June 5, 2006

Sports Network Tabs Wilson No. 23 Among I-AA Running Backs

June 5, 2006

By Matt Dougherty, The Sports Network

PHILADELPHIA - When I look back at past columns, I notice last year's preview saying I-AA running backs are ready to take back their role in the spotlight after a down year.

I'll take a mulligan on that one.

Last year, quarterbacks dominated the I-AA landscape for the second season in a row. Names like Erik Meyer, Travis Lulay and Richie Williams became synonymous to I-AA followers, and star quarterbacks led their teams deep into the playoffs. The voters took notice as well, with only three running backs finishing in the top eight of the Walter Payton Award voting over the past two seasons.

But running backs did win I-AA's top individual honor five times in six seasons from 1998-2003, and they're primed to take back the spotlight in 2006. This time, I really mean it.

Most of the top quarterbacks have departed, while a deep and talented group of running backs return to make I-AA football a ground-oriented game. Twenty-six out of 32 1,000-yard rushers return from the 2005 season, and 17 of the 22 who averaged more than 100 yards per game are back.

If the statistics weren't enough, a mix of youth and experience brings a diverse look to the I-AA running back crop. Three running backs (Harvard's Clifton Dawson, Hampton's Alonzo Coleman and Massachusetts' Steve Baylark) are in search of their fourth 1,000-yard season, a feat which has only been accomplished by seven Division I players to date. James Noble and Jordan Scott are trying to build on freshman success, and a talented group of all-purpose players can make their mark in the running, passing and even return game.

Below is a look at the top 15 returning running backs in I-AA for the 2006 season, as selected by The Sports Network based on a variety of factors. With such a strong crop of players, TSN also ranks the next 10 on the list, with lists for the top running back tandems, fullbacks and Mid-Major players.

Top Returning Running Backs

1. Arkee Whitlock, Southern Illinois (Sr., 5-9, 200) - When Arkee Whitlock came to Southern Illinois in 2004, the accolades and press clippings went to incoming I-A transfers Brandon Jacobs and Terry Jackson. Whitlock didn't fall through the cracks after running for 1,383 yards and 17 touchdowns in one season at Coffeyville Community College, but he wasn't necessarily expected to be the star of the group either. But Whitlock came in and earned second-team All-Gateway honors as a sophomore with 959 rushing yards and 6.4 yards per carry to help the Salukis to the No. 1 seed in the I-AA playoffs. With Jacobs and Jackson departed, Whitlock helped lead the Salukis back to the playoffs by carrying a larger load of the offense in 2005. Whitlock consistently received 20 carries or more, and produced to the tune of 1,454 yards and 14 touchdowns while averaging 5.4 yards per carry. Whitlock ran for 100 yards or more in eight of his 12 outings in 2005, and elevated his play at crunch time. He ran for 207 yards and three touchdowns on 33 carries in a win at then No. 1 Western Kentucky on October 27, and notched 100-yard efforts in the final four games of the regular season. He was kept under 100 in the first round of the playoffs at Eastern Illinois, but notched 89 yards and all three Saluki touchdowns in a 21-6 win. But the stats only tell some of Whitlock's story. He is perhaps the most complete back in I-AA football, with the speed to break a big play, power to produce in short yardage situations and be an effective blocker, and explosiveness to be a factor in the receiving and return game. He caught 24 passes for 190 yards in 2005, and returned 19 kickoffs for 408 yards. In a tough Gateway Conference, Southern Illinois will need Whitlock to play like a superstar to hang in the race in a loaded Gateway Conference.

2. Clifton Dawson, Harvard (Sr, 5-10, 210) - The Ivy League is referred to as the "Ancient Eight" for good reason. The conference dates back to 1956 and has been home to prominent players on the gridiron, which makes Clifton Dawson's accomplishments all the more remarkable. With career totals of 3,707 rushing yards and 40 touchdowns, Dawson is only 1,008 yards shy of the all-time Ivy League record of 4,715, held by Cornell's Ed Marinaro. The yardage total also makes Dawson the active career rushing leader in I-AA football. Dawson ran for 1,187 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman in 2003, which included a 218-yard, four-touchdown effort against Lafayette and six 100-yard days to close the season. The next season was the benchmark for Dawson and the Crimson. The team won the Ivy League and finished a perfect 10-0, and Dawson developed into a bonafide star with 1,302 yards and 17 touchdowns. He ran for three touchdowns in four games, and notched seven 100-yard games. Last year, Dawson suffered through some early injuries but still managed 1,139 yards and 11 touchdowns. He helped deliver Brown's only loss of the season with 189 yards and three scores in a 38-35 Harvard win, and also ran for 203 yards and two scores against Princeton. But the most important performance for Harvard fans came in the season finale, when Dawson had 128 rushing yards and 10 receptions for 85 yards with two total touchdowns in a 30-24 win at rival Yale in triple overtime. While the rushing numbers were down a bit in 2005, Dawson showed an important new dimension with 34 receptions for 336 yards, and even returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Dawson already has 20 efforts of 100 yards or more in his career, and doesn't show any signs of slowing down as a senior. If he can post another stellar season, the Ivy rushing record books might write his name down at No. 1 for a long time.

3. Omar Cuff, Delaware (Jr., 5-10, 180) - You probably don't want to utter the name Omar Cuff anywhere within shouting distance of Harrisonburg, Virginia. As a freshman, Cuff came out of nowhere to scorch the Dukes for 162 yards, though James Madison won the contest. There was no silver lining for the Dukes in last year's performance, as Cuff had a career day with 236 yards and four touchdowns as the Blue Hens surprised James Madison, 34-28. At least JMU fans can take solace when they see that Cuff is a thorn in plenty of sides in the Atlantic 10, and will be for two more seasons. After beginning his career at Delaware in the secondary, Cuff made a move to tailback midway through his freshman season and has never looked back since. Cuff was inserted into the starting lineup with three games left in the regular season in 2004, but still managed to run for 673 yards and eight touchdowns in five starts. While Delaware lost to William & Mary in the quarterfinals, Cuff proved he is a big-time player with 170 yards and two touchdowns in the double overtime loss. Delaware's offense was up and down without a reliable threat at wide receiver a year ago, but Cuff did everything he could to keep the Blue Hens afloat. He ran for 1,205 yards and 14 touchdowns, and also caught 41 passes for 414 yards and four scores to emerge as one of the top multi-purpose backs in I-AA.

4. Kevin Richardson, Appalachian State (Jr., 5-9, 190) - A year ago at this time, Appalachian State was an under the radar team with questions about a passing-oriented offense that lost the best receiver in the country. The Mountaineers still had Richie Williams at quarterback and a vastly improved defense, but they needed a threat out of the backfield to get the running game going. Enter Kevin Richardson. As a sophomore, Richardson emerged as a big-play threat by averaging 5.4 yards per carry and rushing for 1,433 yards with 19 touchdowns and catching 52 passes for 558 yards in Appalachian State's national championship run. And he always seemed to save his best for the big moments. Richardson had a breakout day with 178 yards and three touchdowns against Coastal Carolina, and ran for 208 yards and almost 10 yards per carry in a win against Georgia Southern three weeks later. In the playoffs, Richardson continued to blossom into a star. He totaled 171 yards and a score against Lafayette, and notched 105 yards and two scores in the semifinal win against Furman. While Richardson was held to 51 yards on the ground in the national championship versus Northern Iowa, he came through with two huge touchdowns as Appalachian State rallied for a 21-16 win. Richardson scored at least one touchdown in 13 of the last 15 games, and had multiple scores in seven outings. He also caught five passes or more five times to become a consistent receiving threat out of the backfield. While Richardson showed the ability to produce on a regular basis as a sophomore, he could be called on to bring his game up another notch with Williams departed.

5. James Noble, Cal Poly (So., 5-6, 160) - Go ahead and argue that No. 5 is too high for a player that has only recorded more than 20 carries six times in his career. But with the Barry Sanders-like explosiveness that Noble showcased in his freshman season at Cal Poly, he could end up being the best back on the list by the time all is said and done. Noble gave early indications of his ability with games against Sacramento State (20 carries/108 yards) and Montana State (18 carries/157 yards) in September, and kept performing in the big games all season. He had 161 yards and a score against North Dakota State, and 144 yards in a loss to Montana. With Cal Poly's playoff hopes on the line, Noble notched 221 yards and a score against Eastern Washington and 248 yards (with only 27 carries) and five touchdowns in the season finale against Idaho State. Then Noble really made his mark in the playoffs with 188 yards and four touchdowns as Cal Poly knocked the Grizzlies out in Missoula. Noble recorded 1,578 yards and 16 touchdowns on just 223 carries in 2005, which left him with an unthinkable 7.1 yards per carry average. Cal Poly always seems to have a playoff-caliber defense, but offense has been inconsistent in recent seasons. Noble's ability should help the offense excel, and make the Mustangs a serious national championship threat for at least the 2006 season.

6. Lex Hilliard, Montana (Sr., 6-0, 225) - With a passing game that made Montana fans relish the days of Dave Dickenson or even Craig Ochs, Lex Hilliard had to carry the bulk of the Montana offense on his shoulders. Fortunately for the Grizzlies, Hilliard was up the challenge and Montana again won a piece of the Big Sky and advanced to the postseason. Hilliard notched 1,322 yards with 12 touchdowns on 5.3 yards per carry, and mixed in some big games when Montana needed a win. He notched 159 yards and a score against Weber State and 142 yards and a touchdown versus Idaho State. While those efforts were nice, Hilliard's 34-carry, 237-yard performance against Cal Poly helped vault the Grizzlies into the postseason. Hilliard scored twice in the playoff loss to the Mustangs, and already has nine playoff touchdowns in five games. Hilliard had 972 yards and 17 touchdowns while splitting carries with Justin Green in 2004. This year, Hilliard should get more help from the passing game led by Josh Swogger. With fewer people in the box, Hilliard has a great chance for a memorable final season for himself and the team.

7. Alonzo Coleman, Hampton (Sr., 5-11, 205) - If you're looking for a reason for Hampton's I-AA best 21-3 record over the last two seasons, Alonzo Coleman's name has to be at the top of the list. Coleman has already notched three seasons with more than 1,100 yards and at least 13 touchdowns. In 2005, he led Hampton to an undefeated mark by rushing for 1,326 yards and 19 touchdowns and averaging 6.5 yards per carry. Coleman ran for at least 95 yards in all but one regular season game. That season built on success in 2004 (1,133 yards/13 TD) and as a freshman in 2003 (1,147 yards/18 TD). Coleman's extraordinary numbers include 20 efforts of 100 yards or more and 16 games with two or more touchdowns. Coleman has 3,606 rushing yards and 50 touchdowns in his career, and doesn't show any sign of slowing down soon. With Ardell Daniels gone as a backfield mate, Coleman will probably get his heaviest workload yet as a senior.

8. Lerron Moore, Western Kentucky (Sr., 5-10, 200) - Moore's best statistical season came as a freshman in 2003, but he hasn't let up much in the past two years. Moore ran for 1,490 yards and 13 touchdowns to lead Western Kentucky to the playoffs in 2003, and went for 978 yards and 11 touchdowns in only 10 games in another playoff campaign in 2004. Last year, Moore was consistent again with 1,037 yards and 10 touchdowns despite suffering through late season injuries that hindered him in three games. Moore did manage to run for 100 yards in five games, with big efforts in wins against rival Eastern Kentucky (162 yards) and Illinois State (190). After seeing limited action due to injuries late in the season, Moore bounced back by running for 181 yards and two touchdowns in the season finale at Florida International. Moore comes back in 2006 to try to get Western Kentucky back in the postseason and finish with three 1,000-yard campaigns for his career.

9. Clay Green, Jacksonville State (Sr., 6-0, 225) - As the 2005 season began, some observers wondered how the Jacksonville State running game would perform without Oscar Bonds. In one game, Clay Green put an end to any questions and made his arrival as one of the best all-purpose players in I-AA. Green ran for 111 yards and a touchdown and returned a kick for a score in the season-opening loss to Furman, and kept up the dual role by placing second nationally with 186 all-purpose yards per game. Green notched 1,352 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground while averaging more than six yards per carry, and recorded 562 yards on 23 kickoff returns. Green's game against Furman may have been his best effort, but his season was filled with quality performances. Green notched eight consecutive 100-yard games to finish season, and scored at least one touchdown in seven games. He had a career-high 163 rushing yards against Tennessee Tech, and notched more than 200 all-purpose yards three times. Jacksonville State should contend for the Ohio Valley title again, and Green's multi-purpose skills will be key for any title run.

10. Donald Chapman, Tennessee-Martin (Jr., 5-10, 210) - With a 5-5 record going into the season finale against Murray State, Tennessee-Martin was in dire need of a victory to complete a turnaround season with a winning mark. The Skyhawks got the win, and it was due largely to the man they called on all season. Donald Chapman posted 229 yards, four touchdowns and 47 carries to lift the Skyhawks to an easy victory and a winning record. Chapman put an exclamation point on a season 1,396 yards and 16 touchdowns. He notched a 221-yard effort in a win against Tennessee State, and put up more than 100 yards in seven contests. Chapman had three games with three or more touchdown runs, and came up big in close games. He tallied 107 yards and three scores in a 24-21 win against Southeast Missouri State, and notched 116 yards and four scores in a 31-28 win against Gardner-Webb. Chapman was consistent as well, finishing only one game with less than 85 yards rushing. Chapman built on a strong freshman campaign in 2004 when he posted 1,084 yards and seven touchdowns and recorded a 272-yard effort in a loss to Southeast Missouri State. Chapman ran for more than 125 yards per contest in 2005, and will be an important player in Tennessee-Martin's bid to build some momentum with the football program.

11. Jordan Scott, Colgate (So., 5-11, 200) - The term "workhorse" should be reserved for players like Jordan Scott. Colgate inserted Scott into the starting lineup after opening the season with a lackluster 1-2 start, and the team took off. Scott got a healthy does of action right at the beginning, with 42 carries for 153 yards in his first start, a 34-20 win over rival Cornell. Those statistics would become par for the course the rest of the way, with Scott garnering at least 27 carries in every game and rushing for at least 100 yards in all but one contest. He carried 45 times for 222 yards in a crucial road win at Holy Cross on October 22, and had workmanlike 100-yard efforts against Lehigh and Lafayette. But Scott saved his best for last. He had a clutch 257 yards and two touchdowns on 47 carries in a 34-7 win against Georgetown to lift Colgate into the playoffs, and had a nice postseason debut with 205 yards and three scores in a loss to New Hampshire. Scott carried 320 times for 1,364 yards and 10 touchdowns as a freshman. Colgate already has a pair of Walter Payton Award winning running backs in its history, and Scott has plenty of time and ability to make a case to become the third.

12. Steve Baylark, Massachusetts (Sr., 6-0, 225) - Baylark might not break a ton of big gainers or wow opponents on every play, but he's a consistent producer that can be counted on for tough yardage and 1,000-yard seasons. Baylark is shooting for a fourth 1,000-yard campaign as he enters the 2006 season with career totals of 3,372 yards and 27 touchdowns. Baylark has only recorded fewer than 15 carries once in his career, and has 16 100-yard games to his credit. He seems to get better as the season goes on, with nine 100-yard efforts and three efforts of 180 yards or more after October 15. Baylark begins the 2006 seasons with a six-game touchdown streak. With a conservative offense and tough defense, Baylark's rushing will be key in controlling the ball again for the Minutemen.

13. Eldra Buckley, Chattanooga (Sr., 5-10, 190) - The Southern Conference has a reputation has a running league, and Buckley is helping Chattanooga join the party. Buckley torched defenses to the tune of 5.7 yards per carry on his way to a 1,233-yard season with 11 touchdowns. Buckley only garnered 58 carries in the first five games, but he took off when he earned more touches. Buckley tallied a 100-yard effort with a touchdown in consecutive wins against Liberty and Elon, then came on with a flurry at the end of the season. He notched a career-high 210 yards and 33 carries to keep the Mocs within striking distance at Appalachian State, and closed with 187 yards and three touchdowns against The Citadel and 142 yards and two scores versus Furman. The late-season success could be a sign of good things to come for Buckley, who figures to get plenty of carries right from the start in 2006.

14. Kyle Steffes, North Dakota State (Sr., 5-11, 205) - Between playing in the tough Great West Conference and taking on a tougher non-conference slate each season, North Dakota State has a grind of a schedule. And the Bison have a grinding runner in Steffes to help them through it. Steffes notched his second 1,000-yard season in a row with 1,071 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2005. He had a strong early stretch with 100-yard efforts against good defenses from Weber State, Montana State and Nicholls State, and finished in fine fashion with 141 yards and three scores in a win against rival South Dakota State. Steffes tallied 1,055 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2004, and already has more than 2,700 yards and 30 touchdowns in his career.

15. Scott Phaydavong, Drake (Jr., 5-6, 160) - Phaydavong doesn't have prototypical size, but his production compensates for his lack of stature. Phaydavong has broken the 1,500-yard barrier in each of his first two seasons at Drake, and has 3,089 career yards with 17 touchdowns for the Bulldogs. Phaydavong tallied 1,550 yards on only 204 carries in 2005, which left him with a I-AA best 7.6 yards per carry average. Phaydavong has topped 100 yards in 17 of his 22 career games, and carries a nine-game streak of games over the century mark into the 2006 season. The highlight of the run came against PFL champion San Diego, when Phaydavong ran for 242 yards and two scores to keep Drake close in a 31-26 loss.

Next 10:

16. Alvin Banks, James Madison (Sr., 5-10, 220) - Banks has split carries during his time at James Madison, but emerged at the end of the 2005 season with three 100-yard games. Banks' 940 yards and nine touchdowns a year ago were impressive since he tallied only 169 carries (5.5 ypc).

17. Elijah Brooks, William & Mary (Sr., 5-9, 210) - William & Mary is known for its passing game, but the Tribe has a reliable running threat with Brooks (947 yards, 9 TD in 2005) entering his senior season.

18. Pierre Rembert, Illinois State (Sr., 6-0, 220) - Rembert is overshadowed by the brilliance of Laurent Robinson and the passing game, but showed he could be dominant as well with 272 yards and six touchdowns against Missouri State. He tallied 12 touchdown runs in 2005.

19. DeShawn Baker, South Carolina State (Sr., 6-1, 225) - Baker eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the second year in a row (1029 yards, 10 TD in 2005) and he's already run for more than 100 yards in nine outings in his career. Two of those were in critical matchups with Hampton.

20. Vincent Webb, Eastern Illinois (Sr., 5-10, 205) - Webb has a knack for finding the endzone, with 32 touchdown runs in his three-year career. Webb also has 11 100-yard games, and showed his pass-catching ability with 35 receptions in 2004.

21. Jeremy McCoy, Alcorn State (Sr., 6-1, 215) - McCoy notched 1,129 yards with six consecutive 100-yard days in 2005, and had a career-high 199 yards in the season finale against Grambling State. Averages of 6.1 yards per carry and 125 rushing yards per game left McCoy among the national leaders.

22. Jonathan Hurt, Lafayette (Sr., 6-0, 220) - In his first season as the starter, Hurt recorded 985 yards and 13 touchdowns and kept getting better as the season progressed. He finished with three consecutive 100-yard rushing efforts and six total touchdowns in the final three games, including the memorable fourth down touchdown reception late in the fourth quarter of a 23-19 win against Lehigh.

23. Andre Wilson, Northern Colorado (Sr., 6-1, 190) - When healthy, Wilson was a handful with six 100-yard days to start the season in 2005. He notched a 202- yard game against Southern Utah, and went for 155 against the tough Cal Poly defense. Wilson had 1,034 yards with six touchdowns for the season after notching 990 yards in 2004.

24. Mark Dunn, Eastern Kentucky - (Jr., 6-0, 200) - Eastern Kentucky set passing records in 2005, but Dunn gives the offense balance by running for 939 yards and finding the end zone 14 times. He flourished at the end of the season with 457 yards and 10 touchdowns in the last four contests.

25. Marcus Mason, Youngstown State (Sr., 5-9, 205) - Mason (892 yards, 8 TD, 5.1 ypc in 2005) figures to get the plenty of touches after flourishing in the middle of the 2005 campaign.

Running Back Tandems

1. James Madison (Alvin Banks, Maurice Fenner) - James Madison ran for 235 yards per game in 2005, and both Banks and Fenner had a hand in the success. Banks had 940 yards and nine touchdowns, while Fenner notched 708 yards and nine scores. The seniors have 48 career touchdowns and more than 4,700 yards between them, and will both see plenty of action again in 2006.

2. Furman (Jerome Felton, Cedric Gipson) - Furman was even deeper in the backfield a year ago, but the Paladin ground game is in good shape with Felton (940 yards, 18 TD) and Gipson (713 yards, 4 TD) lining up next to each other. Don't be surprised to see another back emerge and add to the depth in Greenville.

3. Nicholls State (Joseph Tobias, Broderick Cole, Zach Morgan ) - Nicholls State rode the triple option offense to a Southland title in 2005. With a new starting quarterback, the Colonels will rely even more on the running ability of their talented backfield. Tobias averaged 6.6 yards per carry while rushing for 718 yards and seven scores, while Cole tallied 717 yards and 13 touchdowns. Morgan notched 435 yards, but led the team by averaging 7.6 yards per carry.

4. Youngstown State (Marcus Mason, Monquantae Gibson) - The Penguins have high aspirations in 2006, and will need to have success running the ball again. They have the advantage of trotting out two experienced seniors. Mason notched 892 yards and eight touchdowns a year ago, while Gibson had 547 yards and six scores. Both players averaged more than five yards per carry.

5. Southern Illinois (Arkee Whitlock, Craig Turner) - After running for nearly 1,500 yards, Whitlock is the clear go-to guy and one of the elite running backs in I-AA football. But Turner is a big-play threat that averaged 6.2 yards per carry and scored five touchdowns on only 41 carries a year ago.

Top Fullbacks

1. Jerome Felton, Furman (Jr, 6-0, 250/940 yards, 18 TD)

2. Broderick Cole, Nicholls State (Jr., 5-11, 230/717 yards, 13 TD)

3. Joe Casey, Rhode Island (So., 5-10, 200/1169 yards, 6 TD)

4. Reuben Mays, Grambling State (Sr., 6-2, 245/173 yards, 1 TD)

5. Ken Cornist, Idaho State (So., 5-11, 210/783 yards, 14 TD)

Mid-Major

1. Phaydavong

2. Jeff Horton, Valparaiso (Sr., 6-2, 285/1358 yards, 10 TD)

3. Obozuya Ehikioya, Marist (Jr., 5-11, 220/1020 yards, 17 TD)

4. JT Rogan, San Diego (So., 5-10, 180/944 yards, 7 TD)

5. Todd Harris, St. Francis (PA) (Sr., 5-10, 205/1052 yards, 7 TD)