Wednesday, April 13, 2011
The Big East's 1,000-yard backs in 2011
By Brian Bennett
The number 1,000 is like Mount Everest for a college running back. Forget for a moment that over 12 regular season games plus a bowl, a runner has to average fewer than 77 yards per game to reach the milestone of 1,000 yards in a year. It's still a magical number.
The Big East has been blessed with top tailbacks the past few seasons, including five 1,000-yard rushers in 2010 (and two more guys who topped 920 yards last season).
Who will get there in 2011? Let's take a look at the top candidates, in order:
Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead is the Big East's leading returning rusher.
1. Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati: Pead is the Big East's leading returning rusher this season, having produced 1,029 yards last season. The senior could be in for an even bigger year in '11 if he can stay healthy and the Bearcats offense can remain committed to the run.
2. Ray Graham, Pittsburgh: Graham ran for 922 yards and averaged 6.2 yards per carry despite splitting carries with Dion Lewis last season. Now as the featured back -- and the only experienced ball carrier -- in new coach Todd Graham's fast-paced offense, Graham might be the safest bet of any Big East player to top 1,000 yards this year.
3. Antwon Bailey, Syracuse: Bailey rushed for 554 yards last season and now should be the starting tailback behind a veteran Orange offensive line. Delone Carter topped 1,000 yards each of the past two seasons in this offense, so Bailey could do the same if given the same opportunities.
4. D.J. Shoemate or some other Connecticut back: Picking a UConn back to go over 1,000 used to be a given. Donald Brown eclipsed 2,000 in 2008, two backs got into four figures in 2009, and Jordan Todman finished second nationally in rushing a year ago. The Huskies still have a powerful offensive line that will pave holes, and the running game will be important with an unproven quarterback. But there's no clear heir to Todman. Shoemate has gotten most of the reps this spring but must prove he's elusive enough to be an elite tailback. If not, perhaps Lyle McCombs or an incoming freshman will get a shot.
5. Unknown West Virginia back: Most of the focus on Dana Holgorsen's offense centers on the passing game. But Holgorsen had a 1,500-yard back last year at Oklahoma State and 1,200-yard one at Houston in 2008. So the Mountaineers could definitely see a player cross that threshold. The question remains whether that would be Ryan Clarke, Shawne Alston, Daquan Hargrett, Andrew Buie or whomever.
6. Jeremy Wright, Louisville: The sophomore likely will succeed Bilal Powell, who finished as the second best runner in the Big East last year. Wright showed his ability in limited time when Powell was hurt a year ago, and the Cardinals proved their commitment to running the ball under Charlie Strong in 2010. But Wright has also missed this spring with an injury, and the offensive line must replace four starters. Senior Victor Anderson has a 1,000-yard season under his belt but must regain his freshman form.
7. Darrell Scott/Demetris Murray/Dontae Aycock, South Florida: Call them the 3-D backfield. It's unclear which back will emerge as the leader in the USF backfield, whether it's the Colorado transfer Scott, the Auburn transfer Aycock or Murray, who ran for 542 yards a year ago. They might split carries so much that no one guy reaches 1,000.
8. Savon Huggins or another Rutgers back: The Scarlet Knights haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Ray Rice, though Joe Martinek got close two years ago. The conventional wisdom is that super-recruit Huggins will earn the running back mantle when he arrives this summer. But first he'll have to beat out Jeremy Deering, De'Antwan Williams and Jawan Jamison. And the Rutgers offensive line will have to be a whole lot better to clear the way toward 1,000 yards for any one back.