though Bryan Bennett, Thomas' likely replacement, should be able to put together a strong season.
And even though he's not on Joyner's list, I'm going to throw Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor in there as well. Maybe I'm biased because I'm the Stanford blogger. Or maybe it's that the guy has rushed for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons while in a four-back rotating system and no one outside of Palo Alto seems to recognize the skills. (Actually, five backs when you consider Stanford's use of the fullback.)
Granted, this list is "breakout" backs. But Taylor's contributions continually seem to get overlooked. So much so that every year it feels like he has to have another "breakout" season just to get recognition. So keep an eye on that guy also in 2012.