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Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews: Running Back

A conference known for great quarterback play has seen an enormous rise in running back talent.

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NCAA Football: Florida International at Central Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We continue our Conference USA preseason position reviews by looking at the running back position. The grading categories: “Great Shape,” “Good Shape,” and “We’ll See.”

To elaborate on the grades, "We'll See" means exactly what it means. We don’t know if that position is going to turn out to be a positive due to a lack of proven contributors and questionable depth. At this time, there’s no way to know.

“Good Shape” means known commodities are at the position but there’s still room for improvement. Depth is probably decent at the position but an injury could be catastrophic.

“Great Shape” means all-conference performers are at this position or there is good-to-great depth. You definitely want your team to be here.

On to the rankings.

Great Shape

1. FAU: The Owls have one of the best rushing duos in the country in Devin “Motor” Singletary and Greg “Buddy” Howell. As a true freshman Singletary bursted onto the scene, averaging 6.7 yards per carry with 1,016 yards and 12 touchdowns. The fact Singletary played sparingly the first four games - just 14 carries for 36 yards - makes his numbers all the more impressive. Howell has been a mainstay in FAU’s backfield for three years now and rushed for 833 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2016. Both ran behind an offensive line that was ravaged by injuries so 1,000 yards each isn’t too far out of the question this season if FAU’s line stays healthy.

2. Old Dominion: Not far behind FAU, the Monarchs have their own dynamite rushing duo in Ray Lawry and Jeremy Cox. Neither is particularly flashy but they get the job done with ease. Lawry had 1,255 yards for 11 touchdowns last season while Cox had 732 yards for 13 scores. They both averaged over five yards per carry and more importantly, had zero fumbles.

Southern Miss v Kentucky
Ito Smith is the best running back in Conference USA entering the 2017 season.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

3. Southern Miss: Ito Smith has been one of the most underrated players in the conference over the past few seasons. For the second straight season he finished with at least 1,100 rushing yards with 10 or more rushing touchdowns, to go with at least 40 receptions for 450 yards. With Nick Mullens gone, the spotlight will shift to him in his final season in Hattiesburg. Senior George Payne has also been reliable for the Golden Eagles and is capable should something happen to Smith.

4. FIU: The Panthers have a lightning-and-thunder combination in their backfield in Alex Gardner and Anthony Jones. The two running backs combined for 1,492 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Jones became FIU’s go-to ball carrier in short yardage situations due to his size last season and proved to be effective. Gardner on the other hand has been FIU’s best playmaker for quite some time as the senior is already FIU’s career leading rusher. If Gardner stays healthy, he should notch his first 1,000 yard season.

5. Louisiana Tech: Jarred Craft isn’t explosive but he’s efficient (5.6 yards per carry). Boston Scott isn’t as efficient as Craft but he’s far more explosive (7.4 yards per carry). The rushing attack was overlooked last year due to the dynamic trio of Trent Taylor, Carlos Henderson, and Ryan Higgins, but with their departures we could see Tech’s running backs asked to do more. Jarred Craft had 42 catches for 340 yards to go with his 1,074 yards on the ground last season. With a first-year starter in the fold we could potentially see Craft’s usage, as well as Scott’s, go up more.

Good Shape

NCAA Football: New Mexico Bowl-New Mexico at Texas-San Antonio
In 2016 Jalen Rhodes rushed for 827 yards and nine touchdowns. The junior back should increase those numbers now that he will be the starer.
Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

6. UTSA: Jalen Rhodes has the ability to be an all-conference type back but we’ve yet to see him shoulder the load by himself. With Jarveon Williams’ departure and inexperienced backs behind him, Rhodes will have plenty opportunities to prove he’s capable of being the main back.

7. Western Kentucky: Antony Wales was amazing last year but I have a feeling the Tops will be just fine without him. Sophomore running backs Quinton Baker and Marquez Trigg combined for 840 yards and six touchdowns last season. Add in the fact that Leon Allen and D’Andre Ferby - players who’ve displayed all-conference skill - will both return from injury and the Tops all of a sudden have an embarrassment of riches in the backfield. However, the injuries suffered by Ferby and Allen give me enough pause to not expect too much from them.

8. North Texas: For an air raid offense the Mean Green had to rely on their running backs an awful lot last season and fortunately they came through. Jeffrey Wilson and Willy Ivery combined for 1,425 yards and 20 rushing touchdowns in 2016. Wilson is the bell cow and UNT’s offense will go as he goes due to his home run ability. However, the Mean Green will need to replace the production of Willy Ivery following his offseason departure from the program.

9. Charlotte: Robert Washington was solid as a backup freshman last year, rushing for 489 yards and five touchdowns. He’ll be the starter this year due to Kalif Phillips graduating. Putting Charlotte here could be seen as questionable, but Charlotte’s run-first spread offense gives me confidence that if Washington - a former three-star recruit - doesn’t get those carries and produce then some other Charlotte running back will.

We’ll See

10. Marshall: Four running backs received at least 50 carries last year and each scored at least one touchdown. Speedster Hyleck Foster had some high expectations entering the season but never looked comfortable as the full time back. I like Keion Davis as he has some nice size (6'1”, 216) and it looks like he could be the starter going forward.

11. Rice: Another team that featured more than two running backs throughout the season was the Owls. David Bailiff had four running backs receive at least 50 carries last year and three who scored at least one touchdown will return in 2017. Samuel Stewart returns as the leading rusher with 479 yards and three touchdowns. The Owls don’t appear to have any game breakers here but with an improved offensive line we could see some solid production nonetheless.

12. UTEP: Aaron Jones was UTEP’s rushing offense - whole offense really - last year and now that he’s gone there’s a huge void. Quadraiz Wadley appears to be the guy to replace him but he suffered a shoulder injury during spring camp that kept him limited. Kevin Doe and former wide receiver Walter Dawn also got some looks at running back, but neither evoked too much confidence.

13. UAB: James Noble, Donnie Lee and Kalin Heath all looked good during the spring game. Considering how the Blazers have been a run-first team under Bill Clark and produced Jordan Howard I think UAB will be just fine here.

14. Middle Tennessee: I’Tavius Mathers was one of the best running backs in C-USA yet I always felt like he wasn’t being used enough. Now that he’s gone, sophomores Terelle West, Ruben Garnett and former starter Shane Tacker have been getting looks this spring. Neither saw meaningful action last season. Being that this is a Tony Franklin air raid offense, I don’t think production from this position matters too much for the Blue Raiders but they are awfully green.