HOOVER, Ala. -- Bobby Petrino had a tinge of displeasure when hearing Knile Davis, Arkansas’ workhorse back and the leading returning rusher in the SEC, didn’t make it on the conference’s preseason first team.
Then he took a look at the list of candidates.
“There’s a lot of talent there, there’s no question about it,” Petrino said. “You say, ‘Well, I feel like he should be a first-team player.’ But there’s a lot of other guys that feel like their running backs should be, too.”
The conference that long ago produced Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson has perhaps its strongest running back class in years, including young, talented runners who more than make up for the dearth of quality quarterbacks across the board.
Auburn quarterback Cam Newton upset the natural order last year, leading the league in rushing with an historic and unique season, but the prime contenders to follow up his Heisman campaign are in the backfield, most notably South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore and Alabama’s Trent Richardson.
But they’re not alone. Fourteen of the conference’s 20 leading rushers last year are back with Florida’s Jeff Demps still keeping the possibility of a return open. That’s not counting incoming freshman and former Carver standout Isaiah Crowell, a top running back recruit whose presumed path to instant starter at Georgia has been cleared by a rash of offseason attrition.
In fact, four 1,000-yard rushers return -- Davis, Lattimore, Mike Dyer of Auburn and Tauren Poole of Tennessee -- the most the conference has had in the past 10 years. Given the SEC’s depth at the position, it could finish with its most 1,000-yard rushers in the last decade, topping the eight who reached that mark in 2007.
Who are the best candidates to get to get there this year? It’s a long list.
Lattimore was called the “best running back in the country” by South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier, an argument hard to argue with after he ran for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns as a freshman, leading the Gamecocks to their first SEC title game appearance.
Richardson finally has his chance as a feature back now that former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram is in the pros. He ran for 700 yards and six touchdowns in a reserve role last year and should be the Tide’s workhorse.
Dyer capped a stellar freshman season by earning offensive MVP honors in the BCS title game against Oregon with a 143-yard performance. He broke Bo Jackson’s Auburn freshman record by running for 1,093 yards and, with Newton gone, will be the Tigers’ meal ticket.
Davis quietly led SEC backs in rushing with 1,322 yards, adding 13 touchdowns. Petrino’s offenses will always be known for the quarterbacks, but Davis is a safer bet for a big year than Ryan Mallett’s replacement Tyler Wilson.
Mississippi’s Brandon Bolden was fifth in the conference last year, averaging 81.3 yards per game, failing to get to the 1,000-yard mark only because the Rebels didn’t make a bowl game. He’s running behind arguably the best offensive line in the league.
Mississippi State’s Vick Ballard made a smooth transition from junior college last year, rushing for 968 yards and 19 touchdowns, the most in the conference by a running back.
Poole was sixth in the SEC with 1,034 yards, adding 11 touchdowns for the Volunteers.
Auburn’s Onterio McCalebb is a speed threat who ran for 801 yards and nine scores last year, averaging an NCAA-best 8.53 yards per carry. With Newton gone and the Tigers’ running back depth lacking, he’ll get a shot to be more of an everydown back to complement Dyer.
Crowell hasn’t played a game but could be the Bulldogs’ primary rushing threat after Washaun Ealey transferred and Caleb King was ruled ineligible this summer. Journeyman Richard Samuel is the No. 1 back for now, but that should change by the time Georgia starts the season against Boise State.
The conference’s backs are so deep that it’s tough to put them in a pecking order.
“In my opinion, you can’t put us one, two, three, four overall,” Ballard said. “They’ve all got God-given ability, that’s for sure.”