The series of unit rankings among Sun Belt Conference football teams continues with a discussion of the running back position.
Four SBC teams ranked among the nation's top 37 in rushing offense last season. This is odd, considering that there were only four players in the conference to break 1,000 rushing yards for the season, and one of those was a quarterback.
All but one of the Sun Belt's top 10 rushers from 2009 return this season, meaning defensive coordinators have more to worry about than just the forward pass in this spread-happy league.
The Sun Belt's backfield crews, from top to bottom, line up like this:
1. North Texas
The SBC's three dominant running backs return, but all three lack experienced backups. This could leave their teams one errant step away from disaster, or possibly a new revelation.
UNT junior Lance Dunbar was one such revelation when he took over the starting job from the now-departed Cam Montgomery. By season's end, Dunbar had rolled up 1,378 yards, only 14 behind conference leader Alfred Morris of Florida Atlantic. However, Dunbar's total came on 63 fewer carries.
Where Dunbar separates himself in the rankings is the fact that he can separate himself on the field. He was one of only two players to break a run of more than 70 yards last season (MTSU QB Dwight Dasher was the other), and his 19 total touchdowns included eight plays of greater than 30 yards. His 28 receptions (totaling 300 yards) were more than Morris and ULM's Frank Goodin combined.
Junior James Hamilton and sophomore Jeremi Mathis both toted the ball 11 times last season, making them the most experienced backup options.
2. Florida Atlantic
Converted fullback Alfred Morris took over last spring as an injury replacement and made the most of the opportunity. The "A-Train" rumbled for 1,392 yards and 11 touchdowns, finishing 14th in the nation in rushing yards.
Morris introduced himself with a minor bang, rumbling for 95 yards in the 2009 opener, a lopsided loss to Nebraska. The biggest game of his sophomore season came against Louisiana-Lafayette, when he pounded out 181 yards and two scores in a 51-29 Owl victory.
Morris isn't much of a receiver, catching only seven passes all of last season. He may have to become more of a dump-off option in FAU's pro-style offense, however, as the Owls are replacing their entire offensive line.
Senior Willie Floyd has 51 career carries, and sixth-year senior Jeff Blanchard has 28. Blanchard's injury was the one that necessitated Morris's conversion to tailback, so fall practice will determine if Blanchard gets first shot to be Morris's caddy.
Fullback Willie Rose graduated, but sophomore Xavier Stinson should make a seamless transition into the starting role, as he was trusted with 30 carries last season.
Senior Frank Goodin, the third member of the SBC's trio of returning workhorses, is less than 900 yards shy of becoming ULM's all-time rushing leader. Unlike Dunbar and Morris, Goodin has been a contributor from day one, accounting for 596 and 783 yards in his first two seasons.
Goodin was consistent last season, but rarely as spectacular as Dunbar or Morris. He topped 110 yards only twice last season, even failing to break 70 in four games. However, he had only three games where he topped 20 carries, since ULM had a tendency to fall behind and try to pass their way back in.
His 18 receptions were helpful, but Goodin never did find the end zone on a pass play. With the center and right side of the Warhawks' line being rebuilt this season, whoever earns the ULM quarterback position may have to find new ways to get the ball into Goodin's hands.
Senior Rodney Lovett has 112 career carries for 461 yards, making him more experienced than anyone backing up Dunbar or Morris. However, converted quarterback Jyruss Edwards could slide in and take some carries off of Lovett's plate.
With Levi Brown breaking Sun Belt records last season, the Troy running game may have seemed a bit neglected. That didn't stop DuJuan Harris and Freshman of the Year award winner Shawn Southward from both cracking the SBC's top 10 in rushing.
Now that Brown is gone, the senior Harris and the sophomore Southward may get their opportunity to match the Nevada Wolf Pack's feat last season of having two 1,000-yard rushers.
Southward was the greater big play threat last season, stacking up 19 more yards than Harris on 41 fewer carries. The two combined for 22 rushing touchdowns, helping to balance out a scoring offense that ranked 16th nationally.
Harris is the more dangerous receiver, accounting for 63 catches and 458 yards over the past two seasons. Neither Southward (5'8", 184 lbs.) or Harris (5'7", 195 lbs.) is very strongly built, meaning that it'll be unlikely that we see both in the backfield at once. Harris could be a dangerous slot threat, however.
5. Middle Tennessee State
MTSU has easily the deepest backfield in the SBC. What drops them to fifth in these rankings, however, is the fact that there isn't a true lead dog among the running backs just yet.
Senior Phillip Tanner was the starter going into last season after running for 714 yards and 15 touchdowns (but only 3.8 yards per carry) in 2008. His knee injury in the Raiders' second game, against Memphis, opened the door for D.D. Kyles.
Kyles cruised to sixth in the Sun Belt in rushing with just over 70 yards per game. That average, however, got inflated by a three-game stretch where Kyles gained 427 against FAU, FIU, and ULL, three of the conference's worst run defenses. While all that was happening, the rising junior could only account for three touchdown runs all season.
A third runner, rising sophomore Ben Cunningham, had a pair of 50-yard games which accounted for two-thirds of his 2009 gains. The three-headed committee has coach Rick Stockstill anxious to reduce the running chores allocated to quarterback Dwight Dasher, to the point where he's even threatened to implement some wishbone packages into the Blue Raider playbook.
6. Western Kentucky
Shifty junior Bobby Rainey rambled for 939 yards and six touchdowns last season, fairly impressive figures in an offense where the quarterback, Kawaun Jakes, had only 19 fewer carries than Rainey.
The figures perhaps needed to be a bit better, however, since the pass offense was almost 50 yards per game worse than anyone else in the SBC. Jakes losing the starting QB job and new coach Willie Taggart transitioning the team to a more pro-style offense could both bode well for Rainey's numbers this season.
Taggart was the running backs coach at Stanford last season, and helped turn a 3-star fullback prospect by the name of Toby Gerhart into a Heisman runner-up. The offensive line returning three starters should also be a positive sign.
Unfortunately, there's that whole 20-game losing streak thing to contend with, and ending that should be the first priority for Rainey and the Hilltoppers this season.
7. Arkansas State
The lone departed member of the SBC's top 10 rushers list was ASU's Reggie Arnold, whose 723 yards placed seventh.
In his place, the Red Wolves turn back to rising junior Derek Lawson, who accounted for almost 700 yards himself as a freshman in 2008. Last season, the 5'11", 216-pounder ran for 244 in relief of Arnold.
Games of 76 yards against Mississippi Valley State and 67 against FAU showed that Lawson could still move the sticks when given the opportunity.
This season, four of the five offensive line starters, including All-SBC tackle Derek Newton, return.
Backup Jermaine Robertson, a 230-pound wrecking ball, gained 51 yards on 11 carries. He's noteworthy because none of those carries resulted in lost yardage.
8. Florida International
FIU would easily stand above ASU on this list if they were being led by 2009 team touchdown leader Kendall Berry. His tragic March death deprives the Panthers of their most talented runner.
5'9", 200-pound rising junior Darriet Perry ran for 301 yards last season, but they were hard-fought yards. Another 2.9 yards per carry average will not do the Golden Panther offense any favors.
Perry faces a stiff test from Syracuse transfer Jeremiah Harden, who was the story of the Panthers' Blue & Gold Game in April. His 96-yard game was highlighted by a 69-yard jailbreak.
Harden has the added advantage of familiarity with potential starting quarterback Wesley Carroll, both of whom starred at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale.
If the Panthers aim to improve on last season's 3-9 record, which may be necessary to save coach Mario Cristobal's job, a backfield shakeup may be just what the doctor ordered.
The Ragin' Cajuns were snakebitten last season as they searched for a feature back to replace four-year workhorse Tyrell Fenroy. Undrea Sails was averaging 72 yards per game through six games, then suffered a career-ending broken leg. As mentioned in the SBC quarterback rankings, ULL's running backs could only manage five of the Cajuns' 19 touchdown runs last season.
In the search for depth, ULL turns to a diverse group. Robert Walker was expected to be a big contributor as a freshman before the NCAA Clearinghouse threw out his ACT score, making him ineligible for 2009.
Fullback Yobes Walker is the leading returning rusher, recording a 41.2 yards per game average in 2009. The next leading returnee is Brad McGuire, who is transitioning into a running back position after being a designated running quarterback last season. McGuire led the team with seven TD runs.
Other candidates include junior Julian Shankle and sophomore Draylon Booker, who combined for only 29 carries in 2009. Whoever can capture the starting role, their job will be made even more difficult with an offensive line that loses three two-year starters.
Many more Sun Belt teams enter the season with established running backs or deep backfield groups than have veteran quarterbacks. Observers may notice that the spread-happy conference is equipped to become a lot more ground-based in 2010.
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