The Big XII is in a state of transition. New schools are coming in. Texas and Oklahoma are in their last year before they bolt for the SEC. And some pretty top-end talent at the running back position moved on to the NFL for the 2023 season. At Last Word on College Football, we are taking a look at the best returning players, by position, for each conference. Today we take a look at the Big XII’s best returning running backs.
To qualify for consideration, you have to be returning to your team. No one who has transferred in via the portal in the off-season will make the list. Running backs who are joining their school as new members of the Big XII are eligible for the list. They didn’t transfer. Their school did.
To have any viable discussion about the running back position in the Big XII, you have to first acknowledge the talent that is gone. Bijan Robinson, (Texas), and Deuce Vaughn, (Kansas State), were dynamic in their individual styles. Robinson was deserving of being a top 10 NFL draft pick. And while Vaughn went much later in the draft, he has proven in the past that all he needs is the ball and the smallest of holes on the front line, and he can explode in the open field. So who are the returnees who rate your attention on Saturdays this Fall?
Richard Reese; Baylor
The Bears are likely to have a running game by committee to some degree this season. Reese is going to be a large factor in that. The sophomore-to-be from Bellville, Texas was an FWAA Freshman All-American last season. He was also Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year. The 5-9, 175-pound back is a speed freak who makes it look effortless in the open field.
Even while sharing the running back duties last year, he picked up 972 yards and 14 touchdowns, while averaging just five yards per carry. He had three games of more than 100 yards, including 186 yards and two touchdowns at home against Kansas.
Jovantae Barnes; Oklahoma
By the end of the season, we may be looking back at this pick and thinking we should have ranked Barnes higher. The potential is undeniably there. As a freshman in 2022, he pulled up 519 yards on only 116 carries. He added five rushing touchdowns to the numbers.
If the Sooners’ offense can get him more carries, the ceiling for him is very high. Barnes had only 17 total carries in the last three games of the regular season but then went off in the Cheez-It Bowl. He had 108 yards and a touchdown in the loss to Florida State.
He has a powerful running style at 6-0, 200 pounds, he has good balance on contact and can blow through defenders.
Devin Neal; Kansas
Number three on our list of the Big XII’s best returning running backs is a yearly climber. Neal has been elevating his on-field performance year by year in Lawrence. At 5-11, 210 pounds, he has the physicality to get through tackles and the lateral mobility to get around defenders.
In his first season at Kansas, Neal ran for 707 yards and eight touchdowns with an average of four-and-a-half yards per carry. Last year, as a sophomore, he upped all of his numbers. His rushing yards went up to 1,090. His yards per carry went up over six. Even his receptions out of the backfield tripled from seven in 2021 to 21 last season, adding diversity to a run-heavy offense. He needs 20+ carries per game to produce. He averaged only 13 carries per game in the last three games of last season, all losses. But he had 56 carries over two games, (OK State and Texas Tech) and put up 414 combined yards as a result.
Jonathon Brooks; Texas
We have seen him at #1 in the conference on numerous lists. We contend we need to see it first. He was essentially the third-string running back for the Longhorns last year behind Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson.
Brooks had 30 carries for 197 yards in his second season in Austin. He also had five rushing touchdowns to go with that eye-opening six-and-a-half yards per carry average.
He plays the game with tremendous physicality and speed and 6-0, 204 pounds. As he takes over as the number one back in the Longhorns’ backfield, the potential is huge. He just needs the workload as the premier back to prove it.
C.J. Donaldson; West Virginia
As we conclude our look at the Big XII’s best returning running backs, Donaldson is here as much for what he did last year as for what we imagine he can do going forward. He went to Morgantown as a tight end. At 6-2, 240, he was a little short for the position at the FBS level, but he had the physical build for it. But after Fall camp last year, he was converted to running back because of his physicality, and there is no going back now. No one would want to.
In the season opener against Pitt, he rushed for 125 yards on just seven carries.
He missed November with an injury, but still finished the season with 526 yards on 87 carries to go with eight touchdowns. All that in just seven games. The imagination runs wild thinking about what he can do over a full, healthy 12 games. The speed he possesses for a guy his size is just not seen that often.
Photo courtesy: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports