We continue our Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews by looking at the running backs in the conference. 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 have no idea if that position is going to turn out to be a plus due to a lack of proven contributors and questionable depth.
“Good Shape” means known commodities are at the position, but there’s room for this unit to improve. Depth is above average to good, with a player or two having the potential to make an All-C-USA Team.
“Great Shape” means All-C-USA performers are at this position or there is good-to-great depth across the board.
1. UTSA: From the moment Sincere McCormick arrived in Conference USA, he’s been one of the top players in the league. The 5-9, 200-pound back finished second in the nation in rushing yards last year with 1,467 and has shown himself to be a capable receiver out of the backfield for the Roadrunners. It’s not out of the question for McCormick to have a Devin Singletary-esque season in 2021 for UTSA as they look to challenge for a conference title. Behind the superstar back are veterans Brenden Brady and B.J. Daniels, who both earned starts at the position before McCormick’s collegiate career began in 2019.
2. FIU: Not much of anything went right for Butch Davis’ FIU team in 2020. However, the emergence of running back D’Vonte Price gives Panther fans reason to be optimistic that a quick turnaround is capable in 2021. The elusive Price is a home-run threat every time he touches that ball — as evidenced by his three scores of 60 yards or more last season. Despite FIU having the 121st ranked passing attack, Price averaged 116 yards per game in 2020 — good enough for second in the league. Had the Panthers played a full 12-game season and Price kept his average, he would have rushed for just shy of 1,400 yards. Look for the 6-2, 195-pound back to be one of the top players in C-USA. FIU also possesses the trademark depth that Davis has been known for throughout his coaching career, with former three-star prospects Shaun Peterson Jr. and Lexington Joseph behind Price.
3. Southern Miss: While Frank Gore Jr. may have gotten off to a slow start in his collegiate career, there’s no denying that he was one of the top backs in C-USA during the last two months of the 2020 season. The son of veteran NFL back Frank Gore Sr., the younger Gore rushed for 630 yards over the last seven games — good enough for a 90-yard per game average that would have ranked him fourth in the league behind McCormick, Price and Spencer Brown. Don Ragsdale and goal-line back Kevin Perkins are gone, but Darius Maberry and Dee Baker saw action last season and are former three-star prospects.
4. North Texas: Buried beneath North Texas’ defensive struggles, season-long quarterback rotation and superstar receiver Jaleon Darden — was the fact that the Mean Green actually topped Conference USA in rushing yards last year. The trio of DeAndre Torrey, Oscar Adaway III and Tre Siggers combined for over 1,600 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground in 2020. While Siggers took his talents an hour south to rival SMU, Adaway III and Torrey return as the top one-two punch in Conference USA. Either is capable of carrying the load, with Torrey nearly topping 1,000 yards in 2019 and Adaway III rushing for almost six yards per carry last year.
5. Florida Atlantic: The ranking for FAU’s backfield at number five is sure to draw the ire of the Owl faithful (i.e. Shane Marinelli — FAU Owls Nest). So with that being said, let me get this out of the way — FAU has the most talented backfield in Conference USA from top to bottom. When last fully healthy, Malcolm Davidson was on the verge of being a top-three back in the league. Larry McCammon III showed promise of his own as a true freshman before having to fight his own injury issues. The addition of Johnny Ford from South Florida gives FAU a legit Newcomer of the Year candidate. The reason they slot fifth in this preseason ranking — emphasis on preseason — the group has to stay healthy for an entire slate and Taggart will have to manage the rotation. Should those two things happen, there’s no reason to think that FAU won’t be among the league leaders in rushing yards.
6. UTEP: Without being melodramatic — the bowl hopes of UTEP rest squarely on the broad shoulders of running back Deion Hankins. Okay, maybe that’s slightly hyperbolic, but the hometown hero plays a major factor in any resurgence of Miner football in the Sun City. The 6-0, 220-pound Hankins spurned multiple Power Five offers to remain at home and rewarded the Miners with a selection to All-Freshman Team following his 592-yard, nine touchdown output last year. UTEP also gets veteran Quardraiz Wadley, who led the Miners in rushing (682) in 2018. Rounding out the group is senior Josh Fields, who topped the 300-yard mark in 2017 and 2019.
7. UAB: Okay UAB fans, I’m prepared for the inevitable wrath that will come with the seventh-place ranking. I’ll give the same disclaimer I gave the folks in Boca Raton — this is a preseason ranking. As a true freshman, DeWayne McBride was outstanding in spelling star back Spencer Brown. In his final four games, the 5-11, 225-pound Floridian rushed 39 times for 344 yards and three scores. His 9.3 yards per carry is an outstanding number, regardless of the 47 carries it came on. Expect him to take the next step as the lead back in Birmingham. Behind McBride are redshirt senior Lucious Stanley, who rushed for almost 900 yards and 11 scores in his career and receiver-turned-running back Jermaine Brown. Like FAU, it wouldn’t be a surprise if UAB’s backfield is among the tops in the conference come season’s end.
8. Lousiana Tech: Last year’s rushing performance was a bit surprising in the fact that Justin Henderson wasn’t able to build on a successful 2019 campaign. Instead, it was veteran Izzy Tucker that led the Bulldogs in rushing with 648 yards. This season, look for Appalachian State transfer Marcus Williams Jr. to tote the rock in Ruston. In a platoon role over his four years with the Mountaineers, Williams Jr. rushed for at least 500 yards in each season. Behind him is JUCO transfer Greg Garner, who carried 33 times for 115 yards last year.
9. Middle Tennessee: Let’s start with this surprising statistic — the Blue Raiders haven’t had more than 615 yards rushing from a running back since I’Tavius Mathers’ 1,500-yard year in 2016. In the previous two years, Chaton Mobley’s 366 yards in nine games is the high mark from the position. In translation, Rick Stockstill is looking for more production from his backs, regardless of the offense. Last year’s numbers were certainly hurt by the opt-outs of grad transfers Amir Rasul and Martell Pettaway, who were expected to boost the run game. Rasul was a former four-star prospect who transferred from Florida State, while Pettaway rushed for 623 yards for West Virginia in 2018. Mobley is also back for the Blue Raiders, potentially giving Stockstill a three-headed monster in the backfield.
10. Marshall: It’s natural to assume that the Herd’s run game will take a step back following the departure of Brenden Knox. Luckily for first-year head coach Charles Huff, Knox’s backups have seen a fair amount of playing time over the past two seasons. Sheldon Evans has been the primary RB2 over the past two years and has rushed for over 300 yards in both seasons. Sophomore Knowledge McDaniel turned down several Power Five schools to sign with the Herd in 2019 and rushed for 212 yards last year. Redshirt sophomore Lawrence Papillon was the fourth back last year.
11. Charlotte: After having experienced backs Benny Lemay, Tre Harbison and Aaron McCallister in the backfield over the past four seasons, the Niners enter 2021 with a relatively inexperienced group at the running back position. Redshirt senior Calvin Camp, who began his career as a wide receiver is the most veteran of the group. The 5-8, 175-pound Camp has 55 career carries. Chavon McEachern saw playing time sparingly last year with 11 carries for 43 yards and one score. Behind those two is Terrick Smalls Jr., who has appeared in seven games over two seasons. A pair of former three-star recruits in Chavion Smith and Elijah Turner are untested, but can push for playing time and Iowa transfer Shadrick Byrd will also be in the mix.
12. Western Kentucky: While the graduation of Gaej Walker certainly leaves the Tops without one of the more talented backs in the league, Tyson Helton has reason for optimism regarding his backfield. Redshirt junior Jakairi Moses has rushed for almost 600 yards over 23 career games with the Tops. Grad transfer Adam Cofield brings not only five seasons of collegiate experience, but he also was part of a North Dakota State program that won three straight national titles at the FCS level from 2017-2019. Cofield topped 800 yards in his last full season of play. Former three-star recruit C.J. Jones chose to walk-on at Texas A&M over Power Five offers and now is in the running back room at Western Kentucky.
13. Rice: Intellectual Brutality is one of the best taglines in all of college football — and one that Owls head coach Mike Bloomgren has lived by in his three seasons at Rice. Despite not having the most potent backfield, Bloomgren has remained committed to prioritizing the run. Last year’s duo of Khalan Griffin and Juma Otoviano combined for 444 yards on 117 carries — good enough for a 3.79 yard per attempt average. There’s no doubt that Rice will need more from their run game in ‘21. Griffin is expected to develop after his true freshman campaign last year, while Otoviano showed promise in the 2018 season-finale when he rushed for 227 yards and two touchdowns against Old Dominion. Keep an eye on tight end Jordan Myers, who has seen some snaps in the backfield during the spring. Bloomgren will look to take advantage of his athleticism and use him in various ways.
14. Old Dominion: It’s slightly unfair to try and rank ODU’s run game. The obvious is the Monarchs decision to opt-out of playing last season. But in addition, the last season of ODU football saw the program rank in the bottom third of FBS teams in passing yards, which certainly hampered the team’s run game. 2019’s most effective rusher, Elijah “Lala” Davis, returns and should be considered the lead of the group. Davis rushed for 337 yards in ‘19 and led the nation in rushing among high school players as a senior with 3,670 yards in 2017. Redshirt sophomore Blake Watson led ODU in all-purpose yards during the team’s last season of play, with 116 of those being on the ground. Behind them are veteran back Matt Geiger and 2021 true freshman Jon-Luke Peaker.