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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 13 East Carolina at Cincinnati Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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2022 AAC Preseason Position Previews: Running Back

The run-game gets overlooked in the AAC, but here’s some guys that will make you pay attention.

It’s almost here. The college football season begins in just a short 44 days. That’s 1,056 hours. We can do it. But to help bridge the six-week gap, here’s a look at the running back situation in the American Athletic Conference. We broke this group of talented athletes down into three categories: the schools that are thriving, the ones that are striving and then the programs that are just looking to survive. Enjoy and run the damn ball.

Elite: These teams are dominant at the running back spot and should be at the top of the conference all season because of it.

Second Tier: These teams have talent at running back, but there are questions in some way, shape, or form.

Wait and See: These teams have more than a couple of questions left to answer at the position.

Elite

Eastern Carolina: The Pirates’ offense offers a balanced diet thanks in large part to sophomore running back Keaton Mitchell. The Georgia native averaged 6.5 yards on 174 carries in 2021, leading the conference with 106.5 yards per game. His 1,132 yards last year made him the first Pirate with 1,000 or more rushing yards in a season since 2013. His yardage helped ECU achieve nearly 2,000 yards on the ground last season, the fifth biggest rushing total in school history. Mitchell is the perfect Robin to quarterback Holton Ahlers’ Batman, but this year he might be giving more main character energy.

UCF: With all the quarterback commotion, it’s easy to forget that fifth-year senior Isiah Bowser & junior Johnny Richardson helped the Knights finish second in the conference in rushing yards - just a mere 29 yards behind Navy and their formidable triple-option. Richardson finished with 733 yards and three touchdowns while Bowser followed closely with 703 yards and nine touchdowns. The pair will continue to bulldoze teams next season behind an extremely experienced offensive line.

In the words of head coach Gus Malzahn, “We believe in running the football, which I think you have to do to win a championship,”

NCAA Football: Tulane at Southern Methodist Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Tulane: The Green Wave struggled offensively when quarterback Michael Pratt was inconsistent but the run-game, grounded by sophomore running back, held Tulane down last season. Spears lit up Memphis in the final game of the season to the tune of 264 yards on 30 carries. He finished with 863 yards and nine touchdowns on the season, averaging 71.9 yards per game, ranking him fifth in the conference. Tulane is on its third offensive coordinator in three years, but Jim Svoboda seems like a better fit with his spread and RPO concepts. Not only will Spears, Colorado transfer Ashaad Clayton, and the rest of the run game take pressure off Pratt, getting rid of the ball faster will help the sophomore quarterback live longer.

Tulsa: My favorite bringers of chaos, the Golden Hurricane may have lost Shamari Brooks and the nearly 80 yards he averaged a game last season, but the remaining trio of running backs are more than capable. There is senior Deneric Prince, who racked up 524 rushing yards last season, sophomore Anthony Watkins, who finished with 634 yards and newcomer Steven Anderson, who finished with 219 yards and is a short-yardage king. The guys will need to navigate through an offensive line that only returns two starters. Prince is a solid, every-down back and will shoulder the bulk of the carries but Watkins will be the big-play guy while Anderson will roll some heads in third-and-short situations.

Second Tier

Cincinnati: While most eyes will be on replacing Desmond Ridder, I’m wondering how the Bearcats will replace departed Jerome Ford’s 101.5 rushing yards per game and 19 touchdowns. It will be hard to duplicate the kind of contributions Ford made to the playoff team, but homecoming king Corey Kiner, who transferred from LSU late in spring is likely up to the task. The sophomore RB rushed for 324 yards and two touchdowns on 79 attempts over 11 games last season for the Tigers. Seniors Charles McClelland and Ryan Montgomery will round out a deep group that will look to replicate the 173.3 rushing yards Cincy averaged last season.

SMU: The Mustangs needed more cowbell and they got it – enter new head coach Rhett Lashlee, who promises to continue SMU’s potent offense led by senior quarterback Tanner Mordecai while infusing the program with a healthy shot of defense and an injection of youth culture, making Dallas cool again. And being cool is all about balance, which is where senior running back Tyler Lavine comes in.

Lavine is the Mustangs’ top returning rusher with 257 yards and two touchdowns in 12 games last season. He will be joined by Alabama transfer Camar Wheaton, a Garland, Texas native who was rated the No 3. Running back in the 2021 class. Wheaton was sidelined last season with a meniscus injury, but SMU fans will get to see just how speedy he is this year. SMU is about to separate the Wheat(on) from the chaff this season.

NCAA Football: Navy at Southern Methodist Tim Flores-USA TODAY Sports

USF: The Bulls are another team most of us (not looking at you, Dan Morrison) hope to see succeed this season under third-year head coach Jeff Scott. In fact, some of us believe they will start off the season with a bang by beating BYU. Sophomore quarterback Timmy McClain at the helm helps, but the one-two rushing punch of Jaren Mangham and Kelley Joiner will give USF the edge it needs. Mangham finished last season with 671 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns, while Joiner added 480 yards and averaged 6.2 yards a carry with two touchdowns of his own. All five offensive lineman return, along with 13 other starters and an offense that averaged 23.2 points per game. This will be a different USF team than we saw last year.

Navy: We really should just list the entire Navy offense in this section because they all play running back, have played running back, could play running back, etc. Also, we get to shout out fullbacks - which just feels right when writing about the run game.

Led by coach Jason McDonald, the fullback group is young but hungry, topped by sophomore Anton Hall Jr. who had just four carries for 11 yards last year but is likely to be a big contributor this season. Slot back Kai Puailoa-Rojas emerged as a playmaker as well for the Midshipmen. Navy ranked ninth last year in rushing, averaging 225.5 yards per game – a stark contrast to the 177.7 yards of rushing per game they averaged in 2020, when they ranked 52nd in the nation. Navy always struggles with a tough schedule, coupled with the inability to bring back fifth-year seniors and grad students, but the Midshipmen could find a way to top last year’s four wins on the heels of their gritty ground game.

Wait and See

Houston: Probably the biggest question mark in the conference resides in Houston, Texas – will Alton McCaskill miss the 2022 season due to his torn ACL? He was cleared to walk in late May but is unlikely to be back in fighting shape for the season. That means it is senior running back Ta’Zhawn Henry’s time. Henry was McCaskill’s backup last season, racking up 513 yards off of 111 caries and seven touchdowns. He will have help replacing McCaskill’s nearly 1,000 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns from USC transfer Brandon Campbell, who will compete for carries. Freshman Stacy Sneed, junior Kelan Walker and sophomore James Fullbright III round out the running back group for the Cougars.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Navy at Houston Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Memphis: The Tigers have been facing their share of scrutiny the past year, plus the snub of not being invited to the Big 12 party. Fans will be looking to head coach Ryan Silverfield, in his third year with the team, to make a big push this season.

The ground game will have to find its footing quickly as the offensive line works to gel. Luckily, senior running back Rodrigues Clark is back to lead the charge, with 387 yards off of 79 carries and four touchdowns last season. He is joined by Northern Illinois transfer Jeyvon Ducker, who won freshman of the year honors in the Mid-American conference after rushing for 1,184 yards. He rushed for at least 100 yards in seven of his last eight games, averaging 137.4 yards per game.

Temple: What newly minted head coach Stan Drayton has done so far for the Owls is nothing short of magical. After an incredibly toxic culture that created a 3-9 season last year, Temple cleaned house and started fresh. Already we are seeing a more positive attitude in Philly. They do return redshirt sophomore Edward Saydee, who led the team with 321 yards off of 87 carries and three touchdowns last season. Saydee is joined by Texas A&M transfer Davon Hubbard, a big-bodied productive runner who can also be a pass-catcher, as well as Illinois transfer Jakari Norwood. This will likely mean running back by committee until someone shows out and commands carries.

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