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Opinion: The 5 Best Running Backs in AAC History

The AAC is approaching a decade of play. So, we’re looking back at the conference’s top performers

Navy v South Florida Photo by Joseph Garnett Jr. /Getty Images

The American Athletic Conference is going to be reshaped by conference realignment, losing three schools at the start of 2023, and then adding six new ones. This comes after the conference was born from the collapse of the Big East a decade prior. So, we’re examining who the best players have been through the first decade of the AAC. It’s an ever-changing conference landscape, with a total of fourteen different schools that have played at least one season in the conference.

The AAC is the top Group of Five conference, and it got there through its dominant skill players. Here are the five best running backs:

5. Dontrell Hilliard-Tulane

Dontrell Hilliard was one of the key players at Tulane from the end of the Curtis Johnson era to the start of the Willie Fritz era. He fit into both systems well, seeing significant playing time in all four years of his college career.

Hilliard proved himself an effective receiving option during his first couple of years at Tulane, catching 53 passes as a freshman and sophomore. That went with more than 200 carries as a running back and made him one of the most exciting players coming into the 2016 season. That’s when Willie Fritz came over from Georgia Southern, he fit perfectly into the new spread option offense.

Splitting touches, Dontrell Hilliard managed to average 5.6 yards per carry in both his sophomore and junior seasons. As a senior, he stayed over five, with 5.2 yards per carry. His touches also went way up his senior year, from 135 to 211. That year he ran for more than 1,000 yards and a dozen touchdowns. As a senior, he would also be named Second Team All-AAC.

For his career, Dontrell Hilliard had 2,948 yards rushing, and 30 rushing touchdowns, with a 5.3 yards per carry average. He made 70 career catches for 740 yards and another 4 touchdowns through the air.

Among his best performances was his 2017 game against Tulsa. He had 19 carries for 175 yards and 4 touchdowns. He ran for more yards that season against ECU (189 yards), but that was his best all-around performance.

Dontrell Hilliard went to the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted free agent. He has also spent time with the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans. He has four touchdowns in the NFL, consistently making professional rosters.

4. D’Angelo Brewer-Tulsa

It’s hard not to find a spot for D’Angelo Brewer, the leading rusher in AAC history. He fit perfectly into Philip Montgomery’s system, once Montgomery got to Tulsa for Brewer’s sophomore campaign. He was a workhorse running back to put into that spread offense attack, which more often than not wants to attack on the ground once it’s stretched the defense thin.

Make no mistake, D’Angelo Brewer managed to become the AAC’s all-time leading rusher by accumulating chunks of yards of tons of carries. While at Tulsa, he touched the ball 753 times (second-most in AAC history, behind fellow Tulsa running back Shamari Brooks) on the ground for 3,917 yards. As a junior, he ran for 1,453 yards. He followed that up with 1,517 yards as a senior.

While not incapable as a receiver, it’s not a skill he was typically asked to take advantage of while at Tulsa. Still, he had 33 catches for 278 yards and 2 touchdowns on his career.

Brewer was First Team All-AAC as a senior. As a junior, he was Second Team All-AAC. On his career, D’Angelo Brewer had 753 carries for 3,917 yards or 5.2 yards per carry. He also ran for 23 touchdowns on his career.

In 2017, Brewer had multiple games with more than 200 yards rushing. In a Week 2 win over Louisiana, he ran for 262 yards and 3 touchdowns. In the final week of the season, he had 255 yards and a touchdown in a loss to Temple. He had a 252-yard game in 2016, against Fresno State, too.

Unfortunately, D’Angelo Brewer didn’t have a professional career.

3. Xavier Jones-SMU

Xavier Jones doesn’t get nearly enough credit for how great he was at SMU. Playing at SMU from 2015 to 2019. That’s a period that spans Chad Morris’ first season in Dallas to Sonny Dykes’ second. It’s also a timeframe where the Mustangs went from being a bit of a laughing stock at the bottom of the conference to a threat at the top—particularly due to their deadly offensive attack.

Jones found playing time right away under Morris, with 150 carries and 10 touchdowns as a freshman. Injuries then forced him to take a medical redshirt in 2016. Really, injuries would be the only thing that could derail his career, as he dealt with a hamstring injury his redshirt junior season too. He’d bounce back in 2017, Morris’ final season, with 1,000 yards on the ground.

His first season under Sonny Dykes and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee was the year he was hampered with a hamstring injury. Still, he managed to average 4.5 yards per carry when he did play. His senior year, though, Jones was back and better than ever, rushing for 1,276 yards and 23 touchdowns on the ground. He also made 20 catches for 90 yards and 2 touchdowns.

In his senior season, 2019, Xavier Jones would be named First Team All-AAC. For his career, Jones had 660 carries, 3,434 yards rushing, and 45 rushing touchdowns. Receiving, he had 72 catches for 488 yards and 3 touchdowns. That makes him the AAC’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns. He’s fifth among running backs in rushing yards.

One of his best games came against ECU in 2019 when Jones ran for 157 yards and 3 touchdowns. Meanwhile, in 2017, he rushed for a career-high 175 yards in a game against Memphis where he also scored twice.

Xavier Jones was picked up by the Los Angeles Rams, where he was a part of their Super Bowl champion team. However, injuries have slowed his professional development.

2. Marlon Mack-USF

It’s honestly shocking that the Quinton Flowers and Marlon Mack backfield wasn’t able to win an AAC Championship. Frankly, if it wasn’t for a 2016 regular season loss to Temple, they probably would have. Had he come back for his senior season, who knows how UCF’s 49-42 War on I-4 win would have looked like. Still, it’s a missed opportunity that has to haunt Bulls fans.

In many ways, Marlon Mack was the face of the Willie Taggart era at USF, with both of them leaving following the 2016 season. In all three of his years on campus, Mack dominated with more than 1,000 yards rushing in each season.

Mack was the 2014 AAC Rookie Player of the Year. He was also a First Team All-AAC selection three times, in 2014, 2015, and 2016. He left USF following his junior season. On his career, Mack had 586 carries, 3,609 rushing yards, and 32 rushing touchdowns. His average yards per carry was 6.2. Through the air, he had 65 catches for 498 receiving yards and a touchdown.

He sits at third all-time in AAC among running backs in terms of rushing yards. He’s seventh in rushing touchdowns among running backs. With a good senior season, he could have been first in each. He was that dominant a player during his time at USF.

In his junior year, Mack’s best game came against rival UCF. He rushed for 155 yards and 2 touchdowns. Meanwhile, he put up 230 yards and two touchdowns against Temple in 2015, which represents a career-high.

Marlon Mack would be a fourth-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts in the 2017 NFL Draft. He has had a fairly successful NFL career there. In 2022, he signed with the Houston Texans.

1. Darrell Henderson-Memphis

When he was at Memphis, Darrell Henderson was one of the most exciting backs to watch in the country. Explosive doesn’t even begin to cover it. He was so good that, even though he was splitting carries with other great running backs, you’d forget those backs existed on Memphis’ roster. Of course, Henderson wasn’t just a great running back. He could also return kicks and was a threat in the passing game.

Henderson got to Memphis in 2016. That was Mike Norvell’s first season, replacing Justin Fuente. The pair would be incredibly important in getting Memphis to take the next step forward as a program. They played for the conference championship game twice, losing both times to UCF.

In 2017, Henderson was Second Team All-AAC. In 2018, he would be named First Team All-AAC. He would also be named an All-American and win the Jim Brown Award as the nation’s best running back. That’s because Darrell Henderson’s 2018 season was the most dominant for a running back in AAC history. That year he ran for 1,909 yards on 214 carries. That’s 8.9 yards per carry (remarkably, he matched his yards per carry from 2017, when he ran for 8.9 yards per carry on 130 touches). That was a single-season rushing record in the AAC, meanwhile, his 8.9 yards per carry was the best in the entire country. Henderson also had 22 touchdowns on the ground in 2018, as well as 19 catches for 295 yards and 3 receiving touchdowns.

Darrell Henderson’s career stats are already massive. That’s why it’s important to remember that he did this in three seasons, not four since he moved on from Memphis a year early. He left Memphis with 431 carries for 3,545 yards (8.2 per carry) and 36 touchdowns. He also had 63 receptions for 758 yards and another 8 touchdowns.

He is the AAC’s all-time leader in yards per attempt by 1.1 yards, with 8.2 yards per carry. That number is also tied with Houston’s Chuck Weatherspoon as an all-time NCAA record. He’s second in AAC history for rushing touchdowns. He is fourth among AAC running backs in total yards too.

Henderson ran for 210 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 13.1 yards per carry, in the 2018 AAC Championship Game against UCF. In the Tigers’ regular season loss to UCF, he ran for another 199 yards. He also ran for more than 200 yards against Navy and Georgia State.

Henderson left Memphis after his junior year and would be drafted in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Rams. An injury derailed his rookie season, but he has been a solid performer since then. He was also a part of the Rams’ Super Bowl winning team.

Best of the Rest

Plenty of AAC teams have had brilliant running backs. From explosive backs to workhorses and receiving threats, some running backs just didn’t quite make the cut. Here are a few, in no particular order:

  • Otis Anderson UCF: One of the iconic players in UCF history, Anderson was a dynamic athlete. He also split touches throughout his career, keeping his stats down just a bit.
  • Patrick Taylor Jr. Memphis: Playing in Henderson’s shadows, Taylor was awesome, but not as consistently dominant.
  • Adrian Killins UCF: An undersized speedster, Adrian Killins was a key piece of UCF’s success. He’s hurt, however, by splitting carries and never having a 1,00 yards season.
  • Michael Warren II Cincinnati: A great power bac, Warren did more than his fair share to build Cincinnati. Two dominant seasons where he tended to compile stats with tons of touches.
  • Ryquell Armstead Temple: Another workhorse running back that personified ‘Temple Tuff.’ Armstead just wasn’t quite explosive enough.
  • Shamari Brooks Tulsa: The running back with the most touches in AAC history and second-most yards, Brooks misses in part because of a lower per carry average.
  • Greg McCrae UCF: McCrae has great one cut and go speed that made him explosive. It’s just hard not to remember that he was often overshadowed in his own backfield.
  • Jerome Ford Cincinnati: A great running back on Cincinnati’s CFP team, Ford really only had one great season.
  • Kevin Mensah UConn: One of the best running backs in UConn history, Mensah did a lot of damage in the AAC, but not enough to make the top-5.
  • Jahad Thomas Temple: Jahad Thomas had a massive 2015 season, but never matched those highs again.
  • James Flanders Tulsa: Flanders’ senior year in 2016 was one of the best individual seasons for an AAC player ever. It’s a shame about the other three years.
  • Storm Johnson UCF: An 1,100-yard rusher on UCF’s first Fiesta Bowl team, Johnson only did play one season in the conference.
  • Jordan Cronkrite USF: The Gators transfer was great for the Bulls. but only for one season.
  • Kenneth Farrow Houston: Farrow was one of the AAC’s best backs in its early years, but he doesn’t stand the test of time compared to the younger, more explosive backs.
  • Darius Bradwell Tulane: A convert from quarterback, Bradwell was great in 2018, but only in 2018.
  • Jamale Carothers Navy: Look, a fullback! In limited time Carothers was one of Navy’s best fullbacks.
  • Alton McCaskill Houston: Gambling on the future a bit, McCaskill was great as a freshman, but that was only one season.
  • Kenny Gainwell Memphis: It briefly looked like Gainwell could be better than Henderson at Memphis, but his career was cut short.

Previous AAC rankings:

So, what do you think? Who should have made the list, but didn’t?