Big 12 has grown into ‘a running back league’
AMES, Iowa — Big 12 Conference football has gone back in time.
The league was on the cutting edge of quarterback play and high-octane offenses years before the rest of the country — and even the NFL — started playing catch-up.
But this season, the show has been stolen.
Running backs have taken back the starring role in this conference, partying like it’s 1988.
Seven of the top eight teams in the conference standings have a running
back averaging more than 90 yards per game. Five of them average over 110 per game. And only one quarterback — West Virginia’s Jarret Doege — averages more than 230 yards per game.
Oklahoma State has seen some of the best running backs the league has to offer, and will face another this week when the No. 9 Cowboys take on Iowa State at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Ames.
OSU has faced Kansas State’s Deuce Vaughn, Baylor’s duo of Abram Smith and Trestan Ebner, and Texas’ Bijan Robinson. Now comes Iowa State’s Breece Hall. And the Cowboys counter with their own running back star, Jaylen Warren.
“It is a running back league,” OSU coach Mike Gundy said. “We’re going into week four now where if you’re not focused on wrapping this guy up and getting him down — Kansas State’s guy was that way, Baylor’s guy was that way. That guy down there last Saturday was that way. And this guy’s that way. Our running back’s a really good player. So there’s really, really good running backs in this league.”
A year ago, only two backs in the league — Hall and West Virginia’s Leddie Brown — averaged more than 80 rushing yards per game.
Hall led the pack by 30 yards, averaging 131.0 a game to Brown’s 101.0. And while Brown is struggling this year, Hall is back at it, carrying the Cyclones’ offense.
“(Hall) is electric, can flash and cut and make people miss, break tackles and run away from you,” Gundy said.
Of course, Gundy knows first-hand how important the run game has become.
After two weeks of struggling to run the ball, Gundy and Co. went all-in on the run game at Boise State, throwing the ball only 13 times and starting a string of games in which Warren has averaged 32 carries per game.
“It’s a lot of carries for him,” Gundy said of his 5-foot-8, 215-pound back. “When he’s as successful as he is, and he gets a little stronger as the game goes on, it’s sure hard to get him out.
“He’s more elusive than you think. When you look at his body, you think he’s not really a guy that makes you miss a lot. But he does make you miss. He does run through tackles and he has accelerated. And he does dip in and go around the corner. He’s just really productive.”
Here’s a look at the top backs in the Big 12:
Bijan Robinson, Texas Ht./Wt.: 6-0, 214 Rush Yards per game:
132.0 Breakdown: A patient, powerful back, Robinson has emerged as a playmaker in his sophomore season. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in six of Texas’ seven games and has scored 13 total touchdowns, including three receiving scores.
Breece Hall, Iowa State
Ht./Wt.: 6-1, 220
Rush Yards per game: 124.7 Breakdown: Now in his third year making plays in the Cyclone backfield, Hall was a Doak Walker Award finalist in 2020 and has at least 100 yards and two touchdowns in the past four games, including 197 yards on 30 carries against Kansas State.
Jaylen Warren, OSU Ht./Wt.: 5-8, 215 Rush Yards per game: 117.5 Breakdown: The redshirt senior
transfer from Utah State carried the ball just 20 times total in the Cowboys’ first two games, but emerged as the workhorse of the backfield in the third game at Boise State. Since that point, he’s averaging 164.8 yards on 32.0 carries per game.
Zach Evans, TCU
Ht./Wt.: 5-11, 212
Rush Yards per game: 117.2 Breakdown: A five-star recruit out of Houston, Evans is just a sophomore, but he’s already making a huge impact for the Horned Frogs. He didn’t play last week against OU, but had rushed for over 110 yards in each of the four previous games with six total touchdowns on the season.
Abram Smith, Baylor
Ht./Wt.: 5-11, 221
Rush Yards per game: 112.1 Breakdown: The leader in Baylor’s 1-2 punch along with Trestan Ebner — who is averaging 70.9 rushing yards per game — Smith is a senior who moved to linebacker in the middle of his career, only to move back and find immediate success this season, leading a much-improved Bears squad.
Kennedy Brooks, OU
Ht./Wt.: 5-11, 215
Rush Yards per game: 98.3 Breakdown: After opting out in 2020, Brooks has found his legs this season. Sharing the backfield with Eric Gray, Brooks’ numbers have been more erratic than those ahead of him on this list, but in his last two games, he has rushed for 217 yards against Texas and 153 against TCU.
Deuce Vaughn, Kansas State
Ht./Wt.: 5-6, 173
Rush Yards per game: 90.5 Breakdown: A sophomore from Round Rock, Texas, Vaughn is small but productive. He has at least 99 yards in four of six games this season, and had a three-touchdown game against Southern Illinois.