You talk to any coach at any level of football and you’ll hear just how important it is to run the football. It’s how teams establish an identity, keep their defense on the sideline, and control football games by eating clock and pummeling opponents.
The key to a solid college ground game now is having the athletes that can run the football as well as block and tackle. It is no longer a one-back system in college football, so it’s imperative to have a solid group of runners. Here we’ll break down each school’s RB situation heading into 2017.
Top of the Food Chain
Troy: Thunder and Lightning
The running game re-emerged in the second year under Neal Brown as big back Jordan Chunn (6’1” 240 lbs.) exploded onto the scene after missing the majority of 2015 with a collarbone injury. Chunn would bounce back strong in 2016 recording 1288 yards and 16 scores. However, the big fella ran out of gas towards the end of the season (averaging 3.5 ypc in the last four games) as the Trojans did not have a quality RB2. In those four games, we saw Troy lose their only two conference games of the year and the lack of fresh legs costed the Trojans a Sun Belt title. Enter Memphis transfer Jamarius Henderson, as he should provide this Air Raid offense with an electrifying athlete out of the backfield. Playing as a true frosh in the American Conference, Henderson recorded 320 yards on 5.3 ypc and flashed some pass catching ability. With these two, Troy will have the best one-two punch in the Sun Belt.
Appalachian State: Home of the Bellcow
If you’re looking for underrated college football players, look no further than Boone, North Carolina. Jalin Moore returns for his junior season on The Rock and will have the opportunity to go pro early. The sophomore bursted onto the scene big time last year as he led the Sun Belt with 1,402 yards after recording 731 as a freshman. I look for those numbers as well as his 18 carries per game average to jump up in 2017 as he will no longer be sharing carries with Marcus Cox. Moore will get plenty of touches in Scott Satterfield’s offense and could be a popular pick for preseason player of the year. Sophomore speedster Darrynton Evans provides a nice punch to the edge and a good change of pace to the App State attack.
Idaho: Solid But Not Fancy
The Vandals finally had their breakthrough under Paul Petrino as they were, arguably, the biggest surprise in the Sun Belt last season. A big part of this emergence was the impressive two-headed monster Idaho had in the backfield. Isaiah Saunders and Aaron Duckworth were about as a dependable of a duo as you could find and both return for 2017. Although neither explosive, both averaged over 4.6 ypc and combined for 14 touchdowns. A running game is key for a Petrino offense to open up the play-action pass game and Saunders/Duckworth will do a productive job at that again in 2017.
Room For Improvement
Arkansas State: Boom Or Bust
When you take a look at the Arkansas State backfield, you won’t see much size. RB1 Warren Wand checks in at 5’5” 179 lbs. and was all or nothing in 2017. Wand had rushing game totals of 140, 135, 91, and 90 in 2017. He also had game totals of 11, 12, 35, and 37. So you were never quite sure what you were going to get from the Red Wolves attack. Backups Johnston White and Daryl Rollins-Davis return for 2017 and they both hovered around 4.5 ypc. The hope for the Red Wolves is that offensive play is improved this fall and Blake Anderson taking control of the offense will open up more lanes for the backs in Jonesboro.
New Mexico State: Can Rose Get His Swagger Back?
Larry Rose III missed the first three games of 2016 with injury and started the last nine for the Aggies. However, Rose did not look himself all season as he posted career low numbers. Rose’s ypc dipped to 5.4 and he would only get four scores to go with 865 yards. The hope for the Aggies is that Rose responds big time in 2017 and gets back 2015 All-American level. Small back Jason Huntley (5’9” 165 lbs.) did a decent job as a reserve but the Aggies really need Rose to get back to his peak as New Mexico State looks to make its mark in their final year in the Sun Belt.
South Alabama: Does Xavier Johnson get any help?
Johnson has been a very solid back for the Jags the last two years but it seems he may have hit his ceiling. Johnson has averaged over 5.5 ypc the last two years and has given USA a receiving threat out of the backfield. However, checking in at 185 lbs., Johnson just does not have the frame to be your go to back for 20 touches a game. The key for Joey Jones and offensive coordinator Bryant Vincent is to find a suitable running mate to team up with Johnson. Junior Deonta Moore returns and he recorded 111 yards on 26 carries in limited playing time last fall. Look for the Jags to turn to JUCO RB Tywun Walters for answers this fall.
Georgia Southern: Does More Option Equal Success?
Tyson Summers made a big change this offseason as he reached out to Georgia Tech assistant Bryan Cook. Cook heads to Statesboro to run the familiar attack Southern fans saw win national championships at the FCS level under Paul Johnson. His first task will be to find a quarterback, then it will be to get the running game going again. After strong starts to their careers both Wesley Fields and L.A. Ramsby were disappointing last season. The hope is this staff change will get the ground game going again with one of the best option attacks in the country. Incoming recruit John Wesley Kennedy III could see same early action.
Coastal Carolina: Can the Chants Produce in FBS?
It’s a transitional year in Conway and the Chants are making the move up to the FBS. Jamey Chadwell takes over as Joe Moglia’s offensive coordinator this season after spending the last four seasons as the head coach of FCS Charleston Southern. So it will be an offensive change going into the Sun Belt but Chadwell will have some weapons. Returning is senior Osharmar Abercrombie and he averaged 6.7 ypc last year in back-up duty. Add in Boston College transfer Marcus Outlow and the Chants could potentially have some decent depth in Chadwell’s first season.
It’s Still Ugly
ULM: It’s a rebuild in Monroe and RB is no different.
The Warhawks went a surprising 4-8 in Matt Viator’s first year but it wasn’t pretty at running back. Juniors Ben Luckett and Thomas Koufie return even though both have yet to be all that successful running the rock under Todd Berry and Viator. Sophomore Duke Carter IV showed some potential as a freshman and newcomer Javin Myers was one of the highest ranked prospects in ULM’s class. But until ULM gets better up front, there may not be any positive changes in the run game.
Texas State: Young Bobcats
It was most certainly year zero in the first season under Everett Withers in San Marcos as the Bobcats went super young and winless in the Sun Belt. Returning will be junior Stedman Mayberry and his 593 yards. Mayberry was a productive pass catcher out of the backfield as he pulled in 41 grabs last year and could be Damian Williams’ top target this fall. Don’t be surprised if Withers turns to the top class in the Sun Belt for help at the RB position very early.
UL-Lafayette: Replacing a Superstar
Elijah McGuire did it all for the Cajuns in his career at Lafayette and he is now off to the New York Jets. McGuire did everything for Hudspeth’s program including contribute on special teams and the Cajuns have some big shoes that need to be filled. Senior Darius Hoggins returns and put up over five yards per carry last season in backup duty. The Cajuns did receive some bad news last month as two reserve running backs were arrested due to a dorm room theft. It could be a rough year as the Cajuns are trying to replace one of the most productive players in program history.
Georgia State: Will Conner Manning Get Any Help?
There is no question that Manning is one of the best passers in the Sun Belt, but it is vital that he gets some type of help from the running back position if the Panthers hope to return to the postseason. New head coach Shawn Elliott has tagged Travis Trickett as his offensive coordinator and he has his work cut out for him. Trickett’s offense at Florida Atlantic set a program record for rushing yards last season, so the hope is that he can make a major improvement to this Panther backfield quickly. However, the talent pool seems to be dry and senior Kyler Neal was the only one who came close to being competent last season. The offensive line should be better, but it could be a struggle at running back until Trickett gets the personnel he wants on campus.