NCF Nation: D.J. Shoemate

To have a workhorse back or to split reps? That is the question.

And it certainly is a question on the minds of Big East coaches around the league. With five starters gone headed into 2012, and Ray Graham coming off ACL surgery, this is a position of intrigue during the spring. The ultimate decision has to be made about whether to rely on one back a lion's share of the time, or whether to get a nice rotation going to provide yourself some depth and versatility.

Two league coaches offered their opinions recently on the matter, and both are in favor of finding a workhorse back. Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson pointed to 2010, when Bilal Powell had 229 carries and 1,405 yards. Victor Anderson had the next-highest carries total with 64. Last season, the Cardinals distributed the ball more evenly among its backs -- Anderson and Dominique Brown each had over 100 carries -- and did not fare as well in the ground game.

But it is important to keep in mind the offensive line had its share of struggles as well.

[+] EnlargeLyle McCombs
Brian Pohorylo/Icon SMILyle McCombs had a strong rookie season, but he'll face competition to be the go-to guy coach Paul Pasqualoni wants.
Still, Watson said he wants to find a go-to guy among the four players competing for the starting running back position. “We need someone to be the war daddy at that position, like Bilal Powell was in (Charlie) Strong’s first season,” said Watson. “Biggest thing we look back at is not having a go-to guy. We have to find a go-to-guy. That creates competition in the room and makes everyone better.”

At UConn, Lyle McCombs returns after putting up 1,000 yards his freshman season, but there is some nice competition at the position this spring with D.J. Shoemate returning from injury, in addition to Joe Williams, Martin Hyppolite and Max DeLorenzo. But coach Paul Pasqualoni wants one go-to guy as well.

“I don’t want a guy that’s got to come out of the game," Pasqualoni told reporters in Connecticut. "I don’t want a guy that’s saying I’m tired, take me out. I don’t want a Jaguar. Do you know what a Jaguar is? The Jaguar is always in the shop, always breaking down so I don’t want a Jaguar. I want a durable guy and if we put him in the game he stays in the game and he stays in the game. We’re trying to develop the depth we have but I’m all for one guy staying out there. Now we’re going to use the talents and ability we have but I want them all to be able to do it if you know what I mean.”

Last season, four running backs had over 200 carries. Had Graham been healthy, that number would have been five. Rutgers and Cincinnati also went with one back primarily. This season, that may not be the case. Rutgers coach Kyle Flood already has talked about the value of having more than one back consistently produce, while coach Butch Jones has talked about trying to get more backs involved to make up for the loss of Big East Offensive Player of the Year Isaiah Pead.

USF had three players with over 100 carries last season. The last time USF had a back with over 200 carries was Andre Hall in 2005, but even then the Bulls had another player with over 100 carries as well.

Pitt coach Paul Chryst has shown a proclivity to get multiple backs involved as well, but some of his offenses at Wisconsin did rely on one workhorse. If Graham returns on schedule, one would expect him to get the majority of the carries, but Isaac Bennett has had a nice spring game, and freshman Rushell Shell arrives in the summer.

As for Temple, the Owls relied on Bernard Pierce in recent years, though Matt Brown got his share of the carries. That load falls to him this season, with the hope that other backs can get involved as well.
Plenty can happen in a month. Just ask Rutgers. So with that, we are taking another stab at our way-too-early 2012 power rankings. These are subject to change after spring practice and again before the season starts, but it's never too early to let the debate begin.

Only one change since the first version after the national championship game -- I swapped Louisville and Rutgers.

1. West Virginia:* Every day it seems more apparent that the Mountaineers will do whatever it takes to get into the Big 12 for the 2012 season. But if they are held up in the Big East, they'll be the consensus preseason pick to win the league.

2. Louisville: I moved the Cardinals up from No. 3 to No. 2 based primarily on the upheaval with the Scarlet Knights. As you have seen me say already many times, I think Louisville and Rutgers will be the top two contenders to win the Big East if West Virginia leaves.

3. Rutgers: I still think the Scarlet Knights have an excellent shot to contend for a title, but now there is more uncertainty surrounding this team than there was in January with former coach Greg Schiano gone. I think Kyle Flood can keep the train going, but there are still questions at quarterback and about who will run the defense -- and whether he will be as good as Schiano was in 2011.

4. Cincinnati: I know Bearcats fans continue to harp on the "keep doubting us" mantra, but there is no denying this team is losing a good chunk of its starters and will be one of the least experienced teams in all of college football next season. There is talent, but how does everybody come together?

5. South Florida: The Bulls will have one of the most experienced teams in college football. This should be the year they seriously contend for a Big East title because of all the players coming back. Plus, they made some good junior college pickups and signed several players who can contribute immediately. But they have to show me something before I start bragging about them.

6. Pittsburgh: There are many question marks, even with a terrific signing class. Who is going to be quarterback? Will the offensive line be better? How will the young defense do? How does Ray Graham look in his return from a major knee injury? How will a first-year coach do? The Panthers will be very interesting to watch during the spring and fall.

7. Connecticut: Of all the teams in the league, I think the Huskies have the potential to surprise. They should be better on defense; they get D.J. Shoemate back; and they have signed the best player in Connecticut at quarterback. But relying on a true freshman is always a mixed bag. I will watch this team closely to see how it does in Year 2 under Paul Pasqualoni.

8. Syracuse: The Orange ended on the bottom at 2011, so they start at the bottom for 2012. You will remember I did that with Rutgers and was dead wrong. But this team has many more questions -- receiving depth looks thin; how will the running back rotation go; who steps up in the secondary and defensive line? I want to see those questions answered in the spring and fall.
UConn struggled on offense against a MAC team last week and won. The Huskies are struggling against a MAC team this week and are going to need a comeback to win.

Western Michigan has a 17-7 lead on the Huskies at halftime, dominating through the air. Jordan White, the best receiver you have never heard of, has 110 yards and a touchdown on seven catches. UConn really seems to miss starting cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who's out with a knee injury. Alex Carder went 13-of-17 for 181 yards and two touchdowns in the second quarter.

Meanwhile, the Huskies are missing something on offense, too. Johnny McEntee is 8-of-15 for 62 yards and a touchdown -- that's an average of 4.1 yards per attempt. Lyle McCombs had a 65-yard run that set up the only UConn touchdown of the game. But take away that run, and he has 40 yards on 14 carries, good for 2.9 yards a carry. D.J. Shoemate did not start, and neither did starting tackle Jimmy Bennett, both out with injuries.

What to watch in the Big East: Week 5

September, 29, 2011
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What are the biggest story lines to watch in the Big East in Week 5? Let us take a look.

1. Thursday night jinx. USF has not played particularly well on Thursday nights. If you want a history lesson, go back and look at the schools. Skip Holtz does not need one. When asked about the Bulls losing six games on Thursday night during his midweek press conference, Holtz said, "This team has not played on Thursday night yet. What's happened in the past is irrelevant. Where we're going in the future is irrelevant. It's going to be what goes on in between the lines. What is our focus like and how do we play this game on Thursday night?"

[+] EnlargeTino Sunseri
AP Photo/Don WrightQuarterback Tino Sunseri will need to make plays if Pitt is to pull off an upset of South Florida.
2. Short week. Both USF and Pitt had short weeks to prepare for their conference opener. How will that affect both teams? For the Panthers, you wonder about being able to put two straight losses behind them as they begin to focus on goals that are still within reach. For USF, you wonder about a team that has not been tested since the opener at Notre Dame four weeks ago.

3. B.J. Daniels vs. Tino Sunseri. Daniels has been the better quarterback and a big reason why USF is 4-0. Tino Sunseri has had struggles in the new "high-octane" Pitt offense and the Panthers are 2-2. Quarterback play is going to be hugely important in this game. Can Pitt get pressure on Daniels? Can Sunseri make something happen?

4. West Virginia on the rebound. The Mountaineers are coming off a disappointing loss to LSU, now the No. 1 team in the nation. Is their game against Bowling Green a classic "emotional letdown game?" After all, it is hard to imagine players and fans getting as jacked up about this game as they did for the Tigers. How will Dana Holgorsen prepare his players to play from opening kickoff and put last week in the past?

5. M*A*S*H Unit. Syracuse has been struggling with injuries since preseason camp. Now that they have taken a particular toll on the defense, coach Doug Marrone has closed off practice and refused to discuss who might play and who might sit out in the conference opener against Rutgers. His reason is simple -- he does not want to give Rutgers any competitive advantage. But whether or not all his players are able to go on Saturday, they still are going to have a tough time trying to contain ...

6. Mohamed Sanu. Sanu has gone from afterthought behind Mark Harrison and spring breakout performer Brandon Coleman (remember that!?) to super stud, with 36 receptions so far this season. He has 29 in his past two games and leads the nation in receptions per game. Defenses are doubling him, but has found a way to break through. He and Chas Dodd have developed a good chemistry, so the onus is on the Orange to stop him. Of course, this is nothing new for Syracuse, having faced Robert Woods of USC and Eric Page of Toledo already this season.

7. Who starts at quarterback for Louisville? Coach Charlie Strong said this week that Will Stein is questionable with a shoulder injury, leaving the door open for true freshman Teddy Bridgewater to start. He did well in relief of Stein against Kentucky, but starting a game provides different challenges. If he does start, both teams would have true freshmen quarterbacks behind center. Marshall starter Rakeem Cato has been the starter since the season began and, like Bridgewater, is from Miami.

8. UConn running game. Can the Huskies get their running game going? They have struggled the past two games, mainly because teams are loading the box to try and force them to win games with the pass. Western Michigan has the No. 94 ranked run defense in the country, but expect the Broncos to do the same. Lyle McCombs and D.J. Shoemate have to find enough wiggle room to make some plays, and the offensive line has to block better, too.

9. Opportunistic Cincy D. Can the Bearcats keep up the takeaways on defense? So far they lead the nation with 16. Miami (Ohio) already has given the ball away six times and is one of the worst in the nation in turnover margin, so this could play a big role once again.

10. Presidents meeting. One story line to keep an eye on off the field: The Big East presidents will meet this weekend to discuss the future of the conference. USF president Judy Genshaft already spoke to one legislative group this week, saying the league was focused on bringing in schools outside states that already have Big East members. Meanwhile, UConn president Susan Herbst says she is committed to making the Big East work. They need to come up with a plan and fast.

Final: UConn 17, Buffalo 3

September, 24, 2011
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If you were not convinced that the season would be a slog for UConn, allow me to present a 17-3 win over Buffalo.

But what might be most disturbing about this game was the continued pedestrian play of the offensive line and running game. Those are generally strengths for the Huskies. But guard play has been a problem, and neither Lyle McCombs or D.J. Shoemate have done much against FBS opponents.

UConn averaged 1.9 yards a carry in the game, gaining 80 yards on 42 carries. Shoemate was essentially nonexistent. The best bet UConn has moving forward may be to get Nick Williams more involved in the offense. He had the biggest plays of the game for the offense -- a 64-yard catch that set up the first touchdown, and a 49-yard touchdown pass from Johnny McEntee late in the fourth quarter to cap the scoring.

One bit of concern for the defense -- top cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson left the game with an injury.

Halftime: UConn 10, Buffalo 3

September, 24, 2011
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The Huskies lead Buffalo 10-3, but it has not been pretty. Then again, when has a Huskies game been pretty of late.

Coach Paul Pasqualoni has used all three quarterbacks again. Johnny McEntee has the only touchdown pass of the day, a 4-yarder to fullback Mark Hinkley. That was set up on a nice 64-yard reception from Nick Williams. But once again the Huskies have struggled to run the ball.

They have 43 yards rushing and are averaging 2.4 yards a rush. Lyle McCombs has 36 yards on 12 carries. D.J. Shoemate does not have a carry.

UConn mistakes add up

September, 17, 2011
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The same old problems plagued UConn in its disappointing 24-20 loss to Iowa State.
  • Lack of offensive consistency.
  • Too many plays given up on defense.
In fact, a similar fourth-quarter storyline played out last week in a loss to Vanderbilt. Both times, the Huskies had the lead in the final quarter. And both times, they could not hang on, in part because of defensive breakdowns. There is no question the defense has been spectacular at times this season. What is so maddening is the big plays it has given up in both games. After UConn took a 20-17 lead with 12:51 to go against Iowa State, the Cyclones marched right down the field on an eight-play, 65-yard drive to take the lead back for good. They converted two third downs on the drive.

"From an execution standpoint we have to improve offensively," coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "We were able to get the lead … and then we kind of let them off the hook and let them score when we had been playing really well defensively. ... So, very disappointing. Very disappointing loss."

Still, most of the blame for the 1-2 start lies with the offense. There are only so many times the defense can bail out an offense that has been so inconsistent. The UConn defense got three interceptions in the early going, but the Huskies converted those into only three points, failing to break the game open. Scott McCummings and Michael Nebrich each missed wide-open receivers who would have scored sure touchdowns. Johnny McEntee looked just as off as he did last week. The running game was inconsistent last night, too. D.J. Shoemate made his season debut but had a critical fumble that led to an Iowa State field goal.

After starting the game gaining all those turnovers, UConn ended up giving the ball away three times, too. Adding insult on top of all that, normally surefire kicker Dave Teggart missed two field goals -- from 41 and 43 yards -- but he made two attempts from 50 and 52.

UConn clearly needs to make a decision at quarterback and tighten up on defense. Or this could be a long season.

What to watch in the Big East: Week 3

September, 15, 2011
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Here are 10 storylines to watch in the Big East this week:

1. Proving time. The Big East went 4-4 last week and has a chance to make the nation notice in Week 3 with five games against teams from automatic qualifying conferences. Four of those games are on the road, and all four teams are underdogs. So the Big East will need to pull off some upsets in order to call this weekend a success. Is it up to the task?

2. More consistency. A similar theme has emerged with nearly every team in the Big East. USF is the only team that really has put together a complete game. Everybody else has had lapses on offense and defense. That cannot happen this week when Pitt, West Virginia, Syracuse and Louisville hit the road. To pull off an upset, consistent play on both sides of the ball is key. That starts up front, a problem area through two weeks for most teams in the league.

3. Fast start. Another key to winning on the road -- getting off to a fast start. West Virginia has struggled with this in two games. So has Syracuse. In the case of Louisville, the Cardinals are 1-5 under Charlie Strong when trailing at halftime. Getting into a good rhythm early and putting points on the board not only gives your team confidence, it helps take the crowd out of the game. Every coach will preach the need for a fast start. Now the Big East teams have to go out and make it happen.

4. UConn and its (lack of) offense. The Huskies have not scored an offensive touchdown against an AQ team since last November, a streak of three straight games. Can that be broken at home Friday night? Everyone is still uncertain about what will happen at quarterback, so the best bet might be on the ground, where Lyle McCombs has two straight 100-yard games and UConn fans are waiting on D.J. Shoemate to be completely healthy. Of course, UConn has to hang on to the football to score. Four turnovers last week were a killer.

[+] EnlargeTino Sunseri
AP Photo/Don WrightTino Sunseri says the Pitt offense is very close to jelling.
5. Tino Sunseri. Pitt coach Todd Graham has made it clear that he expects his quarterback to play better than he has in the new hurry-up offense. Sunseri says the offense is inches away from clicking the way it needs to. They are going to have to close that gap on the road against an Iowa team no doubt eager to make up for an overtime loss to Iowa State last week. Sunseri has to get rid of the ball faster, and he also has to be more accurate with his passes. If that happens, the Panthers will have the threat of the pass to complement their ground game and that will make them a much tougher team to beat.

6. West Virginia run game. The Mountaineers have struggled running the ball, in part because of shaky offensive line play, and in part because they have inexperienced freshmen playing running back. Coach Dana Holgorsen has made it a point of emphasis to get this part of the offense going because he does not want to become too one-dimensional. Maryland gave up 172 yards on the ground to Miami in Week 1, so this could be the right time for everything to get jump-started on the ground against the Terps.

7. Louisville bounce back? The Cardinals dropped a disappointing game to FIU last week and now have to try to bounce back against Kentucky, a team that has beaten them four straight times. A loss here, and Louisville goes to 1-2 on the season going into a bye week. There has to be an added sense of urgency in this one to erase what happened last week and finally beat the Wildcats. A tough task awaits.

8. Syracuse defense. The Orange already faced a tough task at USC. But now they have to do it without starting defensive end Chandler Jones, one of the most experienced players on the team. The defense has been up and down in two games this season and a big reason why is because of all the inexperienced players who have played. How will they fare on the road against what is supposed to be a decent offense?

9. USF run game. The Bulls are expected to have no problems against FCS Florida A&M, but you can expect they will try to keep fine-tuning the run game. Darrell Scott showed some good things last week against Ball State. His high-hurdling is fun to watch when he gets it right, but coach Skip Holtz would rather he stop doing that.

10. Cincinnati pressure. The Bearcats are not going to face as big a test against Akron as they did last week against Tennessee. But they can still work on generating more of a pass rush, which was nonexistent against the Vols. That is one point coach Butch Jones made this week. Getting a pass rush will help take the pressure off a secondary that proved last week it needs some help.

Big East predictions: Week 2

September, 8, 2011
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I wish I could say I was as perfect as the Big East in Week 1. I called for a Notre Dame win, and USF proved me wrong. The Bulls had the biggest win on the slate, 23-20 over the Irish. What are the chances for another undefeated week for the Big East? I think it will be much tougher. But maybe I will be proven wrong again.

On to the picks.

FIU at Louisville, 7 p.m., Friday, ESPN. This is a danger game for the Cardinals, with the in-state rival Kentucky looming next week. FIU is not a patsy anymore and has a veteran team that has come close to pulling off some major upsets. But I think the Cardinals' defense will do just enough to slow down T.Y. Hilton and pull out a close one at home. Louisville 24, FIU 20.

Rutgers at North Carolina, 12:30 p.m., Saturday, ESPN3.The Scarlet Knights posted a 48-0 win in Week 1 against NC Central, but this is a vastly different team from North Carolina. The Tar Heels are going to give the Rutgers all they can handle up front. I am not sure the Scarlet Knights will have an answer for North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples, who had two sacks in the opener. North Carolina 27, Rutgers 17.

Maine at Pitt, 1 p.m., Saturday, ESPN3. The Panthers had a much better performance in the second half than they did in the first last week. Coach Todd Graham is going to be looking for better execution for the entire game, specifically from quarterback Tino Sunseri. Pitt 45, Maine 6.

Norfolk State at West Virginia, 1 p.m., ESPN3. West Virginia is just hoping to play a full four quarters this week after a weather-shortened win over Marshall. This will be a good opportunity to get the running game better established after a dismal performance in the opener. West Virginia 55, Norfolk State 7.

Cincinnati at Tennessee, 3:30 p.m., ESPN2. This is a huge game for the Bearcats, who would love nothing more than to get more eyes on them after going 4-8 last season. Winning on the road in a hostile environment would do the trick. Tennessee showed a few weaknesses last week, most notably its run game. But the Vols are probably going to try to pass on a Bearcats defense that needs to prove it is vastly better in that area. Cincinnati has good balance with Zach Collaros and Isaiah Pead, and its explosive offense should do just enough to get the upset win. Cincinnati 30, Tennessee 27.

Rhode Island at Syracuse, 4:30 p.m., Saturday, ESPN3. The Orange need to have more consistency out of their offense and defense after an uneven performance in Week 1. Playing an FCS opponent should help before they go on the road to play USC. Syracuse 40, Rhode Island 10.

Ball State at USF, 7 p.m., ESPN3.The Bulls have to beware of the let down factor, after getting a big win over Notre Dame and jumping into the AP Top 25. Ball State had an upset win over Indiana last week, and is now running more of an up-tempo spread offense, similar to what Notre Dame ran last week. But the Bulls are much more talented and should hold off the MAC challenge. USF 35, Ball State 14.

UConn at Vanderbilt, 7:30 p.m., ESPN3.This is a critical test for the three-headed quarterback system Connecticut plans to use. I have never been in favor of shifting quarterbacks in and out. Meanwhile, D.J. Shoemate is expected to return to the run game with Lyle McCombs. They could see lots of Chris Marve, one of the best tacklers in the SEC. Last year's game was a wild 40-21 win for UConn. I think this is going to be more low-scoring game, and Vanderbilt will do just enough to stop Connecticut on offense to win. Vanderbilt 20, Connecticut 17.

Final: UConn 35, Fordham 3

September, 3, 2011
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Connecticut beat Fordham 35-3 in a game that was postponed from Thursday. We finally got an answer about who would start at quarterback, but no true clarity at the position.

All three played. Johnny McEntee started off the game and rotated with true freshman Michael Nebrich. Scott McCummings was used in Wildcat situations. McCummings finished as the team's second leading rusher with seven carries for 23 yards. So there really is not much more clarity today than there was earlier this week. Here are their final lines:

McEntee: 8-of-12 for 113 yards

Nebrich: 3-of-8 for 60 yards, one interception

McCummings: 1-of-1 for 55 yards and a touchdown

It makes sense for all three to have gotten game time when you consider the opponent. UConn could afford to play all three, to get them each acclimated to game situations. This will help better determine who will be the leader at quarterback moving forward. But at the same time, it was hard for the offense to get into much of a rhythm. Coach Paul Pasqualoni wants to see them play at a faster tempo, but that might be hard with no set starter there.

One other note: running back D.J. Shoemate did not play in the game because he sprained his ankle Thursday. Lyle McCombs got the start and had a huge day, running for 141 yards and four touchdowns. UConn definitely has options at tailback.

The defense also did what we expected, holding Fordham to three points, eight first downs and 169 total yards.

Big East power rankings: Week 1

August, 29, 2011
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Game week is finally here, so you know what that means? Time for some Week 1 power rankings. This is where I think the teams in the league stack up today headed into the first game, so they are going to be subject to change each week.

1. West Virginia: The Mountaineers are the only ranked Big East team in any of the polls, at No. 24 in AP poll, and have some of the top talent in the league at multiple positions. Geno Smith is expected to be the next in the line of quarterbacks Dana Holgorsen has turned into stars, and defensive end Bruce Irvin could have an even better year than he did last year. Are there questions? Every team in the league has questions. How will Holgorsen do as a head coach? How will a revamped defense do with seven new starters? I think West Virginia is as complete a team as there is in the Big East, hence the No. 1 position.

2. Pitt: As you saw from the mailbag last week, a lot of fans wonder why Pitt is not getting the preseason love from media that West Virginia has received. There are two key differences. Pitt will try to run the spread with players who were bought into a pro-style offense; and the defense is switching alignments. Still, there is plenty of talent on offense and defense to make the Panthers a real threat to win the league.

3. USF: Then you have the fans who ask, well why not USF atop the league this season? For starters, the Bulls have 11 returning starters, second fewest in the Big East. There are still questions about whether B.J. Daniels can be consistent, how a revamped defensive line with three new starters is going to come together and whether the running game will be vastly improved with Darrell Scott in the backfield -- especially with three new starters on the line. The talent is absolutely there for a run at the league title if these questions are answered. But for now the Bulls start here.

4. Syracuse: It is imperative for the Orange to build on the momentum from last season with an even better year in 2011. I think the offense has a chance to be good with Ryan Nassib back. Antwon Bailey should be fine at running back, and the starting offensive line is one of the best in the league. There are questions on defense without some key starters at linebacker and with an undersized unit that is going to take the field.

5. Cincinnati: The Bearcats get the edge here over Louisville because they do not have as many questions going into the season. The offense should be better with Zach Collaros and Isaiah Pead back --provided the offensive line plays better than it did last season. On defense, the unit should be much better with another year of experience and some incoming freshmen who should make a difference. But the big questions are on defense, along the offensive line and at receiver, where a few players are going to have to step up.

6. Louisville: The Cardinals lost 25 seniors and are the youngest team in the Big East. But there is much room for improvement and room to move up in these standings. For one, there is some talent at running back, receiver and tight end. The front seven should be solid. But injuries have taken a toll on the defensive line this fall. The cornerbacks are a gigantic question mark. So is quarterback, where we have no idea how Will Stein will do as the starter and what type of impact Teddy Bridgewater will make. Until those answers become clearer, Louisville stays here.

7. UConn: A lot of fans wondered how a team that has so many players on my Top 25 list is at No. 7. The Huskies do have a nice collection of talent, but does that make a nice team? We still have no idea who is going to start at quarterback. We have no idea whether or not D.J. Shoemate is going to replicate what Jordan Todman did last season. We have no idea who is going to be a playmaker at receiver. Linebacker is a concern as well with two new starters joining Sio Moore. Until Shoemate and whoever starts at quarterback ease my concerns, UConn is No. 7.

8. Rutgers: I know Rutgers fans are not too happy with me, and I understand that. Everybody wants to see their team ranked No. 1. But this is a team with perhaps more questions than all the others headed into the season. How will the offense fare with a new offensive coordinator? Will the offensive line be any better? Will the running game work this year? Will the talented receiving group live up to its potential? How are the changes on defense going to make this unit better than last season? I think Rutgers will be better. But how much better?

Big East good to great

August, 12, 2011
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Which players have the potential to go from good to great in the Big East?

Josh Chichester, TE, Louisville. Now that he has made the transition from receiver to tight end, the potential is there for Chichester to become the best tight end in the league. His size, 6-foot-8 and 258 pounds, gives him the ability to be unguardable for opposing defenses.

[+] EnlargeB.J. Daniels
Kim Klement/US PresswireSouth Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels has flashed the ability to develop into a star.
B.J. Daniels, QB, USF. Folks have been waiting on a breakout season for the third-year starter. This could be it now that he has more consistency with his coordinators and some momentum off a good bowl game from last season. A tweaked hamstring should not impact him much during camp.

Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse. Early reports out of Syracuse camp indicate Jones is wreaking havoc during practice. His goal is to get double-digit sacks this year. With questions inside, he could be relied up on even more to hold down the line.

D.J. Shoemate, UConn. Given the history at churning out 1,000-yard running backs, the potential is there for Shoemate to follow. The offensive line and tight end positions are solid, giving him an even better opportunity.

Geno Smith, West Virginia. Smith already is one of the elite quarterbacks in the Big East. But will the new Dana Holgorsen offense make him one of the elite quarterbacks in the country?

Tino Sunseri, QB, Pitt. Sunseri is now in an offensive scheme that could lead to incredible numbers. He feels comfortable running the hurry-up, and has the ability to make all the throws. He should definitely be able to improve on his touchdowns (16) and yards (2,572) from last season.

Scott Vallone, NT, Rutgers. A move to the nose tackle position could help Vallone really emerge as a dominant player. He was a freshman All-American in 2009, so the potential is there in his new role.

D.J. Woods, Cincinnati. Is Woods next in line to get the major numbers racked up from Armon Binns (1,101 yards in 2010) and Mardy Gilyard (1,191 yards in 2009)?
Time to rank the best running backs in the Big East. Keep in mind, the position rankings are not necessarily reflected the same way as the player rankings. The position rankings take into account depth and experience. These rankings just go with individual players.

This was quite a difficult task. Outside of the top backs, there is so much uncertainty and inexperience that these rankings are based largely on potential. They could go many different ways, depending on who is doing the ranking.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Pead
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesIsaiah Pead rushed for 1,029 yards and six touchdowns last season.
1. Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati. The top returning rusher in the Big East should have another 1,000-yard season. Pead averaged 6.6 yards per carry last season -- more than any of the top 12 rushers in the league. He also made several watch lists, for top running back and top player in college football. A definite player to watch.

2. Ray Graham, Pittsburgh. He had a breakout season last year behind Dion Lewis and should have 1,000 yards this season. What has been impressive about Graham is the way he has reshaped his body in the offseason. Strength and conditioning coach Shawn Griswold says Graham has really worked on his upper body in order to help his durability.

3. Victor Anderson, Louisville. The Cardinals lose Bilal Powell but there is some talent here waiting. If Anderson stays healthy, I think he could be poised for a season similar to the one he had in 2008. He had a terrific spring, and he told me earlier this summer that he finally feels healthy and is determined to end his career with his best season yet.

4. Antwon Bailey, Syracuse. The Orange lose Delone Carter, the No. 3 rusher in the league, but Bailey got his share of reps and carries last season, running for 554 yards and two touchdowns. He is a different type of back than Carter, lacking the power that his predecessor had. But I think he has a chance to have a 1,000-yard season, especially behind one of the best lines in the league.

5. Savon Huggins, Rutgers. I had a hard time figuring out where to put Huggins because we have never seen him play a college down. He is expected to take over as the starting running back at some point, and he certainly has the talent to become the next Ray Rice. But how about his offensive line? How many carries will he get? How will the pressure to succeed immediately affect him?

6. Darrell Scott, USF. Hopes are high for Scott as well after he transferred in from Colorado. But I am not so sure Scott has the same potential as Huggins. He only had 438 yards in his career with the Buffs, and his work ethic was called into question in the past. He also has had weight issues. But he has a chance for a fresh start and could be a 1,000-yard rusher.

7. Vernard Roberts, West Virginia. This was another tough ranking for me, considering I had the Mountaineers in the No. 3 spot in the team rankings. The Mountaineers have so much depth and talent, several players could emerge with a breakout season. Roberts is chief among them after his impressive spring debut. He is currently listed at No. 1 on the depth chart and has to hold off competition from the likes of Trey Johnson and incoming players Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison.

8. D.J. Shoemate, UConn. I know Huskies fans are going to be upset with this ranking, but I have one question here: Is Shoemate more than a fullback who has a history of fumbling? The potential is there, which is why I had him listed as my UConn impact player. But somebody else could easily emerge.

9. Jeremy Wright, Louisville. I had a tough time between Anderson and Wright because I think both could easily have good years. My expectation is for them to share the load, but Wright is coming off an injury. He is expected to be 100 percent for the fall, but I give the edge to Anderson because of his terrific spring.

10. Zach Brown, Pitt. Here is my wild-card pick of the rankings. The Panthers need some relief behind Graham, and Brown provides the experience to be able to take some of the load off. His production may have fallen off at Wisconsin, but he has displayed flashes of potential and could be a surprise player.

Previous rankings:
1. I’m sitting in for the vacationing Ted Miller on the Pac-12 blog this week. The item posted Wednesday regarding Chip Kelly’s thoughts on leadership is a reminder of why he has been successful. Kelly doesn’t do anything because that’s the way it’s always been done. Oregon, as he pointed out, has 16 captains. Oregon has relatively short and very intense practices. Oregon runs its offense at lightning speed. Kelly is an iconoclast, and that’s why he’s 22-4 as a head coach.

2. As Joe Schad pointed out Wednesday, if the NCAA denies USC’s appeal of its infraction penalties, Trojan seniors will be eligible to transfer before this season without having to sit out a year. The most prominent Trojan to take advantage of this provision last season, reserve fullback D.J. Shoemate, went to UConn. He rushed for 115 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries as a Huskies backup. But he got to go to the Fiesta Bowl, which is more than anyone at USC did after last season.

3. Auburn, if published reports are true, is in the market for a transfer quarterback. Russell Wilson, the former NC State star and minor-league player who has one year of eligibility remaining, and former Michigan starter Tate Forcier, have been flirting with the Tigers. Forcier, from San Diego, said he looked at Miami but decided not to enroll there because he wanted to be closer to home. Well, Auburn is closer to San Diego than Miami.
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:

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Pead
AP Photo/Al BehrmanCincinnati'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.

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