Take Two: Best running back in 2014?

February, 11, 2014
Feb 11
10:00
AM ET
On Tuesdays this offseason, the Big 12 reporting crew will give their takes on burning questions facing the league. We'll leave up to you to decide who is right.

Today's Take Two topic: The Big 12 loses its top five rushers from last season. So who will be the league’s best running back in 2014?

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsJohnathan Gray has the potential to be the best running back in the Big 12 if he can fully recover from a late-season Achilles injury.
Take 1: Brandon Chatmon

The only thing standing between Johnathan Gray and the 2014 All-Big 12 first team is his health.

The Texas running back is recovering from an Achilles injury which forced him to miss the final four games of his sophomore season, but will lock down his place as the Big 12’s top running back if he returns to his pre-injury form as a junior. He had 159 carries for 780 yards and four touchdowns in nine games in 2013.

Gray has terrific feet, quickness and good vision, making him a difficult runner to contain for any defense. His 86.67 yards per game is the best among the Big 12’s returning running backs, a full 13 yards better than the next best returning running back, Shock Linwood of Baylor (73.42 yards per game).

Yet, make no mistake, his return to full health won’t be a smooth road. Anyone who has seen Kobe Bryant try to return from his Achilles injury understands Gray faces a tall task to return to an his pre-injury form. Assuming he does, he will be a major force in the Big 12.

Gray’s exceptional talent combined with Joe Wickline taking over as offensive coordinator is a recipe for a special season for the Longhorns running back. Wickline will bring a physical mentality to the UT offense and, if Gray is healthy, a lack of carries or involvement won’t be an issue for the former Under Armour All-American.

Take 2: Jake Trotter

Nobody clamored for Texas to get the ball to Gray last season more than I. It doesn’t take a genius -- and I’m no genius -- to figure out the Longhorns have yet to lose a game in which the ultra-talented Gray carries the ball more than 20 times. Although often under-utilized, Gray was still on his way to an All-Big 12-caliber season last year. But he ruptured his Achilles tendon at West Virginia in early November, which sidelined him the rest of the season and will sideline him this spring, too. As Brandon points out, Gray will inflict plenty of damage if he can return to his pre-injury form before next season. But Achilles injuries, historically, have been brutal for running backs.

Besides Gray, there are other options to consider. Former blue chipper Keith Ford will finally get the keys to the Oklahoma backfield, but he might have to share them with incoming hotshot freshman Joe Mixon. Desmond Roland solidified the Oklahoma State running game last season but ranked just 13th in yards per carry (4.61). Iowa State’s Aaron Wimberly has durability concerns; West Virginia’s Dreamius Smith has competition for carries.

All of which is why I’m going with Shock Linwood here.

When Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin were both injured, Linwood shined as a freshman, rushing for 369 yards over a dazzling two-game stretch. As a result, Linwood ranked seventh in the Big 12 with 811 rushing yards despite being the Bears’ third-team running back. With Seastrunk and Martin now gone, Linwood will be Baylor’s first-team back going forward. And if last year’s two-game run is any indication, Linwood could be in for a monster sophomore campaign.

Brandon Chatmon | email

Oklahoma/Big 12 reporter

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