It’s not a good time to be a linebacker in the Big 12.
The conference that was once known for producing NFL first-round draft picks at quarterback could be known for the guys who carry the rock in 2015. Only Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Iowa State enter the spring with real questions at the running back spot, while the rest of the conference has proven playmakers.
Oklahoma’s Perine could fight for All-American honors after a true freshman season that featured 1,713 yards and 21 rushing touchdowns along with first-team All-Big 12 honors. He was a handful for defenders with 636 of his rushing yards coming after contact.
Perine could be even better as a sophomore. It’s easy to overlook his journey to those incredible freshman numbers. The Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year was the foundation of the OU offense with minimal help in 2014, particularly after receiver Sterling Shepard was injured midway through conference play. Opponents knew he was the lone legit threat in the offense, yet he still rushed for 1,056 yards in the Sooners' final six games, including a single-game FBS-record 427 rushing yards against Kansas.
This season, offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley will bring his version of the Air Raid to Norman, Oklahoma, with the potential to create additional rushing lanes for Perine while also creating additional playmaking threats that defenses could be forced to account for. Even though Perine will be running behind a revamped offensive line, his open field and one-on-one opportunities could skyrocket in Riley’s system.
Baylor’s Linwood could be the most overlooked 1,200-yard rusher in Big 12 history. While Bryce Petty and the Bears’ high-powered passing game was showered with praise, Linwood was the platform that allowed the passing game to soar. Only Perine rushed for more yards after contact than Linwood’s 446. He finished with 1,252 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns.
There’s no reason to think he will take a step back in 2015, particularly with Petty no longer with him in the BU backfield. As the Bears' new starter at quarterback gains experience, Art Briles' team could turn to Linwood to shoulder the burden as one of the Big 12’s top playmakers.
Texas Tech’s DeAndre Washington was the only other Big 12 running back to surpass 1,000 yards in 2015, even though the Red Raiders' 4-8 record cast an impenetrable cloud over his individual brilliance. Washington contributed as a rusher (1,103 rushing yards, 2 TDs) and receiver (30 receptions, 328 yards) and was Tech’s most consistent offensive threat. He could be the most versatile running back in the entire conference while combining cat-like quickness with a willingness to run between the tackles.
TCU’s Green could be the biggest nightmare for Big 12 defenders this fall. The senior will line up alongside Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Trevone Boykin and has the ability to leave any defender grasping for air when they meet in the open field. His 7.1 yards-per-carry was the Big 12’s best, and he should enter the season atop the Horned Frogs' depth chart after starting 2014 as B.J. Catalon’s backup. A 1,200-yard season is well within his sights.
Perine, Linwood, Washington and Green finished 1-2-3-4 in the Big 12 rushing standings a year ago and could be even better in 2015. Add West Virginia’s duo of Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood along with Texas’ Johnathan Gray and Kansas’ Corey Avery and the conference has plenty of proven runners who could take it to another level this fall. And several newcomers, including OU’s Joe Mixon and Kansas State's Dalvin Warmack, could make an immediate impact during their first seasons on the field.
The Big 12 has earned a reputation as a quarterback league during the past decade, but a bevy of talented running backs appear poised to steal the spotlight in 2015.