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AAC Preseason Position Reviews: Running Backs

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Some teams return a plethora of talent, while others are searching for answers at the running back position.

NCAA Football: Houston at Southern Methodist Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

We continue our American Athletic Conference position reviews, and today we break down the running back groups for each team in the conference.

The AAC doesn’t return a bonafide stud at running back as only seven players eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing last season. Two of them were Navy quarterbacks Zach Abey and Malcolm Perry, and another was USF’s Quinton Flowers, arguably the greatest player to play in the conference thus far. Darrell Henderson of Memphis and Xavier Jones from SMU are the only returning backs to reach the 1,000-yard mark.

That doesn’t mean the conference is without talent. Certain teams are fortunate to return multiple stars to their backfield, some of which should help ease new quarterbacks into the offense. Others face a lot of turnover at the position as several talented backs have departed their respective teams.

As we did last year, we broke up the conference into four groups: Elite, Second Tier, Wait and See, and Room for Improvement.

Room for Improvement: Your team can definitely get better. Even if your team has a returning starter, there’s still plenty of room for growth.

Wait and See: Most likely, your team is going through a transition to a new starter. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just means the new face has to prove themselves.

Second Tier: Good not great. The player isn’t elite yet, but may be right on the doorstep.

Elite: The best of the best. Most likely competing for an All-Conference spot. Also helps to have depth at the position.

2018 Position Reviews: QB, WR/TE, OL, DL, LB


Elite

1. SMU: Ben Hicks might have lost his top two receivers to the NFL, but he will have plenty of talent to hand the ball off to this season. The Mustangs return three backs - Xavier Jones, Braeden West and Ke’Mon Freemon - that averaged over 4.8 yards per carry and accounted for 22 touchdowns on the ground. Expect even bigger numbers from this trio in 2018.

2. Memphis: The Tigers will have a new man under center with Riley Ferguson moving on to the NFL, and whoever that may be, he will have talent behind him. Darrell Henderson is statistically the top back returning to the AAC after accounting for 1,380 scrimmage yards and 11 touchdowns. Third on that list of returning backs is Patrick Taylor Jr., who tallied 1,014 total yards and 14 scores of his own.

3. UCF: Adrian Killins made a name for himself last season when he said Auburn hasn’t seen speed that UCF possess. While he didn’t necessarily show it off in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, he is without-a-doubt one of the fastest players in college football. Add in the fact that the four of the next five top running backs from last season are also back, UCF’s rushing offense shouldn’t skip a beat under new head coach Josh Heupel.

Second Tier

4. Temple: Many expected - myself included - Ryquell Armstead to be one of the top backs in the AAC entering last season, but injuries hampered him for much of the year. That allowed David Hood to get his share of carries, who averaged 5.2 yards per carry in the Owls last nine games. With both backs returning, Temple will have two rushers capable of handling the load.

5. Tulsa: D’Angelo Brewer led the conference in rushing, but that didn’t stop Shamari Brooks from posting huge numbers of his own. He found pay dirt 10 times, while averaging 5.8 per touch last season. Corey Taylor also flashed in his limited opportunities when Brewer was banged up last season.

6. Cincinnati: Mike Boone was the hype entering last season, but Gerrid Doaks saw a good chunk of snaps as well. With Boone now gone, Doaks will have a chance to make a name for himself as he is expected to be the primary ball carrier for an offense that figures to be much better in 2018.

Wait and See

7. USF: The Bulls will see some major changes in the backfield as the top three rushers from last season have all left the program. Jordan Cronkrite, a Florida transfer, is the likely candidate to take over as the lead back, but he alone will not be able to account for the 371 carries, 1,739 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns from Darius Tice and D’Ernest Johnson racked up. Another back on the roster will need to step up.

8. Houston: Duke Catalon’s decision to leave the team sets the Cougars back as he would have been one of the top returning backs in the conference. Major Applewhite will now turn to Mulbah Car as his primary ball carrier, while quarterback D’Eriq King will make some plays on the ground as well.

9. UConn: The Huskies have their version of thunder and lightning with Nate Hopkins and Kevin Mensah. They might be a bit underrated here, but they truly fit the category.

Room for Improvement

10. Navy: Fullback Chris High finished second on the team in rushing attempts for a second consecutive season, but he’s now graduated. Mostly unproven backs Anthony Gargiulo and Darryl Bonner are the top candidates to take High’s spot, but Malcolm Perry - or whoever is playing quarterback - will see the majority of the rushing attempts for the Mids.

11. Tulane: Dontrell Hilliard was one of the top backs in the AAC in 2017, but he’s looking to earn a spot with the Cleveland Browns this summer. Darius Bradwell will likely take over his role, but quarterback Jonathan Banks will lead the team running Tulane’s option.

12. ECU: The Pirates averaged 107.7 yards per game last season, last in the AAC and 119th overall in the country. Hussein Howe led the team with 414 yards on just 96 carries, which indicates how little ECU was running the ball because they were constantly behind big in games.