The 2012 season in Southern Conference football is shaping up as one in which we will be focusing on the running back position, with some of the top running backs in FCS football returning.
In 2009, the SoCon had some of the best wide receivers in the nation, with the likes of Andre Roberts (The Citadel), Terrell Hudgins (Elon) and Brian Quick (Appalachian State), all top-flight wideouts.
There have been SoCon seasons like this before for the running back position.
Of course, in the early 2000s, the league had two of the nation’s top running backs in Furman’s Louis Ivory (1998-01) and Georgia Southern’s Adrian Peterson (1998-01). In 1995, the junior duo of Thomas Haskins (VMI) and Damon Scott (Appalachian State) joined senior Chris Parker (Marshall) as three of the top backs in the country.
In 2012, there will once again be a litany of talent at the position, led by Wofford’s Eric Breitenstein. Breitenstein is the reigning Southern Conference Offensive Player of the Year, and the Boone, N.C. native should once again not only be one of the top offensive weapons in the SoCon, but one of a handful of candidates to claim the coveted Walter Payton Award this fall.
In three full seasons as a starter in the Terrier backfield, Breitenstein has rushed for 3,695 yards and 46 TDs, ranking third in Wofford history in career rushing yards and second in career TDs for the Terriers.
Breitenstein has produced the No. 1 and No. 3 best individual rushing campaigns in Wofford history in each of the past two campaigns, and he is coming off a 2012 season which saw him rush for 1,474 yards last fall. He has an excellent chance to become Wofford’s second all-time leading rusher this fall, needing only 157 yards this fall to surpass Kevious Johnson for second all-time on Wofford’s all-time rushing list.
He enjoyed some outstanding rushing performances for the Terriers last season, rushing for a Wofford season-high 217 yards in a win over Elon.
And Breitenstein isn’t alone, as Donovan Johnson returns to the fold for his junior campaign in the Terriers’ backfield.
Over the past two seasons, it has been Johnson who has made the Wofford backfield so versatile. In fact, Johnson wasn’t all that far from reaching the 1,000-yard plateau himself. In fact, Johnson completed the 2011 season with 967 yards and nine TDs in action while mostly in the reserve role at fullback behind Breitenstein.
Johnson posted a pair of big rushing performances last season, with a career-high 173 yards in the 38-17 win over Samford, and a 141-yard performance in the regular-season finale 28-27 win over Chattanooga, both of which helped the Terriers punch their ticket to the FCS postseason.
Just about 40 miles south resides another one of the top running backs in the SoCon, as well as in the FCS, as Furman running back Jerodis Williams will look to build on the 1,000-yard season that was 2011.
Williams’ 1,000-yard rushing season marked the first 1,000-yard campaign by a Paladin running back since the 2003 season, when Hindley Brigham completed the ‘03 season with 1,042 yards.
Williams completed the ‘11 campaign by rushing for 1,055 yards and nine TDs, averaging 5.3 YPC. In his three seasons as a Paladin running back, Williams has rushed for 1,927 yards and 18 TDs.
The Prattville, AL native enjoyed several big performances in 2011, with one of his most memorable performances coming in the season opener against Coastal Carolina, as he rushed for 142 yards and three scores in the 30-23 loss. In the season finale 54-32 loss to SEC East member Florida, Williams rushed for 133 yards and a pair of scores, including a career-long 77-yard scoring run late in the third quarter.
Like Wofford, Georgia Southern has two of the nation’s elite running backs returning to the backfield for the 2012 season. Dominique Swoope and Robert Brown have each rushed for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons.
Swope was the story of the 2011 season, and some have called the rising sophomore running back the best player in the Georgia Southern backfield since Adrian Peterson was toting the pigskin for the Eagles.
Swope finished the 2011 season as the Southern Conference Freshman of the Year, completing the campaign with 1,023 yards and seven TDs on 168 rush attempts (6.1 YPC).
Swope came up big in the postseason for the Eagles, producing one of the best rushing performances in the history of Georgia Southern football in the FCS opening round 55-48 win over Old Dominion. In the thrilling win over the Monarchs, he rushed for 255 yards and a couple of TDs on 31 carries.
The performance by Swope marked the first 200-yard rushing performance for the Eagles since Jayson Foster completed the feat in 2007. His rushing total was the fourth-highest single game total by a running back in school history.
In the 45-21 loss to eventual FBS national champion Alabama, Swope showed he could do it against big-time competition as well, finishing with 153 yards and a TD on 18 carries for the Eagles.
Before there was Swope, there was Robert Brown. Brown enters his junior season having rushed for 1,941 yards and 12 TDs so far in his career. Brown became the first Georgia Southern freshman running back to rush for over 1,000 when he finished the 2010 campaign with 1,004 rushing yards.
This past season, Brown started the campaign as the primary ball-carrier for the Eagles, but injuries plagued him in the middle season, and he ended up losing the starting job to Swope. He still managed to finish the campaign with 937 yards and seven TDs.
The Macon, GA product will see a change in position this fall, as he will go from backing up Swope at fullback to starting at one of the slotback positions for the Eagles this fall. Brown enjoyed his best game of the 2011 season for the Eagles against Chattanooga, rushing for 178 yards on 17 carries.
Another running back who made the most of an opportunity given to him last season was Citadel's Darien Robinson.
When Bulldogs starting running back Terrell Dallas went down in the season opener with a season-ending knee injury, Darien Robinson, then just a sophomore, stepped in to take over the starting responsibilities, and quickly became one of the best young running backs in the SoCon in 2011.
Robinson completed the 2011 season rushing for 862 yards and nine TDs, averaging 6.3 YPC. Robinson finished the season ranking sixth in the league in overall rushing average, posting 78.4 yards per outing.
The native of McKeesport, PA will be the focal point of The Citadel’s flexbone attack this fall, as he will likely find himself in the starting role just ahead of Dallas. Robinson enjoyed some strong performances for the Bulldogs last fall, surpassing the century mark on three occasions. His top game of the season came in a 49-42 loss to Appalachian State, as he rushed for 109 yards and one TD.
Another key element of that Citadel backfield this fall will be the aforementioned Dallas, who received a medical redshirt after suffering a torn ACL in the season opener against Jacksonville last fall.
Dallas will enter the 2012 season with 1,252 career rushing yards and 13 rushing scores. Dallas rushed for 665 yards and six TDs in 2010 to lead the Bulldogs. He produced the single-best rushing peformance since the switch to the flexbone offense when he rushed for 172 yards in a win over Presbyterian.
One of the questions facing Samford coming into the 2012 season was how it would replace Chris Evans, all-time leading rusher for not just the school, but the entire state of Alabama.
Evans became one of a handful of FCS players to rush for at least 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons as a Samford running back.
But the 2011 season would see the emergence of Fabian Truss as the leader of the Bulldogs’ ground attack last fall. Truss managed to have a big sophomore season for Samford.
He proved to be an added threat as a return specialist last season.
In his first season as a full-time starter for the Bulldogs’ backfield, Truss rushed for 847 yards and seven TDs in 10 starts, while also proving to be a solid threat, catching passes out of the Samford backfield and hauling in 23 passes for 137 yards.
Truss’ 84.7 rushing yards per game last fall had him ranking third in the conference behind Breitenstein and Williams in rushing average per game.
Truss enjoyed a couple big rushing performances last season, posting a career-high 191 yards and three rushing scores in a 43-31 win over Elon. In a 26-21 win at Furman, Truss rushed for 136 yards on 26 carries.
Truss also led the league in average all-purpose yards per game last fall, posting an output of 177.4 YPG. As a kick return specialist last fall, Truss ranked second in the SoCon in kick return average, posting 29.3 YPR. Truss also had a kick return for a score last season.
Newcomers To Watch:
Appalachian State hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher at running back since Kevin Richardson last went for 1,348 yards in ASU’s third-straight national championship season in 2007.
ASU might have its top incoming talent in the backfield since Richardson, although Richardson didn’t establish himself right away as the go-to-back for the Mountaineers. They haven't had a freshman rush for 1,000 yards in the ASU backfield since Chip Hooks rushed for 1,000 yards as a true freshman back during the 1991campaign.
ASU will be rather thin at RB this fall, after the graduation of Travaris Cadet and with Western Kentucky transfer Quarterrio Morgan no longer enrolled in the program as a result of academics. Holloway rushed for 4,844 yards and 77 TDs during his prep career at Asheville High School and was a two star recruit according to Rivals.com.
Just up the road in Cullowhee, N.C., the Catamounts will have another of the league’s top young offensive talents in the backfield, with the signing of Darius Ramsey out of West Rowan High School. The speedy Ramsey finished his final prep season with 1,928 yards and 31 TDs. Ramsey will likely redshirt this season with three experienced RBs returning in front of him, but you never know for sure with a new coaching staff.
Ranking The Top 10 SoCon RBs:
1. Eric Breitenstein--Wofford
2. Jerodis Williams--Furman
3. Dominique Swope--Georgia Southern
4. Robert Brown--Georgia Southern
5. Darien Robinson--The Citadel
6. Fabian Truss--Samford
7. Marquis Green--Chattanooga
8. Donovan Johnson--Wofford
9. Michael Vaughn--Western Carolina
10.Terrell Dallas--The Citadel