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August 7, 2007

Backup backs often rise to the occasion

MORE: RIVALS FIVE: Top Running Back Tandems

Once upon a time, Barry Sanders backed up Thurman Thomas at Oklahoma State.

That's not a bad insurance policy.

That year, the Cowboys never had to rely on Sanders because Thomas was an All-American. In hindsight, they may have wished Sanders had few more touches. In Sanders' only year as a starter he set the NCAA single-season rushing record with 2,625 yards and 39 touchdowns.

A player the caliber of Sanders may not be a backup on any rosters this year, but some teams have an embarrassment of riches at the position.

Last year, Oklahoma learned it had more than just a backup in Allen Patrick. The running back rushed for 761 yards last year while Adrian Peterson battled through injuries.

We'll help you find out who could be this year's Patrick.

Rivals.com Top 10 Backup Running Backs
1. George Stripling, Louisville
Even without Michael Bush, Louisville's backfield proved last year it is stocked with depth. Bulldozing sophomore Anthony Allen is expected to start for Louisville this year after running for 13 touchdowns as a true freshman. Stripling will join a host of backups, but he has the most game experience. Stripling was second on the team behind Kolby Smith with 429 yards rushing, but he's also a threat as a pass-catcher (252 receiving yards). Stripling was productive as Bush's backup in 2005. He gained 621 yards, scored seven touchdowns and averaged 7.9 yards per carry.
2. Jeremiah Johnson, Oregon
Johnson got plenty of work last year while Jonathan Stewart was limited by injuries. Along the way, he proved he's much more than Stewart's understudy. Johnson topped 15 carries in a game only once last year, but finished with nine touchdowns - one fewer than Stewart. His fresh legs helped him average 6.4 yards per carry and gain 644 total yards. Oregon will continue to rely on Stewart for the tough yards, but Johnson is more than adequate as a substitute.
3. Jehuu Caulcrick, Michigan State
We may not have seen the best of Caulcrick. For one-and-a-half seasons, he has backed up Javon Ringer. He will continue to do this year, but Caulcrick could have a productive senior season. In the final year in John L. Smith's spread offense, Caulcrick set career lows in yards and yards per carry. Look for him to rebound a bit in a more pro-style offense under Mark Dantonio.
4. Damian Sims, Iowa
Sims had plenty of opportunities to carry the ball with starting running back Albert Young fighting through injuries last season. In two games Young missed last year, Sims had 42 carries for 249 yards and two touchdowns. The 5-foot-9, 200-pound Sims provided quality carries throughout the season in relief for Young.
5. Keegan Herring, Arizona State
Herring had an excellent freshman season in 2005, rushing for 870 yards and six touchdowns as a backup. With junior college transfer Ryan Torain taking the majority of carries last year (for more than 1,200 yards), Herring's opportunities dwindled during his sophomore season. Still, he had just as many touchdowns (six) in 64 fewer carries. He has averaged 5.6 yards per carry in his two-year career.
6. DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma
Allen Patrick was only the beginning of the depth the Sooners had at running back last year. Murray redshirted last season, but instantly became part of the mix at running back during the spring. He ran for 103 yards on four carries in the spring game. A Rivals100 member in 2006, Murray could be the most explosive back on Oklahoma's roster, but he will have to compete for playing time with Patrick and Chris Brown.
7. Cody Glenn, Nebraska
Nebraska's running game relied on four backs last year with Brandon Jackson and Marlon Lucky leading the way. With Jackson leaving early for the NFL and Kenny Wilson out with a broken leg, Glenn will be the primary backup to Lucky. In 71 carries last year, Glenn still managed to finish second on the team with eight total touchdowns. Glenn is the bigger of the two backs, so he could again see time near the goal line.
8. Graig Cooper, Miami
The running backs in Coral Gables are starting to look like the Hurricanes of old. Javarris James was a Rivals.com second-team Freshman All-American last year, but Cooper didn't let him get too comfortable during the spring. In prep school last season, Cooper beat out former Miami commitment LeSean McCoy (he signed with Pittsburgh in 2007) for the starting running back job. There is a chance he could take over the No. 1 role in Miami.
9. Noel Devine, West Virginia
If there's ever a highlight film hall of fame, Devine will be in on the first ballot. However, with Heisman Trophy contender Steve Slaton entrenched as the starter and with a few other candidates to be the backup Devine's carries will probably be limited as a true freshman.
10. LeSean McCoy, Pittsburgh
LaRod Stephens-Howling led the Panthers in rushing each of the last two years. This season, he will be under more pressure. McCoy committed to Miami out of high school but instead went to Milford Academy in New York. After a year in prep school, he signed with Pittsburgh and should push for immediate playing time.
Other backup running backs to watch:
Antwain Easterling, Southern Miss; Thomas Brown, Georgia; Knowshon Moreno, Georgia; Mike Davis, South Carolina; Tony Dixon, Kentucky; Maurice Wells, Ohio State; Brandon Minor, Michigan; Ben Tate, Auburn
Rivals five: Top Tandems
For some backfields, the starter is simply the player who lines up for the first snap of the game. In our attempt to separate the true backups from these one-two punches, we'll also look at the top five running back tandems.
1. Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, Arkansas
Could you really pick anyone else? McFadden and Jones could be the top two running backs in the SEC.
2. James Davis and C.J. Spiller, Clemson
This is your classic thunder/lightning combination. Davis does the dirty work. Spiller is one of the nation's most explosive players.
3. Jorvorskie Lane and Mike Goodson, Texas A&M
Lane led the Big 12 in scoring with 19 touchdowns. Goodson, who ran for 847 yards as a freshman, should be even better this season.
4. Dantrell Savage and Keith Toston, Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State and Boise State were the only teams to average more than 200 yards passing and 200 yards rushing. Savage and Toston were a big reason why.
5. Chauncey Washington and C.J. Gable, USC
With 10 scholarship tailbacks on the roster, the names might change by the end of the season. However, Washington and Gable did an adequate job in the shadow of Reggie Bush/LenDale White.
Other tandems to watch:
LaMarcus Coker and Arian Foster, Tennessee; Kory Sheets and Jaycen Taylor, Purdue; L.V. Whitworth and Andre Callender, Boston College

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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