SEC spotlight returns to tailbacks

By John Zenor/The Associated Press

Running backs have reclaimed the spotlight — and the ball — in the Southeastern Conference. They might not be inclined to give either back any time soon.

Even South Carolina’s head ball coach Steve Spurrier has put his offense largely in the hands of tailback Marcus Lattimore. His old Fun ‘N Gun Florida Gators, meanwhile, have turned more Run ‘N Stun with the SEC’s top running attack. Alabama, LSU and Florida have ridden tailback tandems to 4-0 starts and Mike Dyer has been perhaps Auburn’s lone star.

“Teams are running for more than they’re throwing, which is a little unusual,” Spurrier said. “That’s the way it is here. Some other places they’re throwing a lot more, but I think the running game has bounced back.”

There are plenty of reasons for that. Among them, Lattimore, Chris Rainey, Trent Richardson and Isaiah Crowell.

Equally important are those absent from the scene: Ball-hogging Heisman Trophy-winners Cam Newton and Tim Tebow. Four straight years, one of those two quarterbacks ranked among the SEC’s top seven rushers, and Newton led the way last season.

Now, eight of the 12 SEC teams rank 75th or worse in passing offense. The league has seven of the top 48 ground games.

The offenses have more traditional, and often inexperienced, quarterbacks and a renewed focus on the run. The league that produced famed backs like Bo Jackson, Herschel Walker and Emmitt Smith is loaded with rising young tailbacks.

Whose sophomore is most super? Check out Saturday’s Auburn game at No. 10 South Carolina when Dyer and Lattimore take the field

The best backfield tandem? Well, No. 3 Alabama and No. 12 Florida both take prolific pairs into Saturday’s meeting.

The pounding at SEC defenses won’t change anytime soon; six of the league’s top 10 rushers are underclassmen, including the Georgia freshman Crowell.

LSU sophomores Spencer Ware and Michael Ford have helped the top-ranked Tigers average 38.8 points a game.

All that doesn’t even count Arkansas junior Knile Davis, who ran for 1,322 yards last season but is out in 2011 with an ankle injury.

The biggest star has been Lattimore. Just a sophomore, he ranks third nationally in rushing with 152.8 yards a game. Five other SEC backs also rank among the top 31 even though several are divvying carries with productive backfield mates.

“Everybody’s fighting to be that No. 1 running back,” Richardson said. “Coaches, they’re putting us out there, letting us go out there and compete. I think all of our coaches are doing a good job of that. You really can’t say who the better running back right now is because everybody is out there battling every week.”

At Alabama, Richardson and Eddie Lacy haven’t missed a step without 2009 Heisman winner Mark Ingram. They’ve combined for 806 yards in four games. Richardson has run for eight touchdowns and Lacy is averaging 8.9 yards per carry.

They’ll be the power to Florida’s flash Saturday in Gainesville. The swift Rainey and blazing fast Demps have run for 731 yards between them for the Gators, who are averaging a league-best 259 yards on the ground under new offensive coordinator Charlie Weis.

Demps is gobbling up 9.4 yards a carry. Richardson is a Florida native who raced Demps in the state track meet a few years ago, and says he thinks the Gators star was the only runner to beat him in the 100 meters that year.

“For the first 40 we were going at it,” Richardson said. “After that it wasn’t a race. He’s pretty fast. I think after 80 meters he was already like 10 meters, maybe 20 meters in front of me. That dude was fast.”

Defenses have trouble preparing for all that speed.

“When you play Florida it’s, ‘These guys are fast. We’ve got to set edges,'” Tennessee defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “A lot of the guys have never seen anybody run that fast. Until you see it face to face and find your angle doesn’t work like it usually does and you’ve got to adjust your angle — it’s hard to simulate.”

Auburn’s Dyer has been even stronger than last season, when he was offensive MVP of the national championship game. The sophomore is averaging 6.9 yards per carry and 106.5 yards a game, behind only Lattimore and Richardson, now that Newton’s gone. He broke Bo Jackson’s school freshman rushing mark last season.

Crowell, who took over as the starter in Game 3, is tied with Rainey for fourth in the league with 411 yards. His roommate, tight end Orson Charles, said Crowell is a mature guy who listens to counsel and has improved his stamina.

It showed last weekend, when Crowell rushed 30 times for 147 yards in the Bulldogs’ win over Mississippi.

“He’s starting to understand the Georgia way,” Charles said. “You see him out there after he gets a carry for a good gain, he’s starting to jump up and down and have fun, and that’s something that we really missed last year.”

It’s not as if the league was ever short on star backs. Seven SEC running backs have been first-round NFL draft picks the past seven years, including Ingram.

They were just competing with other big stars for attention, and the ball. After all, Auburn’s Newton and Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford were No. 1 picks over the past three seasons.

Wide receivers Julio Jones of Alabama and AJ Greene of Georgia were among the top six players selected in the latest draft.

Now, the focus is back on the backs. Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae isn’t surprised.

“If you’re going to be in the SEC and you can’t recruit any great running backs,” Egaue said, “then you probably shouldn’t be in the league.”

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AP Sports Writers Beth Rucker, Pete Iacobelli and Charles Odum contributed to this report.