6 Most Valuable Backups in 2014 College Football Season
In the 85-scholarship era of college football, depth is as important as ever.
Gone are the days when the likes of Bear Bryant, Barry Switzer or Darrell Royal could stockpile talented players, stacking every key position at the depth chart if only to keep players away from their closest competitors.
The Football Bowl Subdivision’s 85-scholarship limit has evened the field in college football, allowing the likes of Boise State, Central Florida and Utah to win Bowl Championship Series games while competing in non-power leagues like the American Athletic Conference or Mountain West.
Finding players who can step in and duplicate a starter’s production when injuries inevitably happen is not easy, which makes having depth and solid backups so important.
Here is a look at a select group of players across college football who have emerged as the most talented backups. These men are capable of stepping in and making an impact should a starter be sidelined, or even if he stays healthy the entire season.
Alex Collins, Arkansas
Who He’s Behind: Jonathan Williams
Collins was The Associated Press’s SEC Freshman of the Year last fall and made seven freshman All-America teams but wasn’t even the starter in Arkansas’ loaded backfield. That honor fell to Jonathan Williams, who rushed for 900 yards and averaged six yards per tote. Collins rushed for 1,026 yards as the nation’s leading freshman rusher.
At 5’11”, 215 pounds, Collins possesses exceptional speed and complements the powerful Williams quite well. Along with Korliss Marshall, they provide the potent running game that coach Bret Bielema has prized throughout his coaching career. Williams and Collins are being touted as one of the Razorbacks' best backfield duos ever, per the Associated Press (h/t San Francisco Chronicle).
Collins had four 100-yard games last fall, becoming the first freshman in SEC history to start his career with three consecutive 100-yard games. He averaged 5.4 yards per carry and actually led the Razorbacks in carries. He’ll push Williams for a starting role this fall, but no matter what position he occupies on the depth chart, Collins will strike fear into opposing defenses.
Imani Cross, Nebraska
Who He’s Behind: Ameer Abdullah
Cross would be a starting tailback in plenty of programs, but Nebraska is not one of them. The presence of senior Ameer Abdullah makes that a certainty. Last fall, Abdullah rushed for 1,690 yards, which was the fourth-highest total in NU history. While Cross was important to the Cornhuskers offense, he did not receive starter-level carries.
Last fall, Cross carried 85 times for 447 yards but did score 10 touchdowns while averaging 5.3 yards per carry. He had a career-high 105 yards against Wyoming and excelled in short-yardage situations, getting tough yards when Nebraska needed them most.
At 6’1”, 230 pounds, Cross has a durable, tough body capable of grinding out yardage but also breaking big plays. He had a 51-yard touchdown run against Michigan State. This fall he figures to team with Abdullah to punish opponents, which will be just fine with Nebraska’s fans.
Michael Dyer, Louisville
Who He’s Behind: Dominique Brown
It seems so much longer than four years ago that Michael Dyer was the toast of college football. The freshman played a huge role in Auburn’s 2010 national title season, rushing for an Auburn freshman-record 1,093 yards and winning MVP honors in the Tigers’ BCS National Championship Game win while rushing for 143 yards.
However, disciplinary issues led to his exit from AU following another 1,000-yard season in 2011, and he washed out at Arkansas State without playing a game following a traffic stop where a pistol and a substance believed to be marijuana were found, per Yahoo Sports and the Jonesboro (Ark.) Sun.
Following a brief stopover at Arkansas Baptist, Dyer landed at Louisville, where he rushed for 223 yards and two touchdowns on 44 carries last fall in eight games. He was hobbled by injuries but is healthy now and was impressive this spring.
New coach Bobby Petrino loves to feed the ball to multiple tailbacks, and there is room in the offense for Brown, Dyer and others in the Cardinals backfield. He rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns in Louisville’s spring game. Dyer has the talent to excel, and he’ll have one more chance to prove it this fall under Petrino’s watch.
Derrick Henry, Alabama
Who He’s Behind: T.J. Yeldon
Derrick Henry is part of one of the nation’s deepest, most potent backfields at Alabama. He stands 6’3”, 240 pounds and has excellent size, speed and power. He was a 5-star prospect coming out of Yulee, Florida, per 247Sports, and was considered one of the nation’s top tailback prospects when he signed with the Crimson Tide.
However, T.J. Yeldon’s presence leaves him in a timeshare, at best, in the Tide’s backfield. Last fall, Henry carried 36 times for 382 yards, averaging an eye-popping 10.6 yards per carry. And while Alabama’s Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma was nothing to remember, Henry gave fans reason to smile by rushing for 100 yards on eight carries and adding a 61-yard touchdown reception.
Nick Saban loves to divide carries between more than one tailback, and Henry figures to have an increased workload this fall. If something happens to Yeldon, he’s ready to step in as a punishing every-down tailback.
Shaq Lawson, Clemson
Position: Defensive end
Who He’s Behind: Vic Beasley
Clemson’s defensive line is one of college football’s best. Last fall, the Tigers led the FBS in tackles for loss per game and finished No. 13 in sacks per game, and they return every member of the two-deep in 2014.
Lawson is the biggest example of Clemson’s D-line depth. While working behind All-American Vic Beasley, he had a stellar redshirt freshman season, making 10 tackles for loss, four sacks and nine quarterback pressures in 337 snaps. He was named a second-team freshman All-American.
Beasley spurned the NFL for one more season of college football, and senior Corey Crawford holds down the other defensive end spot, which leaves Lawson, who stands 6’3”, 270 pounds, as a backup this fall. However, he should still make a significant impact with his excellent speed and pass-rushing ability. Even behind Beasley, Lawson will wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines in 2014.
Keith Marshall, Georgia
Who He’s Behind: Todd Gurley
With Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall forms one of America’s top tailback duos. Both are speedy, powerful backs who make game-planning a nightmare for opposing defenses. Marshall has more than 1,000 rushing yards in just over 1.5 seasons of college football. He rushed for 759 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman and gained 246 yards with one touchdown last fall before tearing his ACL.
Because Marshall had played in five games, he wasn’t eligible for a medical redshirt, ending his sophomore season. However, he is healthy this fall, per Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner-Herald, and is ready to rejoin Gurley in a potent Bulldogs backfield.
At 5’11”, 215 pounds, Marshall has excellent size, speed, strength and agility. He had three 100-yard rushing games as a freshman, including a 164-yard effort against Tennessee, and is equally capable of taking over a game or teaming with Gurley to wear down a defensive line through repetition. He’ll surely push Gurley this fall, but if he comes off the bench, he’ll be one of the nation’s most valuable backups.