Our annual offseason positional preview series across Conference USA as we take a look at the running back rooms across the league.
For those who are new, the format is simple. There are three grading categories: “Great Shape,” “Good Shape,” and “We’ll See.”
To elaborate on the grades, “We’ll See” means we have no idea if that position is going to turn out to be a plus due to a lack of proven contributors, questionable depth entering the season or the projected starter is coming in from another school.
“Good Shape” means known commodities are at the position but there’s still room for this unit to improve. Depth is above average to good, with a player or two having the potential to make an appearance on the all-conference team.
“Great Shape” means All-C-USA performers are at this position or there is good-to-great depth across the board.
1. UAB: The folks in Birmingham have undoubtedly been spoiled for the better part of the last decade at the running back spot. Jordan Howard, Spencer Brown and now DeWayne McBride are all backs who have rushed for at least 1,200 yards in the Magic City. After serving as Brown’s understudy in 2020, McBride finished third in C-USA last season with 1,371 yards on the ground. With the top-two performers no longer in the conference, McBride is undoubtedly the leader of the pack — and his backup in Jermaine Brown Jr. would be the RB1 at any other program in the league.
2. North Texas: Any Mean Green fans reading this preview may feel slighted (rightfully so) by being ranked second after leading C-USA in rushing last year. Losing DeAndre Torrey is huge — but this year’s group may end up being the deepest in the league — giving Seth Littrell a good problem to have as the quarterback situation comes together. Ikaika Ragsdale, Ayo Adeyi and Isaiah Johnson combined for 1,389 yards and 16 scores behind Torrey’s 1,215 yards. As impressive as that trio is, the group will be bolstered by the return of Oscar Adaway III who missed all of last season but rushed for over 500 yards in 2020.
3. Florida Atlantic: Having a stable of capable running backs can be a blessing and a curse. In the case of FAU, they undoubtedly have one of C-USA’s top talents in the equally diminutive and dynamic Johnny Ford. The South Florida transfer rushed for over 800 yards and accounted for 1,111 yards from scrimmage in 2021.
However, the Owls’ next leading rusher was Malcolm Davidson, who had only 274 yards. With Davidson and James Charles gone, Willie Taggart may be able to spread the carries across a rotation that features former three-star prospects Larry McCammon III, Kelvin Dean and Nebraska transfer Marvin Scott III. Also keep an eye on Zuberi Mobley, who saw some action last year.
4. UTEP: While not necessarily by design, last season provided Dana Dimel’s Miners with a bowl berth and one of the top one-two running back tandems in Conference USA. Hometown hero Deion Hankins entered last year as the lead back, but after battling injuries Hankins gave way to senior Ronald Awatt. The 6-0, 205-pound Awatt rushed for 844 yards and six scores to lead the team last year while Hankins added another 458 yards. As quarterback Gavin Hardison continues to develop, the duo will be depended upon to keep the Miner offense on schedule. Third-stringer Reynaldo Flores is also a capable threat as a rusher and has solid hands out of the backfield or lined up as a receiver.
5. UTSA: Following Sincere McCormick would be a tough ask for almost any back. However, Jeff Traylor landing Arkansas transfer Trelon Smith puts his club in a great position to do just that. The former Razorback and Arizona State Sun Devil rushed for 1,308 yards and 10 scores over the last two seasons in Fayetteville. The Roadrunners also signed the nation’s second-best JUCO back in Tye Edwards from Hutchinson Community College and return reserves Jaylon Lott and Kaedric Cobbs. Also, keep an eye on veteran Brenden Brady who has started games before McCormick took over as lead back and is a capable RB2.
6. Charlotte: Very quietly last season, Will Healy’s Niners put together a solid rushing attack behind the duo of Calvin Camp and Shadrick Byrd. The 5-8, 180-pound Camp led the team in rushing with 635 yards and four scores while Byrd filled in well after transferring from Iowa, providing 583 yards and three touchdowns. Both backs are also threats in the receiving game, combining for 35 receptions and 378 yards.
7. Rice: It’s no secret that Mike Bloomgren wants to establish the run in Houston. How successful the rushing attack for Rice will be remains to be seen. Last year’s leading rusher in redshirt junior Ari Broussard is back and the group should benefit from the return of Juma Otoviana. Former three-star recruit and last year’s second leading rusher, Khalan Griffin entered the transfer portal and jack-of-all trades Jordan Myers graduated, so look for Cameron Montgomery to also play a factor in the Owls’ attack.
8. FIU: Despite having one of the league’s most talented backs in D’Vonte Price, the run game was an issue virtually the entire season for the Panthers in 2021. Luckily, the program recruited well at the position, so a fresh start could be just what’s needed to jumpstart the unit.
Former three-star prospects Lexington Joseph, E.J. Wilson and Kejon Owens have all waited their turn and will be depended upon heavily, especially with former RB2 Shaun Peterson Jr. flipping sides of the ball.
9. Louisiana Tech: With Marcus Williams Jr. graduated, it will be up to a group of virtual unknowns to pick up the the Bulldogs rushing attack under first-year coach Sonny Cumbie. Greg Garner, Harlan Dixon and Keyon Brooks all saw time last year behind Williams Jr., combining for 414 yards and three scores. Expect those three to compete for the RB1 and backup running back reps.
10. Middle Tennessee: I asked Rick Stockstill before the start of last season how much of an emphasis would be placed on jump-starting a rushing attack that hasn’t seen a running back north of 500 yards since Chaton Mobley in 2018.
“We have to improve our running game overall as last year we averaged only 135 yards per game rushing and only 66 of those came from the running backs,” said Stockstill. “We’ll still get some quarterback runs but not nearly as much as we have the past two seasons, we have to become more balanced with our backs getting the rushing yards and improve our passing game.”
While the Blue Raiders were able to qualify for a bowl in 2021, the rushing attack is still an issue in Murfreesboro. Martell Pettaway led the team in rushing with only 372 yards last season, followed by the returning Frank Peasant, who had 303 yards. Keep an eye on reserves Joe Ervin and A’Varius Sparrow as well.
11. Western Kentucky: Lost in the midst of the Hilltoppers aerial attack was the fact that when needed, Tyson Helton’s group were able to run the ball efficiently.
However, the group lost its top rusher in Noah Whittington to Oregon during the offseason. Veteran Jakari Moses and sophomore Kye Robichaux will be depended upon to pick up the slack.