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Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews: Running Backs

Another year, another good crop of running backs in Conference USA.

Our Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews continue as we take a look at the running back position. The grading categories: “Great Shape,” “Good Shape,” and “We’ll See.”

To elaborate further on the grades, “We’ll See” means exactly that. We have no clue if that position is going to be a strong point for the team due to a lack of proven contributors and questionable depth. At this point, with the lack of spring practice due to COVID-19, there’s no way to know.

“Good Shape” means there’s proven talent at the position but there’s more to be desired in terms of production. Depth ranges from above average to good, with a player or two having the potential to make an All-C-USA Team.

“Great Shape” is what every fan base desires, and it means that All-C-USA players are stocked at this position or there’s good-to-great depth in the backfield.

Great Shape

  1. Marshall: After taking home Conference USA’s Most Valuable Player award in 2019, Brenden Knox spearheads the Thundering Herd’s dangerous rushing attack as we look forward to the 2020 season. Knox posted 11 touchdowns and 1,387 yards in 2019 and Doc Holliday’s offensive line paved the way for 2,514 total rushing yards. The duo of Knox and dual-threat quarterback Isaiah Green accounted for more than 72% of the Herd’s rushing attempts in 2019, and you can expect more of that going forward. Protection and run blocking are in their favor as Marshall is returning multiple upperclassmen on a veteran offensive line headlined by 2nd Team All-CUSA Cain Madden.
  2. Louisiana Tech: Coming off their first 10-win season since their Division I-AA Southland Conference days in 1984, little can be said to dispute the resurgence in Ruston under Skip Holtz. Headlined by 2nd Team All-CUSA and the reigning conference leader in rushing touchdowns Justin Henderson, the pieces are in place to push for another West division title. Israel Tucker returns as a serviceable receiving back with experience, joining the redshirt sophomore and hometown kid DeAndre Marcus, as movers to who help bring over 1,900 all-purpose yards from 2019 amongst the trio.
  3. Charlotte: The 49ers took second in our 2019 running back preview and ended up leading the conference with an average of 195 yards on the ground per game. With Benny LeMay having played his last downs in the green and gold it looked as if this group could be a question mark in 2020 with only Aaron McAllister having proven talent. Will Healy landed a huge transfer, Tre Harbison, a former Northern Illinois Huskie and two-time 1,000-yard rusher as an All-MAC performer. The addition of three-star prospect Elijah Turner will add speed and quickness to the position and could play a role as a receiving threat.
Charlotte v Clemson
Aaron McAllister stepped up when his name was called in 2019 and now has the chance to battle for the starting spot against NIU Transfer Tre Harbison.
Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

4. UAB: Gritting and grinding their way into their second consecutive conference championship game appearance in 2019, offensive coordinator Bryant Vincent has this squad rolling at record-breaking numbers, literally. Despite nagging injuries, running back Spencer Brown returns as the Blazers’ all-time leading rusher, joining NFL Pro Bowler Jordan Howard atop most if not all rushing stats recorded in Birmingham. Florida native Lucious Stanley led the team in 2019 with seven rushing scores, and helps sophomore Jermaine Brown Jr. bring a filthy punch from a circumstance of depth.

Good Shape

5. FAU: The Owls couldn’t replace the production of 2019 NFL draftees Devin “Motor” Singletary and Kerrith Whyte Jr. with ease, but their running back by committee mantra played a role in their conference championship under Lane Kiffin. Alabama transfer BJ Emmons missed nine games with a broken foot suffered in the season opener against Ohio State, but made a case to be in the starting rotation as he scored six touchdowns in the final four games. Malcolm Davidson is expected to be the starter after rushing for 711 yards with an average of seven yards per carry in his freshman season. The Owls scored 32 touchdowns on the ground in 2019, the second-highest in C-USA behind only FIU.

6. North Texas: As Seth Littrell looks to replace Mason Fine, you can expect the Mean Green running backs to see production increases by the bunches. Tre Siggers rushed for 853 yards in 2019 and earned Honorable Mention for C-USA in the process and will headline a deep backfield in 2020. The tailback trio will consist of three backs who have rushed for 600+ yards in a season, Siggers, DeAndre Torrey, and Nic Smith.

Gaej Walker is poised for another big season behind the Hilltoppers dominant offensive line.
Photo by Steve Roberts/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

7. Western Kentucky: Gaej Walker made the switch from defensive back to running back in the spring of 2019 and made waves in C-USA as he rushed for 1,208 yards. Walker earned Second Team C-USA Honors with his breakout season, and the only facet keeping WKU from the “Great Shape” category is depth. Joshua Samuels, the Hilltoppers leading rusher in 2018 entered the transfer portal ahead of their 23-20 victory in the First Responders Bowl after playing sparingly behind Walker in 2019. This leaves an unproven backup in KeShaun McClendon with only 9 carries in his collegiate career.

8. UTSA: The Roadrunners are trending upwards from last season’s predictions, and Sincere(ly), things are looking up. C-USA Freshman of the Year Sincere McCormick rushed for 983 yards in his inaugural season and broke the program’s single-season all-purpose yardage mark in 2019 with 1,177 total yards. Former U.S. Army All-American Brenden Brady returns as the backup in a similar role having played every game since his true freshman season, notching his best performance of 86 yards against a stout FAU defense last year in the only game of which he saw double-digit carries.


WE’LL SEE

9. Southern Miss: The addition of Matt Kubik to run the offense in Hattiesburg is intriguing to say the least. Last season, Kubik’s offense at Louisiana-Monroe ranked 17th nationally at 460.9 yards per game, with his rushing attack coming in at 26th nationally (207.3 ypg), speaking volumes from the Sun Belt. Mississippi native Kevin Perkins is projected to move in as the sole starter coming off a 547-yard campaign, with former quarterback Steven Anderson finding his niche as a serviceable backup. Frank Gore Jr. joins the team as a true freshman out of Miami, so despite the lack of elaborate numbers, this backfield has potential to quietly produce in 2020.

10. MTSU: Due to the pass-happy nature of offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, MTSU is unlikely to have gaudy rushing stats. Quarterback Asher O’Hara was the only Blue Raider to post north of 300 yards on the ground in 2019 as he placed top-5 in both rushing and passing in C-USA. 6’1” power back Chaton Mobley returns although his production dropped drastically from his freshman to sophomore season missing four games with an ankle injury. Expect a bigger role for Oakland native Jayy McDonald, who’s 92-yard TD scamper against FIU last season was the fifth-longest in Conference USA history.

11. FIU: With the losses of Anthony Jones and Napoleon Maxwell, the Panthers must replace 1,500 yards of production on the ground in 2020. Redshirt senior D’Vonte Price is expected to be the starter after being utilized as a change of pace back for the past two seasons. Butch Davis often opts to use three backs per game, so expect to see Maleek Williams, a quick back with 4.4 speed, and Shaun Peterson, a 6-3, 225 power back in plug-and-play roles.

12. UTEP: Senior Treyvon Hughes led the way for the Miners in 2019 with 682 yards and 12 scores. With graduation removing Hughes from the equation, that leaves Joshua Fields as the only other back on the roster to rush for more than 60 yards. Fields played in all 12 games and carried 59 times for 312 yards, but hasn’t scored a touchdown since 2017. Graduate QB Kai Locksley was the only Miner to eclipse the 100-yard rushing yards in 2019, and with his two-year tenure coming to a close the UTEP offense is a giant question mark moving forward.

13. Rice: The graduation losses across the board hurt Mike Bloomgren’s squad in more ways than one, but especially in the tailback room in 2020. The top three rushers at the position from last season (Aston Walter, Charlie Booker, Nahshon Ellerbe) all depart, leaving redshirt sophomore Juma Otoviano as the only returning back with an actual rushing attempt. To make matters worse, the Rice Owls finished the 2020 recruiting cycle with just one single commit at the position in Louisiana’s Brian Hibbard, who’s actually a listed fullback. With walk-ons and special teamers gracing the depth chart, it could be a tough year on the ground in Houston.

14. Old Dominion: The Monarchs averaged a conference-worst 97.3 yards per game on the ground last season, in an abysmal year where ODU didn’t have a single back in 2019 rush for more than 400 yards. Robert Washington was anticipated to gain a larger role before announcing intentions to transfer, leaving Elijah “Lala” Davis expecting to see the bulk of the carries under newly-minted head coach Ricky Rahne. To put it plainly, there are plenty more questions than answers in terms of what will get the wheels turning in Norfolk.

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