Texas Longhorns: 2012 preseason position rankings

We're moving on with our rankings of the top 10 players at each position in the Big 12. Today, we tackle the running backs, a position with a lot of potential but not very much returning talent. My only rule for this list: No freshmen or newcomers. You don't know until you know.

Let's get started.

1. Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State: Randle is the Big 12's only returning 1,000-yard running back, and even the league's best back has something to prove in 2012. Quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon took a ton of pressure off him and opened up a lot of space. Can he help carry the offense early this season with a true freshman at quarterback and unproven receivers in the passing game?

[+] EnlargeMalcolm Brown
Ray Carlin/Icon SMIMalcolm Brown has the talent to emerge as the top rusher in a crowded Texas backfield.
2. Malcolm Brown, Texas: Brown's nose for tiny creases in the line is unparalleled in this league, even though he doesn't have breakaway speed. He's tough to bring down and loves to fall forward. In short, he's a perfect fit for Texas' offense, and the likeliest member of Texas' talented backfield trio to top 1,000 yards in 2012.

3. John Hubert, Kansas State: Life is good for Hubert when defenses focus heavily on quarterback Collin Klein, but you can't argue with his production. He averaged nearly five yards a carry and racked up 970 rushing yards last season.

4. Waymon James, TCU: James averaged a silly 7.23 yards per carry last season, leading TCU's trio of backs in rushing, though all three had between 120 and 123 carries (seriously). Ed Wesley is gone, and James' yards per carry average will drop as he faces tougher defenses this season, but he's still a big talent.

5. Jeremy Smith, Oklahoma State: Smith is the forgotten man in Oklahoma State's backfield until he keeps his legs churning and converts third downs, and chips a blitzing nickel back in the backfield to give Wes Lunt a couple more seconds to get rid of the ball. He's faster than he gets credit for, and averaged better than seven yards a carry in the Big 12 last season, the league's second-highest average.

6. Eric Stephens, Texas Tech: Stephens' season was cut way short last year by an awful knee injury. There's no telling how he'll look when the season starts back up, but not many guys were better than him over the first half of last season.

7. Dominique Whaley, Oklahoma: Whaley's season was cut short, too. He suffered a broken ankle, but the former walk-on is back and will try and make a run at a 1,000-yard season for the Sooners' pass-heavy offense. If he plays like he did last season before the injury, expect it to happen, and expect him to hog the carries in a crowded backfield.

8. Matthew Tucker, TCU: Tucker joins James in TCU's backfield. He scored 12 touchdowns last season, which ranks second among returning Big 12 running backs. Without Wesley, Tucker is due for more touches. The trio combined for more than 2,300 yards on the ground last season. Watching Tucker and James race for 1,000-yard seasons will be fun.

9. Roy Finch, Oklahoma: Finch loves to put defenders in the spin cycle, but could hardly get on the field last season until Whaley was injured. Once he did, though, he made a big impact. He topped 83 yards four times in five weeks late last season, but he has to be more consistent. He also had four yards on six carries against Iowa. We'll see if he showcases his explosiveness as a junior in 2012.

10. James White, Iowa State: Iowa State badly needed White to step up when Shontrelle Johnson went down with a neck injury, and White did. He topped 135 yards twice after Johnson's injury and scored eight times, including two in a triple-overtime win against Iowa early in the season.

Honorable mention: Dustin Garrison, West Virginia; Joe Bergeron, Texas; James Sims, Kansas; Shontrelle Johnson, Iowa State; Tony Pierson, Kansas
We'll be walking through the top 10 players at each position in the Big 12 before the season, but we'll start with the most important, especially in this league.

Let's do this:

1. Geno Smith, West Virginia: Smith put up huge numbers (4,385 yards, 31 TD, 7 INT, 65.8 completion percentage) and did so efficiently last season. Both of his top two targets are back and the adjustment to Big 12 defenses shouldn't be too difficult.

2. Landry Jones, Oklahoma: Jones and Smith will go head-to-head all season for honors as the Big 12's top passer. Who comes out on top is anyone's guess, but Jones regressed last season, and his receivers let him down after Ryan Broyles' season ended with a knee injury. He'll try to bounce back with just one reliable target (Kenny Stills) to start the season. The rest of the receiving corps is loaded with potential, but very inexperienced.

3. Collin Klein, Kansas State: Clearly, I'm taking more than just passing acumen into account here. Klein is the Big 12's No. 2 returning rusher, and also threw for just under 2,000 yards last season, adding 13 passing touchdowns to the 27 he scored rushing. We'll see how much better he is as a passer this fall.

[+] EnlargeCasey Pachall
Otto Kitsinger III/Getty ImagesTCU's Casey Pachall could be poised for a big year with a stable of talented receivers.
4. Seth Doege, Texas Tech: I refuse to hang last year's failures on Doege's shoulders. Absolutely not. He played well, at least as well as he could. The running game struggled and offered almost no support after Eric Stephens' injury. The defense was a disaster and there were injuries all over the place. Doege still went for more than 4,000 yards, 28 scores and just 10 picks. Don't be surprised if Doege throws his hat in the ring as the Big 12's best passer by season's end.

5. Casey Pachall, TCU: Pachall didn't have eye-popping numbers, but only because TCU rode on the shoulders of its trio of running backs. Still, Pachall's numbers are going to be better this year, and he's got great targets in Josh Boyce, Skye Dawson and Brandon Carter, not to mention youngster LaDarius Brown.

6. Nick Florence, Baylor: I like Florence to have a big year with really good receivers, but he's got too much to prove for now. He looked good in spot duty for RG3 against Texas Tech last season, but his senior season will look much, much different than his inconsistent freshman year all the way back in 2009.

7. Wes Lunt, Oklahoma State: The Big 12's only freshman quarterback is a true freshman, and Lunt earned this spot by beating out some really tough competition in J.W. Walsh and Colton Chelf this spring. Amazing stuff, and his coaches know good quarterbacks. Zac Robinson and Brandon Weeden have established quite the QB tradition in Stillwater. Here's guessing Lunt continues it.

8. Dayne Crist, Kansas: Crist's college career hasn't been what he imagined after coming to Notre Dame as one of the most highly recruited signal-calling prospects in his class, but he's got a chance to start something special at Kansas in his senior year, reunited with former coach Charlie Weis. Crist won't have the weapons some of the other guys on this list have, but he gives KU a big, big upgrade at the position.

9. Steele Jantz/Jared Barnett, Iowa State: These two have to cut down the turnovers, but they've both shown the ability to be playmakers. There's no guessing who wins this legitimate battle in the fall, but coach Paul Rhoads isn't afraid to bench either one if the turnovers don't stop.

10. David Ash/Case McCoy, Texas: Mack Brown insists it's still a contest. My jaw will be on the floor if Ash doesn't trot out on the field for the first game of the season. Ash has some potential and promising targets in Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley, but he hasn't shown the big-play ability of Jantz or Barnett. Expect Ash to move up this list by season's end, but for now, it's all just potential.

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