The running game has become increasingly important in the Big 12 this season — with a host of talented young backs leading the way.
Seven of the league’s top 10 rushers were underclassmen as the league reached the midway point of the season, led by Oklahoma State’s Justice Hill, Iowa State’s David Montgomery and Oklahoma’s talented duo of Trey Sermon and Abdul Adams.
While Mason Rudolph and James Washington have hogged the headlines in Stillwater, Hill has quietly emerged as the Big 12’s most productive back.
Hill had the best freshman season for a Cowboys’ running back in school history a year ago — which is saying something at a program that produced Barry Sanders, Thurman Thomas and others. He’s on pace to for even bigger numbers this fall.
Hill, the national leader among freshman in 2016 with 1,142 yards, leads the Big 12 with 633 yards. Hill is also averaging 6 yards per carry with five touchdowns, and he’s topped 100 yards in all three league games so far.
Hill might even line up in the Wildcat when No. 10 (5-1, 2-1 Big 12) Oklahoma State faces Texas (3-3, 2-1) on Saturday on the road like he did last week against Baylor. However, coach Mike Gundy sounds as though he might shy away from that.
“We felt like Justice would give us an edge in that area for this game, and it did. But I don’t know if it’s a long-term answer depending on who we play and how we matchup up front,” Gundy said.
The Big 12 also had the nation’s leading freshman rusher in 2015 in Mike Warren. But Montgomery surpassed Warren by the end of last season, and this fall he’s blossomed into one of the most underrated backs in America.
Montgomery has rushed for 476 yards and a league-high eight TDs, including three in a 45-0 blowout over Kansas last weekend.
“I don’t know (what his ceiling is). The one thing I do know is that he’ll get to that point because of who he is and what his work ethic is,” Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said.
Sermon, a freshman, and Adams, a sophomore, have helped the ninth-ranked Sooners (5-1, 2-1) overcome the loss of Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine — who each surpassed 1,000 yards in 2016.
Sermon has rushed for 469 yards on 5.8 yards a carry and has also caught a pair of touchdown passes, and Adams has averaged 10.6 yards on just 35 attempts.
Having such talented young backs has help the Sooners wear opponents down and free things up for All-American quarterback Baker Mayfield. Oklahoma averaged 7.7 yards a play in last week’s 29-24 win over Texas.
“We play really intense and we were being just as physical and trying to give all our effort. I think over the course of the game, we just started to run them down,” Sermon said after beating the Longhorns.
TCU sophomore Darius Anderson has rushed for 470 yards to key a versatile attack for the fourth-ranked Horned Frogs (6-0, 3-0), including a 160-yard, three-TD effort in a win over Oklahoma State on Sept. 23.
Even scuffling Kansas has had a young back emerge in sophomore Khalil Herbert.
But Herbert, who is third in the Big 12 with 503 yards, missed last week’s loss to Iowa State with a hamstring injury. His absence hurt, as the Jayhawks gained just 106 yards overall.
Baylor freshman John Lovett ranks 10th in the league with 383 yards rushing. But he’s questionable for this week’s home game against West Virginia with a toe injury.