EUGENE, Ore. — Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, preparing the No. 13 Ducks for this weekend's game against No. 18 Utah, seemed less concerned about who the Utes would start at quarterback than he was about Devontae Booker.
Or rather, stopping Booker.
"First and foremost, Devontae Booker," Helfrich said. "Whoever's in there (at quarterback), they play off Devontae Booker differently."
The Pac-12 is known as more of a conference of quarterbacks — last season's Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota solidified the reputation — but a number of strong running backs have emerged three weeks into the season.
Saturday's game between the Ducks (2-1) and the Utes (3-0) features two of them: Booker and Oregon's Royce Freeman. Two more — Arizona's Nick Wilson and UCLA's Paul Perkins — will also be showcased on Saturday when the No. 9 Bruins (3-0) visit the No. 16 Wildcats (3-0).
Those four backs rank among the top 20 rushers (in total yards) at the FBS level, one shy of the five in that group that are from the SEC. One interesting note for the conference: Oregon State freshman quarterback Seth Collins ranks 40th nationally, with 294 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Collins is averaging 98 yards rushing per game, ranking him sixth in the Pac-12.
A look at some of the conference's top running backs:
DEVONTAE BOOKER, Utah: Booker (5-foot-11, 212 pounds) made a splash as a junior college transfer to Utah last season, rushing for 1,512 yards and 10 touchdowns to earn first-team All-Pac-12 honors. This season he's averaging 115 yards with four touchdowns through three games. He ran for 156 yards and two touchdowns in the Utes' 45-24 victory over Fresno State last Saturday. He also caught five passes for 56 yards. "He's got great balance, great vision. He can run inside, he can run outside. He's just a natural," coach Kyle Whittingham said before the start of the season. "Some guys have it with the ball in their hands. Some guys don't. He's got it."
ROYCE FREEMAN, Oregon: Freeman (5-foot-11, 230 pounds) was named the Pac-12 freshman of the year on offense last season after running for 1,365 yards and 18 touchdowns, school records for a freshman. This season, he ranks third in the conference with an average of 124.3 yards per game with five touchdowns. Whittingham this week called him a tremendous back, adding that Freeman and the Ducks' running game is what "makes them go."
PAUL PERKINS, UCLA: Perkins (5-foot-11, 210 pounds) ran for 219 yards in the Bruins' 24-23 victory over BYU last weekend, the most yards for a UCLA running back since Maurice Jones-Drew ran for 322 in 2006 against Washington. Overall, Perkins ranks second in the league behind Wilson, averaging 143 yards a game and 7.4 yards a carry. A junior, he's got three touchdowns. Stanford coach David Shaw said this week: "He's one of those guys that flies under the radar, but as a football coach when you look at film, it's like, 'That guy's good.'"
NICK WILSON, Arizona: Wilson (5-foot-10, 190), currently leads the league with an average of 144.7 yards per game and five touchdowns. He is averaging seven yards per carry. The sophomore ran for 143 yards and two touchdowns during the Wildcats' 77-13 rout of Northern Arizona last weekend, resting after Arizona built a big lead. UCLA coach Jim Mora said: "We recruited him. Obviously, we didn't get him."
DEMARIO RICHARD, Arizona State: Richard (5-foot-10, 220 pounds) has emerged this season as a versatile offensive weapon for the Sun Devils, rushing for 294 yards and two touchdowns through three games, while catching eight passes for 178 yards and two more scores. Richard caught a pass from quarterback Mike Bercovici for a 93-yard touchdown in Arizona State's 34-10 victory over New Mexico last weekend. He finished with 151 receiving yards on four catches, a Sun Devils record for a running back. He also rushed for 104 yards. "That's a pretty good night," Sun Devils coach Todd Graham said. Richard is the first FBS-level running back with 100 yards rushing and 150 yards receiving in the same game since Lance Dunbar of North Texas in 2011.
AP college football site: www.collegefootball.ap.org