The Great Pac-12 Running Back Ranking Debate of 2020

Two of our senior writers defend and debate their ordered lists of the top Conference RBs

Editor’s Note: Ranking players at a position is a subjective, uncertain proposition that’s sure to draw criticism. Rarely does a sportswriter get to take it and dish it out in a single sitting, but that’s what our Nick Bartlett and Jack Follman do here. Let’s listen in as the two debate their respective rankings and have some fun along the way. They start with Jack’s list and Nick’s questions before switching roles. (You’ll find past and  future list rankings on the Great Debates page.)

By Nick Bartlett and Jack Follman, Senior Writers, SportsPac12

Jack's Running Back List
1. CJ Verdell, Oregon
2. Max Borghi, WSU
3. Jermar Jefferson, OSU
4. Alex Fontenot, Colorado
5. Christopher Brown Jr., Cal
6. Stephen Carr, USC
7. Vavae Malepeai, USC
8. Richard Newton, Washington
9. Travis Dye, Oregon
10. Cyrus Habibi-Likio, Oregon
11. Austin Jones, Stanford
12. Jordan Wilmore, Utah




Nick: We both agree that Verdell is the No. 1 back in conference, but he doesn’t strike me as an elite playmaker. What do you think? In my opinion, he’s about as good as you can get without being great.

Jack: Exactly. And I think this seems to be the overall consensus with everyone. He’s very good, but he’s neither LaMichael James nor Royce Freeman.

I think it’s at least a little unfair and has to do with Oregon marketing their offensive line and offensive linemen with insane effort, diverting credit there. He’s ran for more than 1,000 yards as a freshman and sophomore, and I think he’s going to do it again.

And this is the year he gets more love.

Nick: Why do you have Fontenot over Brown? What separates them from one another?

Jack: To be honest, almost nothing. Fourth is exactly the spot where I think you hit a pack of players who are interchangeable. I expect a bit more progression from Fontenot than Brown, who I think is a good player, but one who probably replicates what he did last year.

Nick: I think Newton is better than the duo of USC halfbacks. What makes you think otherwise?

Vavae Malepeai is part of a two-headed monster at USC. |

Jack: My infatuation with Stephen Carr’s potential since I first watched him as a freshman probably has something to do with it. I’ve been waiting so patiently to watch that guy turn the corner, so I always give him credit in the hopes of that.

And I’ve always thought Malepeai is underrated as a guy who gets a ton out of each carry and gets into the end zone a lot.

Newton is a guy who could easily end up being that top back after Verdell and Borghi, as he’s a great red zone back and punishing runner. I just have worries about him as a feature back, as he’s kind of a one note player.

Nick: Even though we both have Jones and Wilmore toward the bottom of our lists, do you think it’s possible they exceed expectations and rise to the top? They both play for schools with historically good rushing attacks.

Jack: Exactly. Both are also super talented players that were top recruits as well.

Nick's Running Back List
1. CJ Verdell, Oregon
2. Max Borghi, WSU
3. Christopher Brown Jr., Cal
4. Jermar Jefferson, OSU
5. Richard Newton, Washington
6. Alex Fontenot, Colorado
7. Stephen Carr, USC
8. Travis Dye, Oregon
9. Austin Jones, Stanford
10. Gary Brightwell, Arizona
11. Vavae Malepeai, USC
12. Jordan Wilmore, Utah




Jack: I love Borghi’s game and was tempted to put him number one. Do you think Borghi could continue to progress even further and be the Conference’s top back over Verdell?

Nick: I think he could lead the conference statistically; however, I do not feel comfortable calling him the top back in the Pac-12.

While he can probably be considered the best dual option due to his receiving skills, he doesn’t possess that extra burst that Verdell has. At times Borghi looks choppy, while Verdell seemingly glides along.

Jack: You like Richard Newton, but do you see him like a recent Washington star running back like Chris Polk, Bishop Sankey and Myles Gaskin, or like a Salvon Ahmed, a guy who can crack 1,000 yards in a season but isn’t a star?

Richard Newton looks to be the next star Husky running back. |

Nick: I think that he’s unique in his own right, and can’t necessarily be compared to the other backs on this list. He may be the most physical player of the bunch, but he certainly doesn’t possess the speed of a Myles Gaskin.

I wouldn’t expect Newton to break the 1,000-yard threshold, but he should be an absolute force around the end zone. But no…

I wouldn’t consider him a star just yet.

Jack: Oregon obviously returns the best of all pieces at left tackle in Penei Sewell, but they lost their five other top linemen and they aren’t an Ohio State or Alabama that has blue chippers across the board to replace them.

Do you think the rebuilding of their offensive line could affect Verdell being the top running back in the Conference?

Nick: I actually think that the rebuilding of the offense line plays in Verdell’s favor. When teams don’t feel comfortable up front, they tend to lean on their running game. This could lead to him getting a heavy dose of touches, particularly in the beginning of the season.

It’s also important to note that while Oregon lost many key pieces, they should still be able to hold their own in the trenches. Don’t bet against this unit.

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